Lowy Institute
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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Election Interpreter 2016

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

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

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The Brexit referendum

Daniel Woker writes on these pages that the Brexit campaign 'lack(s) any intellectually sound argument'. Judging by how difficult it has been for my colleagues and I at The Interpreter to find writers who favour the Leave campaign, it is tempting to agree. And The Interpreter is not alone: we have consulted editors around the world, and they are having the same problem finding writers to make a cogent case for the Leave campaign.

Why is this?I'm sceptical of the claim that there is 'no sound argument'. Perhaps there is a sound argument, but we are just not hearing it.

This might be a class issue, with professional writers and policy analysts being mainly in the Stay camp, while the Leave camp is composed of people who ordinarily don't write for a living. We carried a pro-Brexit piece earlier in the week by political analyst Richard Johnson who argued that the Labour Party is woefully out of step with a large portion of its supporters on this issue: 'One-third of Labour supporters will be voting "Leave" on 23rd June. Most of these come from the party's working-class base and are at serious risk of defection to other parties, especially UKIP'. The Guardian also has a stark statistic about the class divide in the Brexit debate:

Voters in professional “AB” grade occupations are strongly in favour of staying in Europe (57%-38%), whereas skilled manual workers (C2s) are plumping for leave by an emphatic 67% to 29% margin.

So if publications such as this one are finding it hard to identify professional pundits to make the case for Brexit, that means the case against Brexit is being over-represented. That's concerning for the health of the public debate. But what's also interesting is that this apparent over-representation is evidently not having a decisive impact on the public debate, given that British public opinion is on a knife-edge but trending towards Leave.

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For the record, there are thought-provoking and rigorous arguments being made in favour of Brexit. The best I have seen comes from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph:

My Europhile Greek friend Yanis Varoufakis and I both agree on one central point, that today's EU is a deformed halfway house that nobody ever wanted. His solution is a great leap forward towards a United States of Europe with a genuine parliament holding an elected president to account. Though even he doubts his dream. "There is a virtue in heroic failure" he said.

I do not think this is remotely possible, or would be desirable if it were, but it is not on offer anyway. Six years into the eurozone crisis and there is no a flicker of fiscal union: no eurobonds, no Hamiltonian redemption fund, no pooling of debt, and no budget transfers. The banking union belies its name. Germany and the creditor states have dug in their heels.

Where we concur is that the EU as constructed is not only corrosive but ultimately dangerous, and that is the phase we have now reached as governing authority crumbles across Europe. The Project bleeds the lifeblood of the national institutions, but fails to replace them with anything lovable or legitimate at a European level. It draws away charisma, and destroys it. This is how democracies die.

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Photo by Kate Green/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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Anne-Marie Balbi says of the Orlando shootings that 'So intense and regular is media coverage of such incidents that the impact is being muted. The terrorists are failing in their goal of instilling fear because to feel fear we need to be human and each mass shooting diminishes our humanity.'

But if that was true, why didn't the terrorists give up long ago? There have been a number of mass-casualty atrocities in Western cities since 9/11, and each one get blanket media coverage. If this sequence was somehow degrading our sense of humanity and thus undermining the terrorists' goals, we ought to be seeing some evidence of that by now in terrorist tactics. And yet the targeting of innocent civilians persists, partly because the terrorists understand how highly we value life.

What is the evidence that humanity places ever higher value on life? Look at the enormous advances made in life expectancy in recent decades in the West and around the world. Look at the huge strides made in education, so that individuals can live meaningful and productive lives. Look at the shift in Western societies to a post-industrial economic model which puts human capital rather than machinery at the centre of production, thus increasing the economic value of life. And when jihadists see Western military forces operating in the Middle East, what do they observe? Massive investment in technology and tactics (everything from body armour to satellite-operated drones) designed to protect soldiers from harm because they are so valuable and the costs of losing them are so high.

Anne-Marie Balbi goes on to say that 'Recent events, be it hooligans at a soccer game or the bashing of atheists in Bangladesh, are proof that around the globe the normative barriers that stop people crossing the line to the use of violence are eroding.' Evidence, maybe, but proof? How does Anne-Marie reconcile her claim with the fact that deaths as a result of war have been in steady decline for decades now? What about the growing stigmatisation of racial violence and violence against women? (Just one data-point: Hillary Clinton is months away from becoming America's first female president, yet up until her mid-twenties it was not illegal in America to rape your wife.)

The reason terrorists persist with their tactics is because they see not an erosion in our care for life, but an ever-greater regard for it. We love life; that, in the eyes of terrorists, is our weakness.

Photo: Getty images/Daniel Munoz

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Along with the most of Australia, The Interpreter is taking Monday off (note to international readers: it's slightly embarrassing to say why Monday is a holiday; I mean even the Brits don't take a day off for the Queen's birthday). You will see some new stuff on the site on Monday but normal service returns on Tuesday.

Photo by Flickr user z Q.

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This morning I stumbled on an economics blog which claimed bluntly, and without much argument, that the Soviet national anthem was the best ever:

I'm not saying this claim is wrong (the version in The Hunt for Red October is pretty stirring too, though the accents sound dodgy), it just needs some more investigation and comparison. Let's open this up to our readers. Which country do you think has the best anthem, and why? Send your submissions to sroggeveen@lowyinstitute.org along with one or two sentences explaining your choice, and a link to a YouTube clip.

Just to open up the topic a bit further, I recommend this New Yorker piece on Whitney Houston's spine-tingling rendition of 'Star-Spangled Banner' at the 1991 Super Bowl:

As for 'Advance Australia Fair', Australians seem to have an ambivalent relationship with this tune. It's belted out with gusto at sporting events, but do we really love it? For me, only when it's sung by Wolverine:

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In the intermittent Greg Sheridan-Hugh White skirmish over whether Prime Minister Turnbull is a 'mainstream' pro-US alliance figure or a revisionist who would like to see the US do more to accommodate China's rise, we must note more evidence overnight for the Sheridan view that Turnbull is thoroughly orthodox. Some extracts from Turnbull's short remarks at a US Studies Centre event last evening:

It is clearer now than it has been for decades that the US is absolutely central to the rules-based order upon which our regional peace and prosperity depends.

The prosperity of our region is the consequence of 40 years of a pax Americana. Every single country in our region has benefited from that. From the security the US has delivered, the stability it has delivered, and of course China above all has been able to prosper and grow in those 40 years from being a nation that was barely engaged in the global economy to now being - depending on who is measuring it - either the world’s largest or the world’s second largest national economy.

All of that has been the product of a peace, relative tranquillity, and that has been guaranteed by that massive sheet-anchor of American commitment and American strategic power in our region.

This, about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, also stood out:

...a successful TPP will entrench the US as the strong, credible and enduring guarantor of the rules based order in our region.

Well, maybe that will be the effect of the TPP, or maybe not. But to the extent Turnbull is right, this is exactly what bothers the Chinese about the TPP. Of course, Turnbull and his speechwriters know this, so it's interesting to see that they have framed the agreement this way.

China, in this speech, is cast as a beneficiary of the existing US-led order, with the implication that Beijing would do well to leave it be and even to reinforce it by joining initiatives such as the TPP. But as noted earlier this week, it is unlikely the Chinese share this benign view of the US-led order and their place within it.

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First, this speech by Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, delivered in Tokyo last week (thanks Merriden):

The South China Sea (SCS) has emerged as something of a proxy for the adjustments underway between the US and China. I do not think either is looking for trouble. War by design is highly improbable. Despite their bluster, China’s leaders know that war with the US can only have one outcome and place the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s most vital interest—its hold on power – in great jeopardy. China is not reckless. President Xi Jinping is a ‘princeling’; the CCP is his patrimony and I don’t think he will gamble with it. But rivalry is intrinsic to any major power relationship and nether will forswear pursuing their interests, at times robustly.

The CCP is today confronted with fundamental questions about itself as it embarks on complex second phase of reforms. These reforms must square the circle: give the market a larger role in crucial areas of the economy to maintain competitiveness, while preserving central political control by the Party. Can it be done? No one really knows. Social and labour unrest are endemic at the local level. The anti-corruption campaign has unsettled CCP cadres in every sector. But we should not assume failure. Unlike the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the CCP has proven to be an extremely adaptable creature, the latest and most successful iteration of a series of political experiments in search of wealth and power to resist western predations dating from the late Qing dynasty.

President Xi Jinping has termed the CCP’s role as leading the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation after a century of weakness and humiliation. But the outcome of reforms, even if completely successful, will be slower growth, as the CCP has itself acknowledged. The “Great Rejuvenation” must therefore be as much, if not more, outwardly than internally directed. Externally, it is increasingly an essentially revanchist narrative. Herein lies the importance of the SCS to China. Put simply, it is the least risky way of putting some shreds of meat on the bare bones of the historical narrative by which the CCP justifies its right to rule.

The US defines its interests in the SCS in terms of upholding international law and freedom of navigation. These are important interests but not of the same order as the CCP’s primary interest which is existential: the legitimacy and ultimately the survival of the CCP. The US has made clear that the US-Japan alliance covers the Senkaku (or Diaoyu in Chinese) islands; it has been ambiguous about the US-Philippines alliance, and hence in effect made clear, that it does not cover the disputed areas in the SCS. War in support of the principal US East Asian ally is credible, if unlikely. War over rocks, shoals and reefs would be absurd.

Second, a piece I found via the always excellent Sinocism newsletter. I know nothing of the author, so I'm not being swayed by reputation or affiliation with a prestigious think tank or university. It's just a really smart take on China's perspective: 

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The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region...

...Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America's imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewards—the Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.

Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese's ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.

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US presidential race 2016

My apologies for lowering the tone, but would it help if I told you that the term 'bullshit' has some academic pedigree, primarily thanks to a famous essay by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt? Here he is on the important distinction between bullshitting and lying:

The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the 'bullshit artist.'

Doesn't that describe Mr Trump pretty well? Trump, when you consider his rhetoric, seems little concerned with truth and falsehood; he's working on a larger and more impressionistic canvas, trying to create archetypes (Lyin' Ted, Crooked Hillary) and set a particular mood. I suppose all politicians do that, but Trump is definitely at the extreme end.

Frankfurt's essay comes to mind in light of an enlightening new profile of Donald Trump in the The Hollywood Reporter. Here's the key passage:

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It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we're all in on this kind of spectacular joke. His shamelessness is just so...shameless. So how much, I ask — quite thinking he will get the nuance here — is the Trump brand based on exaggeration? He responds, with perfect literalness, none at all. I try again. He must understand. How could he not? "You've talked about negotiation, which is about compromise and about establishing positions that you can walk back from. How much about being a successful person involves...well, bullshitting? How much of success is playing games?"

If he does understand, he's definitely not taking this bait. I try again: "How much are you a salesman?"

Salesman, in the Trump worldview, is hardly a bad word, and he is quite willing to accept it, although, curiously, he doesn't want to be thought of that way when it comes to real estate. But as a politician, he's OK as a salesman. In this, he sees himself — and becomes almost eloquent in talking about himself — as a sort of performer and voter whisperer.

Yes, a performer and a voter whisperer. That's exactly the argument Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has been making about Trump for months now:

Note that Adams concludes no-one can beat Trump. Blogger Jason Kottke, who has also written on Trump the bullshitter, says if Trump is to be defeated, it won't be in the realm of fact:

Much of what I read from people who oppose Trump attempts to counter his rhetoric with facts. That hasn't worked and is not going to work. The truth is not the antidote for bullshit. So how do you defeat the bullshitter? This has been a genuine problem for his political opponents thus far. Frankfurt doesn't offer any advice in the video (perhaps his book does?), and I'm at a loss as well, but I do know that factual refutation will not make any difference. I hope someone figures it out soon though.

Scott Adams has bemoaned the fact that Hillary Clinton's campaign seems to have no idea how to counter Trump, though according to the NY Times, Clinton's latest speech, in which she attacked Trump on multiple fronts, 'came after weeks of study by Clinton aides to determine which attacks by Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals had not worked.' We will see if their research has paid off.

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Election Interpreter 2016

Admittedly, it is crashingly boring for policy analysts to complain that their pet issue gets too little attention from our political leaders. But last night's leaders' debate was notable for the fact that the outside world barely intruded into the discussion. Apart from a brief segue on border protection (and perhaps you could argue that the entire 'boats' issue is a proxy for Australian anxieties about globalisation), and a passing mention of the Australia-China FTA, the only direct reference to how global affairs affects Australia was in Prime Minister Turnbull's introduction:

We live in remarkable times. An era unprecedented in human history where the pace and scale of economic change is pre-eminent and unprecedented. China 40 years ago, barely part of the global economy, now the world's largest single economy and our largest trading partner. Within a few years half of the world's middle class will be living to our north in East Asia.

We have seen the pace of change in technology as great businesses and great industries are overtaken by newcomers. These are times of enormous opportunity and uncertainty. These are times of great challenge. These are times when we need a clear economic plan to secure our future. To ensure that Australians remain a high wage, generous social welfare net, first-world economy. And I have that plan.

So why do the epochal events to our north — the once-in-a-century shift of global economic and strategic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific — have so little impact on Australia's domestic political debate? (Immodesty alert: the following three links are all to pieces I have written). One reason is that political leaders and policy specialists have a hard time articulating how this shift actually impacts Australians in their day-to-day lives.

Another reason is that it is hard for politicians to tell Australians that they ought to pay more attention to Asia, because it makes them sound condescending.

A third reason is rational ignorance: voters are busy, so they apportion their attention to things over which they have a direct influence. And for the vast majority, their level of influence over national policy extends no further than their vote, which means the likelihood that they can have any substantial impact on policy is tiny. And that's just in the domestic sphere, where politicians, elected by the voters, can implement laws which are then enforced by the state. When it comes to events beyond our shores, the influence any single voter yields is diluted still further, because those same politicians are working on a stage where they have no legislative power and few means of enforcement. The only tools they have to shift events are persuasion, influence and occasionally military force.

So it's natural that voters don't focus heavily on international events, and that our politicians follow their lead.

Photo: Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images

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Looking for a universal, all-purpose hypothesis for the weirdness that is Trump, Sanders, Brexit, Austria's near-miss with a far-right presidency, and the worldwide decline in democracy? How about neoliberal globalisation?

The neofascist reaction, the force behind Trump, has come about because of the extreme disembeddedness of the economy from social relations. The neoliberal economy has become pure abstraction; as has the market, as has the state, there is no reality to any of these things the way we have classically understood them. Americans, like people everywhere rising up against neoliberal globalization (in Britain, for example, this takes the form of Brexit, or exit from the European Union), want a return of social relations, or embeddedness, to the economy.

Personally, I prefer this explanation from economist Tyler Cowen, though as others have noted, it is a highly speculative piece:

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males.  The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?

Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.

Female median wages have been rising pretty consistently, but the male median wage, at least as measured, was higher back in 1969 than it is today (admittedly the deflator probably is off, but even that such a measure is possible speaks volumes).  A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs.  They thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line.

Reminds me of the small torrent of articles produced in the US in 2009 on the so-called 'man-cession' or 'he-cession' because job losses in that downturn were felt so disproportionately among men. There were wider implications, argued Reihan Salam at the time:

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The great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated by the economic crisis, as more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power—the cult of macho—has now proven destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.

Indeed, it’s now fair to say that the most enduring legacy of the Great Recession will not be the death of Wall Street. It will not be the death of finance. And it will not be the death of capitalism. These ideas and institutions will live on. What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.

Photo by Flickr user Jason St Peter.

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'The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,' Obama said today:

Precisely no-one, including the Chinese, believes this. So what was achieved by maintaining this fiction?

This is not meant as a naive question. I recognise there are plenty of occasions in diplomacy, as in life, when it is inadvisable to tell the unvarnished truth. There are even occasions when it is mutually beneficial to maintain a patently false facade so that both sides in a diplomatic crisis can save face (see 'This is Why Governments Don't Comment on Intelligence Matters'). But how does this situation qualify?

One possible justification is that such a blunt denial shuts down any potentially awkward questions from the media. But he's the US President. He can handle it, can't he? And surely the whole point of lifting the embargo is to send a signal to China, so why would he want to avoid questions anyway?

Perhaps the clinching reason is that Obama simply didn't want to speak so openly while in Vietnam, and standing right beside his Vietnamese counterpart, who has a delicate balance to maintain in relations with Beijing. If that's the case, perhaps Obama will speak more openly after his departure.

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In light of the news that Chinese fighters conducted what the Pentagon calls an 'unsafe intercept' of one of its reconnaissance aircraft flying over the South China Sea on Tuesday (according to the US, the Chinese jets flew within 50 ft of the the American plane, forcing it to descend), it is worth revisiting an Interpreter piece by eminent American security analyst Bonnie Glaser from September last year on the then-newly agreed US-China accord on 'Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air-to-Air Encounters.'

It was an agreement which was supposed to put a stop to these kinds of incidents. Here's one interesting extract from Glaser's piece:

Especially noteworthy is the section that establishes responsibilities for aircraft when an intercept takes place. According to the agreement, the aircraft commander initiating the intercept should maintain safe separation while the operator of the aircraft being intercepted should avoid reckless maneuvers. The distance between aircraft that constitutes safe separation is not spelled out; rather it is dependent on circumstances. While this is sensible, it leaves split-second decisions up to the discretion of Chinese fighter pilots, who often lack experience.

It's important to note that we so far only have the American version of what occurred on this occasion. The Chinese statement will no doubt differ.

Speaking of aerial shows of strength, the Pentagon has just released more footage of Russian fighter-bombers and helicopters buzzing a US Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea on 11 and 12 April. (H/t Alert 5.)

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