Lowy Institute

This week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flew to New York, where he sparred with former PM Kevin Rudd, met with the rapper Ludacris, and addressed two summits on refugees and immigration.

The UN Summit’s main achievement was the adoption of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, wrote Jiyoung Song:

UN officials have described the Declaration as a 'miracle' and a 'game-changer', while NGOs, journalists and academics have largely dismissed it as an 'historic failure'. The truth lies somewhere between.

While at the summits, Turnbull exhorted Australia’s border security model. But if other countries were to follow it, the consequences would be disastrous, argued Frances Voon:

The problem is that if all states insisted that no asylum seekers were allowed onto their territory uninvited, the entire system of refugee protection would fail. If other countries heeded Australia’s exhortations to replicate its ‘model’ border security approach, the very foundations of refugee protection would be seriously eroded.

Elsewhere at the UN, it was a high-stakes week for the secretary-general candidates. Sarah Frankel on how the field is faring:

The former Portuguese prime minister turned UN refugee chief remains the frontrunner, clearly topping all four straw polls thus far. Many speculate that Russia is behind one of his two 'discourage' votes, suggesting that Antonio Guterres still has to overcome Moscow's preference for an Eastern European and the perception of being too pro-Western.

Simon Heffer filed an absolutely crushing obituary for former UK PM David Cameron’s political career:

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After so catastrophic a failure of judgment he had no choice but to resign. And, as befits a man who has always given the impression of being in it for himself, there was nothing to persuade him to stay in politics, hence his decision to quit last week. It isn’t the first undertaking he has broken: he is that sort of man.

After attending a Young Australians in International Affairs panel on digital diplomacy (along with the Institute’s own Sam Roggeveen), UK diplomat George Morrison reflected on why online diplomatic communication matters:

We can get hung up on the number of social media accounts a foreign ministry has, how many likes a tweet received, or how many followers we have. These numbers are great: they are easily measured; they boost egos; and they can be spun as demonstrating successful digital engagement. But they don’t go to the heart of Sam’s question: What difference has it made? In the end, as public servants, we need to demonstrate to taxpayers why it is worth investing in digital.

While Turnbull was overseas spruiking Australia’s multicultural bona fides, an unfortunate poll result was released back home: 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration. This number may not be as bad as it looks, I argued:

A significant chunk of Australians may support the notion of banning Muslim immigration, but it's not clear it's a policy priority for anyone outside a very small segment of the population.

Peter Layton argued that the government’s foreign affairs white paper probably won’t be an actual strategy:

While shaping our future has an attraction, in the modern era strategies often lose out to political and bureaucratic pragmatism. Our new white paper seems unlikely to end up as a true strategy, as such an approach is tough on several levels. And if an event-driven White Paper is eventually settled on, there is a model available. Responding to events was the approach underpinning the UK's 2015 National Security Strategy. A DFAT white paper that stresses readiness to respond to (rather than shape) events appears more likely than Julie Bishop's desires might suggest.

Should Indonesia decide to reinstate the death penalty for Philippine national Mary Jane Veloso, the Australian government should intervene diplomatically, wrote Amy Maguire:

At the moment, Australia is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, including from Indonesia. The committee’s recommendation for broader and less partial advocacy against the death penalty will enable Australia to demonstrate the strength of its abolitionist stance. In turn, Australia may hope to more effectively influence other states to abandon capital punishment in law and practice.

Mereoni Chung analysed how social media in Fiji is providing an outlet for political dissidence:

In Fiji social media is creating an alternative space for freedom of expression and assembly, similar to that seen in some other restrictive democracies. Young Fijians are at the forefront of political development. They know the best hope for real democracy is literally in their hands.

Leon Berkelmans argued for a more civilised debate over Chinese influence in Australia:

One thing that does not engender trust or credibility is the ad hominem attack, or the snide comment. I’ve seen too much of that lately, and it has come from both sides. I’ll call out two publicly.

As Australia lobbies the US to pass the TPP, two parliamentary committees have established inquiries in to the TPP with a timeframe beyond the Obama presidency, wrote Greg Earl:

The federal government’s lobbying of US politicians to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership TPP) trade deal this week may look a little hollow when the Americans see what is happening Down Under.

Emma Connors wrote on what’s going on in the swing-state of Ohio:

In this election campaign, at least in Ohio, people are not always impressed by what is but they're willing to back someone they don't believe, often mainly because they dislike the other candidate more. No wonder it feels surreal.

Finally, is it time for a new intelligence review? John Blaxland:

Nowadays a wide range of government bodies not only draw on the intelligence products of the Australian Intelligence Community, but also conduct their own intelligence analysis. More organisations than ever also draw on the work of the AIC to raise their own security awareness and to help with contingency and other planning. The lines have blurred, suggesting there is some benefit from reviewing the AIC.

 Photo: Getty Images/Christopher Furlong


Two international summits held in New York this week were intended to generate fresh political will and substantial new pledges to bolster the international response to refugees. Australia's contribution to these summits was not only inadequate, it demonstrated a fundamental misconception of the requirements of international cooperation for refugee protection.

There was little new or significant in the announcements made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at President Obama's Leaders' Summit on Refugees on Tuesday, despite this being a condition of entry. The decision to maintain Australia's Humanitarian Program at 18,750 places from 2018-19 onward has been described as 'a bit of a con', simply reflecting that a previously announced increase would not be cut. This falls far short of the (still modest) 30,000-50,000 places that various civil society groups had called for before the summits.

Australia's commitment of an additional $130 million in aid over three years to support refugees and host communities in countries of first asylum has been welcomed, although whether this constitutes a generous contribution is a matter of perspective. It is just a fraction of the $880.5 million allocated in the 2016-17 Budget to maintain offshore processing on Manus and Nauru for a single year.

A Community Support Program was announced to enable communities and businesses to sponsor and support the settlement of 1000 refugees. This appears to be an expansion of the recently completed Community Proposal Pilot, which had mixed reviews. Crucially, it is not yet clear whether the places under this program will be incorporated within the 18,750 places in the humanitarian quota. It will only genuinely expand pathways to protection if it is additional. As lessons from the Community Proposal Pilot show, the details of how such schemes are administered can determine whether they really enhance access to protection, or are merely available to a privileged few.

The announcement that Australia will participate in a scheme to resettle refugees from Central America has raised eyebrows. The scheme is an in-country processing arrangement enabling Central Americans to apply for protection before leaving their country of origin. After pre-screening, with assistance from UNHCR and IOM, those identified as having an urgent protection need are transferred to Costa Rica pending resettlement elsewhere. The scheme is in its infancy, and is part of a suite of measures by the US (including some harsh deterrence measures) to address the increasing irregular movement of Central Americans to the US through Mexico. In this respect, Australia's participation in the scheme could be seen as a cynical attempt to undercut criticism of its own asylum policies by helping the US with its own domestic political problem. The announcement also drew speculation that this might be part of a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby the US would resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru, a suggestion that has been denied by the Australian government. It's unclear whether the Central American places will be additional to the announced humanitarian quota.

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The most resounding criticism of the government's performance has been reserved for its jarring refrain that Australia's policies on border protection and asylum are 'the best in the world', while steadfastly ignoring the elephant in the room: offshore processing. Not only does this disregard the incontrovertible harm wreaked upon individuals and families affected by this policy, but is symptomatic of a broader failure to acknowledge the full implications of Australia's 'border security' approach to asylum.

At the UN General Assembly, Turnbull elaborated the three pillars of Australia's approach to the 'global surge in migration' as follows: 

First, strong border controls, with effective measures to combat people smuggling and terrorism, supported by a planned migration program. Secondly, a compassionate humanitarian policy, one that doesn't focus merely on the numbers that we take in but offers substantial resettlement programs and supports those countries hosting large numbers of refugees themselves. And third, effective international and regional cooperation.

Turnbull had argued the previous day at the Obama summit that this strategy 'addresses all parts of the problem'. He suggested that public confidence in the government's ability to manage borders is an essential precondition to support for humanitarian refugee programs. Putting to one side the question of whether the Australian public's concern about secure borders has been assuaged or amplified by government rhetoric and policy, Turnbull is wrong to say that this approach represents a comprehensive or coherent response to the global challenge of displacement.

Most people would accept that a predictable and well-managed response to refugees and migrants (to the extent that this is possible) is good for everyone, and that countries can and should exercise some degree of control over their borders. But there is a vast difference between managed approaches that seek to expand access to protection, and those that seek to shift responsibility for protecting refugees onto others. 

Since the 1990s, Australia and a host of other wealthy countries have adopted an increasingly duplicitous posture towards refugee protection. On the one hand, they have affirmed their commitment to assisting refugees, while on the other they have increasingly put in place measures to push asylum seekers as far away as possible from triggering international obligations. These efforts have included carrier sanctions, visa restrictions, boat turn-backs and offshore processing. As James Hathaway and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen have observed, this approach 'enables a pattern of minimalist engagement under which the formal commitment to refugee law can be proclaimed as a matter of principle without risk that the wealthier world will actually be compelled to live up to that regime's burdens and responsibilities to any serious extent'.

The problem is that if all states insisted that no asylum seekers were allowed onto their territory uninvited, the entire system of refugee protection would fail. If other countries heeded Australia's exhortations to replicate its 'model' border security approach, the very foundations of refugee protection would be seriously eroded. 

There is some evidence that this is already happening. Recent research by the UK's Overseas Development Institute shows harsh refugee policies in Australia and Europe have had 'ripple effects', encouraging crackdowns, expulsions and border closures in countries such as Indonesia, Kenya and Jordan:

Restrictions in developed countries send a clear message that at best it is one rule for them and another for the rest of the world, or at worst that international obligations towards refugees simply do not hold any more; either way tilting the balance towards restriction.

This is why the three-pronged approach presented by Australia in New York is incoherent. A deterrence-based approach to border security undermines the foundations for international and regional cooperation for refugee protection, and encourages the closure of asylum space in the very countries we proclaim to aid. While resettlement and assistance to refugee-hosting states should both be an integral part of efforts to share responsibility for refugee protection, they cannot offset the profoundly negative effects of attempts to avoid our obligations towards those seeking safety on our shores. Until Australia embraces its own responsibility to protect refugees, it cannot engage in good faith efforts to promote the international and regional cooperation that is so greatly needed to address the challenge of displacement. 

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency


This week the polling company Essential Research dropped a bombshell of a result: 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration (40% oppose, and 11% don't know). Split by the major parties, 60% of Liberal voters, 40% of Labor voters and 34% of Greens voters support a ban.

While none of the major parties support such a move, a ban is heavily touted by One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson, who is back in the senate after 18 years in the political wilderness.

These numbers have prompted much political hand-wringing and introspection. Keysar Trad, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, described the result as 'heartbreaking', Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek attributed it to a failure of political leadership, and Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne suggested the result was a reminder to both the government and opposition to keep reassuring Australians about the strength of Australia's border control and national security policies.


Some have refused to accept the results at face value: Labor MP Anne Aly (the first Muslim woman ever elected to the House of Representatives) suggested that the polling question's negativity could have skewed results ('they did not ask: "Do you like your Muslim neighbours? Do you agree to have Muslims that contribute to Australia" ... they were all negatively worded'), and Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim told AAP he saw no evidence of Greens support for the ban and had never personally encountered a Greens voter who held such a position.

But while the numbers are sobering, there's some small room for optimism. Earlier this year, Roy Morgan polling showed that around 12% of Australians considered immigration, multiculturalism, racism/racial tensions or terrorism the most important issue facing the nation; for comparison, 42% cited an economic or financial issue. According to the ABC's pre-election Vote Compass, 'Immigration & asylum seekers' was only a top-three election issue for respondents in the Australian Capital Territory; the economy and the environment were of greater concern across the rest of Australia. And the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll found more Australians considered education, health, the economy and domestic violence as a very or somewhat important issue facing Australia than terrorism/national security, refugees/asylum seekers, or immigration. A significant chunk of Australians may support the notion of banning Muslim immigration, but it's not clear it's a policy priority for anyone outside a very small segment of the population.

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The broad silence or obfuscation from government MPs in reference to Essential Research's result is perhaps telling. As Peter Hughes writes:

The problem for the government is that it has traded heavily on a negative narrative around immigration. Since coming to power in 2013, the Coalition has re-positioned migration from an “opportunity” to a “threat”, dismantled the Department of Immigration (removing settlement, adult migrant English and multicultural affairs programs to other portfolios) and rebuilt it as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, incorporating the uniformed Australian Border Force.

Ironically, the government now faces a political force that implies there is a “threat” more broadly based than maritime asylum seekers. Pauline Hanson and her Senate colleagues may well feed off the government’s negative narrative...

Without a coherent, positive, government-led narrative on immigration, public attitudes will go backwards.

Finally, George Megalogenis's brief Tweet-storm on Australia's long history of racist and otherwise exclusionary immigration sentiment (and the declining share of humanitarian immigration of Australia's total migratory intake) is worth a read.





 Photo: Getty Images/Lisa Maree Williams


Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has laid out some tough parameters for her newly commissioned White Paper. It will set out a 'philosophical framework to guide Australia's engagement, regardless of international events', have a 'global focus', and 'look at how to maximise our influence (and) shape the thinking of other nations'. but none of these tasks is harder though then Bishop's desire for the White Paper to be a 'strategy'.

Strategy is a big word. Simplified, it explains how we will build a better future for ourselves, but then 'better future' has to be carefully and prudently defined. If you can't do that, then the way to get there – the strategy - cannot be determined. Second, a strategy is not a plan. Rather, it involves interaction with other actors, all of whom have their own strategies and objectives. With the actions of all being interdependent, a strategy is constantly evolving, needing continual adjustment to keep on track for the 'better future'.

Both these factors suggest that strategies should focus on something definite, and often this is either a particular country or some specific function.

The notion that a foreign affairs strategy should focus on a single country will sound unusual, but with about 200 states in the international system, prioritisation is essential. States can do many things at once, but activity is not the same as achieving meaningful results, even for great powers. In 2002, for example, American conservative thinkers such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol argued that America could invade Iraq and win the Afghan war. Turns out they were wrong.

This failed attempt at multi-asking is in sharp contrast to the American foreign policy of the Cold War, which focused largely on its relationship with a single country: the Soviet Union. Actions took place globally but for America the rest of the world was seen in terms of this central relationship. Other countries could help, hinder or distract the implementation of America's containment policy but they were not important in themselves. The result was success, albeit it wasn't pretty getting there.

If we're considering such an approach for Australia, which nation is most important?

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The choice seems to be between China and the US. Arguably, in the last decade the US was the pivot around which our foreign policies revolved. But today, China appears central, with the US seen more in terms of how it can help Australia handle China's rise.

Focusing on a single country would mean that, when considering diverse issues such as Pacific aid, ASEAN engagement or even BREXIT, their importance can be readily assessed relative to Australia's relationship with China (or whichever nation is chosen as crucial).

An alternative to taking a single-country approach is to adopt a functional focus, and here Julie Bishop's observation that 'economics is power and power is economics' might be helpful. In the contemporary globalised world, in which warfare between the major powers is unappealing, geo-politics seems to be giving way to geo-economics. Economic interdependencies can be weaponised through sanctions (just ask the Russians) or can help a country control the agenda (think China's South China Sea success). Trade talks are becoming perceived as a feature of strategic competition more than improving people's standard of living, with the TPP a prominent example.

Geo-economics, as the term's originator Edward Luttwak observed, involves the 'the logic of conflict with the methods of commerce' making relative power key. A strategy that sought to maximise Australia's relative power might be a very different one from, say, a China-focused one. Instead, the stress would be on deliberately diversifying our economic linkages. Moreover, there would need to be an effort to build our national economic resilience so that we could comfortably handle geo-economic pressures from abrupt trade constraints, for example the recent fresh milk concerns of Chinese food safety regulators impacting our exports. There may also be room for some 'pooling of the weak' approaches where peripheral nations might form geographic or functional groupings that can better negotiate with regional economic heavyweights.

This discussion about taking a China-based or geo-economic focus highlights the real predicament behind producing a 'strategic' foreign policy white paper: policymakers are forced to make hard choices about very complex issues. This suggests that maybe the DFAT White Paper won't end up being a strategy designed to shape a favourable future but be instead will be event driven.

Adopting an event-driven approach would make developing a new white paper much easier as the focus can then be inward towards building up DFAT's capabilities to respond to future events. Such an approach means that the Departmental budget needs little prioritisation because forecasting future events of concern is impossible in our uncertain world. Avoiding over-investment in any one area is important. Such a 'broad but thin' approach is likely to please more people then a narrower, contentious, demanding focus that amply funds some specific areas but diminishes others.

While shaping our future has an attraction, in the modern era strategies often lose out to political and bureaucratic pragmatism. Our new white paper seems unlikely to end up as a true strategy, as such an approach is tough on several levels. And if an event-driven White Paper is eventually settled on, there is a model available. Responding to events was the approach underpinning the UK's 2015 National Security Strategy. A DFAT white paper that stresses readiness to respond to (rather than shape) events appears more likely than Julie Bishop's desires might suggest.

Photo: Getty Images/WPA Pool


In April last year, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were among eight people executed by firing squad in Indonesia. Their deaths brought the issue of capital punishment to the forefront of Australia’s consciousness and reignited debate over the practice on a global scale. 

The only woman in the group scheduled for execution that day, Philippines national Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso, was given a last-minute reprieve in order to give testimony against a person accused of human and drug trafficking in the Philippines. Her death sentence has not been permanently commuted and could be reinstated. Veloso’s case attracted significant support in the Philippines and Indonesia, with many protesting her innocence and claiming that Veloso was an unwitting drug mule and victim of human trafficking.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been subject to intense international scrutiny in recent months due to his promotion of vigilante attacks and extra-judicial killings of suspected drug offenders. Duterte was elected in May promising a war on drugs and has duly delivered, with over 3000 people killed on the streets since.

Earlier this month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said that Duterte intervened in Veloso’s case, telling Jokowi: ‘Please go ahead if you want to execute her.’ Duterte’s spokesman denied this claim and said Duterte merely advised Indonesia to follow its own laws in the case.

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Duterte’s intervention, regardless of exactly how it was phrased, was arguably out of kilter with the general expectation that governments seek clemency for their nationals facing execution in other countries. It leaves Veloso in greater uncertainty as to what outcome she can hope for, although the Philippines Justice Secretary believes it is still possible she may be spared and perhaps even released. 

Both Indonesia and the Philippines have adopted hard-line stances against drug crime which allow the punishment of death for convicted drug offenders (formally, through the courts, in Indonesia and now informally, on the streets, in the Philippines). 

Although international human rights law aims for the total abolition of capital punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that, where capital punishment is still practiced, it should be used only for the ‘most serious crimes.’ In 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee condemned the country’s continued use of the death penalty for drug trafficking as not meeting the threshold of ‘most serious crimes'. The committee instead recommended a review of legislation ‘to ensure that crimes involving narcotics are not amenable to the death penalty.’ 

Australia’s position on capital punishment has been for some time that in all cases it is a violation of human rights and should be abolished. It offends the right to life, respected under international human rights law. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Australia should also decry the death penalty as a form of torture, due to the methods used and the inherent terror in awaiting one’s own scheduled killing.

As was clear in the case of Chan and Sukumaran, Australia’s extremely selective advocacy on the behalf of people subject to the death penalty weakens its clemency campaigns for individual Australians at risk of execution. Australia’s abolitionist advocacy must be less partial and more principled if it is to be persuasive. 

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop initiated a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty following her strong but unsuccessful advocacy for clemency on behalf of Sukumaran and Chan. Its terms of reference sought to improve Australia’s capacity to advocate effectively for death penalty abolition. To the credit of the inquiry committee, its report recommended the establishment of a whole-of-government strategy for abolition of the death penalty. It further recommended

...intervening to oppose death sentences and executions of foreign nationals, especially in cases where there are particular human rights concerns, such as unfair trials, or when juveniles or the mentally ill are exposed to the death penalty

Julie Bishop took such an approach in July this year, when she reiterated Australia’s opposition to capital punishment in all cases in advance of Indonesia’s most recent round of executions. 

Should Indonesia decide to return Veloso to death row and move towards execution, it would be especially important for Australia to advocate on her behalf. At the moment, Australia is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, including from Indonesia. The committee’s recommendation for broader and less partial advocacy against the death penalty will enable Australia to demonstrate the strength of its abolitionist stance. In turn, Australia may hope to more effectively influence other states to abandon capital punishment in law and practice.  

Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press


The relationship between the intelligence and strategic communities on the one hand, and economists on the other, has a rich and storied history. Nobel Laurette Thomas Schelling perhaps exemplifies the interactions at their best. Schelling’s work on game theory and strategy influenced US thinking profoundly, particularly in the context of the Cold War.

In Australia, at the moment, the relationship is somewhat frayed. In recent months we have seen a couple of decisions that have left some economists scratching their heads.

First, there was the submarine decision — in particular the decision to build part of them here, at significant extra cost. The key question is, what we are getting for that extra money? Perhaps some expertise? What expertise? Is it worth it? I haven’t been satisfied with the answers I’ve seen.

Then came the Ausgrid decision when Treasurer Scott Morrison prevented a Chinese state owned enterprise along with a Hong Kong listed partner from buying Ausgrid, a power supplier, on national security grounds.
What were these concerns? We don’t know. They won’t tell us. Perhaps it was some communication assets that Ausgrid owns, but we don’t know for sure. What are we left with? We are told to trust the Treasurer, and by extension the intelligence community who provided the advice. But trust can only get us so far.

Why? Well, I need to refer back to another economist: Daniel Ellsberg. After getting a PhD in economics, and leaving the legacy of the Ellsberg paradox for generations of economics graduate students to study, Ellsberg became a US military analyst. In 1971 Ellsberg leaked a Department of Defence study of the US Government’s involvement in Vietnam, known as the 'Pentagon Papers'. It contained embarrassing revelations, which the US Government tried, but failed, to suppress.

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Ellsberg’s memoirs issue a loud warning to those in the intelligence community. Ellsberg wrote about the tendency of those with access to confidential information to dismiss the view of outsiders. Those with inside information can convince themselves that others just don’t understand. Groupthink takes over. Ellsberg viewed that as a big problem the US Government had in Vietnam. And it is one reason why we can’t take what we are told on blind faith every time.

I think, in the tradition of Shelling, there are broad lessons here from economics that should be considered. Take, for example, the treatment of risk, and risk mitigation.

Central bankers have to think about this all the time. There are concerns that current policy settings in many economies are increasing the probability of a crisis. But I’m with Ben Bernanke when he says 'use the right tool for the right job'. If you are worried about a crisis, it is better to use a well targeted policy, for example capital requirements, rather than jacking up interest rates (although this is by no means a consensus in the profession).

And so it is that you should use the right tool for the right job when worrying about security. If the problem is that Ausgrid has sensitive communications networks, then the right tool should be to carve those networks out, as some have suggested, and let the sale go through.

By using the blunt tool and blocking the sale, we incur costs. The most direct cost is the NSW Government misses out on some money. It also might damage our reputation as a destination for foreign investment more broadly. But it also might make us appear paranoid and scared to the Chinese. My boss, Michael Fullilove, makes the point that the Chinese don’t seem to respect weakness. I suspect they don’t respect fear either.

Over the last few decades, central banks have learnt the importance of communication and credibility. In the bad old days, central banks didn’t even announce whether they were tightening or loosening policy, leaving everyone to guess what was going on. It was a horrible way to conduct policy, but there was resistance to change.

In the end, communication and credibility were improved, and as a result policy became more effective. I wish there were better communication about the subs and Ausgrid decisions, it would help engender trust. I reckon that would help strategic policy.

Finally, one thing that does not engender trust or credibility is the ad hominem attack, or the snide comment. I’ve seen too much of that lately, and it has come from both sides. I’ll call out two publicly.

In a piece that I otherwise quite liked, Brian Toohey declared that the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings 'had no better clue then the average lamp post'.

And Peter Hartcher remarkably labelled Bob Carr and the Australian Chinese Relations Institute (ACRI) a mouth-piece for the Chinese regime.

There are others as well. This should stop. If you don’t like someone’s argument, attack the argument. If you don’t like some piece of research from ACRI, what is it about the piece that is wrong?

These disagreements are only going to get more common. Chinese investment in Australia, while still small (it accounts for less than 5% of foreign direct investment in Australia, and 2.5% of total foreign investment), will grow. If we can’t handle these disagreements well, it’s going to become a problem. We are supposed to be on the same side, aren’t we?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user  Ausgrid


Canberra’s own lame duck

The federal government’s lobbying of US politicians to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal this week may look a little hollow when the Americans see what is happening Down Under. No less than two committees in the new Federal Parliament have quietly established inquiries into the TPP which seem set to take the Australian approval time frame beyond the life of the Obama Administration. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop chewed the ears of their US interlocutors this week urging them to sneak the controversial TPP through the so-called lame duck Congress session between the November presidential election and the January end of Obama’s regime.  But back in Canberra the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) has started an inquiry which will pick up from the previous process that had been terminated by the early federal election. It has no clear reporting date but starts hearings next week.

More significantly the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has started a separate inquiry with new submissions which won’t get under way until November. And its reporting date of 7 February next year is well after the US lame duck Congress window. The government tried unsuccessfully to stop this committee reference by Senators Sarah Hanson-Young and Nick Xenophon. Labor previously used the tactic of a separate committee on the China and Korea trade deals to give it more control over the legislative agenda given that that the JSCOT is controlled by the government. With the anti-trade Greens, One Nation and NXT parties holding more than 20 per cent of the new Senate seats, this exercise may well be a test of the new mood towards trade liberalisation. Read the Parliamentary Library’s useful trade update here. At the very least the Senate move underlines how the government will again need Labor to pass any trade deals. But the Labor base will go feral at any suggestion of extending patent protection for biologic drugs, a change which US Republicans are demanding from Obama.  Curiously this week the new Labor trade spokesman Jason Clare made his first entrée into this territory by suggesting he was actually open to a renegotiation of the TPP. By contrast the minister Steve Ciobo is avoiding any reference to changes knowing what dynamite that would be. After being helpfully told by Turnbull how to manage their own lame duck legislative process, US players might well see all this as a black swan arriving in Canberra. Meanwhile, for his usual forensic TPP analysis, don’t miss Oriental Economist editor Richard Katz in Foreign Affairs.

Rebalancing China

Australia’s indigestion over Chinese investment may be easing but not without some after effects.  Investment minister Steve Ciobo paid a house call to Hong Kong to salve the wounds  of powerful tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Infrastructure after the company’s bid to buy control of NSW power company Ausgrid was rejected.  Ciobo is now hinting at a new list of critical infrastructure which would have tougher investment threshold and capital structure rules for foreigners but not treat Chinese state owned enterprises differently.  While the NSW government counts the cost of the Ausgrid sale rejection, the Victorian government has opened a window on the future with the lease of the Port of Melbourne to a consortium with only a 20%  indirect participation by China Investment Corporation. But the apparent attempt to hide the CIC share shows how combustible this issue remains.

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Japan stocks up

Julie Bishop put the idea of combining inward foreign investment stocks and annual export flows to determine the country’s hierarchy of economic partners on the agenda well before the mood towards China soured. The point then was to underline that the US was more important than China. But economist and Japanese corporate adviser Manuel Panagiotopoulos has now put some real numerical heft behind this weighting game in an interesting study which tries to assess how important Japan is to Australia. His weighted index of trade, foreign direct investment and portfolio investment involves both risk and value adjustment of these economic parameters and Japan emerges as much as three times more important than China. This study (soon to be published here by Australia Japan Foundation) is neatly timed for the Australia Japan Business Cooperation Committee New Challenges-New Ideas conference next month where the idea of the more comprehensive Japanese engagement will be on the agenda.  

Real cost of immigration

Australia’s relatively high proportion of foreign born residents (at least by OECD peer group standards) is often seen as both a driver of economic growth and a valuable part of its soft power. But maintaining public support for the organised immigration system is imposing growing costs on the national budget according to two studies that approach the issue from very different perspectives. Save the Children and UNICEF have calculated that the cost of the turning asylum seekers back to offshore detention centres has been $9.6 billion since 2013.  That’s about $400,000 per asylum seeker a year.  Meanwhile the Productivity Commission has criticised two additions to the half century-old immigration policy of recruiting new citizens with needed labour skills. It says family reunion programs are not properly recouping the real cost of providing services to elderly relatives joining immigrant children. And it says Special Investor Visas which provide easy entry for people with capital are being misused and not bringing in people with useful skills. Offshore detention, family reunion and investor visas have all been used at different times to make mainstream immigration more acceptable to the broader population. Malcolm Turnbull has been talking up the need to shore up public support for immigration in New York this week. This will only intensify with the Essential poll showing a sharp rise in opposition to Muslim immigration. But the fact refugee activists and the econocrats are questioning the immigration furniture from a budget perspective shows how much the idea of an immigration consensus is under broad challenge (as was noted here last month). 

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Logically it's a direct line: as the US turns towards the Asia-Pacific, Europe will have to pick up the resulting slack in its defense, and will increasingly rely on its own devices to do so as the traditional English brake on any development of an European Army disappears. Is this theory borne out by the results of the recent summit season, clouded as it was by heavy smoke from nationalist rabble-rousing?

Obama’s last Asia-Pacific trip of his presidency focused on the G20 Summit in China and the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane. It was intended to both close chapters of painful history, including the long-unacknowledged carpet-bombing of Laos, and open new ones by offering economic partnership and support against Chinese expansionism.The results were mixed at best. 

Real progress in tackling global environmental problems (thanks to a joint effort from the two top global polluters) was overshadowed by what appeared to be a petty display of Chinese nationalism when Obama arrived in China for the summit. Then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the thuggish former mayor from a provincial town in the ‘Wild South’ of the Philippines and now leader of a major US ally, grabbed the headlines before and during the ASEAN Summit with personal insults and anti-imperialist antics, both aimed at Obama. A return to the ‘Yankee-go-home’ policies of the Philippines's populist past appears now possible.

With the ASEAN Summit coming so soon after the Philippines won a decisive victory (with the Hague ruling that concluded there were no legal grounds for Beijing’s claims in the South Chinese Sea), no wonder the Chinese were delighted by Duterte’s about-face, Instead of working toward an ASEAN resolution with some teeth, the Philippine president said he wanted to take a ‘soft-landing strategy and talk peace with China'. If ASEAN countries do shift to a more accommodating line towards China, it would make it difficult for any Western power (such as the US, but also Australia) to provide explicit or implicit security support against Beijing.

Of course, Washington isn't helping its case,  with the fate of  the US pivot to Asia's economic pillar, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appearing precarious. As its name suggests, the TPP would have been more than a trade deal, but as both US presidential candidates now oppose the deal it appears dead in the water. The first strategic blunder of what will hopefully be a Clinton presidency is thus already in train. Read More

The historic achievement of the ‘Great Convergence’ (the narrowing of the economic gap between emerging and mature markets) since around the time China joined the World Trade Organisation suggests most emerging countries in the Asia-Pacific could have reasonably expected to profit from free trade measures advanced by the TPP, as Beijing has benefited over the last 25 years. Compared to such relatively easy gains, engaging in co-operative efforts with the US and thus antagonising China must appear far more difficult and complicated for most ASEAN capitals; hence their reluctance to take this route without tangible and certain economic sweeteners.

Not that the Western counterpart to the TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the TTIP or T-Tip) is doing any better. A recent declaration of European will to finish and pass it was signed by only a few, mainly Northern EU members; Germany and France were not among them.

The previously mentioned nationalist smoke around the just-ended special EU Summit in Bratislava on the consequences of Brexit resembled a fog of war. Faced with a wave of imagined or real (for Italy, Germany and Sweden at least) problems with integrating the recent flood of migrants, the mostly middle-of-the road governments in the traditional pro-EU mold are fighting for survival all over Europe. In the Visegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, the Czech and the Slovak Republics), nationalist governments are already in power, flaunting EU solidarity while still milking the ‘Brussels’ cow. 

The Italian PM Matteo Renzi (who faces his own potentially career-ending referendum) openly challenged what he called ‘sugarcoating of real problems’ in Bratislava.He, like others in the so-called ‘Club Med’ group of Southern EU members, want new financial rules from the EU that fulfill their need for support and funds from Brussels to prove to their voters that any move towards exits from the Euro, let alone from the EU, would mean disaster. The fault for opening this particular Pandora’s box lies, of course, at the feet of those who former United Kingdom Deputy PM Nick Clegg has called ‘this motley crew of mindless men’: the Brexiteers.

However, Renzi’s wish is Merkel’s anathema. Her party has lost ground to the nationalist and rightist opposition, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in two regional elections, and she is fighting for her own survival within her party and coalition. To win these battles and next year's national elections, she must demonstrate she can rein in the ‘Southern spendthrifts’ in the EU.As probably the most steadfast European among the present crop of national leaders, she fights as well for a modicum of common sense regarding longer-term advantages for Europe.

Fortunately one such topic was high up on the Bratislava agenda: security. In the summit statement, ‘The Bratislava Declaration and Road Map’, the reinforcement of Europe’s external borders and internal security featured prominently. The success or otherwise of the determination to ‘never allow a return to uncontrolled flows of migration’ will serve as an early indication whether the EU is serious.

Building a real European army, capable of intervening with depth and structure in a future ‘Libya case’ (unlike the improvised coalition sent in by Cameron and Sarkozy in 2011) would be a long, uncertain and expensive exercise. When Merkel and François Hollande appeared at a bilateral press conference at the summit (as they do with increasing frequency) they seemed to indicate it is their intention to make a start. This process could be helped by Eastern Europeans who, in regard to security, have vowed to be model Europeans. With the possible exception of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, these national leaders' willingness to do more for security can probably be taken at face value, given European history in the second part of last century.

It has long been an article of faith that the UK was a leading European security agent and could thus impose direction and direct the pace of European defense. Brexit has curtailed this influence (perhaps for the better, as the British Armed Forces appears to have been substantially weakened by budget cuts). The beginnings of a European army could be one of the many unforeseen consequences of the UK's vote to leave.

Photo: Getty Images/Sean Gallup


After years of refugee and migrant crises, for the first time in history this week 193 UN member states agreed to a unified approach. It was a consensus that was mostly talk with little action but it could yet be a platform for change.

The Summit's main achievement was to adopt the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. UN officials have described the Declaration as a 'miracle' and a 'game-changer', while NGOs, journalists and academics have largely dismissed it as an 'historic failure'. The truth lies somewhere between. Critics say that the Declaration's language is vague, it contains no immediate or concrete measures, lacks a key commitment to internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the clause on children in detention is compromised. The Declaration, its detractors say, only reiterates existing international principles that many states simply choose not to comply with.

Overall, it's fair to say this UN Summit was long on words, short on action. Failing to agree on any concrete measures, it agreed instead, to produce two Global Compacts for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, one on refugees and the other on migrants, in two years' time. In the meantime, refugees and migrants will still not receive sufficient help. To most observers, it seems like the UN has failed again, achieving little beyond a global consensus for non-commitments and more business-class travel to meetings for years to come.

It is hard not to question the UN's leadership. The out-going UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, together with the heads of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), did not push beyond the outdated mandates of the UNHCR. They collectively left discussions on institutional, organisational and operational reforms for a later, unspecified date.

In contrast to this timid showing, the Obama administration stepped up, showing moral leadership with a pledge to increase its refugee intake to 110,000 and to increase funding for humanitarian aid in 2017. Other nations present made similar promises, including Australia, and in this regard the US Leaders' Summit was more hopeful than the UN high-level meeting. However, with an outgoing president who struggles to get legislation through Congress there is only a slim possibility the US will deliver on its promises. Beyond Obama, there appears little chance the US will become more kindly disposed to refugees. Just this week, a violent act (the bombing by the Afghan-American Ahmed Rahami) and a heartless comment (Trump Jr's description of refugee children as 'skittles'), were grim portends of what is to come.

What the Summit should have done more of is discuss how best to coordinate across various UN agencies in collaboration with donor states and private sectors. There are serious gaps in the current UNHCR mandates which don't cover IDPs, livelihood and education. There are also millions of migrants who don't fall strictly under the 1951 Refugee Convention but need immediate humanitarian aid, ie. food, shelter and medical treatment. In addition to the three options that the UNHCR coordinates in the field – voluntary repatriation, local integration or third-country resettlement – refugees and migrants need long-term development programmes that include education and vocational training that can ultimately lead to jobs.

The CRR Framework

There is, however still some hope for reform. The New York Declaration did promise to develop a Comprehensive Refugee Response (CRR) Framework. Just as a country's immigration policy needs a whole-of-government approach, international migration requires a whole-of-UN approach. To be effective, this CRR framework must adopt more flexible and dynamic approaches, broader than state responsibilities. This could enable the institutional, organisation and operation reform that would allow the UN's existing field networks to work with local governments, businesses, civil society and key individuals.

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The framework indicates the UNHCR will continue expanding its operations on livelihood, education, environment and public health in collaboration with local governments and NGOs in the field. It's already hiring hundreds of new humanitarian professionals.

IOM, now part of the UN, will be in charge of developing the comprehensive framework for the governance of international migration, incorporating its mandates into the UN system. The framework can employ the OHCHR's Universal Periodic Review mechanism to regularly monitor state practices on the protection of rights of refugees and migrants and to ensure government transparency and accountability. It should also incorporate the work of the UN Development Programme, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and UN Women to ensure humanitarian aid goes hand in hand with development programmes, the best interests of children, and combatting gender-based violence.

Hope for reform of the International Protection Regime

In addition there are three critical areas that need to be the focus of reform. The first concerns the role of private sector and the development of a 'business model' of the protection regime. Businesses and private sponsors have stepped up to help ameliorate humanitarian crises by offering refugees jobs and shelters. For migrants, corporates can agree ethical standards among their peers not to abuse vulnerable migrants, and make considerable donations to humanitarian aid. Corporate social responsibility has been the buzzword at the UN for a decade. Now, it's time for nation states to partner with those willing in the private sector to solve a problem the state alone cannot.

Second, legal and complementary pathways that advance refugees' right to work should be actively sought. There is plenty of evidence that refugees can contribute to local economies. Allowing them alternative pathways is the ultimate solution for the current crisis and beneficial for both refugees and host communities. States may see this opening as a threat to security and identity. 'Controlled migration' is a preferred mode by many conservative governments like Hungary and the UK. In order to better manage and control migration, states need to open more alternative legal pathways for refugees and regularise irregular migrants in an orderly manner.

Finally the most important and probably the most difficult challenge concerns children in detention and unaccompanied minors. Children are being compared to 'skittles'. This is particularly worrying as it dehumanises innocent children of a certain religion whose future depends on education and today's investment in humanity. Leaving them with no education will generate much bigger problems in the future, and these won't be contained to a single country. It's up to adults to determine the best interests of children. We need to act without delay.

Photo by Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images


By Harriet Smith, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • Pacific nations stood together at the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants, calling for help addressing issues such as the detention centre on Nauru and climate refugees, while Australia defended its border protection policies.
  • Connect Settlement Services has become the third major contractor to pull out of the Nauru detention centre, following Wilson Security and Ferrovial.
  • The Australian government is considering reducing its 32% planned tax on backpackers with working holiday visas. The tax could benefit the Seasonal Workers Program which allows Pacific Islanders to work in Australia short-term, and may level the playing field between the two groups competing for employment in Australia’s seasonal agricultural sector.
  • The aftermath from #FijiCrackdown continues, and the repercussions for their democracy have implications for Australia, as explored on the Interpreter, and discussed by Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
  • The detained Fijian politicians have stated that their human rights were breached; this comes as Fiji’s special representative to the UN revealed Fiji is seeking to become a member of the Human Rights Council for 2018-2020.
  • Rallies for an intervention into human rights abuses were attended by thousands of West Papuans across Indonesia, but ended as the police broke up the crowds and arrested at least 75 people.
  • Joanne Wallis discusses Australia’s declining influence in the Pacific, arguing that Australia is becoming a 'hollow hegemon' in the region. Meanwhile, India is increasing its outreach to Pacific Islands states in the wake of the Pacific Islands Forum.
  • Research has shown despite rapidly rising urbanisation rates across Melanesia, there remains a lack of urban investment and equitable representation. 
  • Despite losing to New Zealand in the final of the Oceania Football Confederation Under 20 soccer championship, host nation Vanuatu is looking forward to the World Cup.
  • The 60th Goroka Show  in the eastern highland province in PNG celebrated tradition and diversity, as seen in these photos of a previous Goroka Show.
  • Amid controversy over the banning of provincial flags by some organisers, Papua New Guinea has celebrated 41 years of independence, and the 2016 Independence dawn service attracted many residents and dignitaries. 



If you have enjoyed the music of one-time diplomat turned musician and now author, Fred Smith, why not come and hear him in conversation with the Lowy Institute's research director Anthony Bubalo in Sydney tomorrow. Fred's acclaimed album Dust of Uruzgan evokes the two years he spent working alongside Australian soldiers in southern Afghanistan. His book of the same title is the first comprehensive on-the-ground account of Australia's involvement in Afghanistan.  More information on tomorrow's event can be found here.


To those of us who have followed David Cameron’s political career since it was in the womb, his sudden decision last week to leave politics altogether (he resigned as an MP, having said after resigning as prime minister that he would stay on the backbenches for the indefinite future) came as no surprise.

I first encountered Mr Cameron a quarter of a century ago, when he was special adviser to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, during Britain’s ill-fated membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System.  I used to write weekly about the disastrous effect this attempt to fix the exchange rate was having on our supposedly free-market economy; Mr Cameron would telephone me most weeks and tell me what an idiot I was. Of course, he didn’t believe in it either, and it is the mark of people who believe in nothing that they never consider the consequences of anything they advocate, because if it goes the wrong way it is no matter to them. When Britain ignominiously left the ERM on 'Black Wednesday' in September 1992, Mr Cameron was on the phone to tell me what a great outcome it was, and how it was something of a triumph for his humiliated boss.

Fast forward 24 years and we reach his own humiliation in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The promise to hold the referendum was made without any regard for the possible consequences; when campaigning was underway the Remain effort (of which Mr Cameron was the figurehead) appeared  almost calculated to end in catastrophe. Whether he likes it or not, taking Britain out of the EU (entirely inadvertently, in his case) is going to be his main political legacy, and it deserves to be engraved on his tombstone when the time comes. That Cameron has no better legacy than Brexit is due to the arrogance and lack of conviction with which he conducted his whole career.

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Once Mr Cameron left Whitehall, and put his days as a special adviser behind him, he went to work as a public relations man for a television company. To say he made a great reputation for himself in that calling would not be accurate: but the glib, truth-lite demeanour of the PR spiv accompanied him into politics, when he won a safe Conservative seat at the 2001 general election. His party was in dire straits, that election being the second successive one it lost by a landslide to the Labour party of Tony Blair. A third, almost as large, defeat in 2005 catapulted Mr Cameron to the leadership. He was young, just 38 at the time, fresh-faced, had a pretty wife and children, and promised to be all things to all men. He kept using the word 'change' in his leadership campaign, a word pregnant with meaning if attached to certain other concepts, but meaningless if used on its own. Many in his own party started to fret about what that undefined 'change' might be, not least because they discerned from his various pronouncements that he was not really a conservative at all.

He didn’t win the next election he fought, in 2010, but his party ended up the largest in parliament, and he formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That was not a special achievement: they were as desperate for office as he was (the last time they had had a sniff of power in peacetime was in 1914) and so they formed a convenient pact of ambition. After the disastrous conduct of the economy by Labour, which had left Britain uncompetitive and massively in debt, the coalition did, to its credit, do what was necessary to put the economy back on a sound footing, and cut public spending; though not in real terms, just by letting the rate of its increase rise less than usual. Unemployment fell, sterling increased in value, and business gave every sign of booming.

But Cameron achieved little else. He tried to cut the welfare state, but cut even more from the armed forces, leaving Britain vulnerable. His education reforms were aborted when the teaching unions cut up rough. He failed to put Britain’s unwieldy National Health Service on a steady course for a future that will be shaped by a rapidly ageing population and, in the same vein, failed to prepare Britain for a crisis that is coming in caring for the elderly. He made wild promises about controlling immigration into a country whose infrastructure is buckling and whose housing stock is inadequate, but could not keep them: all 450 million citizens from the EU’s other 27 countries have a perfect right to settle in Britain visa-free. 

He promised a referendum in the 2015 campaign to prevent people voting for the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. In that, he succeeded, but again he did not consider the consequences. He did not expect the Conservatives to win the election outright, and he knew that so long as he was in a coalition, the Liberal Democrats would not allow him to keep his promise. However, his party did win outright, and he had to follow through. He then expected to secure concessions from his fellow EU heads of government that would allow him to persuade the British people to vote to stay in. He secured virtually nothing. When he returned from the final summit in February to say he had not secured an end to unrestricted immigration from the EU, some of us knew he had lost. To him, apparently, it came as a shock.

After so catastrophic a failure of judgment he had no choice but to resign. And, as befits a man who has always given the impression of being in it for himself, there was nothing to persuade him to stay in politics, hence his decision to quit last week. It isn’t the first undertaking he has broken: he is that sort of man. And since he left high office, his Conservative successor has sacked most of the cronies he put into ministerial jobs, and is setting about reversing substantial aspects of his policies to make the Conservative party more conservative. Apart from the fact we shall soon be out of the EU, it is almost, already, as if Mr Cameron never happened.

Photo: Getty Images/WPA Pool


Last Friday, I joined a panel discussion at the Young Australians in International Affairs Future 21 conference. The YAIIA is a great organisation, and if you have any interest in international affairs, you should check it out. Future21 was its first national conference and had a stellar line up of speakers covering the waterfront of international issues. I was on a panel with Sam Roggeveen, Lowy Institute's director of digital, Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer from Griffith University, and Rob Tranter, head of DFAT’s Public Diplomacy Division.

Despite feeling extremely old, I really enjoyed the session. Why? Because we were discussing using digital technology in diplomacy, or digital diplomacy to give it its working title. My career so far has had two distinct streams: communications and foreign policy. Digital diplomacy is where both of these come together and I am fascinated by it.

During the discussion, one question stood out. Sam asked each of the panel for an example of where digital diplomacy had delivered a policy change or, as I interpreted it, what was the point of digital diplomacy? It was a great question. And it reminded me that in all the fuss created around ‘digital’, we can sometimes lose focus on why we are doing it.

We can get hung up on the number of social media accounts a foreign ministry has, how many likes a tweet received, or how many followers we have. These numbers are great: they are easily measured; they boost egos; and they can be spun as demonstrating successful digital engagement. But they don’t go to the heart of Sam’s question: What difference has it made? In the end, as public servants, we need to demonstrate to taxpayers why it is worth investing in digital.

The comforting news for digital diplomats is that we are not alone. The public relations profession has struggle for many years to measure its value. For decades, PR used 'advertising value equivalent' as the main evaluation measurement. This gave a monetary value to the coverage a particular issue received in the media based on how much it would cost to buy the equivalent coverage as advertising. It was a poor measurement and didn’t consider anything other than column inches gained. As a result, the PR profession developed the Barcelona Principles. These set out how PR can measure effectiveness rather than chase coverage or ‘likes’.

Digital diplomacy needs to follow a similar path if we are to continue justifying future investment. And like PR, we need to acknowledge that in many cases, we are playing a long game. Digital engagement won’t always deliver immediate benefits. And it can’t be viewed in isolation, it will normally be part of a diplomatic campaign that employs traditional tools as well.

The naysayers dismiss digital diplomacy as a fad that distracts from the real business of diplomacy. Others say digital will replace the role of the traditional diplomat and embassies. I don’t agree with either of these extremes. There are opportunities and there are risks. But as we move onto the next phase of digital technology, the profession of diplomacy needs to think big, and we need to focus on creating value.

The challenge for foreign ministries is to drive a cultural change within, one that gives diplomats the skills, knowledge and confidence to integrate digital into all things foreign policy.

And by the way, for those of you interesting in what example I gave Sam. It was the UK’s Ending Sexual Violence Campaign: a global diplomatic campaign with digital engagement at its heart. And it is still making a difference

Illustration: Malte Mueller via Getty


Yesterday Lowy Institute Research Fellow and resident Indonesia expert Aaron Connelly spoke to ANU's Eve Warburton on how Jokowi has managed to achieve something of a political comeback over the past year, what he plans to do with all this new power, and how Jokowi is managing resource nationalism in the country.


As planting season started in the northern Afghan province of Baghlan this spring, so did the fighting. One farmer, Ibrahim (he uses only one name), and his family had barely tilled their land when they had to leave. Fighting had been close by for most of the past year, but now it was in their village. With mortar shells falling on their fields. Ibrahim told me he and his family abandoned everything and fled for their lives.

For many Afghans, personal safety and livelihoods are intimately connected as the conflict expands. Australian immigration officials might be tempted to dismiss families like Ibrahim’s as 'just economic migrants' but that would be a poor read of the the complex situation in Afghanistan.

Most of Ibrahim’s harvest last year went to waste. Buyers never came because of the security threat. And although Ibrahim and his father didn’t sell a single melon, they still had to give a portion of their harvest as tax to the Taliban.

This year, they borrowed AFN50,000 (US$730) to plant again, gambling that the conflict would leave them alone. His father has returned to their village, braving the intermittent fighting to save their crop. 'Harvest time is approaching again,' Ibrahim said. 'If the fighting continues, only God can help us. We have nothing left'.

Some Afghans, desperate like Ibrahim, have set out for Australia and Europe. When they reach their destination, they are often classified as economic migrants and get a hostile reception. But if they are forced to return to Afghanistan, they can face both danger and destitution.

More than 300 of Afghanistan’s 384 districts are no longer secure, according to the Afghan government. Increased fighting has led to massive displacement. From January to March, about 90,000 people were displaced from 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces due to conflict. By July, the year's tally had grown to 182,000 people from 29 provinces across the country. There are now 1.2 million internally displaced people across Afghanistan and this will increase.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups have demonstrated that they can destabilise, if not take over, any area in Afghanistan. The conflict has spread to areas once considered safe, such as Ibrahim’s home province of Baghlan. In 10 districts of the country the security is so bad, there is no local governance infrastructure. Three of these districts are in the north, once considered safe as conflict raged in the south.

In 2015, the conflict resulted in 11,000 civilian casualties, according to the UN. The civilian casualties have increased in six of the seven years since the UN started keeping records in 2009. Insurgents are killing minorities and kidnapping civilians not affiliated with the warring sides – civilians whom insurgents didn’t consider targets until recently.

The thousands of Afghans who arrive in Europe and Australia are just a trickle of those uprooted from their communities, deprived of personal safety and livelihoods. But, even though civilians are now less safe than they have been at any point since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, governments in Australia and Europe appear even more willing than to send Afghanis back.

The Australian government warns would-be travellers that no part of Afghanistan he country can be considered free from conflict-related violence,' but it has been returning Hazara minority asylum seekers and producing multimillion dollar films to deter others from seeking asylum in Australia.

Afghans who are forced to return may face significant and growing risk of serious harm, including indiscriminate violence and destitution. Australia has tried to address this by offering generous return packages, but money can’t buy safety, jobs or social support.

The Afghan government’s already limited capacity to assist returnees has been stretched even thinner by the increasing crisis of internal displacement, lack of funds, and corruption. Some returnees may become displaced if their homes remain unsafe. Returning after seeking asylum is a traumatic process to begin with.  There is also evidence that even if those forced to return home are not immediately in the way of violence, they can suffer unreasonable hardships because of high unemployment, social isolation, poverty, homelessness, and separation from relatives.

When conflict is as widespread as it has become in Afghanistan, just doing one’s job can be dangerous, involving a level of risk that forces people to abandon their livelihoods. This applies to many jobs, from aid workers, to journalists, teachers, judges and farmers like Ibrahim.

Countries that seek to decouple the economic from the security motives of people seeking refuge will find this can be difficult and that applying such an approach to highly insecure countries like Afghanistan could deprive refugees of the protection provided for by international law.

Ibrahim and his family escaped from their village before anyone got hurt but now they live in limbo. A few kilometres away, a teacher turned farmer, Mallem Farouq, who worked the land after the girls’ school where he taught closed because of fighting, was less lucky. He was in the fields when a mortar shell landed nearby, injuring him and his two sons, Emal, 10, and Shebar, 5.

Then they left their village.

Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images