Lowy Institute

This film, about the impact of contraband American VHS tapes on communist-era Romania, was released last year. The version below, available free on Vimeo and YouTube, runs to 55-odd minutes, but IMDB lists the film as having a running time of 78 minutes, so this may not be the whole thing, but it is a pretty good taste:

From the film's website, here's a synopsis:

In 1980s Romania, thousands of Western films smashed through the Iron Curtain opening a window into the free world for those who dared to look. A black-market VHS racketeer and a courageous female translator brought the magic of film to the people and sparked a revolution.

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This is a trailer for a documentary about the fear of terrorism and the militarisation of the US police. There's a memorable shot near the end which seems to tell the whole story: a heavily armoured ex-military vehicle designed for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq drives down a suburban US street, with the house in the foreground featuring a children's playground and the iconic white picket fence.

Do Not Resist was named best documentary at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

(H/t Slashfilm.)

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After the Australian election, I flirted with the notion of a worldwide trend away from globalisation, but on further reflection I am reluctant to embrace fully any grand theory about global political trends.

First, the notion that Trump, Brexit, the EU crisis and even Australia's near miss with a hung parliament all represent evidence of a single global narrative strikes me as flirting with the Orwell Temptation, the tendency among intellectuals to inflate the significance of contemporary events in order to make themselves feel more important.

Then there is the 'parochialism of the present' — the tendency to believe we are living through uniquely important times. We might, but equally we might be ascribing too  much significance to events just because we happen to be living through them.

Moreover, we shouldn't forget the many local factors at play. It goes without saying that Trump's victory in the GOP primaries was a historical outlier, and a great many small things had to go right for Trump to win. If the dice hadn't rolled just the right way on any one of them, we wouldn't be discussing global trends against liberalism and internationalism.

Still, if you are interested in grand, overarching theories on the state of world politics, this long essay in Slate on the week democracy died is a good example:

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post

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New ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie gave a thoughtful speech at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner last night (read the whole thing here). The Australian's coverage of the speech focused on Guthrie's remarks about the ABC's profile overseas, saying she had 'outlined plans to renew an international expansion into overseas markets like China as part of a “soft power push” to influence Australia’s standing on the world stage.'

As was appropriate on a night honouring Australian foreign correspondents (congratulations to this year's winner, Fairfax Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield, as well as to the shortlisted Amanda Hodge, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Michael Bachelard, Daniel Quinlan, Eric Tlozek, and Philip Wen), Guthrie also talked about the ABC's commitment to reporting world events:

It is far too easy to claim, as some have done, that the instant access to a world of information makes obsolete the need for the ABC to invest in its own coverage and to devote the time, energy and money to explain complex global events. Yes, it is possible to go straight to the New York Times website for the latest Donald Trump outrage or to London’s Financial Times for the next Brexit development.

However, context and relevance are important. What the ABC does through its investment in programs like Q&A and its international reporting infrastructure, is provide Australians with a continuous rich flow of information and analysis, explaining the relevance of events and issues. It can link continents and through its array of programs, delve deep into policy. Hopefully, this contributes to a far more informed domestic debate about security, defence and other matters.

Guthrie's acknowledgment that news consumers have a vast array of options when they want to learn about world events is important, because it cuts against the common narrative (also acknowledged by Guthrie in this speech) that coverage of overseas events by Australia's commercial media outlets is declining. It is clearly true that commercial media outlets are reducing their overseas footprints, yet it is far from clear that news consumers have suffered as a result. In fact, the internet has vastly improved the options open to those of us who follow world news.

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Which raises the question: what unique role can Australian foreign correspondents fill in this environment? Guthrie's answer is that Australian correspondents can bring 'context and relevance' for an Australian audience. The ABC's foreign correspondents, she says, 'provide Australians with a continuous rich flow of information and analysis, explaining the relevance of events and issues'.

If I understand Guthrie correctly, she is saying that coverage of overseas events created specifically for an Australian audience will better speak to the concerns and priorities of Australians. That sounds right to me, yet it raises some important questions, which are illustrated by the examples Guthrie cites.

Trump and Brexit are both huge international stories with any number of shared, global implications that transcend a specifically Australian reading. So do Australian audiences need those angles to be covered by Australian reporters, or can they rely on the significantly greater resources of foreign outlets?

Should the scarce foreign-reporting resources of the Australian media be used to cover big international events in the same thematic way that far larger organisations do, but on a smaller scale? Or should they instead focus on niche stories that are directly relevant to Australia? In the case of Trump, for instance, should ABC reporters cover his views on American gun rights, or should they focus more on what he says about the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

I don't have firm answers to these questions. From a Lowy Institute perch, it is easy to say there should be more focus on our region, and it is easy to bemoan the lack of policy substance in the news media. But the ABC does more than anybody in Australia to cover Asia and to add that policy substance. And we policy wonks also need to acknowledge that journalism is about news — which is to say, it will always focus on breaking events. That agenda will not always align with what us policy purists consider 'important'.

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US presidential race 2016

A couple of times now I have alerted readers to the work of cartoonist Scott Adams, an unusual political observer who dismisses the idea that Trump can be usefully evaluated on conventional political lines (ie. as a politician with qualifications and policy positions), and who insist that we must instead take Trump seriously as a performer and a persuader.

Personally, I don't disparage the more traditional frame of reference for evaluating Trump. James Fallows, for instance, is running an important Trump Time Capsule series on his blog which evaluates Trump's behaviour and positions against what is traditionally considered acceptable in American political discourse. If you haven't seen it, you won't be shocked to hear that Fallows' tone is one of near constant exasperation that Trump is still the GOP candidate, given all the rules he is breaking.

But of course what the Trump candidacy has exposed is the fact that these 'rules' are not really rules at all. They are traditions, conventions, norms. This is the true damage that Trump has wrought. These traditions, conventions and norms are a delicately woven social fabric. They persist not because anyone has the power to enforce them, but because societies over many generations make a collective, implicit decision that they are authoritative. Trump has trashed these traditions and opened the way for others to do the same.

Still, merely understanding what Trump is doing is obviously not enough. The conventional framing of Trump can expose the weakness of his policy positions, and alert us to just how far outside the political mainstream he has gone. But it won't help us understand his appeal or help his opponents defeat him.

This is where videos like the one above are so useful, and also why it is worth extracting some quotes from Scott Adams' latest interview

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...when I saw Trump enter the race, it was clear to me that he would be deeply misinterpreted, all the time. And that his value, whatever it is, would maybe have been missed if he didn’t have someone who wasn’t him explain, “No, these are techniques, not random crazy talk.” Because remember, when he first came in, people thought he was literally just joking. Just acting like a crazy clown. And they kept thinking that until it kept working. And I was explaining it all along the way. You see a lot of other articles now, that are sort of along the same lines of what I’ve been saying, and I think maybe I helped loosen up that line of thinking as legitimate.

A lot of people are pointing to how he focuses energy, and how he activates certain parts of your brain, to turn off your rational thought, stuff like that. I think that, in context, if you say, “My god, he’s hypnotizing the world, that sounds like the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” if you hear me say, “No, we’re all like that all the time, and they’re all trying to influence us; he just has a little better tools,” that sounds like a completely different thing. And I think that’s a valid interpretation.

What's that reference to hypnosis about? Adams explains: 

So you look at Dilbert, for example. You’ll notice that — well, you wouldn’t notice until I told you — you’ll notice that I’m using a hypnosis-inspired technique. Which is, Dilbert doesn’t have a last name. His first name is one you’ve almost never heard. Very few people have that. He doesn’t live in any town that’s specified. The company name is never mentioned, it’s a workplace. You don’t know how old he is. You don’t know his boss’s first or last name, or any of that. And that’s a hypnosis technique, where you stay general, and you let people fill in what they want to fill in. And I did that so people would say, “Hey, that’s my job.” Because I haven’t given them reasons to exclude it.

Remember when we were talking about the Clinton camp saying that Trump was dark? That’s hypnosis. That is deep technique.

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I don't expect to hear political wisdom from Hollywood movie stars, but I loved this quote from Will Smith on yesterday's The Late Show, about US race relations (from 5:23): 'When I hear people say "it's worse than it's ever been", I really disagree completely. It's clearly not as bad as it was in the 60s, and it's certainly not as bad as it was in the 1860s'. Then this line, which deserves its own bumper sticker or hashtag or something: 'Racism isn't getting worse, it's getting filmed'.

Yes, racism is being exposed more often in the US thanks to the ubiquity of small cameras and the internet, and that both helps expose prejudice but also increases the feeling that something major is amiss. It's called availability bias, 'a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person's mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision...people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.' I think this is the point Rodger Shanahan was reaching for last week: we would feel better about our world, or certainly less alarmed, if we stepped back from the torrent of headlines and got some historical perspective.

There's a nice short essay on this topic by Mark Manson (h/t Tyler Cowen):

Cameras, the internet, and most importantly, social media. This is what’s new. This is what’s different. How we’re getting information, what information is reaching us, and most importantly, what information and views we are most rewarded for sharing.

In the attention economy, people are rewarded for extremism. They are rewarded for indulging their worst biases and stoking other people’s worst fears. They are rewarded for portraying the world as a place that is burning to the ground, whether it’s because of gay marriage, or police violence, or Islamic terrorism, or low interest rates. The internet has generated a platform where apocalyptic beliefs are celebrated and spread, and moderation and reason is something that becomes too arduous and boring to stand.

And this constant awareness of every fault and flaw of our humanity, combined with an inundation of doomsayers and narcissistic nihilists commanding our attention space, is what is causing this constant feeling of a chaotic and insecure world that doesn’t actually exist.

And then: it’s this feeling that is the cause of the renewed xenophobia and nationalism across the western world. It’s this feeling of insecurity and chaos that is igniting the platforms of divisive strong-men like Trump, Erdogan, and Putin. It’s this feeling that has consumed the consciousness of millions of people, and caused them to look at their country through the lens of a fun-house mirror: exaggerating all that is wrong and minimizing all that is right.

And this is what disturbs me: the fact that people today, despite living with more safety and wealth and access to information than anyone in human history, feel as though the world is going crazy and something drastic must be changed.

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The philosopher John Gray is always worth reading. Two highlights from his latest book review, first on the rationality of terrorism:

The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Second, what makes ISIS different:

...we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

(H/t The Browser.)

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First-time director Natalie Portman also stars in this adaptation of Israeli novelist Amos Oz's memoir. According to IMDB, the film is 'A story about the childhood of Oz in Jerusalem and his youth in the Kibbutz during the British Mandate and the first days of the state of Israel. The plot describes the relationship between young Oz to his mother and his first steps as a writer.'

A Tale of Love and Darkness is about to be released in the US (I just discovered it via the US site SlashFilm), though it seems to have debuted in Australia late last year.

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It was billed as a major foreign policy address. But while US Vice-President Joe Biden's just-completed remarks at the Paddington Town Hall in Sydney didn't quite live up to that billing, it did have its points of interest. Biden's mood was subdued, stoical and above all reassuring: America was in Asia for the long haul. There was lots of standard-issue uplift ('instead of asking "Why?", Australians and Americans ask "Why not?') and even a rhetorical flourish about refusing to 'worship at the shrine of orthodoxy'. And as you would expect, there was plenty of generous praise for the US-Australia alliance.

 

My first impression is that Biden didn't say anything particularly novel about the regional security situation or America's commitment to the region. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the speech, as regards Asia Pacific security, was just how emphatic Biden was about America's continuing regional commitment. Again, none of this was new, but it was a point of emphasis that was no doubt aimed at Beijing and other regional capitals. Biden began by talking up America's military capabilities: it's unmatched ability to project naval and air power all over the world, and its intention to maintain a qualitative edge for years to come. And America was planning to move more of its most advanced capabilities to the Pacific, he said.

Biden then talked about America's commitment to maintaining the 'rules-based order' in the region, a phrase that is also popular in Australia. It's worth checking out these two pieces about how the Chinese read this phrase.

As for America's commitment to the region, Biden said several times that the US is a Pacific nation; 'we will maintain that posture as long as we exist', he said. Repeating President Obama's phrase from Canberra in 2011, Biden said 'We are all in' and that the US is 'not going anywhere'... because 'our presence essential to maintaining peace and stability...America is the lynchpin.'

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Biden also used a phrase from his grandfather: 'with the Grace of God and goodwill of the neighbours', America's presence in the region would endure. I'm not sure that he intended it, but that oblique reference to the goodwill of the neighbours was as near as Biden got to acknowledging that some countries in the region (OK, just one) might actually object to America's 'lynchpin' status and its promise to stay forever. It would have been fascinating to hear Biden address in detail the tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea and other regional security issues.

A few other stray points of interest: Biden boasted that he had spent more time than any world leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And in describing the US-Australia alliance, he mentioned intelligence sharing and referred to the 'Five eyes' community. That's not a term which used to appear in the public utterances of any leader from those five countries. Thank you Edward Snowden.

Also on the alliance, Biden said it was a measure of the closeness of our two militaries that Australian military commanders had been put directly in charge of US troops. 'We don't let that happen very often', he said to chuckles. He emphasised that there was 'no daylight between our fighting forces', which is exactly what worries some people here in Australia who prefer that Australia is not so closely tied to US military decision-making.

Near the end of the speech, Biden turned to domestic matters: 'Don't worry about our election; the better angels will prevail'.

It was a tone of reassurance and comfort which matched the rest of the speech. But to bring comfort is also an acknowledgment that comfort is required. Evidently the Vice-President and his advisers judged that allies and friends in the region needed to be reminded that America's economic and military strength is enduring, and need to be assured that, in its presidential politics, the US is not lurching towards demagoguery. That in itself is a worrying sign.

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A new documentary about Stuxnet and cyberwarfare:

Here's the NY Times review, and here's the Metacritic page, where it is scoring very well.

(Thanks Brendan.)

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Former prime minister John Howard was in excellent form at yesterday's press conference in response to the release of the Chilcot Report. He'd received so many media requests, he said, that he thought it was a better idea to address them all at once. So he was certainly not running away from what at first glance looks like an awkward issue (he was on Lateline last night too). Howard is tied by friendship and history to a president who made what is widely considered to be the most disastrous US foreign policy decision since Vietnam. Yet at yesterday's press conference he parried and thrusted effortlessly.

But really, why wouldn't he? Howard is on sure and certain ground when confronted with the question of whether his government lied about Iraq's WMD stockpiles. No, he replies indignantly, he did not lie. He relied on the best information available about Iraqi WMD, supplied by the cream of the Western intelligence services, and it turned out to be wrong. Governments make decisions with the information they have to hand, he argues, and without the luxury of hindsight.

In short, when Howard's motives are questioned, he has a strong rebuttal. But instead of asking whether Howard was honest in the way he presented the case against Iraq, we should be asking whether his decision to enter the war was right and reasonable based on what was known at the time. In other words, it's not a question of integrity but of judgment.

The Iraq war was illegal and immoral, in my view, and not because of its outcomes but in its inception. This was knowable at the time and was argued by those at the fringes of the mainstream debate. That the war was a strategic error is a more difficult judgment if we rely only on information available then. That Australia's involvement was a strategic error is a more difficult judgment still. After all, Australia risked very little in Iraq, suffered no combat deaths, and yet elevated its stature in the US alliance. Against that we must weigh Paul Keating's argument that Australia's involvement in Iraq has increased the terrorist threat to Australia.

But the true failure of judgment here is that the shock of the 9/11 overwhelmed Howard, Bush and Blair, causing them to vastly overstate the threat posed by terrorism — John Howard's speech to the Lowy Institute marking the tenth anniversary of the war illustrates the point, as does this video of Condaleezza Rice arguing with a student.

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Al Qaeda was never an existential threat to any of those three countries, even had it been armed with chemical or biological weapons. Nuclear weapons? Well, that's different, but the chance that a terrorist group could build or acquire a nuclear weapon has always been remote. Nuclear weapons are in a class of their own in terms of destructiveness, and the fact that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were conflated into a catch-all  'WMD' category in the lead-up to the war skewed the debate badly.

The bigger point here is that invading and occupying Iraq was a massive over-reaction to the serious but manageable terrorist threat. Bush, Blair and Howard should have known that.

Photo: Getty Images/Pool

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Politicians often talk loosely about terrorism as an 'existential threat', which is a vast overstatement — terrorists don't have the capability to undermine the character and essential functions of advanced nation-states. Unless those terrorists have nuclear weapons. Here's a short video narrated by former US defence secretary William Perry about a nuclear terrorist threat to the US:

Perry is these days head of the William J Perry Project, dedicated to a world in which nuclear weapons are never used again. He's the author of a new book which argues that the threat posed by nuclear weapons has been dangerously understated in recent years. Here's a review by California Governor Jerry Brown.

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Election Interpreter 2016

And here it is, courtesy of the ABC:

Australia's pundits may still treat the idea of hung parliaments and minority government as an aberration (I can't help noting Insiders host Barrie Cassidy's air of contempt on yesterday's program, when he said a circus tent would need to be erected on the lawns of parliament to accommodate the rabble Australians have just elected), but it looks more like the new normal.

As the chart shows, Australians have been moving away from the two major parties for decades now. And what happens when the lines of the major parties starts to intersect with that of the minors and independents? Well, as former Labor leader Kim Beazley said on the Nine Network election broadcast on Saturday night, we may be only two elections away from a Trump-like disruption in Australian politics (I'm paraphrasing from memory; I can't see that Beazley's words have been picked up anywhere).

We need to get used to the fact that the minor parties and independents are going to have a much bigger say over Australian policy in future, and that includes in foreign and national security policy. Would a minority government have joined the Iraq war in 2003? Would it have signed the various bilateral trade deals we have agreed to over the last few years, or the TPP? Would it have allowed a relatively rapid return to good relations with Jakarta after populist disruptions over causes such as the Chan-Sukumaran executions? Would it support higher defence spending?

These are just some of the specific policy questions we will need to grapple with in years to come, though it seems that overlaying them is a nagging uncertainty Australians feel about their place in the world. One of the Australian political shibboleths laid to rest by this campaign is that, in times of economic uncertainty and disruption, votes turn to Coalition governments for reassurance. But as I noted last week, far from reassuring Australians after the Brexit earthquake, Prime Minister Turnbull took the opportunity to remind them of the fragility of the global economic system and Australia's place within it. Incredibly, as Katharine Murphy pointed out in the early hours of Sunday, in his very first speech after the election, Prime Minister Turnbull chose to double down on this theme:

Early on Sunday morning, Malcolm Turnbull looked out to the Australian electorate and expressed his own profound alienation from the lived experiences of the losers of globalisation – the people who had flocked to Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson and to Labor on the basis that the ALP had climbed down partially from the neoliberal pedestal constructed by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Voters needed to understand the reality that the winners of globalisation always insist they accept, Turnbull said, fists clenched, in a hotel ballroom on the other side of midnight. They needed to take their lumps. “The circumstances of Australia cannot be changed by a lying campaign from the Labor party,” Turnbull said.

“The challenges, the fact that we live in times of rapid economic change, of enormous opportunity, enormous challenges, a time when we need to be innovative, when we need to be competitive, when we need to be able to seize those opportunities – those times are there.”

If this is what Turnbull thinks globalisation means for Australia, then it seems voters don't want it. Since the 1980s, both major parties have committed themselves to the path of global economic openness and competitiveness. If they want to sustain that legacy and build on it, they had better find a new way to explain it to Australians, and fast.

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Election Interpreter 2016

The Brexit vote exposes two interlinked issues which determine Australia's place in the world, and which are both vulnerable to fluctuations in support: immigration and globalisation. Australians are ambiguous about both, yet Malcolm Turnbull knows each is central to Australia's prosperity in the 21st century. But does Turnbull have the rhetorical tools and the political vision to manage this tension? His reaction to the Brexit vote leaves some doubts. His interview with 7:30's Leigh Sales is a case in point:

It’s a reminder Leigh of a point I often make that we are living in a period of rapid economic change; we’re living in a period of volatility. We have to embrace that.

Since Turnbull had made the enthusiastic acceptance of globalisation part of his personal brand and election pitch, he had no choice but to double down when the Brexit vote threatened to undermine his rosy 'never been a more exciting time to be an Australian' view of the future. Yet 'embracing volatility' doesn't sound like a lot of fun. In fact, it sounds rather pitiless, a vision of the future in which, if we relax for even a moment, the nation slips and is crushed underfoot as others clamber up. The opposite of 'relaxed and comfortable', you might say.

But according to Turnbull, even constant vigilance might not be enough. Post-Brexit, the PM asked voters to back his party in order to ensure economic stability in a 'global economy over which we have no control.' The use of 'control' here is rather telling, as 'taking back control' was the central theme of the Leave campaign, appealing to a segment of the British population that considered itself disempowered. Turnbull was essentially arguing that there is no alternative to our loss of control, and that turning our back on globalisation in order to reassert control would ultimately be self-defeating.

He's right, but whether voters are prepared to accept this is an open question.

Interviewer Leigh Sales pressed Turnbull on exactly this point by asking whether all this volatility was a bit unsettling to voters. Her subtext seemed to be that Brexit showed an inclination to withdraw from globalisation rather than embrace it. Turnbull responded:

...if you look at the cases made by people like Boris Johnson, it is very much about Britain being able to better engage in the 21st century, freed from the shackles of bureaucratic Europe and better able to embrace the world.

Well, that's one way of spinning it. Another is that Brexit was a vote to hit the brakes on globalisation and what its critics call the 'neoliberal agenda'. But if there is such a movement, the early reaction to the Brexit referendum demonstrates that it is rather inchoate — it has nowhere to go because, as in Australia, neither of the two major parties in Britain offer a substantive alternative to the neoliberal consensus.

The other proximate cause of the Brexit vote, of course, was mass migration. Here we hit on a second point of comparison with Australia, with some commentators fearing the anti-immigrant sentiment that animated the Leave campaign could also find voice here.

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In a sense, our problem is less acute. Australia is a nation founded on immigration and its modern cousin, multiculturalism. And compared to Britain, our pre-existing identity, one formed before the days of mass immigration and to which older voters might long to return, is weaker. There is no nostalgic past for Australia to go back to, which gives us a lot of ballast when anti-immigrant sentiment occasionally crops up.

But it also means there is no real alternative to an outward-looking Australia — our immigrant identity can't be disentangled from our economic and diplomatic engagement with the world. So if Australia is going to stay on the high-immigration, open-Australia path, our national leader needs to navigate it. And calls for Australia to 'embrace uncertainty' and accept our lack of control will hardly do when those are the very sentiments which lit the fire under the Brexit campaign. The government seems to accept this logic well enough when it comes to 'controlling our borders', yet the economy is exempted.

Turnbull could fashion himself as a middle-ground response to anxieties about globalisation and immigration. That doesn't mean turning his back on globalisation but on presenting an agenda that deals with current economic realities rather than arguing, as his party so often does, that Australia still needs to win the deregulation fights of the 1990s (George Megolagenis makes this argument in his latest Quarterly Essay).

But Turnbull is no free agent. He may protest that he hasn't changed since becoming leader of his party again, but clearly that's not what voters think. His foreign-policy stance illustrates the point: in the years preceding his ascent to the prime ministership, there was a clear streak of independence in Turnbull's views on the rise of China and the place of the US in the Asia Pacific, which as Prime Minister has been pretty thoroughly weeded out.

Remember when Turnbull used to appear on Q&A as a charismatic alternative to Tony Abbott? He would get a question about why, given his obvious disaffection with his own side, he didn't just form his own party. There would be hearty applause and Turnbull would beam at the attention before putting on his serious face and stating his commitment to the Liberal Party and its leadership.

But TV is a visual medium, and it's possible that what viewers took away from such vignettes was not just Turnbull's words but also the smile that preceded them. And just maybe the message they took was that, although the idea of founding an entirely new party was impractical (because the voting system in the lower house favours the duopoly), Turnbull could, if given the opportunity, create a new party from inside the old one. For a public showing record-high levels of disaffection with the two major parties (Newspoll recently recorded the highest support for independents and minor parties in its 31-year history) it was an attractive message, one which propelled Turnbull to astronomical approval figures in his early months as PM. The subsequent descent of those numbers suggests the public sees Turnbull as having been co-opted by his party rather than the other way around.

Turnbull might have hoped that a big election victory would loosen those shackles, but that doesn't seem likely now. Still, he has two possible opportunities. The first is a hung parliament in which he is forced to ally with independents or minor parties in order to govern. This will give him a good excuse to embrace a new agenda. The second opportunity is the same-sex marriage plebiscite — an overwhelming victory could allow him to silence his internal opponents.

All of this presupposes that there is 'another Turnbull', an ambitious moderniser with a clear vision for the nation and his party. It is quite possible of course that, as Gertrude Stein had it, there's no there there. The 'other Turnbull' may be a mirage. We will know soon enough.

Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Image

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