Lowy Institute

The Lowy Institute has released new polling data about Australian attitudes to foreign aid. From the media release:

New Lowy Institute polling released today shows  the majority of Australians are in favour of the recent cuts to Australia's overseas aid budget. Although nearly one in five express strong opposition to the budget reductions to overseas aid (19% saying they are 'strongly against' the reductions), only 35% of Australians overall oppose the reductions to the aid budget, and 53% are in favour.

Views on the generosity of Australia's aid program vary considerably across age groups, with younger Australians far more inclined to be critical of the level of the aid budget. 

When asked last weekend about the $1 billion reduction to the aid budget , only 33% of 18-29 year- olds (compared with 58% of those aged 30 and over) support the reduction, while 42%  — though still not a majority — of that age group oppose the cuts. In our annual Poll survey in February/March, 34% of 18-29 year-olds said that the 2014-15 aid budget was 'not enough', compared with only 17% of those aged over 30. 

Australians, it should be remembered, are pretty confused about how much money the Government actually spends on foreign aid, as Charlie Pickering memorably explained on the ABC a few weeks ago.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


An American genius on the edge of madness? A Cold War backdrop? It's A Beautiful Mind, Part II.  Or, to give it it's official title, Pawn Sacrifice, the story of chess master Bobby Fischer:

Looks OK, but the Cold War thriller I'm really looking forward to, long rumoured but seemingly perpetually 'in development', is Reykjavik, about the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at which the two leaders almost agreed to abolish their entire nuclear arsenals. Wikipedia says it will star Michael Douglas as Reagan and Christph Waltz as Gorbachev. C'mon Hollywood, you can do this!

(H/t Slashfilm.)


Given yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister that his Government would legislate within weeks to revoke Australian citizenship from dual-nationality terrorists, it is worth revisiting three Interpreter pieces on whether this is a useful weapon in the fight against terrorism. First, here's a February 2015 piece by former senior Australian immigration official Peter Hughes, now with the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU, who is against the proposal:

To deal with the jihadist problem, the Government already has available to it criminal sanctions as well as the ability to withhold or cancel travel documents. So what difference would it make to the jihadist cause if the Australian Government could revoke Australian citizenship for dual nationals?

In practice, it would likely be a very limited tool. There is little or no public information which tells us whether or not the jihadists about whom our security agencies are concerned are dual nationals. If they are not, the proposed change in the law would be irrelevant...

...Even if the citizenship of some dual nationals of concern in Australia could be revoked, this does not necessarily mean they would leave Australia. One course open to them may be to rid themselves of their second citizenship by renouncing it so that they were no longer dual nationals. In some cases, foreign governments refuse to accept their own nationals back if the person concerned does not want to return voluntarily.

If the person is outside Australia when their citizenship is revoked, return to Australia is prevented, but the Government already has some capacity to prevent this with denial of Australian travel documents. Either way, the individual would be free to pursue extremist causes and political violence elsewhere.

The Lowy Institute's Rodger Shanahan sees one often overlooked reason for this proposed legislation:

The possession of Australian citizenship rightly imposes limitations on how much information Australia's spy agencies can collect, and perhaps more importantly who they can share it with. There have already been legislative amendments to strengthen the intelligence-collection powers of these agencies, but dealing with non-citizens gives them much greater flexibility in sharing information.

So, rather than dual citizens simply becoming someone else's problem or able to undertake violent actions elsewhere, such a move may actually free up Australian authorities to address the problem by sharing information on foreign fighters or terrorists who were formerly Australian citizens.

This may simply mean that the former dual citizen can be arrested and jailed, or deported to their remaining country of nationality. But it may also mean they are killed in a counter-terrorist military operation. In fact, there has been criticism in the UK that people stripped of their citizenship have been killed in drone strikes shortly after, and that the information that enabled their targeting was only released to the US after they were no longer UK citizens. I think this is the more appropriate discussion to be having, rather than a civil libertarian one.

Here's Peter Hughes again in August 2014:

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Some years ago there were calls to revoke the Australian citizenship of suspected World War II war criminals in the hope that this would get them out of the country. We 'knew' they were guilty but couldn't actually prove it through a criminal justice process, so it was argued that an administrative decision under the Australian Citizenship Act would function as a work-around. The idea was never adopted, for good reason: there was no guarantee that anyone who lost their Australian citizenship in that way would actually be allowed to return to another country.

It is not clear what the expected outcome would be of the 'citizenship solution'. Revoking the Australian citizenship of someone engaged in jihadist activity would deny further access to Australia but would not stop the person from engaging in political violence elsewhere. Only prosecution, conviction and incarceration, whether overseas or in Australia, would achieve that.

Citizenship solutions are always harder in practice than they look.


Courtesy of Marginal Revolution, a short video on the results of an experiment in India in which schoolgirls under 14 were given bikes. Did it lead to higher enrollments?

Another big factor in girls' school attendance in India is sanitation. This Mahatma Gandhi Centre booklet claims 24% of girls drop out of school each year due to lack of toilets. It's hard to see the data backing up this specific claim, though clearly a lack of school toilets is a big problem in India, and it affects girls disproportionately.


Greg Sheridan writes today that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about US Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.

I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the US–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:

...US Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.

Sheridan criticises Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, 'There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.'

We're in the realm of wordplay here. The US-Australia Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various US spy agencies. And while the US Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the US military presence in Australia.

Sheridan then writes:

The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.

Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.

But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host US strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.

Does that sound at all convincing to you? No, me neither.

Photo by Flickr user US Air Force.


The US has taken its concerns with China's island reclamation efforts public by giving a CNN crew access to one of its brand-new P-8 surveillance aircraft as it monitors the South China Sea. You really do get a sense of how delicate the situation is, and how easily things could escalate from a misunderstanding or an accident.


Last Friday we got a sense of how fraught Australia's foreign-policy position is becoming between its major strategic partner (the US) and its major economic partner (China), when a senior Penatgon official declared that the US was going to put B-1 bombers on Australian soil. The official 'misspoke', it turns out, though the sensitivity of the issue was revealed by the fact that none less than the Prime Minister hosed the matter down publicly within hours.

Part of what made the issue so sensitive is that, according to the media, at least, the Pentagon's B-1 gambit was linked explicitly to Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea. Yesterday the Lowy Institute hosted an in-depth discussion on that fraught territorial dispute with two of its non-resident fellows, Linda Jakobson and Bonnie Glaser, as well as the director of the Institute's East Asia Program, Merriden Varrall. You can listen to the 60-minute podcast here, or click below to listen to a short interview I did with Bonnie Glaser yesterday on this topic.

(NB: A couple of issues referenced in the interview which are worth linking to: first, the Wall St Journal article from 12 May regarding possible US military deployments to the South China Sea, and second, quotes from China's navy chief inviting the US to use the facilities China is now building in the South China Sea.)


There are a few tables left for The Interpreter's Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge at the National Press Club in Canberra on 28 May. You can book individually or for a group of up to 10 on the Lowy Institute website. It's only $15, which includes not only plenty of nibbles but also the services of our quiz-master for the night, the ABC's Chris Uhlmann. Drinks will be available for purchase.

Want to mentally limber up for the event? Then try our online quiz, which even challenged some noted policy experts and newshounds (see below). The questions we are writing for the 28 May trivia night will be be a mix of history, pop culture, current events, and even some sport. We'll throw in a few audio-visual questions and some that will require insider knowledge of Canberra.

Look forward to seeing you there.


The Government has posted short videos on its Budget Highlights web-pages to explain the key points of this year's budget. But judging by the video for the national security page, there presumably wasn't a lot of money available for the production, and there certainly wasn't much inspiration:

You really have to wonder what the point is here. The visuals add zero information to the voice-over, and the symbolism is either insultingly laboured or bafflingly inappropriate.

Let's start with the padlock, which we see when the voice-over refers to 'a safe and secure' Australia. Geddit? Then, for some reason, the declaration that the Government is 'determined to fight the threat on multiple fronts' is accompanied by a visual of an exclamation mark inside a triangle, which is usually recognised as the symbol for Work in Progress.

A little further on, things get even more weird: the voice-over refers to stopping terrorism, but that's accompanied by a visual of a newspaper with the headline 'Terrorism' at the top, soon overlaid by a big orange stamp marked 'STOP'. Is this a subtle reference to the Government's metadata laws, which media organisations oppose because they threaten journalists' use of confidential sources?

No time to answer that, as after a few more strained visual metaphors, the video reaches its unintentionally hilarious climax. As the voice-over refers to 'keeping everyone safe and our country secure', the accompanying map of Australia literally falls off the bottom of the screen, like Wile E Coyote plunging into a gorge. All that's missing is a whistling sound followed by a dull thud.

So there you have it: Australia has gone over the cliff, and ISIS didn't have to lift a finger.


Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary about Indonesia's 1965 anti-communist purge, The Act of Killing (see Catriona Croft-Cusworth's excellent piece on the controversy the film created), now has a companion piece:

The synopsis:

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful companion piece to the Oscar®-nominated The Act Of Killing. Through Oppenheimer’s footage of perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This unprecedented film initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


So, prominent business figure Maurice Newman says in today's Australian that climate change is a hoax and that 'It’s about a new world order under the control of the UN. It is opposed to capitalism and freedom and has made environmental catastrophism a household topic to achieve its objective.'

As the bio at the bottom of the piece reminds us, Newman is chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council. And he's not the only one with such views who has the ear of the PM. Here is what Senator Nick Minchin, who masterminded the toppling of former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull because of Turnbull's support for emissions trading, said about climate change in 2009: 'For the extreme left it provides the opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left, and the, and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.' The PM himself, of course, also has somewhat amorphous views on this topic.

The Climate Council's Amanda McKenzie is understandably exasperated:

I'm not sure that's the right question. By now it ought to be pretty clear that climate sceptics are unlikely to be swayed by evidence. In fact, it may be that presenting strong evidence of climate change merely entrenches their views. There may also be strong peer-group reasons why climate sceptics hold the views they do — it would be socially risky to sway too far from their peers, with uncertain benefits. (It's worth remembering, of course, that climate sceptics could apply the same arguments to explain why we are not swayed by their views.)

Also, it's not as if bipartisanship is a necessary precondition for action on climate change. Plenty of major reforms have been enacted throughout Australian history without bipartisan consensus. Nor is the public hostile to the idea of doing something. Annual Lowy polling  since 2006 shows a consistent 40-odd percent rump of Australians agreeing with the proposition that 'global warming is a serious and pressing problem' and that 'we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant cost.' Major political decisions have been made with less public support than that.

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I think a more productive approach is to basically give up trying to change minds and just appeal to people's interests, be they economic or political. On the latter point, events such as last year's US-China agreement and the upcoming Paris Conference may be enough to sway the Government that it must take more serious action on climate change or risk damage to our foreign relations. After all, President Obama says 'there is no greater threat to our planet than climate change'. If Obama makes good on that rhetoric by securing a substantive deal in Paris, then it would be in keeping with the traditions of the US-Australia relationship for Canberra to follow along. Indeed, it would be historically unusual for an Australian government (particularly a Coalition government) to be out of step with Washington on such a major international initiative.

As for economic interests, earlier this week we saw the launch of electric car company Tesla's move into home battery storage systems, a move seen by some as a game-changer for the economics of the energy industry. The jury is out on that claim (read this for the pro case, and read the comments section here for the anti), but it is clear that things are moving rapidly in the right direction, whether it is in battery storage or in the price and efficiency of solar panels. So in time, the financial attractiveness of renewable energy will erode the lobbying power of the economic and political interests arrayed against it. The only question is how quickly this will happen.


Great segment from Charlie Pickering's new show The Weekly:


The Interpreter is joining the real world! We're hosting a live event that we hope will bring together our large and loyal Canberra audience in a fun and informal setting.

We're taking the pub trivia formula and giving it a spit-shine with The Interpreter's Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge, to be held at 6.30pm on 28 May at the National Press Club and hosted by the ABC's political editor Chris Uhlmann.

There will be questions on all aspects of global affairs and current events (and I mean all aspects; there will be plenty of pop culture and sport, all with a world-politics theme). Entry is $15, and you can organise a table of up to 10 people via our events page. Food will be provided and drinks will be available for purchase.

If you want to limber up for the event, why not try the Lowy Institute's first-ever online trivia quiz? It's 15 questions and will take you around five minutes. Let us know your score via the comments section, on Facebook or Twitter.


To end what has been a tragic week in Nepal, a touching video portrait of its people (nb. this was filmed and posted well before the earthquake):

If you would like to help the people of Nepal, there are any number of aid organisations that have launched appeals. But here's aid blogger Chris Blattman's advice on the most effective way to donate.


Earlier this week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a speech at the Sydney Institute in which she made the rather startling claim that terrorism represents 'what I see as the most significant threat to the global rules based order to emerge in the past 70 years - and included in my considerations is the rise of communism and the Cold War.' In fact, she seemed to go further by applying this description specifically to ISIS rather than to terrorism more broadly, though the speech is not completely clear on that point.

Others have already made the case that this is a somewhat ahistorical judgment on Bishop's part. It is also the wrong strategy. In the past I have criticised politicians for inflating the threat of extremist terrorism. It's not only factually incorrect to argue that the threat to Australia is 'existential', it is also counter-productive, because it elevates in status a cause which ought to be treated as much as possible as a criminal threat, not a political one. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak designed to provoke over-reaction from the strong, and rising to  such provocation, even if only rhetorically, just helps the terrorists. After all, the primary cost of terrorism is not in the damage done by the terrorists, but by what we do to ourselves in response. ISIS, for instance, has so far done less damage to Western values than we have done by restricting our own liberties in the name of security. And the cost of al Qaeda's attacks on the US on 9/11 pales in comparison the cost of the wars launched in retaliation to that strike.

I think all of those arguments remain valid. Yet Bishop's references to the Cold War also prompt a different thought about historical perspective.

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When we view the Cold War in its entirety, Bishop's claim that the war against ISIS is the most significant in 70 years is easy to counter because we know so much about how the Cold War developed. As Paul Dibb points out in today's Australian, The Cold War nearly resulted in a nuclear holocaust that might have led to human extinction. It was also marked by proxy wars all over the globe which killed hundreds of thousands. ISIS is a vastly smaller threat than the Soviet empire became.

However, we are only two years into the struggle against ISIS. So if Bishop (and her critics) are going to draw historical analogies with the Cold War, the proper point of comparison is not the 'mature' Cold War of the 1950s through to the 80s, but the early post-World War II stage. Bishop should have made her claim not from the position of historical hindsight, but in comparison to what we knew about the Soviet threat in the early years of the Cold War.

Based on those grounds, her claim might have looked slightly more credible. In 1946, for example, the Soviet Union didn't look all that mighty. It had lost 20 million people in defeating the Nazis, the Soviet economy was on its knees, and it did not yet have the A-bomb. Yet 1946 is the year Winston Churchill delivered a speech which, for many historians, marks the beginning of the Cold War. He warned that 'an iron curtain has descended across the Continent'. Eastern European capitals, he said, lay within a sphere 'subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.'

I am not ready to credit Bishop with Churchillian prescience. I think she's wrong about the scale of the ISIS threat. But if she turns out to be right about ISIS in the way Churchill was right about the Soviet Union, it's worth pointing out that Churchill's speech called on the world to act through the United Nations, including by giving it armed forces, initially in the form of air squadrons from each of its member states ('They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organisation').

That's a bold proposal, to say the least, and what's notable about Bishop's speech is that she proposed nothing remotely as radical to meet this allegedly world-historical threat. Australia has sent a handful of fighter aircraft and a few hundred soldiers to Iraq to fight ISIS, a response Bishop calls 'proportionate and appropriate'. That tells a rather different story about how seriously Bishop takes the ISIS threat.

Photo by Flickr user Morgan Davis.