Lowy Institute
Election Interpreter 2016

Almost three years after the 'stop the boats' election, there is a surprising lack of debate on irregular migration in Australia in this campaign. The bipartisan consensus on offshore processing appears to have removed the political incentive for any serious policy discussion. This week there were echoes of the 2013 election when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned of chaos on Australia's borders in the event of a Labor victory, but this was largely seen as a tactical move to counter Labor's scare campaign over Medicare.

The Lowy Institute's Poll this week probably validates the major parties' reluctance to engage in policy debate. The Poll showed public support for the policy of turning back boats continues, with 63% of Australians agreeing that 'stopping the boats means that Australia can take in more refugees through UN processes'. There are few votes to be won in softening Australia's hard-line stance on asylum seekers who seek to come to Australia by boat.

But Australian politicians are studiously ignoring the reality that the PNG Supreme Court's 26 April ruling that the detention of asylum seekers in Manus was illegal and unconstitutional. This will force a change to the offshore processing policy by removing a key plank of Australia's deterrence strategy in managing irregular migration.

This week the Supreme Court will hear applications for consequential orders that will enforce its decision. While government ministers can argue this process has no legal consequences for Australia, the PNG government will have no option but reiterate its plea to Canberra to relocate the asylum seekers and refugees. Australian voters deserve to hear how their future government plans to respond to this.

There is no excuse for the lack of political debate about the future of the detainees in Manus.

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Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has signalled publicly he no longer has any motivation to resettle those asylum seekers found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea. He moved quickly after the Supreme Court ruling to announce the closure of the Manus detention centre and said he would ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the men detained there. It seems unlikely he will endorse the suggestions of my friend Lisa-Marie Tepu and address the treatment of refugees within Papua New Guinea. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, O'Neill told Australia's National Press Club that his government could not afford to resettle the refugees and wanted to close the Manus centre.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton tried to deflect earlier debate on the ruling by saying it was a matter for Papua New Guinea. He has reiterated government policy that refugees in Manus and Nauru will 'never' be resettled in Australia. His Labor counterpart Richard Marles concurs. Prime MinisterTurnbull said much the same on Monday night when he told the ABC's Q & A program that people who were found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea did not have the option of coming to Australia; they had to stay in PNG.

Australia says it is PNG's problem and Manus detainees will never be resettled in Australia. Papua New Guinea will neither detain nor resettle the refugees, nor accept any further asylum seekers as a favour to Australia. So what happens now?

Labor's Marles has suggested, rather unhelpfully, that the Australia should offer the PNG government 'more money', or ask it to change the law in order to maintain the detention centre. Marles knows PNG better than most: back in 2013 he was dispatched by Prime Minister Rudd to negotiate the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. That negotiation resulted in more aid for Papua New Guinea in health, education and law and order in an arrangement known as the 'Joint Understanding'.

Offering more money to the PNG government now would not enable the resettlement of the refugees. Papua New Guinea is in the midst of an economic crisis that is putting extraordinary pressure on its budget. Even if Australia is footing the bill, it will become increasingly difficult for the PNG government to allocate the resources necessary to support some 900 foreign men in a stagnant economy. The government would find it difficult to justify special treatment for the refugees to its people, suffering from the effects of drought, and general elections are only a year away.

At a time when Peter O'Neill stands accused of corruption, suggestions that Australia should offer 'more money' to the PNG government to persuade it to ignore or subvert the Supreme Court's judgment, or to change the nation's laws are highly inappropriate.

Both major parties in Australia need to start being frank with voters about the future of the asylum seekers on Manus. The PNG government will close the detention centre and refuse to resettle refugees. Manus can no longer be the deterrent Australia wants it to be and it will be incumbent on the Australian government to relocate the detainees to another country. A responsible government in Canberra cannot willfully breach PNG's constitution, snub the Supreme Court, or ask the PNG government to prioritise resettling refugees when its budget for essential services is already under huge strain.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's claim that the government had anticipated the Supreme Court decision for some months suggests it will have considered what it might do about relocating the detainees. Given previous failures to persuade third countries to take refugees from Manus and Nauru, and Australia's refusal to accept New Zealand's offer to accept some of the refugees, the option Canberra is most likely to be considering would be moving refugees from Manus to Nauru.

Nauru is also in the midst of an election campaign and not without its own problems. The Nauru government's lack of commitment to the rule of law, its lack of transparency, and its antagonism towards journalists have created headlines over the last two years. It has earned the opprobrium of the New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who cut off aid to Nauru's justice sector due to concerns about the rule of law. If Nauru is indeed the preferred option to rehouse the Manus refugees, the voters of Australia and Nauru should be informed while they have an opportunity to express a view at the ballot box.

The major parties in Australia should also be canvassing other options. If the Manus 'deterrent' can no longer be a key plank of Australia's immigration policy, how much symbolic value is there in 'never' permitting refugees currently detained in Manus access to Australia or to New Zealand, while we continue to risk our bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea? Australian voters have accepted policy backflips before and no doubt will again. Our politicians might even persuade us to do so this time if they do us the courtesy of involving us in an informed debate.

Photo Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

  • There has been a lot of coverage on Nauru in recent weeks. The ABC ran a story on Nauru's secret history while more recently A Current Affair was given exclusive access to Australia's detention facilities on the island nation.
  • The 'expose' from A Current Affair has been criticised for a lack of objectivity and superficiality, but it is not the hatchet job many expected. Unfortunately the reporter of the story has responded to criticism by calling advocates for refugee rights conspiracy theorists.
  • For a more authoritative reflection on the state of Australia's detention regime, read this in-depth conversation with Paul Stevenson OAM, who has spent 43 years working as a trauma psychologist. According to him the Australian government is inflicting upon people the worst trauma he has ever seen.
  • The Cook Islands opposition claims to have voted out the government in parliament on Tuesday. The country is now at an impasse as the government is digging in, saying the movement did not follow the correct parliamentary proceedings.
  • A PNG court has suspended the case against National Fraud and Anti-Corruption chief Matthew Damaru. Mr Damaru has called police infighting embarrassing.
  • Meanwhile the PNG Supreme Court wants to enforce its ruling that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal and is calling on lawyers representing detainees and the PNG government to apply for Consequential Orders that will enforce the ruling.
  • Universities across PNG are at an impasse with their students, who are refusing adhere to government and university administration demands that they return to class until justice over the actions of police two weeks ago is delivered. For a recap on events to date see Bal Kama's excellent piece for The Interpreter.
  • Three ni-Vanuatu have been killed and 10 Australian tourists seriously injured in a bus accident this week in Port Vila. The tourists were visiting on a P&O cruise ship; in 2015 almost 200,000 tourists visited Vanuatu via cruise ship.
  • A recent report from the Pacific Network on Globalisation has argued the Pacific should walk away from PACER Plus negotiations, suggesting it puts Australia and New Zealand's interests ahead of the Pacific. The Pacific Islands Forum has slammed the report, calling it a 'lopsided and inaccurate view' of PACER Plus.
  • Finally, I know we have shared this in the past, but it is still on high rotation with the Melanesia team at the Lowy Institute, so here it is again, a cover of Adele's 'Hello' by 14 year old Rosie Delmah from the Solomon Islands. It now has over 30 million views on YouTube, almost 100 times Solomon Islands population.

The Brexit referendum

In a 2002 book called Why Britain Should Join the Euro, a team of experts including LSE economist Richard Layard, Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker, European Bank Chief Economist Willem Buiter, Chris Huhne, who sat on the European Parliament's Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, and others set out the risks of not joining the euro. They warned that rejecting the euro would lead to lost trade, greater economic instability, higher exposure to economic shocks, 'danger that the City's predominance in wholesale financial services could be threatened', and a loss of 'economic and political influence'.

None of these came to pass.

At the time, those who rejected these shibboleths were regarded as small-minded nostalgics. As Larry Elliot wrote in his reflection on the UK's euro debate, 'to suggest that the euro would be supercharged monetarism, Thatcherism with knobs on, was deemed unseemly. People who liked the euro were civilised, supported the arts, went to Tuscany or the Dordogne for their holidays. People who didn't like the euro drove white vans decorated with the flag of St George.'

The campaign over Britain's membership of the EU has rehashed some of these old debates. In an excellent piece published this week, Professor Alan Johnson set out two fallacies of the Remain case: 'no EU, no prosperity' and 'no EU, no peace'. To the two fallacies, I would add two others: 'no EU, no social democracy' and 'no EU, no internationalism'. 

Here, I would like to review these four shibboleths of Remain and identify why they are ultimately unconvincing.

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No EU, no prosperity

The first claim is that leaving the EU would be a catastrophe for the British economy. This is premised, in large part, on the view that British trade is dependent on the EU. The same warnings made in the euro debate a decade ago have reappeared. 

While it is true that the EU is the UK's biggest trading partner, the idea that that exit will entail the severe curtailing of trade with the EU is absurd. Official figures from the Office for National Statistics show that this year the UK's trade deficit with the EU hit a record high. The UK trade deficit with the EU is over £13 billion. It is inconceivable that the EU would walk away from this vital export market, which is the world's fifth largest economy. When the EU is in an economic shambles, it is in no position to cut off its nose (and ears, mouth and eyes) to spite its face.

Furthermore, the notion that prosperity is protected by the EU and impossible without it is a dark joke. The EU has relied on the free movement of people as an alternative to sound economic policies. Mass unemployment is rendered acceptable because, the argument goes, if you are a young person in Spain who can't find a job, you can simply move to Britain and get one there. If you are getting paid €2.50 per hour in Lithuania and want higher wages, move to France where the minimum wage is €9.67 per hour.

The Labour peer Maurice Glasman has described 'the lunacy of including countries with a level of wealth far below that of the founder members in an economic space predicated on the free movement of people'. For free market theorists, viewing Europe as a single undifferentiated economic space — oblivious to historical, linguistic, cultural and other differences — made a great deal of sense. But, as Glasman writes, it is 'a strange way of conceptualising European history'.

No EU, no peace

The EU has always had twin purposes, of course. One purpose has been to fulfil the economic self-interest of its members, even if that means impoverishing less developed economies in the process. The second is the loftier aspiration of achieving peace in a continent which for centuries was wracked by war. 

This is the most compelling and emotive of the Remain shibboleths. Yet, is it correct? It is an empirical claim, with a counterfactual that is difficult to test. Was it the EU which prevented its members from going to war, or is there some other confounding reason (eg. wealth, democracy, region) which helps to explain peace in Europe?

It seems the 'no EU, no peace' shibboleth is a classic case of selection bias. No full democracy has gone to war with another democracy. To be specific, there have been no wars between countries which score eight or higher on the Polity IV scale, a standard ten-point scale used to measure democratic strength. Every EU country scores a nine or a ten on the Polity Score. Many non-EU states in Europe also perform well: Norway and Switzerland unsurprisingly are tens. Macedonia, Montenegro and Moldova are nines. 

It could be argued that the EU creates incentives for states seeking accession to democratise. While this is a creditable claim, it overlooks the ways in which the EU has concurrently been working against the democratic will of its own members. European integration has devalued democracy, strengthened the power of capital and eluded accountability. 

Most visibly, the EU has ignored the wishes of the Greek people after two general elections and a referendum. As trade unionist Fawzi Ibrahim has written, 'When a country is humiliated, its people impoverished and its public assets sold, would that be seen as an act of a friendly and decent institution or an act of war? For, while guns may not have been used, the outcome is the same.' Europe is facing serious internal crises, for which the EU has been a handmaiden. 

No EU, no social democracy

The third shibboleth goes some way to explaining why the Labour Party has enthusiastically backed Remain. The idea is powerful on the British Left: to be a member of the EU 'protects' Britain from (its own elected) Conservative governments while guaranteeing social and labour rights which we could not secure for ourselves. 

Yet, this is simply not accurate. There is no law from the EU for workers which we could not secure ourselves. In fact, as the Labour MP Gisela Stuart has pointed out, many of the rights for workers and women which are credited to our EU membership were actually initiatives of Labour governments. Many UK social rights preceded and even provide stronger protections than EU directives:

  1. Paid holiday leave: EU (4 weeks), UK (5.6 weeks).
  2. Maternity leave: EU (14 weeks), UK (52 weeks).
  3. Maternity pay: EU (no minimum pay), UK (90% for 6 weeks then £140 for 33 weeks).
  4. Equal pay: this was law in 1970 before the UK joined the Common Market. The minister who introduced the Equal Pay Act, Barbara Castle, enthusiastically campaigned for Brexit in 1975.
  5. Wages: the EU has no minimum wage, unlike the UK.
  6. Health and safety: this was law in 1974 and the minister who introduced the Health and Safety at Work Act, Michael Foot, was an ardent Eurosceptic.

No EU, no internationalism

Finally, many on the 'Remain' side argue that staying in the EU is the 'internationalist' choice, whereas voting to leave, as David Cameron himself argued, was the 'little England' option

In spite of pretences to the contrary, voting 'Remain' is itself an inward-looking approach. The EU is a protectionist club. The Remain position sides with Europe against the rest of the world, not with it. On the matter of immigration, to take one example, it is not 'internationalist' to prioritise (mainly white) Europeans at the expense of people around the world who have much stronger historic and cultural ties to Britain. Yet this is precisely what EU free movement rules entail.

By joining the EEC, Britain abandoned its partners in the much more diverse Commonwealth – hundreds of thousands of whose citizens of all faiths and races died fighting for Britain in recent wars. In a 1992 debate in the House of Representatives, Australia's Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating reminded his more pro-British political opponents that Britain 'walked out on you and joined the Common Market'. 

The Remain side seems incapable of distinguishing between internationalism and globalisation. Yet we can surely be internationalist while not succumbing to unfettered globalisation. We can support national reciprocity and co-operation without ceding democratic institutions. We can support immigration without giving up our ability to regulate it.

It certainly would not be plausible to argue that the EU is incapable of doing good things for British workers, nor would it be reasonable to argue that the UK Government cannot work to harm them. The point is that Britain can work for prosperity, peace, social democracy and internationalism without the EU. 

As the Labour MP Michael Foot said during the 1975 referendum, 'I say to our country — our great country — don't be afraid! Don't be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilise our resources and overcome our economic problems. Of course we have. We can do that and save the freedom of our country at the same time.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Kurdulija.


North Korea has staged a string of test launches of its intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile this year, the latest apparently just this morning. All six have ended in failure. As decades of failures have shown, it's never easy to get rockets of any purpose to work reliably. But the recent North Korean launches give insight into events inside the Musudan program that go well beyond engineering.

BM-25 Musudan ballistic missiles and launchers. (Wikipedia.)

There's a standard modus for dealing with launch failures, whether the payload on top is a satellite or a warhead. You collect all the data you can find, sometimes literally picking up the pieces of a failed launch. A failure investigation then begins. As with air crash investigations, this can take months. Then remedies must be implemented. Sometimes a rocket goes through a minor design change, or more attention is applied to manufacturing or launch preparations. Other rockets in the same family are typically 'grounded' while this process unfolds. It can take six months or more before the next rocket is deemed fit for launch.

North Korea didn't wait very long between Musudan launch tests. The first was made to coincide with the birthday of Kim Il Sung on 14 April. On 28 April they tried again. Two Musudans were launched this day. Both failed. On 31 May, another Musudan test failed. The latest tests (at the time of writing) took place earlier today, when two missiles were launched in less than three hours. The final launch apparently flew for roughly 400km, further than its predecessors but still well short of its suspected range. This analyst does not believe the flight was deliberately intended to be a short-range firing. The Musudan is believed to have an intended range of somewhere between 2500-4000km.

Engineers would object to such a rushed launch schedule, which does not give enough time for proper analysis or corrections. Clearly, North Korea's engineers have been overruled by their political masters. This suggests desperation and a strong degree of impatience on the part of North Korea's leadership for a successful flight of this missile, which has the potential to alter the strategic calculus of the region.

Ironically, this impatience has probably contributed to the failure of these test launches, much like the fairy tale of the goose that laid golden eggs. Exactly what happens next is unclear, but certain political intermediaries who have oversight of the program could face a bleak future. North Korea would presumably judge that executing or imprisoning key technical personnel would derail their missile development. Then again, politics has already grossly interfered with engineering. Nobody knows what else is happening beyond our view.


With the end of the dry season in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) — a period roughly running from November to May — the magnitude of the problems affecting the Mekong River is starkly apparent. With estimates that the river has been at its lowest level in the last 100 years — a circumstance that has had effects throughout the LMB and is particularly marked in the Mekong Delta and the Tonle Sap (Cambodia's Great Lake) — the gravity of the current situation cannot be overstated.

Although it is clear that the fundamental causes of these problems stem from a prolonged drought linked to the El Nino effect that has dominated weather patterns both in the LMB and in China's Yunnan province over the past year, there can be no denying that China's dams have played their part in altering the previous pattern of water flow down the river.

There are six completed dams on China's section of the Mekong (known in China as the Lancang), a further dam still under construction that appears to be operating, and a further three under construction that are not yet operating. As has long been predicted by critics of China's Mekong policies, these dams hold back water that once flowed down the river in the dry season. For instance, as is widely known, 40% of the water that once flowed past the Lao capital of Vientiane during the dry season originated in China. This is a fact that contradicts Chinese claims that the amount of water in the Mekong that originates in China is only 16% and hence that its dams are of little consequence.

In an effort to allay the concerns of downstream countries, China released water from its Jinghong dam in March, opening the dam's floodgates for two weeks. At the same time, and in an action that underlines the failure of the Mekong River Commission to play a role in relations between China and the lower Mekong countries that are its members (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam), Beijing announced the first meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism to 'provide political guidance and a sub-regional roadmap for cooperation.'

It is too early to evaluate the utility of this initiative.

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Neither this initiative nor the hoped-for rains of the rainy season that are now due will do much to mitigate the immediate and serious situation which has seen the waters of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia fall to one of the lowest levels in generations, and a dramatic increase in saltwater incursions into Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Fish caches in the Tonle Sap will be affected and agricultural production in the Delta will suffer. The greatly diminished flow of water down the Mekong also means that the life-giving nutrients that usually accompany the River's flow have been largely absent since drought conditions began in the middle of 2015.

Yet as the critical situation just described has developed, there is no slowing in the dam building program in China and more disturbingly in the LMB. The Xayaburi dam in Laos appears likely to be completed before the end of the decade. A ceremony in January marking the establishment of a coffer dam at the controversial Don Sahong site in the far south of Laos suggests that construction on the main dam wall is now taking place, and in Cambodia construction of the Lower Se San 2 dam on a major Mekong tributary in Stung Treng province is reported to be 40% complete. There is broad scientific consensus that these three dams in Laos and Cambodia will lead to significant reductions in fish catches, the major component of the protein intake in the two countries as well as in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.

What I find striking, and disturbing, from a personal point of view and as someone who saw the river before any dams were built, is the speed with which change has come about. Until the 1980s the Mekong had flowed essentially unchanged for millennia. It has now been changed, irrevocably, in less than half my lifetime.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vadim.

The Brexit referendum

Last week on these pages Sam Roggeveen lamented The Interpreter's failure to find internationally respected pundits or commentators willing to write in favour of Brexit. 'If publications such as this one', he wrote, 'are finding it hard to identify professional pundits to make the case for Brexit, that means the case against Brexit is being over-represented. That's concerning for the health of the public debate.'

So is there then an intellectually coherent case for Brexit? The best answer to that question (that I know of) comes from the pen of French political philosopher Pierre Manent of France's École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

A long-time sceptic of European integration, Manent has not to my knowledge written directly in support of Britain's withdrawal from the EU. But his philosophical writings are rich in insights that explain the attraction of Brexit for its supporters (and among them I have to include myself, though as an Australian citizen resident elsewhere in the EU I have no vote in the matter) and which together amount to a coherent and compelling intellectual case for British withdrawal.

Moreover, Manent's work (and in particular his 2006 La Raison des Nations: Réflexions sur la démocratie en Europe) also helps explain why elite commentary in favour of Brexit, while by no means non-existent, is at least so difficult to come by. 

But let us first address the arguments for leaving the EU. Of them all, the constitutional argument is the crux of the Leave position (rather than issues of economics or immigration, which are merely subsets of it). In Australia, as in most democracies, whether the economy is more or less heavily regulated in favour of labour or capital, more or less open to global trade, and whether it accepts more or fewer migrants and on what basis, rests upon the expression of the people's will in parliament.

In Britain, this is no longer the case, or not completely. Through the European Communities Act 1972, which established the supremacy of EU (European Commission) law over Britain's where the two conflict, to the most recent 2007 Lisbon Treaty, in vast areas of public policy Westminster has surrendered legislative authority to Brussels. On EU migration, industrial relations, fisheries, the environment and justice and home affairs (where the 2009 Charter of Fundamental Rights has created a list of rights flowing from 'EU citizenship', policed by the European Court of Justice over the head of Britain's judicial systems) the 'directives' and regulations issued by an unelected commission frame British life. Parliament cannot repeal them and no minister can be summoned to the Commons to defend or explain them.

Though Remain has (incredibly) tried to enlist the spirit of Churchill to its cause, there is no understating the dramatic rupture the EU represents in Britain's national story.

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Where parliament was once 'omnicompetent', its powers are now bound. Established in England as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the principle of responsible government that has stood as the cornerstone of Australian democracy since its inception in the eastern colonies in 1855 has been abrogated in the country of its origin. And where Churchill, first as first lord of the admiralty in 1914, and ultimately as prime minister in 1940, urged the country to war to preserve the independence of its governing institutions from undue foreign influence, the mother of parliaments meekly receives sets of legislative instructions addressed to it from Belgium.

While raising the GST a few percentage points was the subject of weeks of sustained parliamentary and media debate in Australia, the British parliament no longer possesses the right to alter VAT unilaterally or abolish it completely on some or all goods, as the EU imposes a minimum rate. Similarly, EU law restricts parliament's powers to raise or lower excise duties within a certain range. As Labour's Tony Benn put it so articulately in The Spectator in 1975:

Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean...the end of our democratically elected parliament as the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom.

The pro-EU reply to this argument is usually two-fold. 

First, some argue that the old Bennite argument is alarmist and over-stated. National parliaments may have surrendered to Brussels the right to regulate the shape of bananas, cod quotas or the voltage of vacuum cleaners, but all political questions of substance (decisions of war and peace, the income tax and welfare spending) remain in Westminster's hands. 

Second, even to the extent that it is true, the surrender (or 'pooling') of sovereignty in such matters is the price that has to be paid to suppress the national passions that led the continent into two bloody wars in the twentieth century, and it is more than made up for by the expanded personal and commercial rights that individuals have won under the EU's aegis. Democracy hasn't been subverted so much as lifted to a higher, post-national plane.

Who here is right? Consider Manent:

There is no doubt that the 'construction of Europe' signifies an extension of the rights of the individual, of the possibilities open to him, and therein lies the attraction of Europe for the citizens of the European nations, at least for those who feel that they are capable of taking advantage of these new possibilities. Yet the 'construction of Europe' means – for the moment at least and assuredly for a long time to come – a diminution of the powers of the citizen. Life for the European citizen is determined more and more not by the familiar national debate, as conflictual as it may be, but by the outcome of a European process that is much less comprehensible…

The 'construction of Europe' thus involves a continual diminution of the feeling of civic responsibility. 

While this latter development is very worrisome to some, it is, by contrast, very attractive to others, especially those who place (and the spirit here is precisely that of the liberal, cosmopolitan and broadly internationalist elite that dominates public discourse all over the Western world and almost universally backs Remain) the expansion of the scope of their rights as individuals and consumers ahead of the enumeration of their duties and obligations as citizens. 

In a way that will surely ring true for everyone familiar with post-Maastricht Treaty Europe, Manent describes a European Union on the path to becoming 'a vast space of civilization, subject to rules, offering immense possibilities to individuals capable of acting to their own advantage in accordance with uniform rules, but not a body politic that affords its citizens a common adventure, a "community of destiny".' 

He asks:

Is such a European civilization desirable?...Can human beings live fully without belonging to a body politic that claims their allegiance? Can they live only as economic and moral agents, free and mobile in a space of civilization?

The intellectual case for Brexit is essentially a 'no' in answer to those questions, making the case for Brexit not only historically, but also philosophically coherent in a British setting: the supremacy of parliament in all areas of public policy is the sine qua non of the nation's civic and political continuity. In Benn's words, not only has parliamentary democracy 'defended our basic liberties' and 'offered us the prospect of peaceful change', it has 'bound us together by creating a national framework of consent for all the laws under which we were governed.'

From a point of view such as Manent's, ultimately in the balance is the survival of the UK as a distinctive political community. But what in fact is not clear is the Remain answer to these questions. Manent asks:

'Does "Europe" mean the depoliticization, through denationalization, of the life of the European people, that is, the systematic reduction of their collective existence to the activities of civil society and the mechanisms of civilization – to just economics and culture? Or does "Europe" mean the construction of a new body politic, of a large, enormous nation?'

Leave's answers to these questions are as clear as they were in 1975. The tragedy of the referendum debate is rather that Remain has so far failed to dignify them with an answer, falling back instead on dire warnings of World War III and the looming spectre of an economic Dark Age. 

Is it too late now to ask for an intellectual case for Remain?

Photo: Getty Images/Anwar Hussein

The Brexit referendum

By Brett Hogan, Senior Fellow, and John Roskam, Executive Director, Institute of Public Affairs.

This week's referendum on whether the UK remains with, or leaves, the EU is primarily about democracy and the right of a sovereign people to live under their own laws. 

A vote to leave would be a positive outcome for the UK, but would also send an important message to the EU that it is headed in the wrong direction, its people are unhappy, and urgent institutional reform is required.

Democracy is, at its heart, the process by which personal freedom of expression finds its voice. A nation's executive and legislative system, its courts, its police and armed services, and the laws they pass, interpret and enforce, form a framework that governs how its citizens live and interact with each other. A properly functioning nation-state and democracy must have the ability to perform these functions. Unfortunately it is clear that the citizens of the UK no longer enjoy these privileges.

Over the last 25 years in particular, the EU has extended its grip over not just trade and competition policy but social policy, energy, public health, transport and even to culture, tourism, education and youth. The sovereignty of the UK's parliament and courts is increasingly subject to the European Commission and its Convention on Human Rights, Court of Human Rights, Charter of Fundamental Rights and Court of Justice. In areas where EU and British laws are inconsistent, EU law prevails.

The real reason why EU regulations, such as banning curved cucumbers and bananas or requiring restaurant olive oil to be served in separate containers, are so absurd is that the EU is barely decades old yet already sees its role as micro-managing behaviour, literally down to the dining-table level.

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Yet the UK has never voted for Europe as it is. The UK's often cited 1975 referendum was about staying with the then Common Market, rather than signing up to a federalist super-state.

The arrogance of the European project, with its un-elected Commission, opaque decision-making and onward march of centralism, is also likely responsible for some of the peculiar arguments that have been deployed against independence. Apparently, if the British leave they will be unable to secure their own trade deals, prevent the mass migration of large businesses to the continent, protect their own borders and will even be responsible for the end of Western civilization. But if the fifth-largest economy in the world, and successful NATO and UN Security Council member, which has successfully exported its language, parliamentary democracy, legal system, literature, and even civil society all over the world over many hundreds of years can't make it on its own, then who can?

Even when UK Prime Minister David Cameron tried to get a commitment from European leaders in early 2016 to some governance, competitiveness and freedom of movement reforms in advance of the referendum, they considered their position so comfortable that he was arrogantly rebuffed.

Of course, democratic traditions in the EU have never been strong, given that French and Dutch rejection of a European Constitution in 2005 led to the back-door Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 and the Irish and Danes were required to vote again after initially rejecting the Treaties of Lisbon, Nice and Maastricht.

The EU's argument that its ongoing existence and even greater integration is necessary to maintain the peace in Europe is seriously dated, and highlights how its 20th century thinking is hurting its prospects in the rapidly changing 21st century. The EU's inability to manage its own financial system or its own borders, deal with its intractable competitiveness problems, or satisfactory deal with overseas crises such as the Ukraine are topical cases in point.

That Austria's disputed presidential election run-off last month was between the Freedom Party and the Greens, or that National Front leader Marine Le Pen tops most polls for next year's French presidential election, demonstrates that the British are not alone in their distrust of Europe's institutions. The EU is in desperate need of competition, and for the development of an alternative agenda to ever-closer integration and centralisation. Brexit is the way for Europe to be saved from itself. An independent Britain that chose tax and spending reform, workplace deregulation, free trade and cheap energy, and was better off than those countries remaining in the EU, would be an important symbol of the potential of alternative policies.

Of course if the newly independent UK's parliament wished to mirror the EU's existing economic and social policy, it would be free to do so. In fact Australia's thirty-year-old trade agreement with New Zealand proves that countries can have a close economic relationship without political or currency union.

On 16 August 1950 at the Council of Europe, then Opposition MP Harold Macmillan said on the prospect of joining the European Coal and Steel Community: '(f)earing the weakness of democracy, men have often sought safety in technocrats. There is nothing new in this...But we have not overthrown the Divine Right of Kings to fall down before the Divine Right of Experts.'

That argument is as strong today as it was 66 years ago.

Photo by Flickr user m.hawkesy.

Today the Lowy Institute launched the 12th annual Lowy Institute Poll, which asks Australians how the feel about issues concerning the world and Australia's place in it. As always, there are many interesting findings; for analysis of this year's results, see Alex Oliver's post from this morning.
As has been the case for the past few years, the Lowy Institute has also launched an interactive alongside the Poll report. Doing the research is only half the battle; finding the best ways to communicate that research to the general public is also a key concern for any think tank. Unlike the majority of our research output, the Poll consists of many discrete bits of data rather than a single cohesive argument or exposition on a particular topic. Presenting these findings in the format of an interactive which both sorts results into categorises and facilitates the quick navigation of these categories means that readers can isolate the information most relevant to their interests.
You can explore the Poll results below, or download a copy of the report here.
Election Interpreter 2016

Yesterday the Lowy Institute hosted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, whose speech focused largely on the Turnbull Government's economic diplomacy agenda. You can watch the full video below.

The economic focus allowed Bishop to pivot into domestic debates from time to time, which is not surprising in an election campaign. But for my money, most of the interest here comes in the Q&A section (from 27 minutes), where Bishop reveals her proudest achievements, responds to news stories about the next DFAT secretary, and where she puts a strong case for Britain to remain in the EU. Incidentally, isn't it interesting that many politicians, Bishop included, are so coy on the US election (Bishop criticised Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for commenting on Trump) but find it uncontroversial to put their position quite stridently on the UK's upcoming poll. Why is that?

The Brexit referendum

If Britain votes to leave the EU on 23 June, it may well represent the greatest strategic shock to the continent since the breakup of the Soviet Union and consequent reunification of Germany a quarter century ago. The balance of power and influence between Britain, France and Germany – a crucial variable in European geopolitics for hundreds of years – would shift, while the European project as a whole could be gravely weakened just as its eastern and southern flanks come under unprecedented strain. Britain itself, having found the role that Dean Acheson famously proclaimed lost, would be in danger of losing it once more, eroding its value as a transatlantic bridge, and grasping for chimerical substitutes in the Middle East and Asia.

President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron establish the Franco-British Expeditionary Force, 2010. (Wikipedia.)

Britain's Treasury estimates that, two years after leaving the EU, output would be 3.6% lower and the pound 12% weaker than if Britain remained in. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has argued that 'there is an overwhelming consensus...that (leaving) would reduce national income in both the short and long runs', suggesting the net effect on public finances would be £20-40 billion.

In consequence, Chancellor George Osborne has threatened a 2% cut to defence spending, which in April was triumphantly raised for the first time in six years. Brexit would therefore make it much harder for the UK to meet NATO's 2% of GDP target for defence spending, to which the Cameron Government had committed. A resource crunch would also compound the military's array of challenges, from destroyers that can't operate in the Middle East to gaps in crucial areas like maritime patrol aircraft or naval aviation. RUSI's Malcolm Chalmers has suggested that, given these circumstances, the government would need to scrap last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and conduct a new one. If this were done, it would probably resemble the cuts-heavy 2010 document, which is reviled in the military as having done nearly irreparable harm. It could also cast a shadow over an imminent political debate on the renewal of nuclear submarines.

Moreover, strategy is bounded not just by resources but also bandwidth. Governments can only focus on a few things at once, not least when their ruling parties are in internal chaos. A Leave vote would spell the end of David Cameron's career, precipitating an ugly leadership struggle. It would also leave a generation-long divide within the Conservative Party between populist (Leave) and modernising (Remain) factions.

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The Leave campaign has said it envisages a gradual unwinding of the UK's position in the EU, with total departure likely by the next election in 2020. Putting aside the real prospect of a second Scottish referendum, this period will be marked by market volatility, political chaos and frenetic diplomacy. Negotiation for British access to the single market – whether the model is Norway or Switzerland – will absorb almost all of the UK's political and diplomatic attention. Countering Russia in the Balkans, coaxing Libya's warring factions together, or building ties to Southeast Asia will invariably take a back seat. And if Brexit does provoke a general unravelling of the EU, several hundred years of European history has made it clear that Britain is not immune – as Lawrence Freedman has noted, 'it will make no difference whether Britain is in or out'.

Brexit will also change the EU's internal equilibrium. British departure cannot but strengthen the voice of the two remaining core European powers, France and Germany. Within the bloc, this could mean an acceleration of German-led efforts at EU (rather than NATO) defence integration, which Britain has often viewed with scepticism. EU military missions are currently underway in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mali, Central African Republic, and in the waters of Somalia and the Mediterranean. British departure would complicate many of these operations, but they would not cease; over the longer-term, they would merely become likelier to reflect Franco-German, rather than British, priorities. Germany's de facto leadership role in Europe – which, as Germans point out, they never sought – will grow. While this in itself is no longer a major problem for Britain, as it was in the 1990s when Thatcher opposed reunification, it may exacerbate tensions within the eurozone. Berlin and Paris will gain diplomatic clout because they will have heightened influence over a bloc of half a billion people.

Over the medium to long term, this could even nudge EU policy towards Moscow. While NATO is undoubtedly the paramount military bloc in Europe, it is EU sanctions that have been the most important European instrument against Russia. But France and Germany are more economically intertwined with Russia than Britain. Last week French senators overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution to lift sanctions, and there are rumblings of discontent in Germany. Although Poland and the Baltics will benefit from important new NATO deployments in the east, the loss of the British voice in the EU will be concerning to those on Russia's doorstep.

Beyond Europe, a fourth consequence is that Brexit is likely to place serious stress on the UK's grand strategy, and particularly its network of alliances and partnerships. Britain outside of the councils of the EU would be a less attractive partner to Washington, particularly if British military weakness were, for the reasons outlined above, to be prolonged. At the same time, the Leave campaign has proposed that Britain can reorient itself towards, variously, the Commonwealth, the BRICS, or the so-called Anglosphere. 'Australia and Canada', argues one detailed study, 'would make natural partners on a wide range of issues from trade to global governance'. The US-Australia trade deal has also been mined for lessons.

The problem is that this is a barely coherent laundry list. The question is how the UK would handle what would be a broad and serious divergence in its economic relationships from its security ones. The most serious threats to the UK would continue to arise from the EU's borders (Russia) or within the union (terrorism), and even the most economically dynamic of these new would-be partners would offer London little in this regard. The aforementioned study (see page 17) places two countries in the high priority category for the negotiation of trade deals: Russia and China. It doesn't take a Metternich (sorry, a Palmerston) to see how problems might arise here. Economics and security cannot be quarantined from one another.

Brexit, for its proponents, is an opportunity to unshackle Britain from its decrepit European moorings, and plug in to the powerhouses of the world. The risk is that Britain is left weakened and distracted, though just as vulnerable to continental risks as it had been inside the union. With the British voice quieted, and the Union shaken, Moscow would face both easier interlocutors and a softer target. The UK's relationships to the US and NATO would remain paramount, but the tension between these bedrock alliances and the pressure of post-Brexit partnerships would tax any government, and certainly one faced with political fratricide and economic turmoil.


It's likely 2016 will be remembered as a year of polls: the Brexit poll this week, the Australian election on 2 July, the US presidential election in November, and even a UN poll to select the next Secretary-General by year end.

The 2016 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, may not be quite on the same scale, but it's an important touchstone on how Australians are thinking about the world. This year, those views appear to be at a critical juncture.

Over the 12 years of Lowy Institute Polling (the first Lowy Poll was taken in 2005), Australians have generally been warm on our close friends in the English-speaking world when asked to rank their feelings towards various countries on a 'thermometer' scale of 0 to 100 degrees. New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada and Ireland always come top or close to the top when we include them on the thermometer. We have been warm on like-minded nations in Europe and in our region: France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Singapore. We have warm to warmish feelings towards our Pacific neighbours: Fiji, Solomons, East Timor, Papua New Guinea. We have had middling to lukewarm sentiments about a bunch of countries in our region such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. We are cold on the usual suspects: North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Libya. 

And then there is China.

When we ask Australians about China it's always a complicated story. This year, however, it's more complicated than ever, and Australians' attitudes seem to have reached a turning point.

China, our largest trading partner since 2007, is now our 'best friend in Asia', according to Australian adults: 30% nominate China and 25% nominate Japan when we ask them to name our best friend in Asia. Two years ago, when we last asked this question, China and Japan  tied for first place. Yet on the 'feelings thermometer', Australians have always expressed warmer feelings towards Japan than towards China. This year, Japan is rated at 70° and China at 58°. This prompts the question: what exactly do Australians mean by 'friendship', where China is concerned?

China may be our best friend in Asia as of this year, and our largest trading partner since 2007, but it's a friend about which Australians have some serious reservations.

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When asked about positive and negative influences on their views of China, Australians are overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese people (85% saying 'Chinese people you have met' are a positive influence), China's culture and history (a positive for 79%), and China's economic growth (a positive for 75%). However, there are some strong negatives too: 86% say 'China's human rights record' is a negative, 79% say 'China's military activities in our region' are a negative, and 73% say China's system of government is a negative. Its environmental record and investment in Australia are also negative influences.

As an illustration of this high level of anxiety about China, a substantial 74% of Australians are in favour of Australia conducting freedom of navigation operations in response to China's activities in the South China Sea.  

On the other side of the Asia Pacific is our other important partner, the US. Australian support for the US alliance has been one of the most consistent features of our polling. The proportion of the Australian population saying the alliance is either 'very', 'fairly' or 'somewhat' important for Australia's security has never slipped below 90% since we first asked this question in 2005. Australians always rate the US quite warmly on the feelings thermometer, with results ranging from a high of  73° last year to a low of 60° in 2007 (towards the end of the George W Bush presidency). This year, it's 68° — down 5°, making the US the only country to record a fall of any significance on the 2016 Lowy Institute thermometer. The alliance too has lost support: 71% say the alliance is 'very' or 'fairly' important for Australia's security. Still high, but down nine points on last year to a nine-year low in Lowy polling history.

Two years ago, when we asked Australians for the first time which relationship was more important — that with the US, or that with China — the US was the clear leader; 48% said the US, and 37% said China was the more important relationship in 2014. Two years later, however, it's a dead heat: in 2016, exactly the same number say China (43%) as say the US (43%) is the more important relationship.

But it's complicated. The Australian population is split down the middle on this question. Younger Australians (under 45) lean towards China, 51% saying it's the more important relationship, with 35% of that age group saying the US is more important. Older Australians (45 and over) see the US relationship as more important, with only 36% of them choosing China.

While we are divided between China and the US and many of us are anxious about China's intentions, we also appear to be quite concerned about what's going on in US politics at the moment. Nearly half (45%) of us say Australia should distance itself from the US if Donald Trump becomes president. Around half (51%) say we should remain close regardless of who is elected president; not a decisive vote of confidence and a result which suggests that the Trump factor may be having an impact on Australian support for the alliance.

Trump is not at all popular here: only 11% of Australians say they would prefer Trump as president, in results from separate Lowy polling in June; 77% prefer Hillary Clinton. And nearly six in ten (59%) say they would be less likely to support Australia 'taking future military action in coalition with the US under Donald Trump' if he wins the presidency. 

Our 2016 polling also has results on the other big votes this year. On the Australian election, the Liberal-Nationals Coalition wins hands down on foreign policy, with Australians preferring it to handle seven of eight key foreign policy issues including national security, the alliance, the economy and asylum seekers. Labor is preferred only on the issue of climate change. 

Australians are also decidedly against Brexit, with 51% in the 'remain' camp, against only 19% on the side of the  'leavers'. And on the last of the big votes this year, Australians are in two minds about Kevin Rudd as UN Secretary-General: 46% saying he would make a good Secretary-General, and 49% saying he would not.

Drawing on the last 12 years of data, this year's Poll highlights some important shifts in the way Australians are thinking about the world and our major global relationships. Our political leaders have their work cut out for them after 2 July.




There is a perpetual wave of migration underway in Asia, much of it through unauthorised channels and often with grave results for both migrants and the broader society of host countries. Human security issues, which relate to people rather than artificial borders created by nation states, merit serious consideration by policy-makers.

As discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series, economic insecurity is driving many people out of their country of origin in search of better employment opportunities. This applies to both temporary and permanent, skilled and low-skilled migrants. Many skilled migrants to Australia are educated and globalised Asians. The top two source countries for Australia’s point-based (skilled) migration program are India and China, followed by other Asian nations including Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia (see table below). These are mostly developing countries and Australia is in a global race for their talent.


While many skilled migrants come to Australia, others with less education and fewer skills seek employment in neighbouring countries in Asia. Not everyone is able to migrate, even if their economic security is in danger; many simply don’t have the means to leave their country. Education, although not the only factor, is considered most significant in migrants’ decision to move to another country. The more educated and self-empowered people are, the more likely they are to be able to migrate to an economically secure place. Skilled Asians from developing countries know, through education and social networks, that in Australia they are likely to find economic survival and prosperity.

However most low-skilled Asian migrant workers migrate within Asia. The list is a long one: Cambodian and Myanmar workers in Thailand; Bangladeshi workers in Japan; Philippines and Indonesian workers in Hong Kong; mainland Chinese and Malaysians in Singapore. Some of them breach immigration rules, knowingly or unknowingly, and put their personal security in danger. Cambodian seasonal workers, for example, cross the border to Thailand without travel documents. In 2014, more than 220,000 undocumented migrants reportedly migrated back to Cambodia in fear of the Thai military junta’s mass deportation of irregular migrants. In Malaysia around 1000 migrant workers were arrested in 2013 for their unlawful residential status. There are thought to be two million irregular migrants in Malaysia. These undocumented economic migrants live with a constant fear of being arbitrarily arrested, detained or deported.

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Among these undocumented labour migrants, however, it's important to realise there are both victims and perpetrators. Many young women and children from poor rural areas in Asia are targets for sexual, labour and other types of exploitation by human traffickers. NGOs report that women from North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are sold to mainland China for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. Women from the Philippines and Indonesia are going to Hong Kong and Singapore to work as domestic workers. As they work in private homes, it is difficult for authorities to monitor working conditions and domestic workers are often neglected.

People are also trafficked through commercially arranged marriages. South Korean men use online matchmaking agencies to arrange marriages with young Vietnamese or Cambodian women. Once married, the men often confiscate their wives' passports and confine them to home for domestic work. Some are physically abused and several young Vietnamese are known to have been killed by their mentally-ill husbands. Such acts lead to anger among migrants' compatriots and can create diplomatic tensions between sending and receiving countries.

Human trafficking in the fishing and seafood industry in Southeast Asia is another example of modern-day slavery. Fishermen are especially vulnerable to exploitation as their movements are restricted in boats at sea. Physical abuse, inadequate working and living conditions, unpaid salaries, and the lack of any avenue for complaint are widespread. Australia is connected to a degree to these exploitative practices in seafood industries as it is the fourth largest consumer of seafood from Thailand where forced labour by trafficked persons takes place.

There is little reliable data on human trafficking in Australia. Project Respect estimates up to 1000 victims are currently under debt bondage, mostly from China, South Korea and Thailand. The Australian government has been criticised as it does not offer aid unless the victims assist the investigation and subsequent prosecution processes. In 2010, the University of Queensland Human Trafficking Working Group undertook a comprehensive research project on child trafficking and inter-country adoptions in Australia and identified problems with forced marriages and international adoption.

Economic insecurity in home countries will continue to drive transnational migration. Migrants seek both regular and irregular routes to a safer place. When there is no alternative to dangerous illegal channels, the human security of not just the migrants themselves but also that of hosting populations can be in danger.

When they are not protected by respective states, irregular migrants can create human insecurities in all seven pillars, defined by the United Nations Development Programme in 1994 and explained in part 1 of this series. These are personal, community, political, economic, food, health and environment securities (see below for more details on human security).

ICCPR=International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; ICESCR=International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; CRC= Convention of the Rights of the Child; CEDAW=Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; CERD=International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; CAT=Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; MWC=International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families [United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Law, Online Database]

When not protected adequately by respective states and collectively by the international community, human insecurities through migration — both regular and irregular — can lead to racism, extremism, illicit economic activities, other criminal behaviour, and health and environmental problems. Such results, which would be of great concern to ordinary people, are overlooked when the migration debate is framed solely in terms of abstract ideas around national security. 






  • The UN has woefully mismanaged the response to horrific allegations of the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Citing impunity and lack of accountability, the whistle-blower who originally revealed the incidents has now resigned. According to the UN, of the 60 largest troop contributing countries to peacekeeping forces, only 14 have not reported cases of sexual abuse committed by their forces in the past five years.
  • The Economist has come out swinging against the foreign aid industry, arguing that while it 'can work wonders', too much of it is not being spent in the right places.
  • Those who are sceptical about the importance of aid will see this as justification for slashing aid budgets, as Australia has done in recent years. Unfortunately scale brings benefits, with new research showing that the biggest aid donors are also often the best.
  • Meanwhile, while justifying how useful randomised control trials (RCTs) in development economics can be, Rachel Glennerster does a great job in exhibiting the great leaps forward that are being made in combating Malaria in Africa, a fight foreign aid has significantly contributed to.
  • The question of whether RCTs are taking over development economics has also been argued elsewhere in the last few weeks. David McKenzie argues that they haven't, while Martin Ravallion says in the comments they are becoming hegemonic as a tool of evaluation (h/t Devpolicy).
  • Chris Blattman has summarised a new working paper that shows how legalising the ivory trade actually increased ivory smuggling.
  • With Venezuelans now ransacking stores as the economy collapses, Vox has an excellent account of how the country's socialist dream has become a nightmare.
  • Stephen Howes has critiqued the Australian aid program's track record on transparency. DFAT fired back that transparency is no worse than under AusAID, missing Stephen's main point that it is also no better.
  • The Australian Greens have released the party's foreign aid platform, calling for aid to increase to 0.7% of GNI over the coming decade.
  • For more on The Greens foreign affairs policies watch Senator De Natale's recent address at the Lowy Institute. You can also watch Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek's recent remarks. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also addressed the Institute today. Keep an eye out for a podcast of her remarks in the coming hours.
  • Finally, because these links have been particularly depressing (and because two ni-Vanuatu athletes are featured!) check out this documentary of three stories of Olympic hopefuls from developing countries aspiring to represent their nations in this year's games in Rio:

The Brexit referendum

As an Australian living in the UK, I have been asked by friends from home what's the word on the street about Brexit.

The idea of reporting public opinion as 'the word on the street' brings to mind the infamous George Negus–Margaret Thatcher interview in which the Iron Lady calls out the journalist's hearsay and demands to know, 'who has said it to you, when and where?'

And yet, there is something to be said for taking the temperature of public sentiment through every day exchanges. This is not to say I have intentionally been surveying locals, but that it is an inescapable conversation in the UK right now; a hot topic spurred by daily front page news and the physical presence of 'Brexiteers' and 'Bremainers' handing out pamphlets in the streets.  

First I want to be upfront that I will be voting for the UK to remain in the EU, but here I set aside my personal views to represent as best I can local sentiments about Brexit. 

Almost every leave voter I have spoken with has expressed concerns about levels of migration to Britain. The available migration statistics and labour data suggests there are around three million EU migrants living in the UK compared with significantly less British migrants living in other EU countries (around 1.2 million according to the last census). In other words, there are almost three times as many EU migrants in the UK as there are Brits living elsewhere in the EU. For leave voters this is considered to be an unfair exchange with the added concern that EU migrants are taking UK jobs from locals.

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Between December 1997 and December 2015 the proportion of non-UK nationals in the workforce increased from 3.8% to 10.2% which the Office for National Statistics suggests is a reflection of the admission of new member states to the EU. Overall, the foreign-born population in the UK has almost doubled in the past 20 years or so with the biggest growth coming after the enlargement of the EU in 2004. This coincides with a flow of migration from eastern Europe, including Poland which has the highest proportion of foreign citizens living in the UK.

These figures may explain why migration and labour issues are resonating in Brexit debates. A lady I met at Manchester train station said her son is long-term unemployed despite his job hunting efforts. He's had factory work in the past and labouring jobs but he's been unemployed for 18 months and she blames EU migration. A tradie in a pub in Peckham in south London told me that most of the workers on his construction site are from eastern Europe. His view is that people coming from poorer countries get jobs because they are more motivated to change their circumstances and are willing to wake early and work hard. This is anecdotal, keep in mind, and not empirical evidence, and yet it is a reflection of local perspectives about how migration is impacting labour.  

Others express fears about terrorism enabled by refugee mass migration to Europe. The thought is that EU rules about free movement may prevent Britain from stopping potential terrorists from entering the UK. And there are further worries about security. A retired war veteran I met at a conference in Oxford said he's anxious that EU membership is diminishing Britain's ability to make autonomous defence policies because of commitments to the Common Security and Defence Policy

Remain voters talk about how long it will take to reconstruct policies and renegotiate international agreements if Britain votes to leave. An economist told me he's concerned the UK will lose bargaining power in international dialogues without the weight of the EU behind it. He said he'd rather see the UK be a leader within the EU than to break away. For others, it is the permanency of the decision which is key. Unlike general election outcomes which can swing between parties every few years, a vote to leave the EU is seen as having lasting consequences. 

Students I've spoken with tend to support the remain campaign. This is partly because some benefit from EU mobility but it is also a reflection of generational differences. Younger people tend to want to remain in the EU and older people, generally speaking, are more inclined to leave. Senior citizens reflect on how British culture was better before the EU and younger people talk about how remaining in the EU will affect their individual futures. Again, this is anecdotal and based on conversations I've been having over the past eight months or so but it is also supported by Ipsos MORI research which suggests people aged 18–34 are more likely to vote remain and those aged 55+ are more likely to vote to leave. 

The killing of remain campaigner, Labour MP Jo Cox, a week before the referendum has been shocking. Even in a climate of bitter divisions over Brexit, nobody anticipated a violent fatal attack. Speculation about the alleged gunman's right-wing links and sympathy for the victim and her family superseded political and technical 'remain' and 'leave' arguments for a few days, but with the referendum imminent, campaigns are resuming.  

It's unclear what the outcome will be after the referendum on 23 June. Polling indicates a leave trend although there are individual polls which have remain ahead  so it is too close to call. I've yet to encounter a single person sitting on the fence about this issue. The word on the street is that this is the most important UK vote in living memory.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Number 10.