Lowy Institute

'Time has killed British Australia but has not yet put much in its place.' So wrote an ambitious young journalist in the commemorative edition of The Bulletin published in 1988, marking the Bicentenary of the First Fleet's arrival in Sydney Cove. This week Tony Abbott, who has since graduated from the press pool to the prime ministership, seemed intent on single-handedly reviving its corpse.

Of course, Australia has always been sluggish at enacting what Donald Horne described as 'the final casting off' from its former colonial master. The word 'British' appeared on Australian passports until the Whitlam era. 'God Save the Queen' survived as Australia's national anthem well into the 1980s, long after the public had indicated a preference for Advance Australia Fair. It took until 1993 to remove references to the Queen from the oath of Australian citizenship. Elizabeth II, barring some unforeseen political upending, will end her reign as the Queen of Australia. Her face will continue to adorn the $5 note for the foreseeable future, just as her blurry profile will remain on the dollar coin.

However, the return of these knightly trappings marks something new. The long and anguished process of detaching Australia from Britain – or 'consciously uncoupling', to deploy the phrase of the moment — has seemingly been put into reverse.

Tony Abbott has actively sought to strengthen the sentimental and constitutional bond. Thus, at a time when the country is overhauling its antique founding document so that it finally recognises indigenous Australians, the prime minister is figuratively wielding the yellow fluorescent marker pen to highlight the constitution's opening line: 'Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established.'

His intention is to celebrate Australians, of course, but he has done so by reviving a colonial relic, and bestowing what feels still like a distinctively British honour.

In some ways, the surprise move is reminiscent of Robert Menzies' audacious attempt in the 1960s to rename the Australian pound the Australian royal, a gambit met with scepticism and mockery even then. The difference this time is that, for all the jokes and guffaws, the writ of the prime minister will hold sway.

The question germane to readers of The Interpreter is 'Does this matter in the international sphere? Is it a gesture of diplomatic significance?' 

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Given how few gongs will be bestowed – only four per year – an argument could be mounted that this is trivial. Nobody outside of Australia will probably even notice.

But notice they have already. Even as attention focused near myopically on the search for the missing MH370, the international media has been unable to resist the temptation to lunge at such low-hanging fruit. Globally, it has made Australia in the Asian Century look more like Australia in the British Century. It reinforces the sense that the one-time executive director of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy views his country through sepia-tinted spectacles, and prefers the world as it was rather than as is.

In terms of positioning Australia, it also adds flesh to the bones of a speech he delivered in December 2012 at his Oxford alma mater, Queen's College (inevitably), an oration which became known as the Anglosphere speech.

'China, Japan, India and Indonesia are countries that are profoundly important to Australia,' the then opposition leader noted. 'Size, proximity and economic and military strength matter. Of course they do; but so do the bonds of history, of shared values, and of millions of familiar attachments.'

Abbott also insinuated, more controversially, that Anglo-culture was pre-eminent: 'Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world'. His knight move is a further sign that he believes Australia should remain resolutely Western rather than becoming more Asian.

To prosper in the Asian century, as it has done already, Australia need not radically alter its national identity or shed its Anglo-centric heritage. It is more a case of being receptive to Asian influences, and signaling a greater willingness to engage, not just economically but mentally. That is the problem with the restoration of knights and dames. It could be interpreted as a statement of regional separatism; a sign that Australia's new prime minister is still wedded to the land of his birth and post-graduate education rather than the region he inhabits now.

He sent the same signal when Prince Harry traveled to Australia for last year's international fleet review. Delivering his own variation on Menzies's famous 'I did but see her passing by' encomium, he enthused: 'I regret to say not everyone in Australia is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist.'

Tony Abbott entered office claiming that his approach would be more Jakarta than Geneva. This heraldic scheme may send a contradictory message: that his view of Australia is more Buck House than Beijing.

Photo by REUTERS/Mechielsen Lyndon.

5 of 9 This post is part of a debate on A larger Australia

Nick Bryant is the author of the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of Australia.

Australia requires a rhetorical rethink, for the language used to describe itself is ridiculously out of date. Take the vocabulary of isolation and peripheralism.

Old-fashioned constructs like 'the land down under' and 'the antipodes' are misleading because they grew from Australia being at the opposite end of the earth's surface to the country's one-time colonial master. The 'tyranny of distance', like 'the lucky country', comes from a book title that has long out-lived its usefulness.

Surely it is also time to ditch the language that routinely casts Australia as a country still in the throes* of adolescence, struggling to reach maturity. Please.

Part of the reason why national identity debates in Australia can be so tortuous and stale is because the vernacular and terms of self-reference have not kept pace with the country's changing place in the region and the world. Australia, for all its unique idioms and colourful turns of phrase, has not been very good at describing its new character. Instead, it typecasts itself in ways that comport with how the rest of the world mistakenly views it.

When Australia took on the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council last September it even placed a stuffed marsupial in the office alongside the chamber that goes with the temporary job. Australia is one of the most active and respected countries on the 15-member Security Council. Why the need for such self-denigrating props? Australia needs to escape this boxing-kangaroo way of thinking.

The phrase 'punching above its weight,' as Michael Fullilove pointed out during his excellent speech at the National Press Club, falls into this same category.

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It has become a cliché shorn of meaning. Nowadays, Australia has a punch that it is commensurate with its commercial, economic, demographic and artistic clout: that of a beefy middleweight. Besides, I've always thought that the pull exerted on Australia from different and often competing directions – Washington, Beijing, other Asian capitals, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace — offers a more useful way of thinking about foreign affairs than the pugilistic frame.

I also agree with Michael about the danger of Australia getting punch drunk, and mistakenly concluding that 'if we're already punching above our weight, then there's no need for us to do anything more.' And I like the eye-catching title of his speech, A Larger Australia, and the sizeable thinking behind it.

The Big Australia debate is often framed as an argument about demographics and immigration quotas. But the Larger Australia debate should also be about the national and political mindset. It is important to distinguish between the two, because recently they have been at odds. During my six years covering Australia for the BBC, the political mindset became smaller, narrower, more inward-looking and closeted. In contrast, the national mindset, whether expressed by Cate Blanchett taking Sydney Theatre Company productions to New York or Macquarie Bank buying up more American infrastructure, was ever more expansive and ambitious.

In politics, the turning point — or pivot, to use the fashionable diplo-speak of the day – was the 2010 federal election, which followed the ouster of Kevin Rudd. For him, personal and national ambition were entwined, and both extended far beyond Australia's borders. Julia Gillard's aspirations were more easily accommodated at home. At the outset of the campaign, in a strategically placed story on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph, she signaled her preference for a Small Australia. This policy announcement, aimed squarely at Sydney's western suburbs, married with her comments on The 7.30 Report during her first overseas trip as prime minister, when she admitted she felt more comfortable in Australian classrooms than international summits. In distancing herself from Kevin Rudd, she distanced Australia from the rest of the world.

With the then opposition leader Tony Abbott also indicating that he preferred to be a stay-at-home prime minister, the 2010 campaign had a distinctly municipal feel. It was as if Gillard and Abbott were competing to become the mayor of a medium-sized city rather than contesting the leadership of an ever more thrusting and consequential nation.

The Harvard academic Niall Fergusson, who happened to be visiting Australia at the time, could scarcely believe his ears. 'It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up,' he told the ABC's Mark Colvin. Crikey's Bernard Keane called it the 'little Australia' campaign.

The 2013 campaign was not much better. 'I don't think we should be getting above ourselves here,' said Tony Abbott during another ABC interview, when asked if Australia should support American airstrikes against the Assad regime. 'We are a significant middle power but no more.'

Gillard and Abbott, who tended to bring out the worst in each other, took the old maxim that 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity.

It is time have a national debate of a quality, scope and ambition that is not constrained by the supposed small-mindedness of the electorate — a small-mindedness, I would argue strongly, that is overstated. Just as Australian politicians think that Australian voters are more xenophobic and racist than they truly are, they are exaggerate their insularity. This 'political parochialism' stands in the way of larger Australia thinking.

It is not just politicians who are guilty. Sections of the media are also complicit. As Michael says, it is ridiculous that the airmiles racked up by Kevin Rudd as foreign minister should merit a tabloid hatchet job. At the time of Xi Jinping's rise to power in Beijing, it was striking that an uneventful visit to Australia by Charles and Camilla was lavished with more attention on commercial television and in the tabloids. This was not only Small Australia thinking but also Old Australia thinking: British century rather than Asian century.

What also struck me about Michael's speech was that it was the kind of oration that should truly come from the prime minister. During my time in Australia I was constantly struck by the visionless rhetoric of the political class. Instead, short-termism was built into every statement, sound-bite and dreary slogan. Again, the preference is for political parochialism rather than anything more farsighted or expansive. Debate not only obsesses about the border, but also stops at the border. This is a speech, then, that the modern crop of politicians seems incapable of delivering.

Michael Fullilove says that 'a larger foreign policy is one that combines two qualities: ambition and coherence.' Alas, since the 2010 election, these are qualities rarely evident in Canberra. Australia's politicians prefer to think small.

Photo by Flickr user Andru1308.

* Thanks Mark.


syria war refugee siege united nations

On the day last week that the UN Security Council met to discuss humanitarian access in Syria, the main gates of its New York headquarters were fastened shut, with diplomats told that a snowstorm had made it too 'dangerous' to enter. Instead, they were ordered to make a ten-block detour along icy sidewalks that seemed even more treacherous.

There are times when the UN can be frustratingly bureaucratic and dysfunctional. But the impasse in the Security Council right now owes more to disagreements between the member states than organisational inertia. The 15-member body is the sum of its parts, and when those parts work against each other, as they are at the moment, gridlock ensues.

At issue currently is a resolution drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan that demands an end to the besiegement of Syrian cities, a halt to indiscriminate shelling by the Assad regime, and humanitarian pauses to allow for the delivery of aid (across Syria's borders if necessary). It also condemns what it calls 'increased terrorist attacks' and demands that all foreign fighters withdraw from Syria.

It is precisely the kind of binding resolution backed by the threat of sanctions that the UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos would like to see. For fourteen months, she negotiated humanitarian access in the Old City of Homs, which secured the evacuation of 1400 people. But Homs accounts for just 2% of the 250,000 Syrians who are currently besieged, mainly by the Assad regime but also by opposition forces. Those trapped people do not have another fourteen months to wait, and desperately need humanitarian aid immediately.

For the Australian mission, the draft resolution is the product of months of work.

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Last October, seeking to harness the momentum from the chemical weapons resolution that was passed in a rare moment of unanimity, Australia successfully pushed for a Security Council presidential statement on humanitarian access that drew Russia's support.  Australia's UN ambassador Gary Quinlan hoped then that the presidential statement, a toothless document, would eventually become a full-blown resolution. Now he hopes that moment has finally come.

The P3 powers (America, Britain and France) are pushing hard for the resolution, having shelved it in the run-up to Geneva 2 for fear of alienating Russia and thus complicating the task of bringing the warring sides to the negotiating table in Switzerland. With the humanitarian situation worsening at an alarming rate, and with the Geneva talks having collapsed, they are pressing for the Security Council to act. The war actually intensified during the Geneva talks. The aerial bombardment of Alleppo has made these past few weeks some of the bloodiest of the war.

In a re-run of previous impasses over Syria, Russia remains implacably opposed to the wording of the Australian-sponsored draft. It complains that it is one-sided and would provide a pretext for military intervention, even though the resolution is not backed by the threat of force. Nor does it adequately address rising terrorism within Syria, according to Moscow. It has come up with a resolution of its own, with terrorism its main focus.

Within the privacy of the Security Council (many of its sessions are held behind closed doors) there have been fiery exchanges. Last week, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, denounced the resolution as a PR stunt designed to humiliate Russia. Angrily he read out a series of headlines stating that Russia would veto a humanitarian resolution, even though the very news reports he quoted were written following a briefing he gave to correspondents covering the UN.

Western diplomats stress they are not looking for a Russian veto. They are clamorous for a meaningful resolution. Samantha Powers, America's ambassador to the UN, says there has to be a strong resolution or there will be no resolution. But saving the resolution from a Russian veto will require compromise.

In Washington, meanwhile, President Obama has asked his advisors to come up with new policy options, which speaks of the administration's Syria malaise, especially now that the diplomatic track in Geneva has run into a brick wall.

The worry for UN officials is not just Russian obstructionism, but Moscow's lack of decisive influence on the Assad regime. In talks with Russian diplomats in Damascus, UN humanitarian officials often receive a sympathetic hearing but are told there is only so much Moscow can do. There are limits, it seems, to Russian leverage. The failure of Geneva 2 has demonstrated that, too.

In her office on the 33rd floor of the UN headquarters, Valerie Amos, Britain's former High Commissioner in Canberra, is growing increasingly exasperated as she studies maps of Syria with huge swathes of the country shaded in red, representing the areas under siege. When, three years ago, she started negotiating with the Assad regime, one million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. Now that figure is nine million.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.


'Can we speak to the Australian president?' enquired a journalist in the media centre at the UN, evidently unaware that the country is still a long way from having a mate as its head of state.

Likewise, requests to meet the new Australian prime minister would also have ended in disappointment, even if a couple of old ones were on hand. Kevin Rudd was in New York, cutting a rather lonely figure, for meetings of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation. So too was Julia Gillard, to take part in the Clinton Global Initiative, where she spoke about her government’s carbon tax, a policy that may grant her something of a prime ministerial afterlife on the former-world-leader circuit.

But Tony Abbott left it to Julie Bishop, his foreign minister, to represent Australia.

I ran into Ms Bishop on the sidewalk on the first full morning of the UN General Assembly session, and she spoke briefly of her 'baptism of fire.' During her time in New York, she met with the foreign ministers of all the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, and conducted bilaterals with regional foreign ministers.

Of these, the most eye-catching was obviously her encounter with Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, where tensions emerged on the vexed boat people issue, which inadvertently leaked to the press. Addressing the General Assembly, Ms Bishop explained how the Abbott Government would put 'economic diplomacy at the centre of our foreign policy.'

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Like most of the speeches delivered here, however, it received little attention. The truth is that only about four speeches during the entire General Assembly session got the full concentration of the press corps: those from America, Iran, Syria and Israel. That is why the media centre resembles a television shop, with banks of plasma screens but most of them rendered mute.

In any other week, the UN press gallery would have paid more attention to the meeting of the Security Council that Bishop chaired, which passed a resolution combating the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. It is the first comprehensive Security Council resolution on this issue, and it passed with almost unanimous support (Russia abstained). Australia’s UN ambassador Gary Quinlan called it a 'good result, a good product.'

Intended as the centrepiece of Australia’s presidency of the Security Council, it was overshadowed completely, however, by a meeting next door of the P5+1 (or E3+3, as it is also confusingly known), which brought together John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, along with the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.

Throughout the week, the rollout of a Bishop on the international stage obviously paled in significance alongside that of a cleric. The hype surrounding new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was even likened to the launch of a new iPhone. Sure enough, the big headlines of the week came from a handshake that didn’t happen between Rouhani and Barack Obama, and a fifteen minute phone call that did.

When the Security Council met on Friday night to pass the resolution enshrining the chemical weapons handover deal, the voice of Gary Quinlan announcing an historic 15-0 vote was broadcast around the world. While it was her prerogative to chair the Security Council, Ms Bishop had to catch a flight back to Australia so that she could prepare for the trip to Indonesia. With all fifteen members of the Security Council co-sponsoring the resolution, it became a 'president’s text', something of a rarity on a body where the P5 are often at loggerheads.

Australia’s role was largely procedural. The detailed negotiations on the draft resolution involved the P5 powers, while the final agreement on the text involved another face-to-face meeting between Kerry and Lavrov. But Gary Quinlan and his team are now trying to harness the diplomatic momentum from this unexpected moment of unity by pushing for a presidential statement allowing for greater humanitarian access in Syria.

In aid delivery, the disunity of the Security Council has undercut UN agencies operating on the ground. Because a resolution would take more time, Australia has joined with Luxembourg in pushing for the statement. Gary Quinlan believes it is important, on the back of Friday’s resolution, to send a 'strong unified message quickly.' He hopes it will be agreed upon by Wednesday or Thursday.

The Iranian overtures, combined with the resolution on Syria, made this one of the more eventful General Assembly gatherings in memory. The response to the chemical weapons attack on 21 August has also made September an unusually eventful month. Ambassador Quinlan has kept a steady and confident grip on the gavel.

Photo courtesy of the Department of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.


When the British took up the rotating presidency of the Security Council in June, they drove a double-decker bus into the forecourt of UN headquarters as part of their diplomatic launch party. The Australians have made a less showy entrance, merely offering fellow Security Council members Lamingtons, egg-and-bacon pies and sausage sandwiches at a breakfast on Wednesday morning, and coming up with the hashtag #Ozprez for followers on social media. Visitors allowed into the soulless office allotted to the president of the UN Security Council will also notice the appearance of a toy kangaroo. 

Perhaps the simple fact that Australia is presiding over the Council for the first time since November 1985 is eventful enough. Or maybe the Australian mission would have tried to make a bigger splash had the presidency not coincided with Australia's election campaign.

The word from their headquarters on 42nd St is that the caretaker provisions have not complicated planning. No worries, is the public line. 'A little bit of unpredictability makes things interesting', says Ambassador Gary Quinlan. 'It has complicated things a little, but no problem.'

Kevin Rudd's decision to bring the election forward by a week has helped. It means the new government's foreign policy team will be in place a few weeks before 'leaders' week', when government heads travel to New York to address the General Assembly.

Not that you will hear any Australian diplomat say so, but it helps, too, that the polls point to a clear-cut result. A re-run of the uncertainty that followed the 2010 election, which saw weeks of negotiations over the formation of a minority government, would have been disastrous. During leaders' week, Australia would not have had a prime minister with a clear electoral mandate. That said, nobody yet knows whether the prime minister or foreign minister will represent Australia, although invitations have been sent to the leaders of other Security Council members, in the hope of a top-level gathering.

The fact that Australia's presidency of the Security Council coincides with the General Assembly, that annual diplomatic trade show, is overall a positive.

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On the downside, September is the only month when the 193-member General Assembly can get more coverage than the 15-member Security Council. On the upside, it means that the main Security Council session planned for that week, at which Australia, as president, chooses the issue for discussion, will command more attention from world leaders in New York.

Earlier in the year, it was thought Australia would champion the issue of women in post-conflict situations. Instead, it will shine a light on the problem of small arms. The aim is ambitious: to get a resolution passed at the Security Council strengthening the framework for tackling small arms, the first in UN history. It is an attractive issue for Australia because it cuts across so many areas of the UN's work, from preventing violence against women and children to protecting blue-helmeted peacekeepers, from disarmament and demobilisation in post-conflict situations to the management of weapons stockpiles. Additionally, it is an issue with resonance in the South Pacific.

Australian diplomats face a hard sell, not least because Russia and China are two of the world's biggest small arms exporters. Veto-wielding members of the Permanent Five, they are referred to these days as 'the blocking minority'. Though Australian diplomats say they are not spooked by the challenge, it will be hard to get 'product', the lingo in Turtle Bay for a resolution.

As well as small arms, Australia has called a meeting during leaders' week on Yemen. But the country that will likely dominate talk at the UN over the coming weeks, Syria, is not even on the formal agenda at the moment. In the provisional program of work for the Security Council agreed in New York on Wednesday morning, it is included only as a 'footnote'. At present, Gary Quinlan says there is no point in having a Security Council discussion because, with the P5 deadlocked, it leads nowhere.

For sure, the 'presidency' sounds grander than it is; more of a company secretary sort of role than a galvanising chief executive. The work of the Security Council is also heavily diarised, depending on which mandates are up for renewal or which countries, like DR Congo or Haiti, require on-going situation reports, which means the presidency follows more so than shapes an agenda. Also scheduled every month is an open debate on the Middle East, although the word 'debate' is somewhat misleading since member states simply read out prepared statements rather than engaging in a freewheeling discussion.

What's more, the real power on the Security Council obviously lies with its Permanent Five members, the US, UK, France, Russia and China. For the crucial closed-door meetings in the aftermath of the suspected chemical weapons attack, when the UK was trying for a brief time to introduce a resolution authorising force, the non-permanent members of the Security Council were not even invited.

Still, Australia has already built a reputation as one of the UNSC's activist members. When whispers start going through the UN press gallery, what has been noticeable in recent weeks is how often they mention Australia. Britain, France and Australia called for an emergency session of the UNSC over the crisis in Egypt. Again, the same trio demanded an emergency session in response to the Ghouta massacre. Australia is the pen-holder on negotiating the fresh ISAF mandate in Afghanistan for when the present one expires in October. It chairs the Iran sanctions committee. No other non-permanent member cuts such a high profile.

As an aside, I was also struck last week, as the debate swirled about the legality of military action without a UN mandate, how much attention Gareth Evans' ideas about 'responsibility to protect' received in the international media.

With the possibility of US military action over the coming weeks in Syria, and with the P5 just as deadlocked as ever, it is an especially challenging moment to take up the presidency. But the team from 42nd St do not seem to be the sort of bunch to suffer stage-fright.

Photo by Flickr user Joffley.


Australian diplomacy had a very different look and feel when I arrived here at the back end of 2006. John Howard was still the prime minister, just as George W Bush and Tony Blair remained in charge in Washington and Westminster. Consequently, there was a strongly post-9/11 'war on terror' feel to the conduct of foreign affairs.

The big global story then was not the rise of China, but the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Howard Government was embroiled in the oil-for-wheat AWB scandal and under attack from a workaholic shadow foreign affairs minister by the name of Kevin Rudd, who was seeking to undermine the Government's reputation and boost his own.

Maintaining the relationship with Washington was the overriding priority, even if it incurred political damage at home. For many Australians, the treatment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay violated the country's fairness doctrine. John Howard's refusal to ratify Kyoto also reinforced the sense that he was out of touch and overly loyal to his Texan friend and soul-mate. But it made strategic as well as ideological sense to the then prime minister.

Regionally, the most nettlesome problems were Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The most controversial military deployment was neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan, but rather the insertion of the ADF into the Northern Territory. Back in September 2006, only one digger had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Though still a year off, the biggest diplomatic diary item was the forthcoming APEC summit in Sydney. In those days, however, the coverage of international news organisations still had a distinctly Atlantic bias, and we paid comparatively little attention to the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific.

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Tellingly, the main story to come from APEC was the slapstick of the Chaser Boys gate-crashing the party. As for the domestic press corps, the drama unfolded behind the scenes, as senior cabinet figures met secretly to discuss a plan to oust John Howard. Still, APEC provided a portent of things to come. By then, Rudd was Labor leader, and hinted at Australia's, as well as the world's, diplomatic reorientation by showing off his fluency in Mandarin.

Shortly after my arrival, there was a G20 finance ministers meeting in Melbourne, but it came at a time when the focus was still on the G8. Why, George W Bush reportedly did not even know of the existence of the G20 until Kevin Rudd put him right in a late-night phone conversation from Kirribilli.

It was also a period when the BBC Australia's correspondent was never troubled by visits from British prime ministers or foreign secretaries. Tony Blair, who ventured here prior to becoming PM to meet Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives, never made a prime ministerial visit. Nor did his foreign secretaries, though Jack Straw planned to visit but had to cancel en route for family reasons.

Despite Britain's neglect, however, Australia could still make its favourite diplomatic boast: that it was punching way above its weight. And both leaders of the major parties, John Howard and Kim Beazley, had a strong, if Washington-centric, worldview.

Their passion for foreign affairs highlights one of the most noticeable changes between then and now. Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott has demonstrated anywhere near the same intellectual engagement with the world beyond these shores. Set-piece foreign policy speeches have the feel of a Box-ticking exercise, part of their job description. Many of their domestic priorities, from border protection to the 'small Australia' policy over the 'big', have a distinctly parochial air. Recently, ahead of her visit to China, Julia Gillard was gracious to appear before the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Sydney, becoming the first prime minister to do so since Bob Hawke. But in the Q&A session afterwards, she delivered what felt like stock, briefing-paper responses.

The irony, as I have noted before, is that the world has never shown so much interest in Australia, economically, politically, diplomatically and culturally. Still, there is a nagging sense that neither Ms Gillard nor Mr Abbott has fully returned the compliment.

Another paradox, given Canberra's insularity, is that the famed Aussie punch is stronger than ever before. That said, the challenges of balancing the security relationship with Washington and the commercial rapport with China now require gymnastic as well as pugilistic skills.

The most perceptible shift here is that Australia's growing 'middle power' strength has been institutionalised in the enhanced role of the G20, the heightened importance of APEC and through membership of the UN Security Council.

It has also been diarised. There is the new strategic dialogue with China, which has been put on an annual footing — Julia Gillard's most eye-catching foreign policy success. The AUKMIN talks with Britain are now a yearly affair, which reflects a newfound sense of diplomatic parity unrecognisable from the imperial condescension displayed by Whitehall in the not so distant past. As part of a wider geographic rethink, London has recognised that Australia is indeed in the right place at the right time. William Hague has referred to 'Facebook diplomacy' and the importance of global diplomatic networks. A great admirer of this country (after all, they say that an Australian is a Yorkshireman with a suntan) he has elevated Australia into being a much more important 'friend'.

Washington senses this, too. Indeed, who would have thought, when I came here in 2006, that a black US president would one day fly to Canberra to announce an 'Asian pivot'.

The consequentiality of Australia is now a given. It is reflected in the growing number of news organisations that have either boosted their presence or coverage here (the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg) or set up shop (Sky News UK, Al-Jazeera, Guardian Australia). The agenda has changed, too. Australia is central to the seismic geopolitical story of our age: the rise of China. Few countries offer a better vantage point from which to gauge the problems and prospects posed by China's inexorable rise, an advance that seemed somewhat abstract only six years ago when we still used the phrase 'emerging nation'.

Twitter had not been invented when I arrived here from India, so DFAT's enthusiastic, if sluggish, embrace of e-diplomacy marks another obvious shift. Like so many other technological developments, it has removed one of the traditional obstacles to Australian diplomacy: distance.

Australian diplomacy remains hampered by funding constraints. Nor can it speak with a clarion voice on human rights, given its handling of the boat people problem. Listening to Bob Carr deliver the British High Commission's Magna Carta lecture in Sydney recently, which was a paean to human rights, it was hard not to think of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, not to mention Christmas Island.

Happily, my next posting, as the BBC's New York and UN correspondent, will keep me in close contact with Australia. In September, you will take the presidency of UN Security Council, and another chapter will be opened in your diplomatic and national rise.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

5 of 27 This post is part of a debate on The Iraq war ten years on

One of the oddest parties I have ever attended was held at 'Ground Zero', the courtyard in the heart of the Pentagon so named because it was a key target for the Soviet nuclear arsenal in the event that the Cold War suddenly turned hot.

The military top brass, serenaded that afternoon by a country & western band and served ice cold lemonade, was in buoyant mood. Baghdad had fallen. President George W Bush, following his Top Gun touchdown on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, had declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over, before the now infamous banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished.'

'Stuff' was happening inside Iraq, as then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offhandedly acknowledged, after the scenes of mass looting in the capital. But this was very much a celebration, and an unabashed one at that. After all, there was a feeling that in the deserts of Mesopotamia, America's 'Vietnam Syndrome' had finally been put to rest.

Rarely in my BBC career had I delivered a piece to camera that was so at odds with the background mood. Was it not premature, I asked, to hold a victory party when Saddam Hussein had not yet been found, nor a single weapon of mass destruction? Often with television stand-uppers it takes a few tries to get a stumble-free take. With each rendition, I received more disapproving glances. But to us, at least, it seemed a statement of the obvious: the Iraq war was far from over, and the toughest challenges lay ahead.

Ten years on, the Iraq war inventory makes for grim reading. America's military dead number 4487, with an additional 31,965 military personnel wounded in action. The Iraq Body Count database estimates that between 112,000 and 122,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq. The mental cost, both for the Iraqi people and the returning US servicemen and women, is incalculable but profound.

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Whatever the changes wrought in Iraq, the financial cost has been colossal. According to the Congressional Research Service, the price tag has been US$802 billion. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz it is closer to US$3 trillion —that would be roughly one-fifth of America's national debt.

Thinking at the Pentagon is now radically different from how it was on that balmy afternoon in 2003, when the sense of military possibility seemed pretty much limitless. As former Defence Secretary Robert Gates memorably put it in early 2011, anyone now advocating a land war in the Middle East or Asia should 'have his head examined.' Nor would anyone propose an open-ended military commitment elsewhere. America cannot afford it, and nor would the American public countenance it. The Pentagon's new strategic guidance document reflects this new political and fiscal reality: 'US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.' Again, a statement of the new obvious.

A decade on, the 'Vietnam Syndrome' has been superseded by the 'Iraq Syndrome', a hesitancy to embark on new military adventures, a rejection of the doctrine of pre-emption, a return to multilateralism and international cooperation and, as in Iran, a heightened reliance on diplomacy and sanctions. There is a preference, as in Libya, to 'lead from behind', and to fight wars, ideally unmanned, from above. Military planners have come to rely much more heavily on drones and covert action. Counter-insurgency strategies are no longer centred on overwhelming force.

Syria has demonstrated America's strong aversion to enter into conflicts where there is no clear 'exit strategy', even in the face of such stark humanitarian need. A doctrinal approach to foreign policy, favoured by George W Bush and neo-conservatives, has been replaced by pragmatism applied case-by-case.

Far from being a symbol of American military might, as it was in 2003, the Pentagon itself reminds us of the country's relative decline. Over the next decade, it faces budget cuts totaling US$487 billion. Some of its giant aircraft carriers, awaiting refurbishments that the navy can no longer afford, cannot leave port. This includes the Abraham Lincoln.

Doubtless there have been moments of celebration since that 'Ground Zero' hoedown in 2003. The Iraq surge. NATO's involvement in Libya. The killing of Osama bin Laden. But ten years after the Iraq war, the Pentagon is a very different place. A mood of circumspection now prevails.

Image courtesy of Flickr user nkdby.


Ed. note: the Lowy Institute is hosting a conference this Friday on Football Diplomacy: Australia's Engagement with Asia Through Football.

For me, Australian diplomacy has never been about the punch, however much DFAT is portrayed as the departmental equivalent of the boxing kangaroo. It is more about the pull.

Were one to look for an appropriate sporting analogy, the tug of war does not really work, because Australia is yanked in so many different directions, and pushes in them, too. Eastward towards America. Northward towards China. Westward towards Britain. Recently, India has also exerted a certain draw.

Instead, Australia requires a national metaphor that captures its diplomatic multi-directionalism. Might I humbly suggest football?

First off, the game here has adopted both the American and British nomenclature. It is widely referred to as 'soccer' but is run by Football Federation Australia. It has decided to ditch Oceania and pitch its tent firmly in Asia. However, it also retains a uniquely Australian flavour. This, after all, is the land of the Socceroos, the Matildas, and, at the junior level, the Olyroos.

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Football Federation Australia knows it should orientate itself towards its near neighbours, hence the 'Gateway to Asia' theme of its failed World Cup bid. But Australia also considers itself to be part of the footballing Anglosphere. Australia's finest players head for the Premier League. Manchester United and Chelsea are followed with just as much enthusiasm, if not more, than the Perth Glory or Adelaide Roar.

Of all Australian sports, football is by far the most demographically representative. The national team is packed with the sons of immigrants: Schwarzers, Aloisis, Ognenovskis, Brescianos. Its star player, Tim Cahill, was born in Sydney of a Samoan mother and an English father of Irish descent. In a nation of immigrants, it is the migrant game. Rare among the footballing codes, at the school level girls are as heavily involved as boys. Needless to say, it is also the only truly global team game.

The worldwide dispersal of Australia's footballing talent is also representative of the country's high-achieving diaspora. Current members of the national squad make their living as far a field as Russia, Uzbekistan, Holland, South Korea, Denmark, England, Qatar, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Germany and the US.

When it comes to global benchmarking, football is also usefully analogous. Up until 1974, the Socceroos failed to qualify for the World Cup, but the expectation now is that Australia will always make the finals. The best the Socceroos can normally hope for is to reach the last eight. But they would be disappointed not to make the final 16. A middle ranking power, should not Australian diplomats also be looking for top 16 status, while occasionally enjoying final eight influence? Occasionally, they might even pull off a bigger upset.

But the main reason I think the game works as a metaphor is because the Socceroos are great exponents of 'pragmatic improvisation', a phrase Graeme Dobell used in a recent post which rang true for me. They have been known to play 'home' fixtures in Britain. In Australia, in another sign of its flexibility, the team has no fixed abode (it has played at the MCG, Etihad Stadium, the new AAMI Stadium, the ANZ Stadium, Sydney Football Stadium and Suncorp). Often it cannot call on all of its best players, but usually makes the most of what it has got. In another demonstration of its adaptability, soccer has not been unafraid to call on outside coaching talent: Guus Hiddink, Pim Verbeek, Holger Osieck.

The Socceroos are flexible, nimble and geographically wide-ranging, three attributes that could also serve Australia well over the course of the Asian Century.

So no more let it be said that Australia punches above its weight in the diplomatic arena. Instead, it criss-crosses the field like a globe-trotting Socceroo.


Let the footnotes of history record that, in the week the Gillard Government published its Asian Century White Paper, Australian readers of The Economist saw on its cover a picture not of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney but of China's new leader, Xi Jinping. The campaign story, 'America on a knife-edge', merited only a sub-heading, and the fourth one at that.

No doubt this would be much to the Prime Minister's liking. In launching the White Paper at the Lowy Institute, some of her strongest remarks were targeted at the local media for neglecting the region on its doorstep, comments that will strike many journalists as a bit rich coming from a leader who once almost boasted of her lack of passion for foreign affairs.

Watching the BBC World News these past few weeks, it was interesting to see my own news organisation give equal billing in its on-air promos to the presidential election in America and the leadership transition in Beijing. In another symbolic move, London dispatched our World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, to Beijing, when at US election time he would normally be reporting from Washington.

Was it not also telling that the New York Times' most explosive story of the past month was an October surprise for the outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao rather than Obama or Romney? In terms of scandal, Bo Xilai and his wife also served up much richer copy than any of America's political couples. Perhaps for the first time, Chinese politics produced a story with tabloid as well as broadsheet allure.

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Australia is well served by its Beijing correspondents, with Stephen McDonell of the ABC and John Garnaut of Fairfax as notable stand-outs. Richard McGregor, an Australian journalist who covered China for the Financial Times, is also the author of the acclaimed The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Elsewhere in the region, there is no shortage of fine Australian journalists reporting back from Japan, Indonesia or Thailand. Just look at ABC's regional strength, with correspondents of the calibre of Zoe Daniel, Mark Willacy and Helen Brown.

But there are supply-side problems. Newsgathering in China is obviously enormously difficult, given the Communist Party's strongly authoritarian, censorious and secretive streaks. Even the most rudimentary information, like the date when the Communist Party conclave was due to end, is hard to come by, according to TIME's Hannah Beech. And it can be difficult for journalists to get accreditation, although China is probably more accessible now than outsiders would think.

Storytelling is also a challenge, and not only because of language and logistical barriers. We are witnessing a seismic global shift, but finding ways of telling that story, over and over, requires imagination as well as diligence.

I found this when serving as the BBC's South Asia correspondent based in Delhi. There were only so many times you could film a call centre or contrast the shimmering mirror glass headquarters of its global out-sourcing giants with the slum conditions nearby. As the BBC's Asia bureau editor Jo Floto told me: 'The story of China is a story of process — of social and economic change — rather than events.' That is why the Bo Xilai story was such a sensation: it was a running Chinese news story that demanded updates everyday.

Asian coverage, in Australia and beyond, suffers more from a shortage of popular demand rather than problems with supply. For the reasons that Michael and Sam discuss, it is inevitable that America's great carnival of democracy, with its rich human tableau, should generate more excitement that the rather monochrome, heavily stage-managed events in the Great Hall of the People. Inevitably, the race for the White House is more riveting than the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee.

So I doubt whether there will ever be parity between the news coverage of America and China. Beijing is unlikely ever to have the news entertainment value of Washington, or box office stars like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Better to hope that a more Asia-literate country will come to demand more Asian news, not out of a sense of geopolitical correctness but through genuine interest.

Clearly there is a long way to go. Just contrast the discrepancy in coverage on commercial news bulletins of the Chinese leadership transition with the visit of Charles and Camilla. In a sign of Australia's resilient Anglo-Celtic heritage, the cameras captured them on Melbourne Cup day watching from the VIP box as Green Moon, an Irish-bred horse, raced to victory.

Let's hope this kind of coverage of Asian Australians will also soon be a thing of the past: Channel Nine's A Current Affair 'racist beat-up' about the 'Asian invasion' of a shopping mall in the northwest Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, which was debunked within hours by the local paper. What Channel Nine put to air was not Australia in the Asian Century. It was Australia in the nineteenth century.

Photo by Flickr user slimmer_jimmer.


What role does Australian multiculturalism have to play as the Asian Century progresses? At a time when the country is reaching out to its neighbours, it seems axiomatic that Australia should celebrate its ethnic diversity and particularly the contribution of its Asian-born citizens.

Unsurprisingly, then, multiculturalism receives a strong endorsement in the White Paper, along with a realistic appraisal.

Australia has by and large managed its increasing ethnic diversity successfully. But there have, from time to time, been difficulties. Australia needs to continue to strengthen and build upon our institutional frameworks to address racial discrimination and to preserve and promote social cohesion and inclusion.

Recently, multiculturalism has come under fire in Europe. David Cameron believes it has 'encouraged different cultures to live separate lives'. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared it 'dead'. Here in Australia, their arguments have found an echo from conservative commentators, like Greg Sheridan of The Australian and Gerard Henderson of The Sydney Institute.

However, a new book from Melbourne academic Tim Soutphommasane, Don't Go Back To Where You Came From, argues not only that it works, but also that Australia has come to rival Canada as the world's most successfully multicultural country.

Just as Australia's economic model has proven unusually robust, the same is true of its multicultural model. 'Australian governments have always balanced the endorsement of cultural diversity with affirmations of national unity,' writes Soutphommasane. 'The freedom to express one's cultural identity and heritage has been formalised as a right...but this has been balanced by civic responsibilities.' It's a winning formula, he says, and gives Australia an in-built advantage at the start of the Asian Century.

For all that, the country could do better.

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To begin with, the positive language of the White Paper seems at odds with the government's increasingly unwelcoming immigration and asylum seeker policies. Notes Soutphommasane: 'For many, the retreat from population growth and immigration, along with a hardened posture on asylum seekers, could be seen as a proxy attack on the conditions for a multicultural Australia.'

The White Paper claims also that Australians with Asian heritage have become 'active participants in Australian community and civic life'. But Soutphommasane shows that they are largely absent from the country's national institutions. Parliament can only boast three politicians of non-European background: Penny Wong, Lisa Singh and the indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt. Wong is Canberra's only Asian-born politician.

The Australian Defence Force does not do much better. The 2007 Defence Census showed that 94% of the permanent members of the ADF were born in Australia, the UK, Ireland or New Zealand. Only 1% of permanent members hail from Asia.

Nor does Australian television, with the obvious exception of SBS, hold up a mirror to the country. Neighbours has not had a character of Asian background who has lasted more than a year. Commercial television especially could do much better, and there is a commercial imperative to do so. The ratings success of shows like MasterChef and Australian Idol is no accident. Both are more representative of the new Australia.

'A form of Anglo-Celtic community still defines the theory and practice of government,' he notes, and animates its national stories. But even in the ANZAC legend can be found 'unlikely dashes' of Asian flavour. Consider the role at Gallipoli and in France of Billy Sing, a sniper who was born of a Chinese father and British mother.

What makes Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From especially resonant is that Soutphommasane is the son of refugees. His parents escaped Laos following the communist rise to power in 1975, and made their home, via France, in Sydney's western suburbs. His study, which is both a history of the massive demographic changes that have overtaken this country and also a manifesto for placing multiculturalism at the very heart of national life, makes a vital and timely contribution to the Asian Century debate. 


So Barack Obama has become only the second Democratic President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win re-election, although there is little of the same sense of history, excitement or possibility that marked his victory four years ago.

The 'Yes, we can' candidate seen in 2008 ended up fighting a mainly negative campaign. Based on the fear of a Romney presidency rather than the hope of an Obama second term, at times he took the low road rather than scaling the mountaintops as he did four years ago. Vague about his plans for the next four years, he can hardly claim a ringing mandate.

That will certainly be the view of a hostile House of Representatives, still controlled by the Republicans, and GOP Senators, who can thwart him with the filibuster. The dysfunction of Washington, where brinkmanship has replaced bipartisanship, looks set to continue.

Broadly speaking, this was indeed a status quo election. But worryingly for the White House, congressional Republicans are even more partisan. Leading moderate Republicans, like Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana, will not be returning to Capitol Hill after Christmas. Looking ahead to the 2014 mid-term elections, the situation in the Senate could significantly worsen, since Democrats are defending more vulnerable seats than the Republicans.

Now that the Republicans' strategy of obstructionism has failed to limit Obama to one term (the stated aim of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), perhaps there will be more compromise. The ongoing negotiations over the so-called 'fiscal cliff' will be a crucial test.

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Wrong side of demography

For the GOP, Romney's defeat is a massive loss. No president since Roosevelt has won re-election when the unemployment rate is above 7.2%, and presently it stands at 7.9% (though crucially it stands at 7% in Ohio). This should have been their year. Worryingly for the GOP, it is hard to think of an alternative Republican out of 2012's lacklustre field of candidates who could have performed better.

The Republicans really are on the wrong side of demography. In 2008, 67% of Hispanics voted for Obama. Romney did even worse, winning only 27% of the Hispanic vote. Hispanics now make up America's largest minority. In 1992, as the BBC's Jonny Dymond notes, they made up 2% of the electorate. Now its 10%.

The GOP's success in the late sixties to late eighties, when it won five out of six presidential elections, was based on the 'southern strategy', targeted at disgruntled white voters. Now it needs a Nevada strategy (a once reliably Republican state trending Democrat, where Hispanic population has grown 80% over the past ten years) or a California strategy.

Certainly, the party needs to reach out to new constituencies. Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, puts it best: 'We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.'

A national election?

Oh for the races of old, voters in the battleground states must be thinking, after being carpet-bombed these past few months with negative advertising and presidential candidates. The battleground is shrinking to such an extent, as Adam Liptak notes, that this is no longer truly a national election. To bastardise Obama, it is not a blue states of America, or a red states of America, but a battleground states of America. In 1960 and 1976, 30 states were up for grabs. This year the focus has been on just ten: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The political myopia is depressing turn-out, as Liptak notes, and having a distorting effect on policy. The biggest states in the union, New York and California, are completely ignored.

Small wonder that veteran commentators like Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker have repeated their calls for a national popular vote, something, of course, which will never happen.To boost turn-out, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has even called for America to adopt Australia's compulsory form of voting. Again, a non-starter.


I was among the many commentators who argued that, historically speaking, the televised debates rarely deserved the hype they now receive. This time, the first debate really did alter the dynamics of the race, though not enough, we will continue to note, to alter the outcome.

The debates do seem to growing in importance, perhaps because we are seeing the marrying of political culture and popular culture: an 'American Idol' effect. Television talent shows, in harness with social media, have greatly empowered viewers. They are also very in-the-moment; the focus is on a singular performance, rather than on what has come before. Is not the same now true of the televised debates? It helps explain why, in the space of ninety minutes, Romney could successfully reposition himself as 'Moderate Mitt'. We also saw something similar in the Republican primaries, where the 27 debates constantly changed the complexion of the race and made it so volatile.

Good policy makes good politics

It is an old adage in political circles, and one that seems to have been borne out by this election. A key moment of this race came not in 2012, but 2009 with the bail-out of the auto industry. It helped keep Michigan, Romney's home state, solidly Democratic. Crucially, it helped Obama win Ohio. We talked before the election about Obama's 'Midwest firewall'. The auto bail-out was one of the main reasons why it proved so flame-resistant.

Big issues

The fiscal cliff was barely discussed, nor climate change until Super Storm Sandy ripped through the north-eastern seaboard. Contrast that with the lavish coverage of trivialities, like the treatment of Romney's pooch, and 'gotcha moments' like the 47% tape. Foreign affairs hardly got a look in.

Overall, this was a fairly dismal campaign. As I have written elsewhere, for those predicting America's decline, this campaign will not only have provided new footnotes, but entire new chapters.


Where candidates choose to spend their final days is always a tell-tale indicator of the state of a presidential race.

Barack Obama is concentrating on Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, adding an extra coating of asbestos to his 'Midwest Firewall'. For all the Republican claims about that firewall 'burning down', Romney's itinerary, which on Sunday took in Pennsylvania, hints that the GOP is sounding the alarm. The Keystone state has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1988. John McCain, who also visited the state on the final Sunday of the 2008 campaign claiming it was unexpectedly in play, lost it by double digits.

As has long been the case, Obama finishes the campaign with an Electoral College advantage. He could lose four of the big battleground states (Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia) and still win re-election. Romney, on the other hand, has little margin for error. He needs to take back Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Indiana, which voted for Obama in 2008, and then win one other. At no stage, however, has he pulled ahead in the conservative-leaning industrial state of Ohio. No Republican has ever reached the White House without winning Ohio.

It partly explains why New York Times statistical wizard Nate Silver has been so bullish about the President's chances. Over the weekend, he summed up his argument in four words. 'Obama's ahead in Ohio.' You don't have to be a mathematical genius to work out the electoral implications of that. Silver, the unlikely new celebrity of the campaign commentariat, has become a hate figure for Republicans (his defenders call their attacks 'a war on math'). But he has been cautious compared to the Princeton Election Consortium, which has given Obama a 99% probability of winning.

Romney's brightest moment obviously came in the first televised debate, when he presented himself to the American people as 'Moderate Mitt'. It suggests that the GOP would be wise to move back towards the pragmatic centre rather than continuing its lurch to the right.  Indeed, if he wins, his move to the centre will be cited as the main reason why.

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If he loses, however, party ideologues will take a wholly different view, and argue he was insufficiently conservative. Exhibit A will be his handling of Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee. The choice implied that Romney would run as an unabashed conservative. Then he distanced himself from Ryan's signature policies, most notably his plans to privatise Social Security and to introduce Medicare vouchers.

For all the talk from Karl Rove during the Bush Administration of creating a 'permanent Republican majority', the GOP is on the wrong side of demography. Its hard line on immigration has obviously alienated Hispanics. Its tough stance on abortion has put off many women. As Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian reminds us, if Romney loses, it would be the third out of four presidential elections where the GOP has failed to win the popular vote. The party is in danger of suffering the same slump in presidential politics as the Democrats experienced in the late-1960s and early 1970s following their lurch to the left. The GOP won five out of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.

In the short term, a return to more centrist policies is unlikely. On Capitol Hill, the GOP will suffer a further depletion of its dwindling  ranks. Some leading moderates, like Olympia Snowe of Maine, have retired. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana was ousted in a Tea Party challenge. Another GOP moderate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has also damaged his chances of one day becoming the party's presidential nominee by being so fulsome in his praise of Obama's post-Hurricane Sandy response.

In an otherwise negative and uninspiring campaign, the sight of this self-styled Republican attack dog embracing the President provided one of its most arresting moments. But it also spoke of the problem that besets America's increasingly dysfunctional politics. It took a storm with the destructive power of Sandy to deliver this fleeting moment of bipartisanship.

Photo by Flickr user edebell.


'Can Malala Bring Peace to Pakistan and Afghanistan?' asked The New Yorker earlier this month in a blog post by Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist whose words are followed more closely than any other commentator in the region.

Ahmed described the strength of public revulsion at the Pakistani Taliban's attempted assassination of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, which came to the fore in marches, vigils and their social media equivalents. With demands growing for the army to launch an assault on the Taliban strongholds of North and South Waziristan, he saw in it a moment of opportunity for a military that has often sponsored the very Jihadists that pose such a threat to the country.

'Since 9/11 the Pakistani military has failed to adopt a comprehensive strategy toward terrorism and extremism,' he wrote. 'Is this the moment for one to develop?'

In a country whose international image has largely been defined by its military and militants, the attack on Malala has prompted Pakistan's 'missing middle' to assert itself more strongly. Members of the educated middle class, who have often been bystanders, have reacted especially angrily. As the BBC's M Ilyas Khan notes, it was 'one of those rare incidents that seems to be galvanising public opinion against the militants'. 

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Public anger has led to military action in the past, most notably in 2009 when some 80,000 troops swept into the Swat Valley to flush out extremists after a video had been aired showing the Pakistani Taliban flogging a woman. What now?

For years, the Pakistan military has been ignoring American and NATO demands for a similar clamp down on the Taliban in Waziristan. But the generals, for all their contempt of democracy, have found it hard to resist the will of their own people when it is expressed so strongly. In a sign that the military was attuned to public feeling, the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, visited Malala in hospital before she was airlifted to Britain: 'We refuse to bow before terror,' he said afterwards. 'We will fight, regardless of the cost. We will prevail.'

Maybe. By the end of last week, Declan Walsh of The New York Times, another long-time Pakistan watcher, was reporting that the 'Malala moment' had passed. '[T]he backlash against Ms Yousafzai had already started in earnest,' he wrote. 'The religious right attacked the wounded schoolgirl, circulating images on the Internet that showed her meeting senior American officials and implying that she was an American agent.'

On the political front, Walsh also noted that the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement was the only party to organise rallies against the Taliban: 'A stark contrast with the violent riots that seized the country weeks earlier in reaction to an American-made video insulting the Prophet Muhammad.'

The 'Malala moment' poses an interesting, if often neglected, question for western policymakers: what can be done to boost Pakistan's moderate middle? How can the people so outraged by Malala's shooting be given a stronger and more lasting voice?

In a recent essay for The Washington Quarterly, Reversing Pakistan's Descent: Empowering its Middle Class, Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, addresses this precise issue. Among other initiatives, she calls upon the State Department to harness Pakistani diaspora groups in America, to encourage a greater number of exchanges under its International Visitor Program and to open up the US textile market to Pakistan firms, which would bolster the ranks of the middle class. 'The middle class has both the desire for change,' she argues, 'and, in time, the potential to bring greater influence to bear on the elites to effect this change.' The problem, she says, is that Washington has played the short game rather than the long and dealt with the military rather than devoting enough effort to achieving wider societal change.

Empowering the middle class could certainly help end the country's India fixation, which lies at the root of the military's support for Jihadist groups who have been such useful proxies in the 'Great Game' power struggle with Delhi.

In one of my happier assignments in the country, I saw this for myself at a one-day cricket international between India and Pakistan in 2004, a game that marked the end of the cricketing drought between the two rivals that started after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.

Pakistanis, rather than going in for the usual face-paint nationalism, turned up with the flags of both nations daubed on their cheeks. Many carried aloft banners with messages such as 'We Wish Friendship Forever'. Someone had sewn together a massive flag combining the Indian and Pakistani colours, featuring the slogan 'One blood'.

Most remarkable of all was the near delirious response to the scions of India’s most famous political dynasty, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, who appeared in the stands joyfully brandishing the Indian tricolour. This in a city that their grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had bombed during the 1971 war. It was almost as improbable as watching the Bush twins turn up at a soccer match in Baghdad and receiving a standing ovation.

 The optimism that I left the ground with that evening proved short-lived. In the eight years since, Pakistan has become more radical and dangerous. It looks as if the Malala moment has proved just as fleeting. As the BBC's M Ilyas Khan notes: 'At a time when the US is talking about an endgame in Afghanistan, the attack on Malala puts the Pakistani government in a difficult spot. If it deals a decisive blow to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, some elements within the establishment fear they would lose any leverage they might have in the future settlement of Afghanistan.' For the Pakistan military, regional 'Great Game' politics will always win out.

Photo by Reuters. 


Is there a diplomatic dividend to reap from going viral? Or, put another way, will 15 minutes of parliamentary invective deliver more than 15 minutes of global fame for Julia Gillard?

From Britain's The Telegraph to Andrew Sullivan's hotly read blog, The Daily Dish; from The New Yorker to Stephen Fry's Twitter feed, the acclaim has been near universal. Writing in the left-leaning Salon, Natasha Lennard noted: 'If only the US could borrow Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to take on Congress' misogynist caucus.' Writing in the right-leaning Spectator, Alex Massie observed: 'Abbott does not look best amused. But then he's just been carved to pieces.' The American feminist website Jezebel, came up with the most vivid description, calling the Prime Minister a 'badass motherf----r'.

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Journalists, at a time when their own worth is ever more judged by how many page views they can muster, tend to warm to an internet sensation. The ricochet effect of social media has made the Gillard speech resonate even further. Certainly, she has achieved a global star power that she didn't enjoy previously.

There is a certain irony that a speech in Parliament House in Canberra has had more of a global impact than her address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But it hammers home an important truth of diplomacy in the digital age: the internet means that any venue is potentially a global stage.

On the public diplomacy front, the effect has been pretty much instantaneous. Certainly, it has lent an unexpected frisson to her trip to India, a country where celebrity is of especially high currency. Were it not for the speech, I very much doubt whether the influential Indian newspaper The Hindu would have allotted so much space on its editorial page for her visit. As it was, Ratna Kapur greeted her arrival with a five star review: 'Gillard's speech has been hailed as a pivotal moment not only in Australian politics, but also globally,' she wrote, 'as it is rare for a woman leader to make such a forthright speech on sexism in public life.'

My sense is that the guest bookers on British and American television would have taken notice, as well. Let us hope the Prime Minister's office, which has tended to neglect the growing corps of Australia-based international media, returns their calls.

So far, as I wrote last month, Julia Gillard has been more of a Billy McMahon than a Kevin Rudd in terms of her diplomatic impact. By her own admission, domestic affairs have been the priority, a narrow view shared by Tony Abbott. But the Canberra speech has greatly amplified her global voice.

Nor has its grubby context, a motion touching on Peter Slipper's horrid text messages, undercut its appeal abroad. As if to prove the point, a Guardian editorial in praise of the Gillard speech originally got the background story badly wrong and suggested the former Speaker had sent offensive texts to a female staffer.

For Tony Abbott, a possible future prime minister, there is obviously a downside. The speech gives him a certain international infamy. The 15-minute YouTube clip, rounding 2 million views and counting, renders him virtually speechless. His opponent has defined him, wholly negatively – neanderthally even. Here, perhaps, there is succour to draw from the first time Kevin Rudd generated a swathe of global headlines, following revelations about his drunken night at a New York strip club (his famed ear wax video also gained over 800,000 YouTube hits).

Internet fame can be startlingly short-lived. Twitter moves on at a hurtling pace. Fifteen megabytes of fame are even more fleeting than 15 minutes. For the Prime Minister, the challenge in global terms is to turn this into something more significant than a Julia Gillard moment. 

Photo of Julia Gillard at Ozfest in India by Auspic via Flickr user Julia Gillard.


Covering a presidential campaign is at once the most thrilling and mind-numbing of journalistic experiences. Reporters are subjected to the same stump speech so often, many are able within a few weeks not only to ventriloquise its wording but also to identify the lines at which the candidate's wife will nod in empathetic agreement. Still, few would surrender their front row seat on the most entertaining electoral show on earth: a carnival that moves from state to battleground state, from one flag-bedecked high school gym to the next.

Reporters serve as fact-checkers, gaffe-spotters, rapid response pundits and the authors of narratives that come to shape and define the contest. They have become participants as well as spectators: setting expectations, handicapping the race and adjudicating, with the help of polling, who is up and who is down. Importantly, the storylines they produce often accord with the type of race they ideally wish to cover.

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During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, for example, the press favoured Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, according to a study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, partly because the election of the first black president was deemed a better story than the election of the first female. In 2000, Al Gore received poor coverage, I thought at the time, because journalists had decided that a Bush restoration was more compelling than a continuation of the Clinton era without its charismatic leading man. In an electoral reworking of the old 'if it bleeds, it leads' principle, candidates are often assessed on the basis of their news value – even, to put it another way, their journalistic entertainment value.

Journalists also like shifting storylines. Asked before the presidential debate what Mitt Romney had going for him, my first thought was the boredom of the campaign press pack. They wanted a tighter race and were itching to write the comeback narrative. President Obama, with his languid performance, more than obliged.

The amped-up tone of much of the post-debate commentary, however, revealed the lurching nature of modern-day coverage. In the space of a few days, the 'Obama cruising to victory' narrative was replaced by 'Obama sleepwalking to defeat'. 'Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion,' wrote Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast. '[O]n the core issues of the economy and the deficit, Romney is now kicking the president's ass.' The piece was entitled Did Obama Just Thow The Entire Election Away? The headline for a blog post only a few days before the debate was: Is Romney The Weakest Candidate In Modern History?

In this age of concertinaed news cycles, journalists also favour plenty of plot developments. It helps explain the boom and bust Republican primary season, where Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain rose quickly to the top and then fell away just as quickly. True, these candidates were ultimately eliminated by voters – they do still get the decisive say – but journalists also played a role in building them up and knocking them down.

So as the race reaches its climax, I am reminded of two pieces of advice a colleague was kind enough to pass along when beginning a posting in South Asia. The first was to protect my health: never drink from a bottle labelled Strong Indian Beer. The second was to protect my professional reputation: never try to predict the outcome of an Indian election. It's a rule worth applying universally, as the Romney fightback has reminded us again. 

Photo by Flickr user US Mission Geneva.