Lowy Institute

Labor is being burnt by Defence as it burns through Defence secretaries.

With the abrupt departure of Duncan Lewis (pictured) next month, Labor is on to its fourth Defence secretary since taking office in 2007. An average of about one a year is a lousy look. If Stephen Smith had managed to bail from Defence and head back to Foreign Affairs when caucus again beheaded Kevin Rudd in February, then Labor would be on its fourth defence minister.

Losing this number of secretaries from Defence is far more than misfortune, as Lady Bracknell would say, and Labor is shifting into political territory well beyond carelessness.

Canberra will note the way news of the Lewis departure broke; it certainly wasn't in a way that Labor would have wanted. Geoff Barker scored the scoop, reporting that Lewis was close to resigning amid 'mounting turmoil over current and planned funding cuts.' A while ago in print I described Geoff Barker as a 'distinguished journalist'. He protested that if this idea took hold, he'd have to start shaving more regularly. Let's force him to wear a tie by dubbing him eminent.

Most people who follow Defence would listen carefully to the Barker interpretation that the secretary was ready to resign because of the tensions between the ambitious equipment program of the 2009 Defence White Paper and the budget-cutting realities confronting next year's new White Paper: 'What the government is prepared to spend has remained so uncertain that Mr Lewis may have decided that his job was impossible.'

The Barker yarn was too accurate for anything but action. Thus, the Prime Minister put out a hastily constructed press release that starts with the Lewis departure and takes until the fifth paragraph to announce that Dennis Richardson will shift across from head of Foreign Affairs and Trade to become the new secretary of Defence. At least if Stephen Smith could not get back to Foreign Affairs, he can get someone he knows to come across from Foreign. 

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Sending Lewis to be ambassador in Brussels means the Government can claim that the Defence secretary did not resign in disgust. Plus, giving him another job means Lewis cannot let off any verbal fireworks. In terms of sturm und drang, however, the haste and manner of his departure reveals much of what needs to be said.

Canberra will go back and re-read as a valedictory the highly interesting speech Lewis delivered last month. Entitled Talking dollars and strategy: the challenging link in defence planning, that effort might have just brought relations with the Defence Minister towards the boil.

The speech started by talking about the Defence secretary who set the gold standard, Sir Arthur Tange. Lewis recalled the Tange lambasting of the military services which became known as the 'Tange Harangue'; drawing inspiration from that title, his speech will enter history as the 'Lewis Lament'.

The Tange injunction that you can't talk defence without talking dollars was at the centre of the Lewis challenge to his political masters: 'Sir Arthur's maxim about matching dollars to strategy must perpetually ring in our ears. Our aspirations must match our projected budget and resource allocations.'

Lewis noted that Defence has 'reprioritised' $8 billion – including $5.5 billion to put the federal budget into surplus – out of a projected appropriation of $110 billion. He described this position as 'hard but manageable', while concluding that 'our aspirations may not easily match the available funding.' The gap between aspirations and cash is looking chasm-like.

To track the tensions between Labor and Defence, go back through the list of the recently departed secretaries. Bear in mind that this is not just a Labor phenomenon. Defence secretaries today serve at the Minister's pleasure and depart rapidly if it so pleases. The Coalition set the rules by sacking Paul Barratt as Defence secretary back in 1999. In Barratt's wrongful dismissal case the courts ruled that a minister has the right to sack a secretary on almost any grounds: poor choice of ties, bad haircut, whatever can be said to be 'prejudicial to the effective and efficient administration of the Department of Defence.'

The first Defence secretary to get pushed by Labor was Nick Warner in 2009, dispatched to run ASIS. Warner was a good man in the wrong place at a dreadful moment. He paid the price for being in the seat when Labor was very sore at Defence over the forced departure of
Joel Fitzgibbon as Minister. The revisionist view out of Russell is that the leaks against Fitzgibbon were coming as much from Labor as from within Defence. While never discounting the level of bastardry towards each other to be found in Labor ranks, Fitzgibbon's distrust of Defence still burns

Labor tried to get on top of the money and management problems at Defence by shifting Dr Ian Watt from Finance. Watt certainly didn't fail (moving on to head the Prime Minister's Department is the biggest promotion the bureaucracy offers) but he couldn't change much in two years.

The promotion of Duncan Lewis to secretary from his post as national security adviser to the PM was another example of the John Howard rule: anyone who serves the PM as a senior adviser is extremely well placed to get the nod to head a department. Giving Lewis Defence was a mark of Gillard's confidence and may also have had a touch of sending in a former poacher to be the gamekeeper.

Making a former major-general the top civilian at Russell ensured the secretary would not be easily blinded by military bulldust. Equally, as it has turned out, the departing secretary had no illusions about the tensions between policy bulldust and budget baloney.  

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


Part 1 and part 2 of Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister.

As Bob Carr prepared to ascend to his dream job, he consulted Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dennis Richardson on the vistas and the visions about to open up.

The travel schedule the Secretary outlined was embraced as a glorious gift. In just over two years in the job, the just beheaded foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, had gone to nearly 60 countries in 27 international trips. Carr happily announced that his caravan would not slacken the pace.

Always there to help, Richardson then moved to the issue of personal staff for the new minister's office in the executive wing of parliament. No problem, according to the Secretary. The department had already penciled in people to do all the jobs in Carr's personal office bar one – they could all be out of the department and up to the desks in Carr's new office in a jiffy. In the rosy glow of the moment, about-to-be Senator Bob agreed that this was also great. Staffing fixed, the discussion happily shifted to other things.

As it turned out, the personal staff appointments didn't go quite to the DFAT playbook. This was an intriguing moment in the eternal struggle to see whether the department runs the minister or the minister rules the department. In this, the personal staff – the minders – are crucial. 

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The biggest institutional change made possible by the shift from the old parliament house in 1988 was the significant growth in ministerial staff numbers. As we moved into the new parliament, I mistakenly thought that the Senate committee system would be the great beneficiary of all that new space and the glorious suite of new committee rooms.

Alas, the committee system has not grown much muscle. The executive keeps the committees on a tight budget and staff numbers are even tighter. The Australian committee system is but the merest shadow of the US, both in power and people. Lack of staff limits the Australian committee system – even the estimates process. The discipline of party politics does the rest. 

The growth industry in the new parliament building was the avalanche of 400 minder jobs serving the princely court that sprung up in the executive wing. Physically, the executive sits at the rear of the parliament, but politically it drives the place. Ministers now had lots of new office space to utilise their power, using people in their own personal offices. This was the Oz version of the West Wing. 

In the old parliament, there was no room for more than a handful of people in the cramped ministerial offices; the line back to the departments was clear, direct and often dominant. In today's West Wing, the lines to the department are just as direct, but the power equation has shifted markedly. In the tussle to run the department, not be run by it, the minders matter. 

Carr knew much of this from setting the record as NSW's longest continuous serving premier. As premier, he once talked about the vital need to impose discipline, to get 'a snappy, no-nonsense, oversight of the whole sprawling apparatus.' In the DFAT scheme of things, there was one vacant spot in the office for Carr to bring with him from Sydney: Graham Wedderburn, his former chief-of-staff in the Premier's office. Wedderburn duly came; that's where the struggle began.

Wedderburn became one of two senior advisers in the office. The other senior adviser, the foreign affairs guru Dr Carl Ungerer, came into the office from four years heading the national security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He previously served as foreign policy adviser to Simon Crean when he was opposition leader.

This was not quite the lineup DFAT imagined for its new minister. But in West Wing terms, it is a strong mix of policy punch and political savvy. Carr's office is now about half people from DFAT and half from the foreign policy world but not directly from the department’s orbit. In the terms defined by Carr, he is indeed getting 'snappy, no-nonsense, oversight'. The next column will look at how he is driving the caravan.

Photo by Flickr user 350.org.


Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister starts here.

Bob Carr's threat of sanctions against PNG if it dared to delay the scheduled election was an important moment in the education of Bob.

Not the least problem with Carr's short-lived thought balloon in his first days as foreign minister, as it was explained by his new department, was the reality that Australia would have a lot of trouble getting the rest of the South Pacific to embrace any action against PNG. 

To follow that thought, come back down the time tunnel to the day after Carr had been sworn in, his first full day as foreign minister. What was virtually Carr's maiden interview was with that old-Labor-mate-turned-TV-interviewer Graham Richardson. Everything was so new the transcript never got posted on the DFAT website; the maiden effort was not kept for posterity because its sentiments were so quickly shredded.

Surveying the array of issues about to confront the new minister, Richardson asked about the speculation then coming out of Port Moresby of some delay in PNG's scheduled election. Carr replied that any delay in the constitutionally-decreed timing of the PNG poll would be a 'shocking model' in the Pacific and Australia would have to respond (see 6:12 above): 'We'd be in a position of having to consider sanctions. So I take this opportunity to urge the government to see that those elections take place, keeping Papua New Guinea in the cycle of five-yearly elections.'

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In using the word 'sanctions', Carr stepped well beyond gaffe to enter blunder territory. The Kinsley definition of a gaffe is when a politician blurts out 'some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say.' So this wasn't a gaffe, it was wrong in the sense that Carr was musing out loud about something Australia probably couldn't get done. This was a mistake, not a mis-statement.

Carr was working from the obvious truth that Australia has deep and abiding interests in PNG. But by talking about sanctions he was fast-forwarding towards a policy approach that would isolate Australia, not PNG, in the Pacific Islands Forum. It took the Forum a long time to expel Fiji; the coup was in December, 2006, the Forum final expelled Fiji in May 2009. Sanctions against PNG for delaying an election would be an even harder ask.

If the debate had actually happened, then as with Fiji and the RAMSI intervention in Solomon Islands, Australia would invoke the Forum's Biketawa Declaration, which stresses the need to uphold democratic processes and institutions. The Declaration sets out how the Forum will creep towards sanctions by explicitly setting out some dozen steps available to the Forum chairman in responding to any 'crisis' in a member country, building from a simple statement of concern through a Ministerial Action Group towards Third party mediation or a special summit.

All that would probably fall at the first hurdle because PNG saw no 'crisis'. The PNG parliament did vote in favour of delaying the election if the government decreed it necessary and that vote, as much as anything, was a giant raspberry aimed at Senator Bob. 

Having given Australia a parliamentary 'up yours', Port Moresby then went ahead and held the election on time. Problem solved before it became a problem. Senator Car learnt a few things from that first big mistake on the first full day on the job. The next column will look at how that gig has unfolded.


Six months ago on 13 March, Bob Carr was sworn in as senator and foreign minister in one of the quickest personal transformations Canberra has seen for many a day. 

In less than a fortnight, Citizen Carr went from carefree commentator to cabinet. The man Mark Latham dubbed Bob the Blogger was happily chatting away on the web, following his Thoughtlines, seven years gone from politics, when a convulsion surged through Canberra and the dream job opened up. Step forward Senator Bob, sayeth the Prime Minister, and in the work of a magic moment it was done.

The elevation of the former NSW premier (1995 to 2005) echoed one of the recurrent habits of Australian politics: the use of Foreign Affairs as a fit place for former leaders. This was the method used with Hayden, Downer and Rudd. The theory is that it is an important job with the added advantage that it gets ex-leaders off the domestic stage and gives the former king plenty of time to bleed quietly while they travel the world in first class. 

Unfortunately for foreign ministers, there is not much movement in the other direction; Oz foreign ministers don't get a chance to step over the treasurer to the top job. Billy McMahon went from foreign to prime minister, while Evatt in the 1950s and Peacock in the 1980s made the shift to opposition leader, but couldn't manage the ultimate step. Whitlam was his own foreign minister for a couple of days when he was elected (and immediately recognised the People's Republic of China) while Menzies served as his own foreign minister for a period during his long rule. 

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Being out of the country a lot doesn't offer too much time to build the numbers in the party room. Foreign ministers get to do the grunt work and prime ministers drop in anytime there's a chance to be presidential.

So far, the arrangement has worked just fine for Senator Bob. Carr does not fit in the Downer or Rudd category. In his case, being a former state leader was a big plus. Having beheaded The Kevin a second time in the caucus vote on 27 February (71 votes to 31), Gillard was buying a non-Rudd who came trailing his own gravitas.

The Carr shift happened at the Canberra version of light speed, and in that flash there was one illuminating moment that shows the huge gap between the words and thoughts of the private citizen versus what is needed of the public man. There's an ancient saying about the difference between being in or out of government which contrasts the man who has read the daily cables with the chap who hasn't read the cables. As Carr stepped up to his perfect job, he exposed for a moment the difference between one who is working on his instincts and he who has been constantly briefed. 

Before tracking Carr's performance over the last six months, the next column will consider his opening moments in the job, when the new foreign minister put his foot in it big time; a significant moment in the education of Senator Bob.

Photo by Flickr user AusAID Photolibrary.


Asia's free trade future has become a contest between Chinese noodles and a US steak dinner.

The chief chefs are facing off, but some of the other cooks appear in both kitchens. In the last few days, it has become possible to point to an explicit competition between US and Chinese recipes for Asia's trade structure. Australia is one of those working in both kitchens.

The US vision is expressed in the effort to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a negotiation now deep into its 14th round. The alternate Chinese way of doing things, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), was unveiled on 1 September in Siem Riap, Cambodia

Consider the membership and the absences in the two meals.
Australia joined the effort for Trans Pacific-Partnership in 2008 and the rest of the line-up is the US Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam. In June, the other members of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico and Canada, finally joined the US in the negotiations. The big absences include China and India, and a Japan which has expressed some interest in the TPP but not much more. America says the door is always open, but that invitation comes with some heavy caveats.

The new Asian trade vision is expressed by the RCEP, the comprehensive partnership first endorsed by ASEAN leaders at their summit in November 2011. In Siem Reap, six other countries – Australia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and New Zealand – joined with the ASEAN ten to work on the comprehensive partnership. This is all the countries in the East Asia Summit except for the two newest members, the US and Russia. Leaders will formally launch the negotiating process at the EAS in November.

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Australia expresses enthusiasm for both efforts. Canberra says its highest trade negotiation priority is the conclusion of the TPP. The Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, thinks about half of the TPP's chapters are close to being finalised 'but concedes some of the most difficult negotiations will come in 2013.' Perhaps that is why Emerson, in Cambodia, was laying the love on the new trade baby: 'This agreement would be the perfect vehicle for advancing Australia's interests in the Asian Century.'

To return to the chef metaphor, Beijing will decide the key ingredients and strength of the spices in the RCEP. As Emerson notes, a central aim of the RCEP is to head off concerns about a developing 'noodle bowl' of overlapping trade agreements in the region. In that bowl, most of the noodles have one end in China, which is the number one trade partner for just about everybody in East Asia. The role India and Japan will play in the negotiations will be fascinating, but the head chef clearly stands in Beijing.

The deal is good for ASEAN because not all of its members are in the TPP. And RCEP has some of the language both ASEAN and China like, such as allowing decisions to be made through any agreed modality and enabling special and differential treatment of ASEAN members. 

This column has lamented the diabolical possibility that Australia's focus on the TPP could lead it to the strange position of aligning itself against China both in its traditional alliance stance but also in a new regional trade structure. That problem has now changed its form in a major manner. With this new parallel set of trade negotiations, Australia can try to work both the US and the China sides of the street. 

The Asia Times thinks the RCEP will have some advantages over what the US is trying to do with the TPP because of 'the presumption that RCEP will not fetishize corporate rights and access (or human rights, labor rights, or environmental quality, for that matter), and will achieve a modus vivendi with the cozy intermingling of government and business that has characterized the Asian economic miracle thus far.'

So the contest is between the Asian future imagined by the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington against Asia's mandarins and the moguls. The difficulty for the US would be to step back from the gold-plated deal it wants to engage the big players.

The US does not even bother to think about getting China into the TPP and Beijing returns the blank look. South Korea, having just battled through the agony of securing a bilateral free trade agreement with the US, is not keen on repeating the experience. Japan would be a huge catch. The TPP represents only 6% of US trade; Japan alone is worth that figure. Having got Mexico and Canada to join the TPP, the trick for Washington will be to offer Japan something that Tokyo can't see on offer with less pain from the RCEP.

As Bernard K Gordon noted in Foreign Affairs, the US is trying to impose its expansive approach to intellectual property, including criminal enforcement of copyright and patent law, through a negotiating process notable for its secrecy:

If the Obama administration fails to accommodate reservations about intellectual property rights and make the talks more transparent, there is a growing possibility that the TPP could collapse. The resulting failure would represent a major defeat for the Obama administration and undermine its goal of ensuring a long-term presence for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Mickey Mouse and Apple may have overplayed their hands. 

As with diplomacy, now with trade, Australia is being asked some interesting questions about what it wants from the US and hopes for from China. The test for Canberra is to help cook US steak and Chinese noodles simultaneously without getting burnt in the kitchen or indigestion in the eating.



The previous column on Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat was all about the dark side of losing to Luxembourg. Now for the sunny uplands of what a win might mean.

It has been quite a while since multilateralism got a chance to strut its stuff at the front of the Australian public stage. The rancorous debate on climate change and the carbon tax certainly hasn't produced too much soaring rhetoric about Oz as a good international citizen doing its bit for the future of the planet. A win in next month's Security Council vote would be a reminder to Australia of a time before John Howard when the UN was usually counted as a good thing with the occasional potential for greatness.

For the strongest argument in a long time about the value of multilateralism to Australia, see Bob Carr's Lowy Institute appearance. This was Australia's pitch for a UNSC seat delivered by an experienced politician at the top of his game, notable for Carr's wonderful definition of the Australian identity:

Well, I'd say we are a funny, friendly, benign country where the rule of law applies. We're a country that threatens no one because we come to a halt for a horse race and our most successful comedian is a mad-cap female impersonator.

On that comedian note, we just have time to ask Barry Humphries to launch Dame Edna on a frantic bout of international shuttle diplomacy to round up UN votes (Sir Les Patterson should stay at home). Read More

Carr even managed to get in one dig at the Liberals, quoting from the assault that Alexander Downer mounted on the UN in a Press Club speech: 'Increasingly multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.' That emphatic Downer thumbs-down for the UN was uttered in June 2003, just after the US had completed a triumphant invasion of Iraq and George W's unilateral moment was at its peak. 

If Australia wins in next month's vote, the political benefit, beyond a win, will be in feeding the narrative line that Labor is better at 'doing' multilateral that the Libs. The UN rejectionism that John Howard has made explicit since leaving office provides plenty of ammunition for such an assault.

Downer, even while operating as a UN envoy on Cyprus, has not warmed much towards the world body, last year arguing the bleak realist position this way

These days there is no ideological difference between the members of the Security Council. Their differences are based entirely on national interest. Which tells multilateralists something about the reality of multilateral diplomacy; it’s just a bunch of countries pushing their own barrows, but in the one room.

Sending out Dame Edna as our last-minute special envoy would differentiate us from Downer's cynical bunch of countries pushing barrows. Instead, our housewife superstar would be waving a bunch of gladioli. How could any foreign minister resist being tickled under the chin and called 'possum' by Edna?

As always with campaigns on the multilateral stage, it is useful to look at how a country describes and ranks itself. The opening page of the brochure Australia created to put its case headlines the nation's ability to make a difference for small and medium countries of the world, and numbers eight key arguments: 

  1. Commitment to the UN over 65 years.
  2. A record of achievement in international peace and security (Cambodia settlement, East Timor, CTBT, Commissions on non-proliferation).
  3. Strong endorsement of and action on the Millennium Development Goals, marked by a big lift in the aid budget.
  4. Strong record of global action on climate change.
  5. Strong commitment to an effective UN, including 'early reform of the Security Council and its working methods to better reflect the modern world'.
  6. Strong commitment to making a difference for small and medium countries.
  7. Special commitment to the Indigenous peoples of the world.
  8. Commitment to interfaith and inter-religious dialogue from one of the multicultural nations in the world.

The state of Australian politics seems to have prompted one notable omission from this list. Australia's financial support for UN High Commission for Refugees gets a mention, along with contributions to other UN agencies. But Australia's long and proud history of accepting and resettling refugees under UN programs doesn't get on the front page. You have to flick nearly to the end of the 20 pages before discovering that Australia ranks among the top three refugee resettlement countries in the world. This is a wonderful record.

It is a sad day when our approach to  asylum seekers is not, automatically, a big plus for our diplomatic standing.

Photo by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer.


Australian diplomacy is about to get the result of a significant test. To cut straight to the race, Australia is about to find out whether it can beat Luxembourg.

Or to be a bit more stuffy, Australia is going to discover what it's worth to be a founding member of the UN and the twelfth largest contributor to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets. Next month, the 193 members of the UN will vote to fill two seats allocated to the Western European and Others Group on the Security Council. Australia is one of three candidates. 

Australia's UN perch as part of Western Europe never looked more anomalous than in this protracted race against one of Europe's smaller players and just about the smallest. In an op-ed he wrote while in New York in April, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Australia was in a 'tough race' with Luxembourg and Finland: 'Australia has not had a seat at this table for more than 25 years, not since the end of the Cold War. That's surprising because it could be said we punch above our weight as a contributor to UN peace operations and UN forums.'

This has been a marathon. Australia started running in 2008, while Luxembourg declared in 2001 and Finland in 2002. See Michael Fullilove's paper setting out the case for Australia's UN bid and the terms of the race.

There's a lot to be said about what Australia might do if it wins two years on the UNSC; more on that in the next column. But the bad news always leads, so first consider the potential downside. What if Canberra loses? The politics of a loss will be lousy for the Gillard Government and a bureaucratic disaster for DFAT.

Channel your inner Tony Abbott for a moment: this is a government so incompetent it can't beat Luxembourg! Australians might not give too much thought to the UN or multilateralism. But as the Olympics have demonstrated again, the land of Oz always likes to know where it sits on the medal tally.

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For DFAT, 25 years without a Security Council medal looks like a middle power that is actually punching at flyweight level. The defence that you don't get diplomatic wins if you don't spend money on diplomacy will not get much of a hearing in a Canberra that is preparing for another round of public service cuts – and that's under a Labor government.

At least this time, Australia has been exceedingly cautious about calling the race. Even Kevin Rudd played coy when he was foreign minister, and The Kevin is seldom coy. DFAT has been haunted by the previous bid in 1996. Our then UN ambassador, Richard Butler, had many qualities, but doing anything on the quiet was never a Butler trait. His sense of personal betrayal at the defeat was encapsulated by Butler's description of the 'rotten lying bastards' (other UN ambassadors) who did not deliver for Oz in the secret ballot.

The Howard Government inherited the UN campaign when it took office in 1996 so blame for the failure was more than equally shared with Labor. When Alexander Downer later proposed another bid for a UNSC seat, Howard killed the idea.

The Howard veto lingers. The Coalition has decried Labor's UN effort as a waste of time and money, turning the effort to get elected to the Security Council into a partisan issue.

As Thom Woodroofe noted, that political divide in Australia helped the case being waged by Luxembourg and Finland, 'drawing attention to the lack of bipartisan support, the perceived lack of interest from Gillard, our treatment of asylum seekers, and ineffectiveness on Indigenous affairs.' He lamented that Australia was not as willing to dish the dirt in return by pointing to Luxembourg's status as a tax haven or Finland's role in supplying arms to Israel.

Based on a lot of interviews and research, Woodroofe gave this rundown of the state of the race last October:

Australia's campaign is continuing to gain traction. According to a comprehensive analysis of Australia's foreign relations, public comments and positions by other countries, and ministerial travel we would appear to have 32 countries supporting our candidacy outright, a further 40 likely to do so, 35 that remain possible, 27 that would appear unlikely to provide support, and only 13 not supporting. This is a good position to be in, but still short of the magic number of 129 required for election; two-thirds of the General Assembly.

This means Australia's candidacy will almost certainly go to a second ballot, which means a further comodification of the vote-trading system. But given it is conducted in secret, ultimately it is hard to know who will be elected until the day comes.

One of the downsides from Julia Gillard's abrupt departure from the Pacific Islands Forum to rush home is that she did not have much chance to lock in Island votes. Luxembourg has been quite active in the South Pacific in recent years and seems to have one vote for sure in the region. And if Fiji does vote for Luxembourg this time, Luxembourg will vote for Fiji next time. This is where the dark scenario gets really nasty.

Building on the election the regime has scheduled for 2014, Fiji is setting itself to run for one of Asia's rotating seats on the Security Council in 2015-16. That would really add irony to ignominy: Fiji stands a chance to win in Asia while Australia might just lose in Europe. What if Australia loses a bid for a Security Council seat but Fiji manages to win?

Fiji had a major victory in September last year when the Asian caucus at the UN changed its title to become the 'Group of Asia and the Pacific Small Islands Developing States'. Now the South Pacific is part of Asia at the UN, while Australia still sits with Western Europe.

The next column will look on the bright side, and point to the obvious Oz superstar to conduct a last-minute diplomatic blitz in support of our UN hopes.

Photo by Flickr user Antonio CE.


In seeking fresh engagement with Fiji, the aim of Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Pacific Islands Forum is to push for the best achievable political bargain between Fiji's people and the Bainimarama New Order regime. 

That means outsiders will have to eat a bit of crow, as the previous column described, while understanding that the New Order will deliver less democracy than it promises. This is the sad understanding that Canberra, Wellington and the rest of the Forum have brought to Fiji policy from the time of the 2006 coup. Dealing with Bainimarama was always going to be long journey, taken with low expectations. 

The tough love approach to Fiji is being discarded as a failure, but there is still a lot not to like about where Fiji is heading.

Applying the Suharto New Order model to what Bainimarama is slowly creating provides a checklist for what the regime is doing. Unfortunately, the Supremo seems to be following the script closely. The New Order requires all opposing authority centres to be neutered (courts, public service, churches and traditional authority centres such as the Great Council of Chiefs). Bainimarama has ticked all those boxes. 

Other significant political figures have to be subsumed or forced to submit. Fiji's two previous prime ministers – Laisenia Qarase and Mahendra Chaudhry — are getting the full treatment. This month, Laisenia Qarase was jailed over financial transactions that took place two decades ago. Chaudhry is also being prosecuted for alleged financial misdeeds. The two political leaders whose parties got 84% the national vote at the most recent elections will probably be ineligible to stand at the 2014 poll.

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The foreign judges brought in by the regime are applying the law to these high profile cases without fear or favour. Beyond the courts, the fear or favour line has a different flavour. Anyone who does not have the favour of the Supremo has a lot to fear. The Attorney General is demonstrating that the law can be far more useful in dealing with opposition than the old method of taking troublemakers up to the barracks above Suva for an unfriendly chat.

The Kenyan lawyer holding the inquiry on Fiji's new constitution, Yash Ghai, is starting to bump up against New Order boundaries. The distinguished lawyer has voiced his worries about the power wielded by the security services, the impact of censorship and proper access to the courts. The return slapdown from the Supremo had a certain ho-hum quality about it. But there was some unintentional humour in Bainimarama's line that the man charged with designing a new constitution should stay out of politics.

Whatever Ghai recommends, the assembly that considers his report will be selected by Bainimarama.

The understanding dawning on Ghai is that he is grappling with the culture of immunity which is central to the conduct of a New Order regime. The professor told Radio Australia that he's particularly concerned about the legal immunities the military wants to give itself in the new constitution:

I guess our concerns are that first of all immunity of course promote the culture of coups that Fiji is trying to move away from. We do realise of course that there had been immunity in the past in Fiji and in many other countries that the regime didn't give up power unless it had some guarantees of the kind. We think the immunity are a bit overdrawn and we also had hoped that immunity will emerge as an issue in the process, so it could be part of a wider package, including the new constitution. Our understanding of the international law and national laws working community suggest these days that if immunity is imposed as it would be in this case, courts in future years are likely to disregard that. But where immunity is part of a negotiated process they are properly respected and we are also concerned about that.

The point of immunities for the military is to evolve or upgrade Fiji's coup culture, giving the military a formal dual function, with a central political role to match the defence function. This is the evolutionary path of a new order regime, as the military seeks to entrench unique prerogatives within a democratic system. Or perhaps, given the fear-or-favour flavour, describe this as the military entrenching itself behind a democratic facade.

Photo by Flickr user JSA_NZ.


Having flown with the hawks in the cyber-debate on dealing with Fiji's military regime, this column confronts the task of eating crow in the wake of some clear wins for the doves.

The dove perspective has always been that isolating Fiji was never going to have much impact on the military Supremo. The hawk case for sanctions was that the long-term impact of the military's assault on Fiji's polity was so poisonous that the region had to fight with every means available, however tenuous. After six years, this has become an arid argument.

Time to give peace a chance. The Pacific Island summit next week will coo loudly in the direction of the Bainimarama regime. Recall that the Forum expelled Fiji in 2009 because Bainimarama broke his promise about the timetable for elections. Now the region wants to take the Supremo at his word and embrace his promise of a 2014 election.

Australia and New Zealand have done their bit of cooing and crow-munching by resuming top-level diplomatic relations with Suva. The hawkish cavil is that downgrading diplomatic ties was never part of the 'smart' sanctions policy; it happened because Bainimarama developed a nasty habit of evicting Oz or Kiwi High Commissioners any time he felt peeved. Indeed, back in 2008 Australia took fright at what it described as 'serious and credible' death threats directed at Australia's top diplomat in Suva. The really serious bit was that the threats were credible because they seemed to come from kava bowls used by regime heavies. 

Such history helps to explain why the hardline policies have remained in place. To know the Supremo is to distrust him and fear for Fiji. Yet being nasty to Bainimarma has become a sterile response that produces little satisfaction. Eat crow, garnished by sorrow for Fiji and spiced by distaste for the regime that rules.

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The argument for this meal was elegantly outlined by Jenny Hayward-Jones in her policy brief last year arguing that Australia had failed to make a difference in Fiji and its policy was adrift:

Australia's tough-love policy towards Fiji has failed to convince the government of Voreqe Bainimarama to restore democracy. The Fiji government has instead developed new partnerships which undermine Australia's influence. Australia's reputation for regional leadership and as a creative middle power on the world stage is at risk of being diminished by the Fiji government's resistance to pressure.

The latest version of the dove diagnosis is in from Washington with Elke Larsen's commentary

Australia and New Zealand normalized relations with Fiji July 30 by agreeing to exchange high commissioners. Yet, despite the Australian and New Zealand governments’ claims in the press that the normalization is the result of successful steps toward democracy, in reality it is more an admission of the failure of their previous hard-line policies. Isolation had long proved ineffective in securing their goal of pressing Fiji’s military regime to reinstate democracy, and a softer approach to Fiji has become the best route available to influence change.

You can see why the hawks are spitting out a few crow feathers. A policy that doesn't deliver its stated purpose – a speedy return to democracy – is justly pronounced a dud.

The prescription failed, but much of the original diagnosis of the Supremo and his regime holds continuing relevance. A couple of years ago, this column starting talking about Fiji's New Order Regime, drawing parallels with the way that Suharto entrenched himself in Indonesia. The shape of Fiji's own New Order is coming into view, suggesting the complex challenges facing Australia, New Zealand and the Forum in seeking to engage Suva.

The goal is to get an open and fair election for Fiji in 2014. The tension inherent in that goal is to inject some freedom into the recipe that the New Order is preparing for Fiji's future; to get as much democratic space as possible in the structure that Bainimarama is summoning into being. And beyond 2014, the region seeks a productive relationship with Suva and a government that will claim a popular mandate. Australia is going to have to draw on its long experience of handling a New Order regime that dominates the electoral process just as it dominates the polity.

Photo by Flickr user patrick wilken.


Part 1 of this article is here and part 2 is here.

Consider a single political-diplomatic start date for the idea of the Asian Century.

It is 1988 and Deng Xiaoping is meeting Rajiv Gandhi. China's leader tells India's Prime Minister: 'The 21st century can only be the Asian Century if India and China combine to make it so.'

It's a powerful vision. Yet Deng's proposition for how the Asian Century might work draws me to an opposing vision in Bill Emmott's book Rivals, which predicts a power struggle between China, India and Japan. Emmott quotes a senior official in India's Ministry of External Affairs: 'The thing you have to understand is that both of us – India and China – think that the future belongs to us. We can't both be right.'

The two quotes encapsulate the biggest question for the Asian Century: how much cooperation will be necessary to counterbalance the inevitable conflicts of interest and intention? 

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The India-China dynamic – a troubled history leaning against so much promise – is an excellent reference for pondering Canberra's effort to create a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Note that the century will not merely centre on Asia, but will be Asian. Perhaps this means that decisions as well as the direction – the ownership as well as the onus – will be Asian. This is real if you-name-it-you-own-it stuff.

As an Asian Century unrolls through coming decades, there might well come a time when it is China and India that meet to make the big calls, as Deng prophesied. That is a new world for Australia as much as for everybody else in Asia. Such a thought explains why Australia is a recent convert to the term Asian Century; it has really only blossomed as a defining term for Canberra in the last two years.

By launching a White Paper process 12 months ago on Australia and the Asian Century, Julia Gillard supercharged the concept. Having knocked off the eminently Asia-literate Kevin Rudd, Gillard was reaching for her own Asian colours.

To add a bureaucratic perspective to the process, the fingerprints on the language shift all belong to Treasury, not to Foreign Affairs. It was Treasury that really started using the phrase Asian Century, putting it in the Treasurer's mouth in the budget speech last year and using it to predict internal changes for the Australian economy. And it is not some foreign affairs nerd but the former head of Treasury, Ken Henry, who is running the Asian Century inquiry.

This is not just inside Canberra tea-leaf stuff. When the White Paper was launched, this column argued that, if there was a real conceptual shift on display, it was Australia starting to abandon its firm attachment to the construct of the Asia Pacific. The country that invented APEC (well, co-invented it with Japan) was readjusting the settings. 

Australia and Japan and plenty of others built the Asia Pacific model because it gave an explicit role to the US. It aligned Australia's strategic and economic interests.

To shift from the Asia Pacific Century to the Asian Century is to re-frame the power equation and the hierarchy. All this matters for politics and government, for bureaucracy and the chattering classes. It tells us something of Asia's impact on Canberra's perceptions; call it the power of economic gravity. To be precise, this tells us something about how China is messing with a lot of minds in Canberra, colouring the thinking even if the actions seem all to be directed at a more fervent embrace of the US alliance.

The use of Asian Century phraseology is one point where Australia is diverging from the US, even during the pivot moment. No Asian Century for the Americans. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaim that we are in the Pacific Century, which builds naturally on the American century we have just emerged from.

As an example of the point, see Hillary's Hawaii speech last November, entitled America's Pacific Century. The thought was given its most emphatic expression by Obama's declaration in his speech to the Australian parliament: 'The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.' Obama's speech in Canberra was notable, though, for his repeated reference to the Asia Pacific; even for the Americans, the Pacific Century nomenclature might have to stretch a bit.

As the previous column noted, the Australian Defence Department lines up with Obama in its affection for the Asia Pacific as a descriptor that explicitly embraces the US.

The Defence Minister's Lowy speech last week gave plenty of play to the Asia Pacific. Indeed, Defence likes to spell it as Asia-Pacific. The hyphen is just one more example of a fundamental tenet of Australian policy: anchor the Americans in Asia. Stephen Smith encapsulated Defence's view of the Asian Century with this line: 'In this century, the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Rim, what some now refer to as the Indo-Pacific, will become the world's strategic centre of gravity.'

With Defence's new affection for the Indo-Pacific, we are nearly back with Deng Xiaoping in 1988. The one big change made to Deng's Asian Century perspective is to make it a three-way not a two-way partnership. In the Defence rendering, it will be the US along with China and India that define what the century becomes.
 Photo by SXC user lusi.


Part 1 of this article here.

The Asian Century White Paper has to be broad enough to touch the conceptual edges of the Defence White Paper that will come out in the middle of next year. Notice the key word here is 'touch' rather than 'enmesh' or 'integrate'.

The two White Papers will nod rather than embrace. The Defence White Paper will be marked by linguistic obeisance rather than conceptual obedience to the Asian Century master plan. Economists and strategists speak different languages and often seem to see different worlds. Henry's take on the strategic issues posed by China has an economist's insouciance, drawing on the faith that money speaks all languages:

A lot of people have observed that Asia’s growth means that, for the first time, Australia is facing a future in which our largest trading partner is not a partner in a close alliance friendship, or even the partner of a close ally. I don’t know that that matters much, but it’s a development that is worth thinking about.

Hear that, all you strategists at Russell Hill HQ obsessing about China? think about it, by all means, but all that military/alliance stuff doesn't matter that much. Relax, Russell.

Asian Century White Paper supremo Ken Henry seeks to subsume the strategists by making their concerns only one of the three domains he will range over: economic, social-cultural and political-security. By seeking to look out 'just' to 2025, Henry avoids the crystal ball malfunctions inherent in the Defence attempt next year to reach out beyond 2030 towards 2050.

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Peering to the second half of the century, Defence simplifies things by seeing only three great strategic powers: the US, China and India. The Defence demotion of Japan to middle power status is a fascinating call. Interesting to see if that view of Japan's future gets a tick from the eminent economist, Dr K Henry.

Note also that Defence has not surrendered completely to the Asian Century; the Asia Pacific is still popular because that construct makes the US role explicit. The big China speech the Defence Minister gave in June was entitled, 'Australia and China – Partners in the Asia Pacific Century'. Mark that title as a bit of cheekiness from Russell directed up Kings Avenue towards the Prime Minister's Department.

The vision of the Asian Century Ken Henry is brewing in PM&C is going to have to convince diverse audiences. And some of the sceptics, residing close to hand, will get a chance at their own White Paper next year.

Photo by Flickr user c. a. muller.


Matching the message to the audience is one of the defining choices in any attempt at communication.

The problem for the White Paper on the Asian Century is the myriad of messages and the multiplicity of audiences — in Australia and beyond. Ken Henry is near the finish in his grapple with the audience-message mix. Now he confronts the issue of crafting a sharp document while trying to say a lot.

The Canberra coconut wireless reports that the drafting process for the White Paper expanded in line with the ambition. The alarm bells started to jangle as the draft flew north of 400 pages towards 500; this would be a weighty tome for a weighty topic. The latest scuttlebutt bulletin reports that the drafters have seized machetes to hack back the foliage and pare the wordage.

Henry has driven the sharpening process by not trying to look much beyond 2025 and by putting the focus on Australia's relationships with six countries: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Dr H has already flagged his embrace of the theme that Australia must develop 'Asia-relevant capabilities' through language and education to match its economic and political needs. The shorthand version of this is a reverse Colombo Plan: to go into Asia in the same way that in an earlier era, many from Asia came to Australia.

The word Bob Hawke used to describe his vision for Australia was 'enmeshment' with Asia. In describing the path for Australia — government, institutions, business and individuals — to be part of Asia's future, the key word for Henry is 'integration':

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Across the areas of analysis in the White Paper a single word keeps cropping up - it’s the word ‘integration’. Integration within the region is what is happening on a daily basis. Integration does not mean creating some great homogenous society or imposing the values and culture of any country upon the people of another. What’s happening in the region is largely an economic integration — building on the progress made in the post-war period. That integration has to be taken further.

The prescription Hawke offered in the 1980s was complex and controversial at the time; in the second decade of 21st century, the Hawke choices look relatively low risk. Hawke's enmeshment was a more neutral vision than Henry's integration. Equals can enmesh. The course Henry is plotting, by contrast, assumes Australia will be doing the integrating. This is the 'all change for Asia' message expressed by the head of the Prime Minister's Department, Ian Watt, in predicting that Asia's rise will impact on all aspects of Australian society and institutions.

Grappling with such thoughts explains why the Henry word count would rise. A big document always has bureaucratic benefits, even if the wordage weighs down the messages.

The Asian Century White Paper also has to be broad enough so that it can touch the conceptual edges of the Defence White Paper that will come out in the middle of next year. More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user Alvin K.


China said boo and ASEAN flinched, jumped and momentarily fell silent. By failing to release any communiqué to mark its annual meeting, ASEAN's foreign ministers ensured everyone would note their failure.

This is a signal with multiple meanings. Or, to turn that thought around, no single or simple explanation should be given to the ASEAN fiasco in Phnom Penh. As failures go, this was fascinating, illuminating a game with many players that has been played many times before and will have many more iterations.

Understanding ASEAN is always about picking the moments of substance from those of shadow play. Introduce China into this equation and you get a glimpse into the deeper parts of the ASEAN psyche, where the dreams and the nightmares reside. Come down the time tunnel and reflect on what history tells us about ASEAN and China.

In 1989, I'd flown from my post in Singapore to Beijing as part of the cohort of correspondents the ABC used to report the massacre in Tiananmen square. Returning to Singapore, my next assignment was to report the annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Brunei.

The joint communiqué of the 22nd ministerial meeting was a weighty document running to 87 numbered clauses, ranging over headings including Southern Africa, Afghanistan, Asia Pacific Cooperation, West Asia, Disarmament, the search for a settlement in Kampuchea...and on it ran. When I'd got through the sizeable collection of ASEAN pronouncements I can remember a moment of puzzlement that quickly turned to astonishment. There was not a word in that 4 July statement about what had happened in Tiananmen on 4 June.

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The name China didn't get a mention. Paragraph 12 was an expression of welcome for the Sino-Soviet summit that had happened in Beijing in May when Gorbachev visited; but there was not a word about the bloody crushing of the democracy movement in June, one of the seminal moments of 1989 that will always serve as the grim counterpoint to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.

With document in hand, I wandered over to one of the senior hacks gathered in Bandar Seri Begawan to cover the meeting. His ranking as an old Asia hand had been established at breakfast when he'd piled on the sliced chilli and the advice he offered was similarly astringent: 'You're not in Canberra any more, mate. This is ASEAN. The silences say as much as the statements.'

In those days, ASEAN had only six member countries. So the next Foreign Ministers' gathering in Bandar happened in 1995. By then, the ASEAN Regional Forum was going, so this was a much larger jamboree.

China was a presence as well as a factor. My defining memory of that gathering was the ceremony to enrol Vietnam as the seventh member of ASEAN. Vietnam's Foreign Minister, Nguyen Manh Cam, walked on stage to be greeted by the other ASEAN foreign ministers; sitting impassively in the front row of the audience was China's Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. As the Vietnamese Minister turned to face the audience, his eyes went directly to the face of the Chinese minister. This was a moment of Sino-Vietnamese history with a prelude of thousands of years, a stage of Southeast Asian regionalism that spoke also to a complex ancient relationship with China.

From these perspectives, the Phnom Penh debacle can be read lots of ways. As usual, Ernest Bower offers some useful analysis. He sees Phnom Penh less as a spectacular failure for ASEAN but as a clear example of China overplaying its cards:

China has revealed its hand as an outlier on the question of ASEAN unity. It seemingly used its growing economic power to press Cambodia into the awkward position of standing up to its ASEAN neighbours on one of the most important security concerns for the grouping and its members. China's overt role, underlined by leaks about Cambodia's complicity in sharing drafts, seems to suggest Beijing's hand in promoting ASEAN disunity. Thus the most important message coming from Phnom Penh is not the intramural ASEAN spat over the joint statement but, rather, that China has decided that a weak and splintered ASEAN is in its best interests.

On that reading, ASEAN has a chance to regroup and play a rematch, again and again. The ASEAN chairs over the next four years will be Brunei, Burma, Malaysia and Laos. Cambodia's performance revealed again that the role of the chairman matters in ASEAN in ways that often outweigh the power of the ASEAN secretariat.

ASEAN has every incentive to draw closer together, to bolster unity so as to be able to coordinate a diplomatic push-back against Beijing. That is not a recipe for calm in the South China Sea. Don Emmerson judges that the deadlock in Phnom Penh will delay a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but equally will cause some ASEAN states to be less willing in future to kowtow to their giant neighbour, for the sake of both national and regional independence:

If China wields its geo-economic and geopolitical power as a blunt instrument – 'I’m big and you're not' – it will trigger joint push back among Southeast Asians while earning their disrespect. Smart power in a networked world of high-speed linkages, flows, and innovations means knowing when recourse to physical preponderance is counter-productive. Size does matter, but how it is used matters more. By the evidence of Chinese diplomacy, that lesson has not been fully learned.

In Phnom Penh, some ASEAN foreign ministers were ready to make a public display of failure rather than give China veto rights over the communiqué. Silence is no longer an option as it was back in 1989. This is an ASEAN more willing to stare back at China, following Vietnam's example in 1995.

China overplayed its power to get a short-term diplomatic win in Phnom Penh; very short term. The cost of Beijing's 'win' was to galvanise ASEAN to a point of such anger that it tore up the final communiqué altogether. A bland document with the usual ASEAN-speak about ongoing dialogue would have been the usual ASEAN response. Instead, ASEAN is confronting its own purposes in a way that must have astounded Beijing even as much as it is surprising ASEAN itself.

What happened in Phnom Penh was a sign of how high the stakes have become. The diplomatic struggle reflects the power interests in play. A China that pushes so hard to win the communiqué argument is just as likely to overplay its naval strategy. No wonder the talk of 'accidental war' in  the South China Sea is on the rise. 

Photo by Flickr user Gustavo Thomas.


After a 60-year wait, the first public speech by Australia's top spy was notable just for happening, as well as being illuminating and tantalising.

To rework Samuel Johnson: 'Sir, a spy chief preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.' Nick Warner (pictured) more than beat the Johnson benchmark, describing a spy agency that now goes to war with Australia's special forces, seeks out foes in cyberspace and works to disrupt people-smuggling networks. 

With Canberra enjoying a clear and crisp winter day, Warner reworked the spy-in-from-the-cold line. Excusing his huskiness, the Director-General of Australian Secret Intelligence Service explained, 'I'm the spy who came in with a cold.'

The first public speech by Australia's spymaster rightly started with a taste of history, including that infamous ASIS training exercise at Melbourne's Sheraton Hotel in 1983 that got so out of hand that it enlivened a Royal Commission (Warner described that training fiasco as 'ill-conceived and bungled').

Touching on the history, both good and bad, was a means to start to redress one of ASIS's core problems as a Canberra player: it has never had any ability to define itself in the open. The job of explaining or understanding the spy service – the term du jour is 'narrative' – has usually been a strange contest between journalists offering lurid yarns and official inquiries/royal commissions rendering reassurance and incremental change. In this game, the politicians, like the spies, have been defined by their refusal to say much that has helped understanding.

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Warner has started the process of the spies claiming some right to tell their own history. It will be a limited right, but still useful both for the institution and for Australia.

From the history, Warner moved to how ASIS mines for 'diamonds', collecting HUMINT – 'covert foreign intelligence largely through intelligence officers managing a network of agents working overseas.' These days, that can mean Afghanistan or Pakistan, well beyond the traditional focus on Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The three themes Warner identified were the changing role of ASIS, the vital importance of risk management and robust accountability, and the impact of a changing international order that means ASIS's 'operational sphere will become more challenging, volatile and dangerous than at any time since the Service's formation.'

The relationship between ASIS and the Australian military has developed some features that track the evolution in the interactions between the US military and the CIA. One of Warner's striking predictions was that in future the Australian military, especially the Special Forces, will always deploy with ASIS along:

Starting with the Iraq war, support for the Australian Defence Force in military combat operations has become an important task for ASIS. We have a major commitment in Afghanistan, and this will remain as long as the ADF is deployed there. Our work in support of the ADF ranges from force protection reporting at the tactical level through to strategic level reporting on the Taliban leadership. ASIS reporting has been instrumental in saving the lives of Australian soldiers and civilians (including kidnap victims), and in enabling operations conducted by Australian Special Forces. The ASIS personnel deployed with the ADF have developed strong bonds, and it's difficult to see a situation in the future where the ADF would deploy without ASIS alongside.

In the conversation after the speech, Warner gave some figures about the changing face of the people who work for a spy agency that now costs $250 million annually, nearly a five-fold increase on a decade ago. The rapid expansion has meant that ASIS is younger than the rest of the public service, with 65% of its people aged 25 to 45; 20% of new recruits have a non-Anglo background; 45% of the ASIS workforce is female. ASIS now has links with 170 different foreign intelligence services in 70 countries.

The speech was that of a spymaster who wants to assure Australia about the ambition and discipline of its spies, while stressing the highest levels of accountability and external oversight. It was also an effort to boost the ASIS 'brand name' and widen further that pool of potential recruits. Hacks and Royal Commissions will no longer have monopoly rights over the public narrative about Australia's spies.

Photo courtesy of ASIS.


My previous column took the Coalition's leaked speaking notes for MPs as a de facto policy platform and looked at what an Abbott Government would do about defence. Using the same document, let's look at the Coalition's stance on international affairs.

As to be expected from any Opposition, the Coalition refrain is the need to repair and refocus relations with just about everybody: the US and Japan are the first two on the list, followed by China, India and Indonesia. Even relations with New Zealand, apparently, need to be fixed. All the pledges are a straight lift from the Coalition's 2010 promises with a couple of acid bits added to the mix.

Unlike Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade doesn't get more money. Instead, an Abbott Government would rearrange the chairs:

The Coalition will conduct a comprehensive review of Australia's diplomatic resources, including overseas representation, to determine whether the appropriate weighting is afforded to those issues, countries and organisations which are important to our strategic and economic interests.

This is the same review promised during the 2010 election; not much, it seems, has changed in Coalition thinking about Foreign. Now, as then, Julie Bishop is shadow minister, on track to be Australia's first female Foreign Minister. Either the thinking of the Liberal Party's deputy leader hasn't evolved much or, given the state of Oz politics and polls, she sees no need to reveal any more cards.

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Part of Bishop's caution is due to the fact that the Coalition still has a major problem – bee in the bonnet, strange voices in the ether – with the UN and international efforts in areas from non-proliferation to climate change. It was sad and telling during the last election campaign that Bishop had to make the point that the Coalition was not actually proposing that Australia should withdraw from the UN. It was a feeble jest that spoke of a febrile area in the Coalition psyche. The multilateral rant this time recycles the previous platform language, with this version of the chant about bilateral good, multilateral bad:

The Coalition supports multilateral institutions which serve a clear national purpose. We support the G20 (which has emerged as a more representative global organisation than the G8), the established regional Asia Pacific bodies, the Commonwealth of Nations and various organisations of the United Nations including the World Trade Organisation. Similarly, the Coalition will abandon Labor's bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. The massive and expensive diplomatic effort this demands has diverted attention away from our core foreign policy interests to more peripheral areas in order to secure votes and all for nothing more than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status.

The UN Security Council bid is a 'nebulous' aim but the Commonwealth serves a 'clear national purpose'? This is a strange way to portray the world if you are trying to dress in the garb of hard-headed realist. When it comes to the UN, the voice Abbott hears sounds a lot like John Howard. Howard rejectionism on the UN is now a strand of Liberal thinking that goes beyond Menzies' scepticism.

At the last election, this column identified a new Golden Aid Consensus between Labor and the Coalition to lift aid spending. The consensus and the commitment have broken down and although Bishop may be fighting a rearguard action, the weasel words are lodging deep. The aid promise is a strange mixture of pledge-plus-threat:

Support increased rigorously-administered foreign aid: The Coalition supports the recommendation of the Independent Review into the Foreign Aid program that future funding increases be dependent on AusAID meeting strict performance benchmarks. The Coalition will adopt this recommendation and establish these benchmarks in government, after Labor's failure to establish performance benchmarks, before the foreign aid budget is increased to 0.5 per cent of our Gross National Income by 2016-17. The Coalition will also consolidate our aid efforts on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and focus on the quality and rigorous administration of that effort.

Compare that section with the short and sweet Coalition promise on aid in its 2010 policy document:

Support increased rigorously administered foreign aid: The Coalition will increase foreign aid spending to 0.5 % of our Gross National Income by 2015-16. It will also consolidate our aid efforts on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and focus on the quality and rigorous administration of that effort.

Granted, Labor has also walked away from the 2015-16 target, so the tacit consensus endures even as it evolves. The Coalition, though, sets different hurdles for Defence and AusAID. Unlike Defence, AusAID is going to have meet 'performance benchmarks' before any extra cash flows. With all its performance problems, Defence is promised a return to 3% real growth 'as soon as we can afford it'. This will be an interesting challenge for the Abbott Government's newly created Minister for International Development, an important promise from the previous election platform which is also recycled. 

The Aid Minister will be working to a Foreign Minister who says the aid lobby thinks too much about inputs, not outputs, concentrating on the size of the aid budget rather than how and where it is spent. As Bishop put it in her notable development policy speech last month:

We commit to the target of 0.5 % of GNI but we cannot now commit to the target date. We will review the nation's finances after the Labor's budget [in May, 2013] and commit to what we can as a nation realistically afford and what we can deliver. I do point to our record in terms of our commitment to do that. There must be an increased focus on accountability, transparency and a reassessment of priorities within the aid program.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy Canberra