Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

ASIO (2): the spooks and Oz politics

For decades, the Australian Labor Party hated the spooks with a passion. Indeed, many Australians still maintain that deep distrust of their domestic security service.

For Labor, though, the hatred of ASIO—the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—coincided with the barren years of opposition. In his official history of ASIO, David Horner writes that Labor’s approach to ASIO was poisoned:

In Australian political history, it’s unlikely that any other Commonwealth department has had to endure such concerted, vociferous and bitter criticism from the Opposition—over the two decades from 1951.

Read more

The legacy of scorn and scepticism is reflected in the words of the former Labor Leader, Kim Beazley, now ambassador to the US, who writes that ASIO

exercised its task in a democratic environment where many would challenge its relevance, its techniques and whether, in principle, it should exist. It has been impossible to view its role objectively in the public debate or see the organisation in its complete and complex history.

So, questions of relevance, technique and even whether ASIO should exist. The angst and the anger have several layers. Deepest secrecy surrounded the signals intelligence that had revealed the work of Soviet spies in Canberra in the 1940s (leading to ASIO’s creation) and that veil was not cast off until the 1990s.

The long anger-burn and many of the questions flowed from ASIO’s great public coup—‘the most important episode in ASIO’s first two decades,’ Horner writes—the defection of the Soviet diplomat and intelligence agent, Vladimir Petrov.

The Petrov Royal Commission that followed was a political disaster for the Labor Leader, H.V. Evatt, and fed the Labor belief that ASIO connived with the Menzies Government to commit political sabotage. Horner comments that Labor ran a ‘misguided campaign’ against the service, ‘based on completely false assumptions that were impossible to disprove without divulging highly sensitive intelligence sources on the Soviet Union’.

In a fine review of Horner’s book, The Canberra Times’ editor-at-large, Jack Waterford, notes that Evatt’s charges were ‘fantastic and silly’ but, stung by Labor slurs, ASIO officers ‘began to do some of the partisan things Labor critics were alleging they had always done’.

Horner’s official history shows that ASIO didn’t just gather intelligence, but conducted spoiling operations that were an ‘extravagant interpretation’ of its remit. And he comments: ‘The major consequence of the Cold War was that ASIO pursued its campaign against communists with an almost religious fervour’. Fervour saw ASIO become overzealous: ‘ASIO officers came to believe that any political movement or societal group that challenged a conservative view of society was potentially subversive’.

Here is David Horner in the second of his four ASPI interviews:

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.

ASIO (1):  the intelligence jewels and the alliance

Australia set up a domestic security and spy-catching service to secure intelligence access to the US and Britain. Without the service—the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—the formal alliance with the US might not have happened. If the crown jewels of Australian defence are the intelligence-sharing arrangements with the US, then ASIO was created to protect the jewels.

Indeed, ASIO’s creation story (1948-49) is founded on the growing panic in Canberra that the US and Britain were refusing to pass confidential information to Australia. Washington and London had discovered, via signals intercepts, that secrets given to Canberra flowed to the Soviet Union. The Brits thought that if Australia didn’t act on security London would have to ‘watch our secrets pour down the drain’ in Canberra. Read more

As the flow of US and British intelligence shut down in 1948, Australia’s top Defence Committee predicted that ‘the whole basis of Australian Defence Policy will be radically weakened’ unless classified access could be restored. America’s ambassador to Canberra bluntly warned that ‘the only conditions under which the US would pass material to Australia would be when the new Security Service had been formed.’

The irony and the duality in ASIO’s birth in 1949 is that Australia created a domestic security service for a set of international reasons. ASIO was the price paid for intelligence access. ASIO’s existence was one element in the achievement of the formal alliance with the US. And ASIO’s birth was a key moment when Australia enlisted in the Cold War.

The former Labor Leader and Defence Minister, now ambassador to Washington, Kim Beazley, thinks ASIO was decisive for Australia’s alliance and alignment:

Not many Australians realise that the most important single government action aligning Australia with the West in the post-World War II Cold War power distribution was the decision by the Chifley [Labor] Government to create ASIO. It was a defensive step. It demonstrated our willingness, in an environment of intense intelligence attacks on various elements of our and our allies’ national security capabilities, to be a trustworthy player. A capable protector of our and other secrets.

All these quotes and thoughts are drawn from The Spy Catchers, the first of a three-volume Official History of ASIO by Professor David Horner. He writes:

Signals intelligence was at the heart of American and British concerns about security in Australia in 1948, and led directly to the establishment of ASIO in March, 1949. These concerns focused on two areas. First, information from decrypted Soviet cables [codenamed Venona] revealed unequivocally that Australian citizens in key government departments such as External Affairs were spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Second, as a result of this spying Britain and the US cut off Australia from access to Allied Sigint, thus damaging Australia’s standing as a reliable defence partner.

In July 1948 the Australian Naval Attaché in Washington was told Australia had ‘a security grading equivalent to that of India or Pakistan, and was in the lowest category of any foreign power having representation in the US’. Consider the turnaround: in September, 1951, the US, Australia and New Zealand signed the ANZUS treaty in San Francisco.

In the first of four interviews with Professor Horner, we started with the Venona program, the decrypted cables between Moscow and 26 cities around the world, including Canberra, New York and Washington. Venona cryptanalysts read more than 200 cables between Canberra and Moscow, revealing the names or cover names of about a dozen Australians who provided information to the Soviet embassy. Venona led to ASIO and that, in turn, played a signal part (in several senses) in the development of Australia’s alignment and alliance.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.

And the Madeleine goes to….

Madeleine AlbrightThe contestants are on stage for the annual Madeleine Award for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.

The previous column announced the minor prizes: the OOPS (I wish I hadn’t…) and the Diana for photograph or image. Now, the main award (named after Madeleine Albright for an innovation in the Secretary of State dress code by sending diplomatic messages via brooches on her lapel).

Previous winners of the Madeleine include a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight climate change and a brilliant bluff to get a peace deal. Last year’s winner was Margaret Thatcher: both for being Margaret and a specific Madeleine moment. Mrs T hosted a Downing Street dinner for the French President, arranging the seating so the French leader would see ‘on the wall opposite a full-length portrait of Lord Nelson next to a full-length portrait of the Duke of Wellington’. Read more

Now to this year’s contestants. In the power game, entourage matters. The more costly courtiers, the better. As so often, Hillary understands. She’s travelling towards the presidency but she doesn’t travel alone. What Hillary demands before she’ll turn up to take $250,000 for a speech isn’t just the jet and the presidential suite, but all the aides and the advance staffers as well. Clinton could give advice on the symbols of office, floor space and power clichés to female ministers in the British government. This wonderful piece (‘Size isn’t everything’) on research that found British female ministers are given a lot less office space than male colleagues, and sometimes even less than men who are junior to them.

The office matters. So does the hair. Margaret Thatcher had hers styled on average once every three days. During a London economic summit there was a hair-check on five consecutive days. Thatcher had a lock on the look-of-the-locks-law long before Hillary Clinton gave her ‘hair matters’ advice to Yale University students in 2001. Here’s Hillary at her dry (even blow-dry) deadpan best:

The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. This is a life lesson my family did not teach me, Wellesley and Yale Law School failed to instill: Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.

Margaret and Hillary agree: the tresses always talk but mustn’t dominate the conversation. So it’s that efforts at a winning appearance—in every sense of winning—produced two of this year’s finalists, from Indonesia and India.

In the Indonesian election, Jokowi used his checkered shirt to masterful effect. For the first time, Indonesians had a chance to elect a president who wasn’t one of the Jakarta elite. Just check the shirt:

It was in a checkered shirt that a mayor from Central Java walked the streets in his bid to become Jakarta’s governor. Now, after a year and a half as the capital’s leader, Joko Widodo has brought back the red-and-blue checks to run for the presidency. In a Muslim-majority country where voters are accustomed to seeing politicians wear conservative religious attire or formal, patterned textiles, the relaxed checkered shirt immediately caught the attention of young, fashion-forward Jakarta voters.

Narendra Modi also knows that clothes maketh the man. Modi crafted a fashion statement that serves as a political message— a rendering of the classic Indian tunic with half sleeves. After Ghandi’s dhoti, Nehru’s jacket, Indira’s sari, now the Modi Kurta.

Australia’s counter to the Kurta is Koala Diplomacy. Oz diplomats have started to formalise the use of koalas as ‘soft power diplomatic strategy, with a 600-page manual having been drawn-up by the Foreign Affairs Department and the marsupials increasingly being given to regional allies’. If the use of chocolate Caramello koalas to gain 140 votes at the UN General Assembly hadn’t already won a Madeleine, cute and cuddly Koala Diplomacy would be in with a chance of taking the biscuit.

As 2014 gasped towards its end, lingering bits of the Cold War gasped their last. Switzerland’s removing the last of the explosives that would have destroyed bridges with Germany in the event of war. Just as explosive in significance was the conclusion of the Cuba–US Cold War. James Fallows did a fine commentary on the end of ‘the single stupidest aspect of US foreign policy’. As Fallows noted, the US could recognise China but not see Cuba. Loved his old jest: ‘A standing joke when I was living in Beijing is that there was exactly one steadfast, true-believer Marxist among the billion-plus residents of China. That was the Cuban Ambassador in Beijing.’

The true Madeleine moment was the US confirming that in reaching out to Havana, ‘it helped a Cuban spy imprisoned in California artificially inseminate his wife back in Cuba’. Rate this as putting sperm into a new permanent diplomatic embrace, helping human relations in the interests of the relationship.

All those are worthy finalists, but the judges had no trouble agreeing on the obvious winner of the sixth Madeleine Award. We unfurl the clear victor—the umbrella of the Hong Kong protests. The name the Umbrella Revolution was applied in September, inspired by the use of umbrellas to defend against police tear gas.


Not the least of the achievements of the Hong Kong protests is that China’s leaders are going to have to avoid umbrellas. Standing beneath an umbrella—sheltering rendered as submitting—will be a dangerous political look. Good symbols change meanings. A Madeleine Award for the Hong Kong umbrella.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Images courtesy of Wikipedia and World Bank Photo Collection

The annual Madeleine Awards—the OOPS and the Diana prizes

Madeleine Albright

As the summer silly-season scorches across Oz, it’s time for a silly moment with a trace of serious purpose—the Madeleine Awards for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.

This is the sixth annual presentation of the Madeleines, named after the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in honour of her habit of sending diplomatic messages via the brooches on her lapel. She wore a golden brooch of a coiled snake to talk to the Iraqis, crabs and turtle brooches to symbolise the slow pace of Middle East talks, a huge wasp to needle Yasser Arafat, and a sun pin to support South Korea’s sunshine policy. Her favourite mistake was wearing a monkey brooch to meet Vladimir Putin, causing the Russian president to go ape.

We start with the two minor awards: the OOPS (I wish I hadn’t…..!) for blunders and bloopers, and then the prize for pictures or images, entitled the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs. Read more

The OOPS has tended to go to Australian politicians because we take so much pleasure in the accomplishments of Oz leaders. And Prime Minister Tony Abbott has pushed hard to take out the OOPS for a second successive year. He won previously for a mighty effort during the 2013 election campaign. In a moment of modesty he tried to say he was not the repository of all wisdom. What emerged from his lips was: ‘No one, no matter how smart, no matter how well educated, no matter however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.’ This was OOPS-winning wisdom.

The PM fronted up for a double OOPS win by introducing the term ‘shirtfront’ to international diplomacy. In Australian Rules football a shirtfront is when a player makes a full-speed body charge at an opponent’s chest and crashes shoulder-first into their shirt. Thus, in talking about what he’d do to Russia’s president, the Oz PM announced: ‘Look, I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin. You bet you are – you bet I am.’

Putin mightn’t know much about Australian Rules, but he understands the use of gesture and gibe on the international stage. Putin’s Madeleine-worthy response while attending the G20 summit in Brisbane was to have Russian warships sailing around in international waters off Queensland. Thus, the exchange became something like: You call that a shirtfront, I call this a fleet.

Neither signal rated as a success.

Another OOPS contestant also became entangled in things naval. Australia’s Defence Minister, David Johnston, misspoke spectacularly when he gave the Senate his dim view of the government’s shipbuilding company, ASC. ASC is wholly-owned by the government and the Defence Minister serves as the shareholder. So, take it away Senator Johnston: ‘You wonder why I’m worried about ASC and what they’re delivering to the Australian taxpayer? You wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe, right?’

Senator Johnston no longer has the job. He’ll be remembered as the defence minister sunk by a canoe. Most years that would have got him the OOPs. Alas, at the last moment he has been comprehensively out-blundered by a striking international performance—an attempt at comedy that went cyber and became a contest of wills.

Step forward—to opposite sides of the stage—North Korea and Sony Pictures.

Sony started to reach for the OOPS by making a comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. North Korea responded with a massive cyber attack. Sony surrendered and canned the film; then, pushed by the US President, un-surrendered and released the movie.

Sony already has a deep understanding of the various levels of dumb it has achieved. North Korea may eventually comprehend its own dumb achievement, going cyber-psychotic over a dumb movie. A well-earned OOPS to them both.

Now to the prize for pictures or images: the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs. The title comes via Tony Blair who cited the Princess of Wales: ‘As Diana used to say, the picture is what counts.’ Many a minder has made or sunk a career on that simple bit of advice—the picture defines the story. Politicians in trouble must avoid Exit signs and stand in front of the flag.

Here is last year’s Diana winner, which trended on Weibo; masterful because so many interpretations are possible.

Last year's winner juxtaposed Winnie the Pooh and Tigger with a photo of Xi Jinping and Barack Obama.

And this year, the Chinese censors went close to winning because they got so scared of viral images of a giant yellow duck.


Definitely a worthy finalist.

Yet for the fullest understanding of the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs, the prize this year goes for the first time, not to a photo, but to a shimmering hologram that helped shape an election. The BJP sent out India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak in 3D:

Using more than 2,500 technicians, they launched a campaign of daily hologram shows. These brought Mr Modi, in shimmering 3D, live to 1,300 locations and an estimated 7 million people over 12 days.

The candidate as crowd-pleasing hologram. Brilliant. The next US election will come in 3D.

The Diana prize goes to the shimmering Mr Modi. The next column will announce the victor of the main award: the Madeleine.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Wellesley College

Editors’ picks for 2014 ‘Canberra’s unholy trinity’

APH facade

Originally published 20 October 2014.

Here’s Canberra lore—or three rules of an Unholy Trinity—explaining how politicians operate. When nothing makes sense, rely on the Trinity pulsing beneath the surface of party, parliament and government:

  1. It’s always personal
  2. There’s always a deal
  3. Follow the money.

I claim no custody of this lore. Spend four decades in the company of politicians in this town and the Unholy Trinity becomes a trusty guide. The rules have general application. Thucydides would have jotted them down if only he’d spent more time in the press gallery. Machiavelli penned a version for princes. Read more

When the Trinity parades in public, the rules appear as power, politics and policy. Rule one, the personal, is the power dimension. Rule two, the deal, is the politics. And money is ever a synonym for policy. In this discussion, other fundamentals of passion, principle and purpose sit on a different mountain—one at the other end of the range, shrouded in cloud.

To jargonise, the rules describe crucial inputs; the outputs are government and legislation. Government and law are done in writing while the Trinity operates an oral culture. The personal calculations and deals are done face to face. Talking comes first. The write-up happens later to dress the deal as policy. The Canberra press gallery reports politics as high-gossip-with-added-facts-and-figures to hint at what goes on in the big building under the giant flag, home to the three rules, two Houses and one government:

1. It’s always personal
The ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘How could this hurt me?’ questions are only part of the rule, although never to be discounted. As Jack Lang taught Paul Keating; ‘Bet on self-interest, it’s a horse that’s always trying’. Beyond glory and greed, render ‘always personal’ as the ‘will to power’, with all the personality baggage loaded onto that one phrase—ambition, ego, hatred, fear. Only driven personalities apply. The terrain is treacherous, the rewards as great as the risks. More fall off the mountain than reach the peak.

Isaiah Berlin catches the first two rules in Political Judgement when arguing that the politician’s art has few ‘laws’ and little ‘science’. Instead, personal instinct and skills are decisive. The skilled politician grasps ‘the unique combination of characteristics that constitute this particular situation—this and no other…the character of a particular moment, of a particular individual, of a unique state of affairs, of a unique atmosphere, of some particular combination of economic, political, personal factors’.

The ‘always personal’ rule is about the individual politician’s mix of experience, imagination, intuition and luck. Then the rule broadens to encompass the personalities of all the other politicians in the tribe (party), because the best allies and worst enemies sit beside you. Skill is about seizing the emerging pattern or surviving the crisis, making the call or doing the deal, building for a win or swerving to minimise loss. At the peak, this is Bismarck’s statesman able to hear the footsteps of history; down on the lower slopes it’s doing the numbers and judging the mood of caucus. While no qualification is needed to be a politician, a lot of qualities are needed to be good at it.

2. There’s always a deal
If to govern is to choose, then to politic is to deal. Australians want good government and law but aren’t keen on the politics that produce those fine sausages. Barry Humphries, comic genius, national treasure, and creator of snout-in-the-trough-supremo Sir Les Patterson, delivers a verdict from the heart of Oz, mocking Canberra’s dramas as ‘the battle of the dwarves’. A more understanding but equally ironic version was that of a wonderful old press gallery hack who used to proclaim in the non-members bar: ‘I’m shocked, shocked to discover that base and grubby politics is being played here in the heart of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia’.

The oral culture of the deal can burst into spectacular view: the Kirribilli agreement when Hawke promised Keating the succession in front of two witnesses and the similar moment when Howard promised to hand over to Costello because ‘one-and-a-half terms would be enough’. Both leaders reneged, which points you straight back to rule one on power and personality.

3. The golden rule is that gold rules.
When you can’t decipher the personalities, and the deals are safely secret, the money trail points the way up the mountain.

With the rules as aid, turn to the memoir by Australia’s 27th Prime Minister. My Story is a good and revealing work, although often in ways Julia Gillard might not intend. She writes how her eyes were set on the far peak where purpose and principle reside, but the Real Story is the struggle on the mountain where the Unholy Trinity rules.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dave Sutherland.

China as Number One, Japan as Normal

Bustling BeijingIn 2014, China arrived as the economic Number One and Japan arrived as a ‘normal’ security player in Asia.

China confronts the many meanings and huge character test of being the biggest. Japan has just given Shinzo Abe a fresh mandate to remake Japan’s strategic role. That means four more years to grapple with Abe’s vision of what Japan must do to be true to itself, domestically and regionally (recall Tomasi’s great line: ‘Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same’.) More than most nations, Japan is always about itself. But like the rest of Asia, Japan can’t resist being driven by China. It used to be US pressure that got Japan to shift, now it’s Chinese competition.

Asia’s headline moments in 2014 included Modi’s election in India and Jokowi’s win in Indonesia. For the trends shaping Asia’s history, though, look no further than what the year meant for China and Japan. Read more

First, China arriving as the economic Number One. After all the loud and long yabbering about what it’d mean when China passes the US as the biggest economy, the moment just zipped by. Leaving 2014 for 2015, China is the world’s biggest economy, with the US stepping back to number two. Trend moments get no bigger. True, the measure is purchasing power parity. And the moment of the tectonic shift hides deep in the calculations of the International Comparison Program of the World Bank.

The instant that China got to Number One might be about now, as you’re reading this. If you don’t want to dive into the Excel spread sheet, follow the Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz on this benchmark moment for the Chinese Century. Enjoy Stiglitz’s report of how Chinese experts threatened to walk out of the World Bank technical discussions on the new numbers that showed China was on track to hit the top before the end of 2014.

Even China worries about the earthquake potential of the tectonic moment. Stiglitz writes that news of the glorious arrival was blacked out by the Great Cyberwall of China. Beijing’s fear is what this will do to a superpower ego across the Pacific: ‘China understands full well America’s psychological preoccupation with being Number One—and was deeply worried about what our reaction would be when we no longer were’.

Xi Jinping is thinking about what being Number One means, with his call for China to establish ‘big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’. Read those comments alongside the address Xi gave to the Australian Parliament with this version of the meaning of China as the biggest:

Others naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act, and they may be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way or even take up their place.

The big guy in 2014 delivered Australia a surprisingly broad free trade agreement, crowning a ten year negotiation. And the dance continues to get South Korea and Australia to sign up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Trade Minister, Andrew Robb (eight visits to China this year) is confident that the Abbott Government can get enough from Beijing to step beyond its ‘strategic’ concerns to join China’s Bank:

If the governance provisions that we’ve put to them [China] which only replicate really what are in place for other similar bodies such as the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank, I am 100 per cent certain that the Prime Minister will sign up.

Such a sign up would put Australia and South Korea inside China’s new institution, leaving Japan and the US outside. Ah, the many problems of tectonic moments. Canberra is finding out what it means to be a ‘strategic partner’ of China—the term agreed when the Gillard government got the deal for an annual leaders’ summit.

In the same way, Canberra is having to think what it means to be an ‘ally’ of Japan. The ally label bestowed by Tony Abbott embraces Abe’s vision of a normal Japan changing the peace constitution to do its strategic duty in Asia.

As Rod Lyon remarks, Abe and Abbot have brushed aside hesitant advisers to proclaim a ‘special relationship’, aiming for a level of strategic cooperation that no other Asian leader is likely to reach for. Abe’s new electoral mandate means the Abe-Abbott axis can go to higher places yet, transforming defence links.

Next year Australia will have to offer big thoughts on what all this means, in its fourth Defence White Paper in 15 years. The equipment decisions are agonising and excruciating; the cost and commitment boggling in dollars and duration. But it’s the swift, swirling trends that drive Australia to have four goes at writing Defence’s New Testament.

The four White Papers from 2000 to 2015 represent a clear break from the three Papers that sufficed for the preceding 24 years (1976, 1987 and 1994). The key author of the 2000 Paper, Hugh White, wrote that it

clearly acknowledged that China’s rise constituted a major change in Australia’s circumstances, and that Australia needed to take a wider view of its national interests and expand its military capabilities. The possibility of war with China now influenced major force planning decisions for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Major change, indeed. And in 2014, China as Number One and Japan as Normal shoved the change even harder.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Trey Ratcliff.

The Sydney siege and the first 100 days of the ISIL campaign

For the first 100 days of the air campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, most Australians were barely aware their country had entered a new Middle East war. Then a deadly siege in Sydney made that faraway conflict close and personal.

In the evening after police stormed the Sydney cafe and three people died, an audience of 80 gathered at ASPI for the launch of a report on the initial 100 days of what will be a long campaign. The maps in the report and the interactive map of coalition airstrikes offer what good graphics often achieve—to tell you things more directly than many words.

Constant reporting makes the point that for propaganda purposes and, increasingly, as a statement of pride ISIL is throwing troops into the battle around Kobane, on Syria’s border with Turkey. The experts dismiss Kobane’s strategic value. But ISIL keeps feeding in the cannon fodder. So the coalition keeps bombing them. The graphic expression of what that means is on page 33 of the report—the biggest red blob on the map, representing 282 airstrikes around Kobane. The Kobane figure is markedly bigger than the series of blobs for strikes in Iraq. The overall total of strikes in Iraq is certainly greater than in Syria, but the concentration of air attacks on Kobane is a vivid strand of the campaign. Read more

Just as striking is the map on page 17 showing the state of the contest for territory in November. The black dots representing ISIL-controlled territory show attack zones funnelling into Baghdad. And getting close to Baghdad; ISIL can squeeze and pressure, if not take.

The video of the ASPI launch starts with presentations by Daniel Nichola and Patricia Dias on the maps and data, followed by a panel I chaired with Peter Jennings, Tobias Feakin and Mark Thomson. The panel started with the siege and Peter’s argument that even if the gunman was crazy, he was still a terrorist and this was a terrorist act.

Then discussion moved to propaganda and the policy implications. Toby’s paper reports one striking pro-ISIL image, a photo of three bullets, each with a different top: ‘A bullet. A pen. A thumb drive…There is a different form of jihad’. On the evidence of that image, propaganda is as central as recruits and cash in reaching for the caliphate.

This war has Australians fighting on both sides. Australian jihadists are dying in Syria and Iraq as fast as they arrive, to be replaced by more Australian volunteers: 20 dead, about 70 serving fighters, and the passports of nearly 100 Australians cancelled because they were suspected of wanting to go to join the war.

The panel entered fascinating debating territory—and the audience voted—on two questions I posed, based on pieces by the Australian strategist, David Kilcullen and the ANU’s Professor Amin Saikal. The Kilcullen proposition is that 2014 saw the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we have known it since 2001:

After 13 years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more motivated, more dangerous enemy than ever.

The audience divided equally in the vote on whether we’re worse off today, with plenty of abstentions.

The Saikal thought is that the rise of ISIL amounts to a ‘geopolitical tsunami’. And that tsunami is one element in even bigger shifts:

From Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria and as far as Palestine and Libya, the region is experiencing long-term structural instability and insecurity. It is in the throes of major geopolitical and power shifts, the likes of which not seen since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the British–French colonial realms nearly a century ago. The old correlation of forces in support of maintaining the status quo, especially following the Iranian Revolution more than 35 years ago, has been altering. A set of new alignments and realignments along multiple overlapping and contesting regional fault lines, including sectarian divisions and geopolitical rivalries at different levels, has come to redefine the region and possibly change its traditional political and territorial contours.

Using this, the question posed was whether Australia should volunteer for a military role in a war between Sunni and Shia, in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Two thirds of the audience voted for Australia to continue to seek a role in the Middle East conflict.

Please sample the video as you savour the paper.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video (c) ASPI 2014.

The Oz taxi test in the South Pacific

Fiji Pacific Harbour taxi.

To see how deeply Australia reaches into the South Pacific, try the taxi test.

Hop into a taxi anywhere in the Islands and negotiate to pay the fare in Australian dollars.

My random survey over three decades finds it’s an easy negotiation anywhere in Melanesia and much of Polynesia, especially Tonga and Samoa.

The Oz dollar fails the taxi test in Cook Islands, where the cabs can’t see beyond New Zealand. Interestingly though, Oz currency is often acceptable in New Zealand cabs. The Kiwi cabbie, of course, lives by standard Kiwi rules about exploiting gormless Australians, so usually wants to do the exchange rate at one-for-one; robbery more outrageous than the banditry at airport currency kiosks. Read more

In Melanesia, the taxi man can be relied on to know the going exchange rate to the second decimal. Allowing for commission, tip and rounding up for the whole note, it tends to be a fair exchange. Plus, it breaks the conversation ice. And interviewing taxi experts on current issues of politics, diplomacy and gossip is a standard rule of the travelling hack’s handbook (foreign correspondent chapter). In the Islands, the coconut wireless tells amazing stories—and the most amazing thing is how often they’re true.

My taxi research methodology is slapdash. The survey began merely because I was usually in a hurry, the banks always seemed to be closed, and the exchange rate offered by pubs is as extortionate as airports. After a while, though, it became part of the fun of the Pacific. The findings are offered as fact-based on another hack handbook rule: one incident is an anecdote, two constitute a trend, three similar events are hard statistical evidence. You can see the fellow feeling for the coconut wireless.

Turn now to the places where the Oz dollar doesn’t amount to fair exchange for a fare. In Micronesia, the greenback rules—only the US dollar will do. And several times over the years, attempts to do the deal in New Caledonia got a non, variously bemused, amused or straight contempt delivered with that hauteur the French are so good at.

To give the full French flavour, in several senses, I was in Noumea covering a visit by Australia’s Foreign Minister in the early 90s when it was announced with a flourish that the import duty imposed on Australian cheeses would be lifted. A cheerful French official advised this was because the relationship was improving after a bad period, plus Gareth Evans was a delightful man, despite his dreadful French (see my account here of Gareth trying to tell a joke in French) and New Caledonia was opening to its neighbours. Off the record, the French official concluded, lifting the duty wasn’t evidence that Australian cheese had actually improved.

With all that as prelude, I report an interesting finding—Noumea has changed sides on the taxi test. The Oz dollar is now as acceptable as the Euro and the French Pacific franc. And—zut alors!—the shops around the port are displaying prices in Oz dollars as well.

The reason for the shift is the giant cruise ships that now ply the South Pacific, sailing from the Oz east coast. In season, a dozen of these behemoths call in port each month, disgorging thousands of passengers, the great majority of them Australians. The extraordinary growth of cruises in the South Pacific in the last decade underlines an old lesson—relatively small shifts by Australia can have big impacts in the Islands. This is a new industry with a lot of history.

Australians heading to board their liner in Sydney, berthed by The Rocks near the old Sailors Home and the Maritime building, will speed by the Burns Philp building in Bridge Street, standing in testament to the great South Pacific shipping company that started off sailing tourists to PNG in 1884.

Going out into the South Pacific, Australians are surprised to find the Islands know us a lot better than we know them. Indeed, they remember our history in the region better than we do. Just ask the older caldoche cohort in Noumea whose vision of perfidious Oz recalls the Australian Navy turning up in the harbour early in World War II to ensure New Caledonia stayed true, no matter what happened in Vichy France.

The simple moral is that Australia matters in the South Pacific. And sometimes we have impacts without even realising that we’ve hit. Almost any taxi driver can tell you that tale, for only a small commission.

Graeme Dobell is ASPI’s journalist fellow. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user emmett anderson.

Pacific future politics

Inadvertently, Fiji has done Australia a favour in the diplomatic duel over what the South Pacific future should look like. Granted, you have to work hard to find positives in the arid argument that has reverberated around the region for eight years. The silver lining is that the contest Fiji has launched with the status-quo power, Australia, isn’t going to ebb away. It might be politer, but the debate lives. The destructive phase has finished. Time for some creation. That’s good for the Islands—and can be good for Australia. Canberra is going to have to pay attention and think new thoughts.

The status-quo power needs to work harder for its top-dog status, to deliver what the Islands need. Fiji will make it difficult for Australia to lapse into another period of comfortable South Pacific amnesia—set policy to cruise control and turn to Asia. Read more

Fiji has injected politics into the Pacific. Politics is ever messy, and Fiji has delivered a lot of mess. Pity about the coup, the destruction of the Fiji polity, the desecration of key Fiji institutions and the derailing of much that regionalism should be delivering. As mentioned, you have to look hard to find the positives, but this is the look-on-the-bright-side moment. Canberra and Suva have agreed to talk Pacific politics.

Even if Suva’s Pacific arguments are flawed, Australia can’t rest on its usual status-quo assets—aid, the magnetic and nourishing effects of the huge Oz economy, the central role of the Forum and the traditional conservatism of Island leaders. New times invite new moves.

The South Pacific has no shortage of technocrats and regional institutions. Big changes and visionary leaps, however, don’t get served up by technocrats, no matter how they title the vision papers. Big politics needs politicians willing to grapple with political necessity. Fiji has delivered the necessity. The detente between Suva and Canberra opens the game. Australia and its status-quo partner New Zealand must respond.

This series of columns has covered the political dynamic in the shift from duel to dance unfolding in the ‘new era of partnership and prosperity’ proclaimed by Fiji and Australia; the conversation Fiji and Australia have launched on regional architecture; and Australia’s rethinking of economic possibilities in the Pacific after five fruitless years of PACER Plus negotiations.

PACER is the ultimate battle of the technocrats. The previous column pleaded for politicians to redefine the terms and scale of regional integration—to mix some real politics into the trade. Consider the political as well as economic aspirations in that PACER title: Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations. The key is the CER part, reflecting 30 years of Closer Economic Relations between Australia and New Zealand.

Despite the layers loaded on CER by the econocrats and technocrats, CER was a political agreement between Australia and New Zealand as much as an economic deal. In the same way, the free-trade deals Australia has secured this year with South Korea, Japan and China are expressions of political agreement crowning the myriad and minutely-detailed give-and-take of trade talks (endless trench warfare waged at a table).

CER has delivered so much for Australia and New Zealand it takes an effort of imagination to recall that long ago it was a tough tussle in the trenches, with a big potential to fail or fall short. What would have happened to Australia–New Zealand relations if the politicians had wimped out and given in to sectional interests and parochial partisanship?

As the CER talks swerved toward failure, a senior Australian diplomat Rob Laurie sent a submission to the Foreign Minister in October, 1982, considering what a fiasco would do to the future. Read Laurie’s key thought, substituting the South Pacific for New Zealand:

We would nevertheless be concerned about the wider implications for relations with New Zealand if the CER process were to collapse. Without a new agreement the trading relationship would become complex and disputatious. Many New Zealanders (including the Government) would seek to blame Australia for their economic difficulties and for the failure of the CER effort. A New Zealand feeling that Australia had pressed for too much could in turn and in time have negative consequences for co-operation in other important areas such as ANZUS and the South Pacific.

When New Zealand crashed out of ANZUS a few years later, the economic linkages of CER were important ballast. Such history informs the argument that Australia and New Zealand must not allow PACER Plus to stagnate or collapse. Time for a political push—even a dash of vision—on what regionalism and economic integration can deliver for the South Pacific.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marina del Castell.

Rethinking Australia’s economic role in the Pacific

BuffetAustralia’s remaking its relationship with Fiji and promising a rethink of South Pacific regionalism. But there’s another even bigger topic on the regional renewal menu—Australia’s economic role in the South Pacific.

Having ticked off Free Trade Agreements with Japan, South Korea and China, the Abbott government can turn its attention to the Islands and the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus. Begun in 2009, PACER is argued dry. The one thing the Islands want from Australia and New Zealand—labour mobility—is the one thing Australia and New Zealand won’t give. Stalemate.

Time to do a deal. Time for a multi-course buffet, not a one-size-suits-all banquet; smaller dishes and more courses, so each Pacific state can move at its own pace. The Abbott government proclaims its supreme attachment to economic diplomacy. Applying the flexibility and commitment needed to get deals with Northeast Asia to what’s on offer in the South Pacific could change the game.

Read more

First, consider what the game is in the Islands. Too often in Canberra the old formula still applies: that Pacific policy is essentially aid policy with a bit of diplomacy sprinkled on top and a defence guarantee held in reserve. That’s the policy strait-jacket that has often confined Canberra since its departure from PNG in 1975.

The problem with having aid as our main policy instrument is that it cops all the blame as well as carrying all the promise: if the Islands are failing, Australian policy is failing and, ergo, so is aid.

The whole-of-government mantra chanted in Canberra for more than a decade in discussing the South Pacific is a repudiation of the formulation that aid is the start and finish of Pacific policy. True, aid still speaks loudly—because Australia provides half the international assistance that goes to the Islands. But all those dollars don’t guarantee Australia leadership, nor Island followership.

What would a trade deal look like? First, Australia and New Zealand need to shift their thinking to match what they’ve promised. Here’s DFAT’s description of the intent:

Australia’s approach to the PACER Plus negotiations is different to that taken in traditional free trade agreement negotiations. Australia’s primary objective is to promote the economic development of Forum Island Countries through greater regional trade and economic integration.

Time for Canberra and Wellington to prove this isn’t a search for a ‘traditional’ deal. Time to get smart about integration. Time to demonstrate our primary aim is to help the Islands. When God creates trade negotiators, he gives them a high boredom threshold, strong wills and even stronger bladders—but large helpings of vision or imagination tend to be optional.

The Islands already have a form of duty-free and quota-free access to Australia through the 1981 South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (SPARTECA). What’s left to negotiate? Goods and services can move freely, it’s now about people—and economic integration.

If PACER Plus is going to deliver new opportunities to the Islands then it must tackle the taboo of labour mobility. The enormity of that issue explains the sluggish PACER process—the same way the Pacific seasonal worker scheme had such a slow birth in Australia compared to New Zealand.

The fresh start with Fiji offers a chance to think anew about the region, because that fight marginalised so much else. The clue to what PACER Plus should be is in the name: it’s based on the Oz-Kiwi creation, Closer Economic Relations (CER), which marked its 30th anniversary last year. It’s one of the cleanest FTAs in the world, but after 30 years there’s still more to do. See the joint review by the two Productivity Commissions based on either side of the Tasman ditch.

Australia and New Zealand should take the detailed and effective CER built over decades—a long and pragmatic history—and translate it into a set-course meal of many courses. Present that new design to the Islands as a series of courses to be embraced over a long period, as each nation is ready. Each Island can move through the courses—the economic commitments—at its own pace. You’d expect a Samoa or Fiji to get through the stages much quicker than the smaller states or Papua New Guinea.

CER offers a host of buffet headings beyond tariff and quantitative restrictions (which were eliminated by Australia and New Zealand in 1990, five years ahead of schedule). The Oz-Kiwi march towards a single economic market takes you through a trade-negotiator dreamscape—single aviation market, rules of origin, single economic market, banking supervision, quarantine, and a host of integration tasks both achieved and yet to be tackled.

The politics of that prescription lie in that word ‘integration’. Make no mistake, this is an intensely political idea about the workings of a Pacific Community led by Australia and New Zealand. The reluctance of the Kiwis to embrace every aspect of integration—such as adopting the Oz dollar—shows what a difficult discussion this will be for the Islands. And at the top of the mountain—say three decades away—the prize of labour mobility.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user lhongchou’s photography.

Australia, Fiji and Pacific regionalism

Mechanics and carFiji’s declared starting point for talking to Australia about the future of Pacific regionalism is that Australia should leave the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia’s undeclared position—made clear by its actions—is that the Forum is more important than Fiji, but of course Canberra would rather have both.

Such are the tensions to be expected between the South Pacific’s chief status quo power, Australia, and its active and agitated revisionist power, Fiji. As previously noted, Australia and Fiji have set out to shift from duel to dance. The duel will still influence the dance. And in a bizarre way, the scars of the duel might actually aid the discussion Suva and Canberra have pledged to lead on regional architecture.

In the clash between status quo thesis and revisionist antithesis, any true synthesis would be a fascinating if unlikely result. Suva and Canberra may not expect any agreement on regional architecture, but the effort can go in interesting directions. Australia and Fiji have been hacking at each other so hard for so long, it’ll be hard for them just to go back to old diplomatic bromides. Read more

Still, regionalism lifts the eyes beyond all that bilateral bitterness. The stoush with Suva has stymied much that could or should have happened in the South Pacific over the past eight years. Getting back to ‘normal’ between Suva and Canberra allows the South Pacific to consider what a ‘new normal’ might look like.

The to-and-fro over Fiji returning to the Forum on the condition that Australia leave is an example of the need to tolerate occasional dissonance between Suva’s words and deeds. Staying focused means letting the odd bit of overheated oratory fly by. The fuss and finesse of Fiji-back-in only if Oz-backs-out is instructive.

When Fiji got its letter from the Pacific Islands Forum announcing that Fiji’s suspension from the PIF had been lifted, Suva responded by reportedly setting some conditions on its return. The Fiji Sun, quoted the Foreign Minister, Inoke Kubuabola, as saying: ‘Fiji is not going back to PIF till some changes and reforms are made in the organisation; for example, Australia and New Zealand to move out of PIF.’

Six days later, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, arrived in Suva and issued a joint statement with Fiji’s Foreign Minister—yes, Inoke Kubuabola—announcing ‘a new era of partnership and prosperity.’ Bishop spoke to the ABC’s Dominique Schwartz, to tackle the suggestion that Fiji would refuse to rejoin a PIF that had Oz and Kiwi membership:

Bishop: We talked not only about the Pacific Islands Forum, but other architecture in the region and we’ve agreed to continue to discuss how we can ensure that it best meets the needs of the region in the 21st Century.

Schwartz: Did the Foreign Minister say that he would like to see Australia and New Zealand either leave the Forum or take a backseat before Fiji would consider rejoining?

Bishop: No, he certainly didn’t say that and indicated that that was not his view. He wants to work with Australia and New Zealand.

Schwartz: I only ask because the Foreign Minister has been quoted as voicing those concerns in the past.

Bishop: Well he certainly didn’t voice them today.

The cover for Fiji is the agreement between the two foreign ministers to lead a discussion on ‘regional architecture to ensure it remains relevant to political, economic and social needs’. That’s a useful chat Suva and Canberra can have with the rest of the Forum, other big players like China, the US and the EU, and the plethora of other new partners from distant parts (Russia, UAE, Kuwait, Germany, Spain Israel, Turkey, Cuba….)

Australia loves the Forum. Fiji has its fresh creation, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (no Oz or Kiwi) and has continuing hopes for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (no Oz or Kiwi). So, lots of interesting stuff exists to inform this discussion. The South Pacific trails only ASEAN in its devotion to analysing its own regionalism.

Over at Devpolicy, Matthew Dornan and Tess Newton Cain put the boot into the absurdity of Australia and Fiji foisting another review—‘neither warranted nor appropriate’—on the rest of the South Pacific. They offer a good list of the myriad of recent reviews of regional architecture. To that list, I’d add the thoughts of Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin on the erosion of Oz soft power, the loss of Oz influence over regionalism, and the failings of the Pacific Plan.

On the problems of the Pacific and the shortfalls in the Pacific Plan as ‘master strategy’, see the most significant recent review, led by PNG’s Mekere Morauta, calling for more robust Pacific politics and ‘a bigger, better, deeper process of regionalism’. No problem getting Suva and Canberra to agree on the need to be robust. And following Morauta, this new regionalist effort is dripping with politics.

A Suva that can talk to Canberra rather than rail against the regional bully might be surprised at how ready the status quo power is to express dissatisfaction with what the status quo is delivering. Australia shares plenty of the region’s frustrations and it’s ready to yarn about anything, from tinkering to a total engine overhaul. But Oz isn’t going to leave the garage.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user astrid westvang.

The delights of summitry

G20 Leaders' PhotoOn the evidence of APEC, the East Asia Summit and the G20, anyone who decries summitry as a waste of time, talent and money either has a narrow view of the world or is extremely hard to please. To take just one of the players—but what a player—Xi Jinping in the space of a week has deeply delighted Oz and deeply shocked the Abbott government.

The delight was the consummation of a free trade deal a decade in the making. The shock was a climate change agreement with the US in which Canberra was surprised by Xi and blindsided by Obama. What more can you ask from summitry? Thrills, spills, twists and dramatic plot shifts—and this column isn’t even going near Putin.

The successive summits hosted by China, ASEAN and Australia produced a blizzard of images and ideas, driven by power, policy and personality. Tracking power is about the trend lines and how the narratives are sold. Read more

The intense burst of summitry offers all sorts of stories. Come on a quick dance through some bits that matter to Oz. This tour is a communiqué-free frolic. Not to dismiss the formalities—merely that power flows from summitry in lots of ways:

  • The G2 delivers. Obama and Xi changed the terms of one of the great arguments of our time. The Republican Congress hates it, but an incoming Republican president will grab a G2 that can work. And if it’s President Hillary….
  • Visions of Asia’s future have been offered to the Australian Parliament, in the addresses by Japan’s leader in July and this week by China and India. Add the Brisbane speech by the US President and Australia has a front-row seat for big picture explanations and exhortations. Obama’s rebalance recommitment stands beside Xi’s ‘big guy’ imagery. China’s President noted that many people ‘naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act and be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way, or even take up their place.’ As I heard this, the association that came to mind was the diatribe China’s Foreign Minister directed at ASEAN in Hanoi in 2010: ‘China is a big country. And you are all small countries.’ Xi, wasn’t making threats, but offering an image of peace and prosperity—or a big piece of prosperity. The big guy has a big taste for what Oz is selling.
  • The Free Trade Agreement signed by China and Australia disappointed some Oz farmers (rice, wheat, sugar and cotton) but in other areas delivered more than even optimists had hoped for. The out-of-the-quarry-and-into-services sentiment was expressed by the Australian Services Roundtable’s Ian Birks, who calls it a sensationally good deal: ‘It’s so far beyond what anyone expected that it looks to me to be more than just a trade deal with Australia but a statement by the Chinese government to the world.’ China’s statement to the world ups the ante in the competing Asian trade negotiations/narratives/visions—one led by the US (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the other centred on China (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). What the big guy has given Oz bilaterally is the basis for a multilateral banquet in the RCEP. The alternative to the TPP just got a big boost from the big guy.
  • On the sidelines of the G20, Australia, Japan and the US had their first trilateral leaders’ meeting since Sydney’s 2007 APEC. Tony Abbott had a chat with the big ‘A’ ally and the small ‘a’ ally. Almost as noteworthy was Abbott’s special meeting in Myanmar with the 10 leaders of ASEAN, marking the 40 years of Australia’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN. The big guy was the phantom at both feasts.
  • Modi Magic: Here comes India. The magic Modi delivered at the G20 was the settlement with the US—a food stockpile peace clause—giving a breath of life to the World Trade Organisation, the Doha round and the multilateral system. The summit demand for ‘announceables’ can produce real announcements. And while leaders come for the multilateral, they stay to do bilateral business. Australia tries to talk the talk about India as a major foreign policy priority. But Modi’s mere presence in Canberra—the first visit by an Indian PM in decades—injects a lot of India into Australia’s India policy.

Finally, two observations that can go in either the personality or policy categories. First, salute Andrew Robb as the standout can-do minister of the Abbott government. Australia’s Trade Minister performed as promised. In 12 months, he completed bilateral negotiations with South Korea, Japan and China—the three nations that take more than half of Australia’s exports. This column mocked the announcement of that deadline to achieve the three deals as a naive new government skipping into a minefield. Andrew Robb delivered; this columnist eats crow.

The other observation is that China is drilling down into Australia so deeply it has developed a Tasmania policy. Yes, after thrilling Canberra, Xi Jinping headed to the Apple Isle. The big guy gets around.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Twitter user TonyAbbottMHR.