Lowy Institute

On the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, we have revived a critique of an earlier CHOGM by Allan Gyngell, then founding executive director of The Lowy Institute, first published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2003.

The important diplomatic question of the month is not whether Zimbabwe will come back into the Commonwealth, but why on earth Australia does not get out.

Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, accompanied by a substantial entourage, has just spent nearly a week in Abuja that's Abuja, Nigeria for the biennial meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government. This meeting, known by the unattractive acronym 'CHOGM', is at the heart of what is, by any measure, the most useless international institution to which any senior Australian political leader must commit time and energy.

And what was the outcome of those long days on the road? Little more than a bitter debate which left the group deeply divided about its own membership criteria and whether Zimbabwe should be there.

You probably didn't read the communique issued at the end of the Abuja meeting. I'm not surprised. Seventy-two turgid paragraphs of motherhood statements 'Heads of government appreciated the need for constructive dialogue and co-operation to achieve sustainable development', and meaningless diplomatic compromise 'Heads of government of those member countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court urged other states, which have not yet done so, to accede.'

I know it's unfair to quote Commonwealth communiques as though they were actually intended to mean something. But hours of diplomatic time were expended to produce these words, even those that were simply cut and pasted from the last effort. The heads of government also got together and produced something called the Aso Rock Declaration, which sounds much more interesting than it turns out to be. This lengthy statement on 'Development and Democracy: Partnership for Peace and Prosperity' rated not a mention I can find in any Australian newspaper. (The Aso Rock Declaration draws on the work of the 'landmark declarations in Singapore, Harare and Fancourt', if that helps you.)

The New Zealand secretary-general of this hapless organisation, Don McKinnon, made a valiant attempt to claim that the meeting would have 'a key role in the area of trade'. But not even he sounded convinced.

Asked how the outcome squared with his pre-meeting hope that the gathering would contribute to resolution of global trade problems, Howard was able to declare only that it was 'broadly consistent with the things I have been saying'.

So what was Australia doing there? Given its vigorous criticisms of most multilateral organisations, the Howard Government has been remarkably gentle with the Commonwealth, an organisation of legendary lethargy and waste. One reason, no doubt, is the historical links to Britain and its institutions. But then I noticed that one of the most vehement critics of Howard's strong line on Zimbabwe was President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique. If, like me, you can't remember the time Mozambique had any constitutional connection to Britain or its empire, your memory does not fail you. (It was admitted in 1995 because many of its neighbours were members.)

Membership of the Commonwealth, it is sometimes claimed, is a price we pay for good relations with a wide variety of different countries and regions with whom we would not naturally come into contact. It is assumed that this might come in handy when Australia is standing for appointment to important international posts. But, in fact, Commonwealth membership has led this time at any rate to little more than a deepening rift between Australia and the southern African members. Does that matter? Not much probably, but neither is it much of a return on membership dues.

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Perhaps spending a few days a year in a remote corner of the world is a small enough sacrifice for any Australian prime minister to pay for those garlands of gold, silver and bronze medals weighing down our athletes at the Commonwealth Games. But that argument is wearing thin. Even the most one-eyed Australian sporting fans recognise cheap success when they see it.

The main reason we are still a member, of course, is that the Commonwealth doesn't matter. No one cares enough. It's hard to get fussed about it. It would require more effort to walk away than to let things run on.

The Commonwealth is a fine example of one of the immutable rules of international organisations, which is that it is a good deal easier to start them up than to finish them off. They hardly ever go away. The Warsaw Pact, admittedly, has bitten the dust, but its principal adversary, NATO, has simply redefined its objectives and marched off with sprightly steps in a new direction.

In a polite and tentative sort of way, successive Australian prime ministers have gone into Commonwealth meetings urging change and reform. But the problem is not format, it is function. It is the impossibility of finding anything much, short of platitudes, on which such a diverse group can agree, or any matters of real substance on which they need to work.

There is a serious issue in all this. Australian prime ministers have limited time and energy and the country's bureaucratic resources are finite. The objectives of encouraging a broad spread of Australian diplomacy around the world and helping to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law are excellent. But they can be met in other, more effective, ways.

It is time we abandoned the profitless project of trying to reform the Commonwealth from within. Otherwise, CHOGMs in Malta and Uganda lurk in the future for Australian prime ministers. At least we know what will be in the communiques.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Commonwealth Secretariat


The downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 is awkward timing. Signs of a rapprochement in tensions between the West and Russia looked like genuine cooperation was underway in Syria. Russia had stepped up hits directed at ISIS and related infrastructure, and Russian President Vladimir Putin  had ordered the Russian navy to treat France like an 'ally' in Syria following the Paris attacks. Further conflict escalation relating to disagreements peripheral to the Syria crisis is in no one’s interests, as highlighted by NATO Secretary General’s call for 'diplomacy and de-escalation' as important to resolving the situation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at press conference this week. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Getty Images)

The incident did show that Russia has an international competitor that is willing to act as boldly to defend its national interests as Russia has done in its own foreign policy over recent years. Turkey’s actions were not completely without warning. Turkey has previously shot down two Syrian Air Force fighter jets for violating Turkish airspace, showing how seriously the government takes such activity. In October Turkey warned it 'cannot endure' Russian violations after a Su-30 illegally entered Turkish airspace, supposedly by accident. Turkey’s reaction to Russia’s failure to heed warnings marked an unprecedented, and many would argue over-the-top, use of force by any NATO country since NATO-Russia relations plummeted against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis.

This incident is unlikely to escalate into a broader NATO versus Russia conflict. Russia has of course criticised NATO heavily, particularly on its failure to offer condolences for Russia’s loss. Despite comments from Sergei Rybakov, deputy head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that Russia 'does not expect objectivity' from NATO in its probing of what happened, Russia is willing to engage on a de-conflicting agreement with NATO to avoid such incidents in future.

Russia’s reactions have already been mainly directed at Turkey bilaterally and are likely to continue in this manner. Energy relations are likely to suffer, with Russia being Turkey’s largest gas supplier. The Turkish Stream energy project, which replaced South Stream after Russia abandoned it a year ago due to tense relations with Europe, may now be under threat. A 2010 deal for  Russia's national nuclear corporation Rosatom to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant worth over $20 billion may now be put on hold. Russia’s state tourism agency Rostourism recommended the suspension of flights to Turkey , with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying the threat of terrorism there was 'no less' than in Egypt, where a commercial Russian airline, carrying mainly Russian tourists, was shot down by a group affiliated with ISIS on 31 October.

Russia has also cancelled military cooperation with Turkey, and it is possible that Russia will increase strikes against rebel groups close to Turkey, such as the Syrian Turkmens, which was already a significant contributing factor to Turkey’s concerns around Russia’s intervention in Syria. 

NATO has endorsed support for Turkey on the basis that it has information from both Turkey and other NATO allies that indicate Russia did indeed violate Turkey’s airspace.

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At a press conference at the White House, President Obama reiterated the view that the downing of the plane was an inevitable result of the way in which Russia operates in Syria, and if Russia concentrated its airstrikes on ISIS, such mistakes would be 'less likely to occur'. This is somewhat hypocritical given Turkey’s propensity to target Kurdish fighters. Turkey has not escaped criticism, however, highlighting a view within NATO that it overreacted. NATO officials said that they believed Turkey should have shown more restraint and could have escorted Russian planes out of the airspace. There are also worrying question marks over the decision-making process by which Turkish authorities authorised the strike.

On the other hand, Russia should be able to see how its repeated refusal to acknowledge any responsibility for its actions, and its purposefully defensive contradictory response, have undermined its position in this situation: and in this case genuinely to its own detriment. Criticism for Turkey might have been vocally stronger if Russia had not reacted in a manner that has become increasingly typical in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. It would be reasonable to say that shooting down a plane of a nation that has shared counter-terrorism objectives in Syria for a 17 second airspace violation is a disproportionate response. Even if in reality the picture is far more complex given that Turkey and Russia, as with many other countries, are clearly pursuing their own national interests through the groups they are supporting and targeting in Syria.

Instead, Russia went into plausible deniability mode, at first claiming the plane was hit from the ground. This is unlikely given that the plane was flying at 6000 metres and that the Turkish government announced that two of its F-16s had targeted the Russian plane. Russia’s Ministry of Defence quickly produced counter-'evidence' to that of Turkey, trying to dispel radar image tracking that showed Russia entering Turkish airspace. Given Russia’s reaction to the downing of MH17, and the fact that it had violated Turkish airspace on previous occasions, it is hardly surprising this was met with scepticism.

Another challenge for Turkey is that if it had indeed escorted the Russian plane out of its airspace instead of shooting it down, the airspace violations would continue. By meeting Russian actions with an overly-forceful response, Turkey has potentially genuinely deterred Russia from doing something it feels violates its sovereignty. This is not a policy Western European nations should necessarily endorse, but it does reflect the use of 'strength' often called for over Russia’s behaviour. Syria is not Ukraine, and Russia needs to adapt its way of thinking given the number of complex players, and the wider variety of rules of engagement that they are playing by.

Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

6 of 6 This post is part of a debate on The future of drone warfare

Is the drone pilot a warrior? It's a crucial question surrounding the place of the drone pilot within the military ethos – and one Adam Henschke points to in a recent entry in this series of posts of the future of drones on The Interpreter.

It's a good and important question, not only for the reasons Henschke identifies. Whether or not drones are seen as cowardly and therefore offend or embolden the enemy, the lack of clarity regarding the position of the drone pilot is concerning. 

Shannon E French argues being identified as a warrior situates a person within the 'warrior ethos' – including an informal code of conduct. 'The warrior code', as French calls it, is an honour system that regulates behaviour based on an agreed-upon sense of 'what it means to be a warrior'.

But unless drone pilots are actually able to live up to the normative demands the warrior code represents, they risk being seen as dishonourable not by enemies but by fellow military personnel. Worse, some may come to see themselves as shameful.

There are good reasons for thinking drone pilots are not warriors. Drone pilots experience no real risk in carrying out their wars, and are thus distanced in several ways from the realities of combat. Some, like Mark Coeckelbergh suggest 'there seems to be something cowardly and unfair about remote killing'.

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Others, like Christian Enemark are more circumspect. Enemark argues drone pilots 'challenge traditional notions… of what it means to be a combatant or "warrior" within the military profession'. 

Enemark describes drone pilots as 'disembodied warriors'. Disembodiment means drone pilots face no fear for their personal safety. Thus, there is an inability to practise what Enemark describes as 'physical courage' (courage when one's life is at risk). Arguably, such a virtue is part of what defines someone as a warrior — and therefore as worthy of honour by their warrior peers.

Warriors make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield. Disembodied warriors usually don't. Given their targets are vetted in advance and their superior officers able to directly monitor missions, there is very little opportunity for drone pilots to exercise any autonomy at all. They are, to return to St Augustine of Hippo's fourth century notion, 'an instrument, a sword in the user's hand'. 

Although they are treated as such, drone pilots are not merely instruments in the hands of their superiors. They are people. As such, the moral gravity of killing bears on their consciences, they feel acutely the seriousness of what it is that they are doing. 

Here, however, the problem of risk-free warfare returns. Drone pilots can't justify the killing they do in the same way other warriors can.

Regardless of the justice of the mission or war, warriors who are physically on the battlefield can justify their killing through the framework of self-defence. Drone pilots are not defending themselves; there is no 'me or them' logic to fall back on.

Enemark says, 'war necessarily involves some kind of contest... opposing combatants' equal right to kill in war is founded on the assumption of mutual risk'. In this sense, drone pilots will not feel like warriors — their killing is no contest at all. 

Without a coherent moral framework for justifying their killing, drone operation is morally fraught. It is unsurprising then that, despite undertaking no risk, drone pilots report the same rates of PTSD as pilots of manned aircraft. This is even less surprising when one considers the growing literature on moral injury:  which is trauma that emerges as a product of transgressing against deeply held moral beliefs

Drone pilots not only kill their targets, but they observe them for weeks beforehand, coming to know their habits, families and communities. That is, they are able to see their targets as persons. As Coeckelbergh notes, 'pilots may recall images of the people they killed... of the person who first played with his children and was then killed'.

Based on the trauma they experience, many drone pilots appear to consider themselves in some sense morally responsible for those who they kill. Despite effectively being an instrument in the hands of superiors, it is the pilot who does the killing.

If drone-based killing is to be justified, drone pilots need to be made aware that the justifications for it are manifestly different to those available to front-line soldiers. Just because drone pilots serve the military does not make them warriors, and does not avail them to the kind of justifications for killing that soldiers possess.

A new moral framework is necessary to explain how (if at all) unmanned, risk-free killing can be justifiable, lest more drone pilots become wracked with the guilt of what the warrior code holds to be unjustified killings.

Better would be the emergence of a new honour code available to 'disembodied warriors' (like drone pilots and cyberwarriors) which emphasises moral virtues other than courage. It should also explain how their killings can be justified. If this cannot be done, perhaps the practice of armed drones should either be made fully autonomous (which is itself, as James Brown argues, likely to be unethical) or abandoned altogether.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Airman Magazine.


Earlier this week, an American rocket flew into space then returned safely to Earth. That shouldn't be a big surprise. Space shuttles did that for 30 years between 1981 and 2011. What's different is that this was a private-enterprise venture, founded by Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin is a project to develop a rocket and crew capsule which will eventually launch space tourists on sub-orbital space missions. After a conventional launch, the capsule and rocket separate. The capsule lands on solid ground with the aid of parachutes, but the rocket lands on the power of its own main rocket engine, touching down on four landing struts. 

Getting rockets to land safely back on Earth is seen as a vital step to making spaceflight more affordable. Throwing out a vehicle after just one journey would make other forms of transport prohibitively expensive. The Space Shuttle was largely re-usable, but the heavy maintenance it required meant that it was really no cheaper than conventional 'expendable' rockets.

The successful landing of the Blue Origin rocket after an actual space mission sparked an angry 'tweet war' with Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and SpaceX, a US company that also makes rockets and space capsules. Musk has been trying to get one of his Falcon 9 rockets home safely for years, but has never staged a safe landing. Rivalries for this first landing shadow greater contests in the cutthroat business of commercial spaceflight, which struggles to attract clients to offset its huge operational costs.

That's a commercial problem and a dilemma in international affairs and trade. Spaceflight is making a transition from government-sponsored launches to private enterprise flights. Already, commercial missions outstrip government ones. But commercial companies still depend heavily on government launch contracts (including SpaceX) and government-related launch providers have also dabbled in commercialism. Australia had its first two Aussat satellites launched by the US Space Shuttle. The price Australia paid for the launch did not reflect the true cost of flying the mission. Similarly, Japan has just launched a Canadian satellite on its government-sponsored H-2A rocket, the first commercial launch for this vehicle. China has also used its program to glean foreign currency for satellite launches at rates that some analysts feel are subsidised.

Nations accuse each other of unfair trade practices regularly. Space is no exception. As the space industry expands, and the world becomes even more interlinked through free trade treaties, the stage is set for further confrontations. Oh, national security is sometimes a good excuse to engage in protectionism!


With this year's summit season coming to an end, Turkey will officially hand over the G20 hosting baton to China on 1 December 2015. The Hangzhou Leaders' Summit has already been announced for 4 and 5 September 2016, slightly earlier than previous years to avoid clashing with the US presidential election in November.

Although we are still waiting for China to release the official priorities document that will set out its goals in detail, President Xi Jinping did take the opportunity at the Antalya Summit to sketch an outline of what China's G20 year will look like.

G20 host countries have a habit of reconfiguring the same fundamental issues to suit their narrative. As the 2015 host, Turkey focused the G20 agenda around three 'i's: inclusiveness, investment, and implementation.

China, not to be outdone, has linked its presidency with four 'i's. Xi stated in Antalya that China wants to see a global economy that is 'innovative, invigorated, inter-connected and inclusive'. The sequence is important, as innovation is a new focus for both China and the G20.

Each of these 'i's can be linked to the acronym of GOOD that has been unofficially associated with China's G20 presidency; innovative Growth, Organizational reform, Open trade and investment, and sustainable Development. Chinese officials have used the GOOD acronym in meetings and, even though it's not to be found in official communications, it remains a useful guide to the priorities framing China's thinking.

China believes there is too much emphasis on weak demand as the cause of sluggish growth. Therefore, it wants to use its G20 host year to focus on the supply side, concentratating on innovation and technology as a means of creating growth. This also fits with China's domestic strategy of moving up the value chain and improving the quality of exports.

As for organisational reform or 'invigorating' governance, this reflects the preoccupation of China and other emerging economies with their exclusion from existing governance bodies. Long-stalled IMF reform is a particular sore point.

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There is speculation the IMF is about to add the yuan to its basket of reserve currencies, but it will take more than such symbolic reform to satisfy China beyond the short term. Similarly, China remains disappointed with the World Bank shift in voting share in 2010. Despite some changes, the Bank still has a US-appointed president and emerging markets are underrepresented.

Wang Xiaolong, the newly appointed G20 special envoy from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphasised that we need a more 'inter-connected' regime because the 'two engines' of the global economy, trade and investment, are not working as they should. It is well-known that world trade is slowing more than global GDP.

He confirmed that G20 trade ministers would meet in China next year (as they did in Turkey and Australia). However, if China wants to progress trade, it will need to convene a leader-level discussion on fixing the World Trade Organisation.

We might also assume China's G20 agenda will continue the focus on infrastructure investment, a feature of both the Australian and Turkish presidencies.

Turkey's inclusiveness priority did emphasise development, but China seems to be taking this further with sustainable development as a fourth priority. In the Chinese narrative, development is another key engine of growth, particularly 'shared development'. However, we do not know yet what this means for the G20 Development Working Group and whether development will become part of the core agenda.

Turkey struggled with its three 'i's and was unable to focus the agenda, eventually producing a disappointing communiqué.

China, with four 'i's and a 'GOOD', will have to be clearly communicate what it wants to achieve, and be careful its messages do not get lost in translation. We will have to wait to see if the priorities document contains yet another slogan or acronym.

It is unrealistic for any host to progress every item on the G20 agenda. Given the breadth of issues Turkey is bequeathing to China, the new G20 taskforce will have to be disciplined.

The best thing for the Australian G20 legacy would be if China revives a narrative on growth and runs a tight ship. Although Australia has departed the governing G20 troika, we should not go quietly back to the sidelines. We have a responsibility to encourage China to strengthen the forum and deliver real outcomes.

Photo: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images


On Thursday, the Institute is hosting a panel on free trade agreements with me, Jessica Irvine from Fairfax and Luke Nottage, law professor from the University of Sydney. Steve Grenville, former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia will be chairing. There’s a divergence of views on the panel, so it should be a great event.

For those that can’t make it, I can at least easily summarise my views.

I’m very sceptical of the direction of Australian trade policy. As I have said before, I do not think the upsides are worth the potential downsides.

Let’s first cover the upsides. The upsides of the preferential approach we take are small. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released modelling by the Centre for International Economics in June which showed that the marquee bilateral free trade agreements of the last couple of years (the agreements with Japan, Korea and China) would boost Australian GDP by 0.05% to 0.1%.

Modelling of the final text of the TPP has not been done, although modelling of what the agreement may look like was done by the Peterson Institute. Their first effort at modelling suggested an impact on Australia of 0.2% of GDP. With some changes to the model, this was later increased to 0.6% of GDP, which is chunkier, but let me go through the downsides of current policy and why there is a better path.

Let’s start with what really distresses me: intellectual property. As part of these trade agreements, we sign up to stringent intellectual property protections.

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Why is this bad? Two reasons. One, Australia is an intellectual property importer. Any extensions to intellectual property protections result in larger payments overseas to those who own the intellectual property. But the second reason is the real kicker for me. I think a fair reading of the economic literature suggests that more intellectual property protection does not increase innovation, and in fact likely reduces it, as companies divert attention away from creation toward protecting entrenched monopoly privileges. A great summary of that literature can be found in a book by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, Against Intellectual Monopoly. Although, for a shorter synopsis, you might want to consider the articles The Economist ran in August

The only reason to have intellectual property protection is to encourage innovation. If it reduces innovation, then we should run from agreements that increase our obligations. Why? Well, innovation is the most important source of sustained growth in the economy. If increased intellectual protection reduces innovation and growth, it will likely overwhelm the one-shot bumps to GDP that the aforementioned modelling suggests is the upside.

The other part of free trade agreements that makes me uncomfortable is the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) procedures. Most of the agreements we have signed lately include provisions that allow foreign companies to take us to a tribunal if they feel aggrieved by government action. Giving rights to foreign companies that domestic ones do not have, the very opposite of levelling the playing field, gives most economists the heebie-jeebies.

However, perhaps these types of agreements can allow countries to attract more investment, and allow governments to commit to behaving themselves. My reading of the, admittedly imperfect, evidence is these provisions do not do that. Rather they can, and have, led to legitimate government decisions to be challenged, and led others to postpone reforms. Exhibit A here is cigarette packaging.

Luke Nottage, on the panel with me, is a supporter of ISDS, and has argued that reforms to the system can deal with these concerns. He is yet to convince me, but he has a terrific knowledge of the topic. The thing I just can’t shake is that these things do not seem to increase investment flows, their raison d'être. I’m sure this will be one of the things we discuss tomorrow.

But I promised a 'better path'. The better path is unilateral liberalisation. The Productivity Commission, in 2010, suggested unilateral tariff liberalisation would increase GDP by around 0.6%, around the same effect as the TPP according to the Peterson modelling. But the model used by the Productivity Commission was closer in spirit to the initial Peterson modelling, which suggested a 0.2% boost. So unilateral liberalisation seems to offer much larger benefits than the preferential approach we have taken, without the bad bits, especially the damaging intellectual property provisions.

Photo courtesy of trademinister.go.au.

  • A former AFP officer posted in PNG has made a number of allegations about the conduct of local police and the AFP presence in PNG, claiming the AFP's actions are constrained by the imperative to maintain the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre. The AFP has responded to this report here.
  • Last week I linked to a story criticising an Australian-funded aid project in Vanuatu that has attracted a lot of attention on social media. Two senior ni-Vanuatu public servants, Mike Waiwai and Jeff Malmangrou, published a rebuttal of the arguments in that article in the Vanuatu Daily Post and expressed their support for the aid project in question.  
  • Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale has dissolved Parliament and called a snap election following the incarceration of 14 MPs on bribery charges.
  • The Pacific Regional Conference on Strengthening Women's Participation in Parliaments is wrapping up today in Port Moresby. The Pacific has the lowest rates of women's representation in parliament in the world. 
  • In this interview with Radio Australia's Pacific Beat, UNDP team leader and former Labour MP in New Zealand, Charles Chauvel, explains some of the new initiatives being explored to help increase women's political participation in the Pacific.
  • This new research from International IDEA looks at political instability in the Pacific and analyses attempts to address the issue through constitutional reform.  
  • Devpolicy's Stephen Howes and Ashlee Betteridge show the persistently high cost of remittances in the Pacific, with the Australia-PNG corridor proving to be one of the most expensive in the world.  
  • Today is White Ribbon Day and violence against women is a major problem in Australia and throughout the Pacific. This Human Rights Watch report delves into the issue of family violence in Papua New Guinea.
  • Papua New Guinean songwriter Oala Moi on the fight for copyright in his country. It has been over 12 years since PNG introduced a copyright law, but there is still no collective management system that would allow musicians to exercise those rights and receive proper payment when their work is used.
  • The Lowy Institute's 2015 GE Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue will be taking place in Sydney next week. Check out some of the other great work GE is doing in PNG with its portable ultrasound project:


News that a Russian strike aircraft has been shot down by Turkey has again focused attention on Russia's air campaign in Syria, which began in late September. The Russians deployed a small but decisive air and naval force to side with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to protect his regime and, specifically, the city of Damascus.

A Russian Su-24, the type shot down by Turkey.  (Wikipedia.)

While the Russian Air Force deployment to Syria has undoubtedly complicated the air operations of the US-led coalition, the coalition's significant advantage in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and its ability to use extensive air-to-air refueling assets, mean that its air forces can easily 'deconflict' (that is, reduce the risk of the collision by co-ordinating movements) their operations from those of the Russians.

The ability of assets like the RAAF Wedgetail, the US Air Force E-3, and other ISR aircraft to identify and classify Russian aircraft activity from the time they launch from their Syrian bases means they can be identified and tracked throughout their entire mission. If crews on board an  aircraft like Wedgetail see a potential for imminent confliction, coalition aircraft can be moved out of the way until the Russians complete their operations.

However, deconfliction is far more of a concern for the Russians than the coalition. While the Russians have deployed very capable Su-30 fighters to protect and enhance the situational awareness of their strike aircraft,  the Russians do not have the ability to put together an integrated view of their operating battlespace, as the overnight downing of a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft likely demonstrates. They have little or no idea where coalition aircraft and UAVs are operating, and have little ability to put together a coherent picture of US-led air operations.

On all missions, the level of Russian situational awareness would be significantly lower than their coalition counterparts. As well as Turkish air power, the US Air Force's F-22s would be a significant concern to the Russian Air Force in any confrontation with the coalition.

Russia's air campaign has been effective and decisive

Nevertheless, Russia has waged an effective air campaign against forces opposed to the Assad regime. In fact, it could be argued that the Russians have shown a better overall strategy for the employment of air power than the US-led coalition.

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In contrast to coalition air forces, Russia has been unconstrained by the legacy of 10 years of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. The tactical micromanagement of each strike sortie, and a total lack of freedom of action given to coalition aircrew, have made it impossible for coalition air planners to put together a coherent air campaign to defeat ISIS.

The coalition's formidable capability is being significantly underused because of self-imposed constraints. Contrast this to the Russian experience; in less than seven days, the Russians were flying more than 60 sorties per day, a very high rate given the modest force Russia deployed. And in the execution of its air campaign in northern Syria against militant groups opposed to the Assad regime, the Russians have used air power decisively in a way the US-led coalition has not.

Russia's quiet military revolution

While the use of warships and, more recently, strategic bombers to launch cruise missiles to hit targets in Syria is largely symbolic, with the intention to demonstrate Russian capability to the world, the October air strikes were Russia's first operational use of precision-guided munitions, and thus underscore Russia's quiet military revolution. This  transformation has been a result of far-reaching military reforms to create more professional and combat ready armed forces that can swiftly deploy abroad.

In the past, the Russian armed forces needed months to gear up for a military confrontation. They have now shown the ability to react quickly and strike without warning.

The first serious round of Russian reform started in late 2008 after the Georgian campaign, and concentrated on increasing the overall level of professionalism in the Russian forces. There has been reform of the education and training of Russian armed forces personnel and a significant reduction in the number of conscripts.

After the education reforms were put in place, the Russians concentrated on increasing the combat readiness of the force by streamlining the command structure and increasing the number and complexity of training exercises.

The third phase of the reform was to rearm and update equipment. Many Western analysts have concentrated on this phase and have been dismissive of Russian capability because it still remains a work in progress. In doing that, we have ignored the success of the first two stages, which have already given the Russians a far more effective and combat-ready military.

So while the Russians lack modern air-to-air refueling and ISR assets, they have shown a good grasp of how to use modern air power effectively to achieve strategic results. In many respects, Western analysts have dangerously underestimated Russia's reformed military capacity.


As Paris prepares for the arrival of delegates from 196 countries who will take part in international climate negotiations next week, Lowy Institute Polling suggests the majority of adult Australians (62%) have given the Turnbull Government the green light to strengthen its commitment on emission reductions, if that's what it takes to reach a global agreement.

Only 36% of the 1002 people who took part in the latest Lowy Institute Poll were of the the view the government should 'stick to its target regardless of what other countries do'. The national telephone poll took place between 25 October and 4 November.

Lowy Institute Executive Director Dr Michael Fullilove said: 'It’s very clear that Australians want our government to contribute to a global agreement on climate change in Paris, if necessary by committing to stronger emissions reduction targets'.

The poll result comes after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a little noticed move on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit  that appeared to open up some ground between his government's stance on climate change negotiations, and that of his predecessor.

A joint statement issued by Turnbull with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, included a commitment to secure an agreement in Paris with a long-term goal. 

The Climate Institute's Erwin Jackson told the Fairfax Press this was the first time the Government has explicitly supported a long term carbonisation signal as a clear objective for Paris.                                           

As Jackson wrote in 'Paris Climate Talks: The World has changed since Copenhagen', the Paris negotiations seek to establish an agreement for a new common international framework that will drive domestic action.

However the Lowy Institute Poll suggested that while the majority of Australians are hoping for a decisive outcome from Paris, they are divided on the best policy solution at home.

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When asked to choose between two alternatives, the current Direct Action scheme that pays business for emissions reductions projects, and the introduction of a price on carbon or an emissions trading scheme, 51%  of Australians favoured Direct Action while 43% opted for an ETS or price on carbon.

The Lowy Institute Poll also found concern about climate change continues to grow. Just over half of Australians (52%) indicated they believe global warming is a a 'serious and pressing problem' and we should take steps now, 'even if this involves a significant cost'.

The shift in opinion on climate change has been one of the most dramatic trends recorded over the course of the Lowy Institute Poll. It began asking Australians about climate change in 2006, asking survey participants to select the response which most closely mirrors their point of view: 

  • Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.
  • The problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost.
  • Until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs.

As demonstrated in the table below, concern about global warming was highest in 2006, a year of severe drought in Australia. Over the next few years, the sense of urgency abated but then opinion turned again. The Lowy Institute has recorded an upward trend in successive polls since 2012.


Here's our weekly selection of commentary from the fair-minded, the partisan and the light-hearted as the action progresses in one of the world's most enduring (and lengthy) democratic processes.

Last Friday Iowa experienced its first major snow storm of the season but that didn't get in the way of The Presidential Family Forum; a midwest special in which seven of those vying for the Republican nomination came to be quizzed on behalf of the Family Leader Foundation. This conservative Christian group described the event as a final exam before it decides which candidate it will endorse next month.

The seven presidential hopefuls were placed at a table designed to evoke Thanskgiving. Which it would have done, except all seated were looking out, creating a tableau with a discomforting resemblance to Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, albeit down a a few disciples. Donald Trump and Jed Bush skipped the event. Both pleaded prior engagements but as NPR's Sarah McCammon noted, 'the format for the dinner — a soul searching discussion with a heavy focus on faith — isn't Trump's strong suit'.

Verdicts on the collective performance were mixed.

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NBCNews ruled the seven 'showed unexpected warmth as they courted evangelical Christian voters with stories of their personal faith and struggles'. The network clearly keeps a tear-o-meter count, noting both Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina 'teared up' at points; this was especially noteworthy for Fiorina who, NBC reminded us, has 'been seen by some critics as too cold in past debates'.

The Gospel Herald said the candidates shared 'personal, emotionally charged stories regarding praying for God's help, asking for forgiveness for a mistake, or questioning God for the suffering they were experiencing'.

But when discussion shifted from matters of the heart and soul to national security the dinner, in the eyes of of Esquire's Charles P Pierce at least, got ugly.

...the real meat on the Thanksgiving table got served up when [host Frank] Luntz wrenched the discussion away from sacred platitudes and into the realm of national security and foreign affairs. The clouds of incense were dispersed. The preacher masks all dropped. To a person, the seven Republican candidates came right up to the edge of accusing the president of the United States of treason and of being in sympathy with the murderers in France and in Mali. Right up to the edge, they all walked. Then they winked and took baby steps back, but everybody in the hall, all of the good Christians who'd come out in the snow, got the message.

Some 1100 Iowans turned up for the event which is incredible since it must be getting difficult for those who live in the State to get through their daily business without tripping over a presidential hopeful somewhere down the line. The enormously helpful Iowa Caucus Candidate Tracker on The Des Moine Register website helps voters keep track of who will be where and when. A bit like checking the bus timetable before you head out the door. Rick Santorum has attended 180 events in the State in the last three years (yep, that's how long some of these folk have been campaigning). He showed how it was done last Wednesday when he shook hands with voters at seven different locations. All of the GOP candidates are out in force, as are the Democrats but at least there are only three of them.

The snow kept falling after Friday, so much so authorities advised residents of Iowa's capital, Des Moines, to hold off travelling. Such warnings are unlikely to slow those campaigning though; all are acutely aware there are only nine weeks to the Iowa Republican caucus.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images


There have long been fears that terrorist groups – of all stripes and creeds – could gain access to weapons of mass destruction and use them against vulnerable population centres in the West. After the attacks on Paris last week, this fear was raised yet again with the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, saying that 'we must not rule anything out, there is also the risk from chemical or biological weapons.'

While the remarks were not specific, and they were also made just before a parliamentary vote to extend France's state of emergency following the attacks in Paris, there are reports that precautions are being taken with Sarin gas antidotes being distributed to French medical personal for the first time.

The history of terrorists and their efforts to acquire WMDs, whether nuclear or other, is somewhat unclear. This article in The Guardian by Jason Burke is a good short history of the failed efforts of Al Qaeda and its affiliates to acquire chemical and biological weapons. There is often little public evidence to back up many of the claims about the plots themselves. But there is little doubt that these groups have tried in the past, and that smugglers have some access to the necessary material. Indeed, ISIS may have its own 'department' of former Iraqi scientists working on chemical weapons and the US has claimed to have targeted ISIS chemical weapon experts in its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

That's what makes a recent long-form piece in The New York Times Magazine a pretty fascinating read. The article is about 'red mercury', a fake substance that has gained almost mythological status among smugglers, arms traffickers and some terrorists:

Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.

Also to be completely honest, when I read this, the first thing that entered my mind was the end scene of the 2009 movie Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams. In the scene, the crew of the Enterprise uses 'red matter' to destroy the ship of the villain Nero. The second thing that occurred to me was the story of red mercury, and the rumors of its existence and capabilities, is almost like reading about the fake cancer curing herb Essiac (the spelling of Essiac is the backwards spelling of Caisse, the surname of the Canadian nurse who peddled it). I think it's fascinating that the same sort of rumor, belief and mythology that exists around fake herbs or drugs that 'enhance performance' or miracle medical cures can extend to weapons of mass destruction. As C.J. Chivers, the author of the NYT Magazine piece, says:

To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist...

...Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker's marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar.

And as Chivers found, there are apparently many types of mercury that can be used for a variety of purposes:

Safi al-Safi, an unaffiliated rebel and small-time smuggler specializing in weapons, antiquities and forged documents, sat in an open-air cafe beside the Syrian-Turkish border. He was smoking scented tobacco from a water pipe while discussing the cross-border mercury trade. ''Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,'' he said. ''And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.''

The article is worth a read, if not to just have a glimpse into how rumors and smuggling work in war. Of course as typical of my generation I searched for red mercury on Youtube. The second video to appear was titled 'Very secret - red mercury', which automatically made me question its secrecy and reminded me of another famous scam.


This is the second in a two part series by Fergus Green, climate policy consultant and researcher, London School of Economics and Political Science and Richard Denniss, chief economist, The Australia Institute. Part one examined trends in coal demand; now the authors turn their attention to supply.

Like a good joke, the end of the coal age is all about timing. Even boosters of the coal industry now agree its demise is inevitable, but that concession relates only to the end result, not the speed with which it is pursued. The battle is about how long the endgame takes to play out, and the amount of coal that gets mined and burned in the process. This post explains the economic and political dynamics that complicate the coal endgame and sets out one key policy response that those fighting to preserve a liveable climate would be wise to promote.

In the simple version of economics, small climate policy steps, like carbon pricing, all other things being equal, take us gradually closer to the desired level of emissions reduction; higher carbon prices cause consumers to use a bit less energy and producers to invest a bit less in fossil fuels.

But other things don't always stay equal. The simple economic models used to shape climate policies are not nearly subtle enough to anticipate the likely response of the corporations and countries affected by those policies. What if, for example, the owners of billions of tonnes of coal, when they realised their 'resource' might be worthless in 20 years’ time, decided to dig it up and sell it faster than originally planned?

Since world leaders agreed to reduce emissions in 1992, world coal production has risen 50 per cent. Today, with the industry’s demise looking ever more likely, the pace of coal expansion is quickening. Australia and Indonesia, the two largest exporters, both plan to double coal exports in coming decades. Just one of the new mines, the Adani/Carmichael mine in Queensland's Galilee basin, is expected to produce more than 2 billion tonnes of thermal coal. The annual emissions from burning Carmichael’s coal will be greater than the annual emissions of Bangladesh’s 160 million residents.

This extraordinary expansion, in a market where demand for coal is now falling (see our last post) will, of course, further lower the (already low) price of coal.

This might, superficially, seem crazy — and, viewed collectively, it is. But at an individual level, it is entirely rational for the owners of coal to sell coal cheaply, flooding the world market, in anticipation of future carbon prices or regulations. Such behaviour is consistent with what economists call the 'green paradox'.

Luckily, an economically rational and politically expedient solution presents itself: in addition to regulating demand for fossil fuels (through carbon prices for example) we must also regulate the supply of coal.

One important supply-side policy has recently been called for by the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong: a global moratorium on the construction of new coal mines and mine extensions (not, as Malcolm Turnbull implied, a cessation of all coal mining). President Tong's call has already been supported by 11 other Pacific countries and voices as diverse as Lord Nicholas Stern, Naomi Klein, David Pocock, and Nobel Prize winning scientists.

President Tong recently wrote to all world leaders asking for their support. And this is where the proposal gets politically interesting. While small island states calling for deep climate action is not new, this particular measure creates new political and diplomatic alliances and fissures.

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Whereas demand-side proposals to reduce emissions, such as emission reduction targets and carbon prices, unite coal industry participants in political opposition, a moratorium divides them according to their current market share and their enthusiasm for building new supply, within and across national borders.

The logic is straightforward. In the absence of a moratorium, the falling price of coal (as expanding suppliers flood the market) will impose significant costs on those who own, lend money to, work in, and receive tax revenue from existing mines. For example, controversial new mines in Australia’s Galilee basin and Liverpool plains will lead to job losses and mine closures not just in other parts of Australia, but in the US and other coal exporting countries such as Colombia and South Africa. These existing producers and their stakeholders would therefore benefit in the short term from the proposed moratorium.

The same economic logic explains why Glencore, for example, has spent two years calling on its rivals to reduce their output and why there are few, if any, US coal miners looking to expand.

Ultimately, the political economy of a moratorium means that it should be more likely to be adopted than big demand side measures that have been stalled for the last two decades.

While it is true that some developing countries — China and India, for example — may strongly oppose such a moratorium, it could be phased in, applying to developed countries first, or limited initially to new export coal mines. Moreover, international mechanisms could be developed that provide incentives for countries to lock away their fossil fuels early, for example, along the lines proposed recently by two Oxford economics professors, or by explicitly recognising commitments to keep fossil fuels underground as contributions to global mitigation efforts.

While simple moratoria are never as popular among economists as the creation of complicated new markets, they have a history of political and policy success. For example in Australia, asbestos is banned, some states ban uranium mining, and certain ozone-depleting gases are being phased out according to a legislated schedule. In 1989 the Australian Government was also instrumental in obtaining an international treaty-based moratorium on mining in Antarctica.

A moratorium on new coal mines is not the only thing that the world needs to tackle climate change. But there is no plausible scenario in which a world that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions needs more mines and lower coal prices.

It doesn't take a lot of economic modelling to explain that when you are in a hole, it makes sense to stop digging.

Richard Denniss’ recent lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 'Export coal in a changing economic climate: The economics and politics of a moratorium on new coal mines', is available here.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Leeds Tidal 


Treasurer Scott Morrison has rejected the proposed sale of the Kidman cattle properties to foreign interests:

Given the size and significance of the total portfolio of Kidman properties along with the national security issues around access to the WPA (Woomera Protected Area), I have determined, after taking advice from FIRB (Foreign Investment Review Board), that it would be contrary to Australia's national interest for a foreign person to acquire S. Kidman and Co. in its current form.

There are some special, perhaps unique, factors in this case. The cattle properties involved are certainly exceptional, not only in sheer geographic mass (100,000 square kilometres, or 1.3% of Australia’s total land area and 2.5% of agricultural land), but in terms of their iconic historical status. In addition, one of the properties overlaps the WPA where sensitive weapons-testing takes place.

There are also some not-so-unique factors involved. Selling agricultural land to foreigners has become an emotional issue, especially for the government’s coalition partner, which represents rural interests. The prospect of selling to a Chinese firm (even privately owned) adds another layer of resistance.

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Nevertheless, in principle Australia actively encourages foreign investment. The public generally accepts net benefits have been positive. Foreign investment funds a good part of our substantial current account deficit, which for more than 200 years has allowed us to invest more than we saved, and to grow faster than otherwise.

It's not as if much foreign investment has been blocked. Outside of agriculture, much of the family silver has already been sold: 80% of our mining resources are foreign owned. In agriculture, it's just 12%, and even there we don’t have an 'in principle' objection to Chinese investment and we have accepted a rapid growth of Chinese ownership in this sector.

If we are concerned about foreigners using transfer pricing to avoiding paying a fair share of taxes, then our concerns should focus on the large-scale chronic tax avoidance practised by many multinationals operating here. The national security argument might be relevant in the Kidman property case because of the special location, but it can’t have widespread application, unless we accept the spurious argument that all Chinese investment is a 'projection of power' and that if Chinese own the electricity grid, they might turn off the lights

Past rejections don’t provide much in the way of precedents to establish clear principles. We knocked back Shell’s attempt to buy Woodside, Singapore’s bid to take over the stock exchange (ASX) and the attempted purchase of grain-handler GrainCorp. The approval process also scuppered Chinalco’s attempt to increase its stake in Rio Tinto.

It’s not as if Australia is the only country that vets foreign investors, nor are we the only country  wary of Chinese investment. The US rejected Chinese investment and the US president ticked off our prime minister for not consulting America before leasing Darwin harbour to a Chinese company. Farmland stirs patriotic fervour everywhere. New Zealand recently rejected Chinese investment in a dairy property. China itself is also very restrictive of foreign investment.

Thus just about all countries show a mix of paranoia and parochialism, perhaps with a touch of racial prejudice, in their attitude to foreign investment. But in the end Australia lets almost all of it happen. When purchases have been blocked, the public intuitively understands and largely agrees (this was the case with Woodside, Chinalco and ASX).

This ambiguity isn’t surprising; politics represents community values, which are ambivalent, even inconsistent. Governments have to dissemble, ducking and weaving to maintain sensible balanced policies, and in this case that means considering current account funding and providing a global element to investment.

It is, however, important for Australia, as a substantial capital importer, to either articulate a clear policy on foreign investment or learn to live with a smaller external deficit. It is also possible to squeeze more benefit out of the foreign investment that is coming in.

The starting point is to look ahead a few decades at what our world will look like. Asia (and particularly China) will be a substantially bigger economy. If we are to succeed, our economy will have to be much more integrated with the region. Resources (iron ore, LNG and coal) will still dominate our exports. China (and other Asian markets) will have established the stable supply relationships needed for food and resource security. Australia could provide a significant component of both.

The central policy issue is this: what is the commercial and regulatory framework that will maximise the benefit to us as a nation?

It will require specific skills, knowledge and guanxi to tap the Chinese market successfully. For agriculture, it will require scale well beyond the traditional Australian family farm (just as it does in resources). A high level of Chinese involvement in the Australian supply-source seems inevitable, even desirable. But how to ensure that the disparity of scale (they are huge and we are relatively tiny) doesn’t mean that the value add (the very considerable difference between the farm-gate price and the retail price) doesn’t all go overseas, and the choice jobs along with it?

This needs more concerted policy thinking than just tweaking the FIRB rules in isolation. For a start, our competition authorities need to recognise that scale is often needed to compete globally. Some of the elements of a more comprehensive process are underway. The Productivity Commission is looking at the agriculture sector. DFAT has examined the trade aspects, and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) has helped to define some of the relevant issues.

But if we don't want to run the risk of becoming 'hewers of wood and drawers of water', we will need to do more.

This might include the development of an Investors’ Code of Conduct to provide a template for a broader FIRB application process, putting specific content into the nebulous 'national interest' criterion. This could cover tax and transfer pricing. There might be a presumption there would be a substantive Australian partner. Where it makes economic sense to carry out value-add processing in Australia, this might be mandatory. There would be opportunity, too, for the foreigners to refute the more fanciful of the security concerns.

We should be able to put out the welcome mat for foreign investors while at the same time demonstrating to domestic sceptics they are not on the way to becoming mere share-croppers in their own country.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alex Prolmos


A fascinating column from Paul Kelly over the weekend, which describes how former PM Tony Abbott sees his future role:

The Paris attacks have seen two competing Australian voices in response — Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. The crisis has revealed Abbott’s long-run strategy — positioning himself on the global and domestic stage as a champion of the conservative forces in the current international security crisis.

Abbott believes the threat from Islamist violence is the defining issue of the age. It occupied much of his prime ministership and he intends to become a rallying point in the war of ideas and ideology at its heart. Abbott as a politician can only exist and operate with a mission. It has always been thus — and the deposed prime minister has found his new mission.

While Abbott has taken no decision on his political future, the omens seem clear: he is currently heading towards contesting the next election and carrying a banner for the conservatives, in parliament, the Liberal Party and the public.

Abbott clearly still has allies within the parliamentary Liberal Party,  including former defence minister Kevin Andrews, who has now called for Australia to send ground troops to Syria in the war against ISIS. Andrews was mocked by some in the media for his poor showing in the ballot for the Liberal Party deputy leadership on 14 September, but he got 30 votes to Julie Bishop's 70, which demonstrated that there is a sizeable rump in the Liberal Party with misgivings about the more progressive turn of the Turnbull-Bishop leadership team.

But to see this purely as a right-left ideological debate inside the Liberal Party is incomplete. There is also a fundamental difference in threat perception driving this debate. Kelly is correct to say that Abbott and his allies see Islamist terrorism as 'the defining issue of the day'. To get a sense of how deeply this is felt, check out Greg Sheridan's weekend column, in which he describes a morally corrupt and vulgarised West (apparently Ronda Rousey is to blame somehow for the collapse of our civilisation) which is in danger of being overwhelmed by the ISIS threat. Niall Ferguson made a similar argument in a recent op-ed.

As Sheridan correctly identifies in his column, some people simply judge the threat differently. Sheridan defends the claims made by Julie Bishop and George Brandis (both considered ideological moderates within the Liberal Party) that the ISIS threat is 'existential'. Turnbull, of course, argued directly against Bishop when she claimed ISIS was the biggest threat to world order in 70 years, responding that 'Daesh is not Hitler's Germany, Tojo's Japan or Stalin's Russia'. Since taking over as PM, Turnbull has resisted calls to increase Australia's military role in Iraq and Syria, and used more inclusive language about Australia's Muslim community, reinforcing the sense that he sees the threat as serious but not as an existential threat to Australia's multicultural compact.

After outrages such as the recent events in Paris, Beirut, Bamako and in the skies over Egypt, it can be hard to sustain this perspective. Yet Turnbull's case doesn't need to be purely defensive. Australians are clearly unnerved by the ISIS threat, so it's not enough to simply say that the threat is less serious than they might believe. In fact, that course would be politically disastrous. But nor does Turnbull need to embrace the right's rhetoric in order to sound like he takes ISIS seriously. There is a third alternative.

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At the heart of the right-wing critique is the sense that Western civilisation is decadent and depraved, and thus vulnerable to a well-disciplined extremist threat. According to Paul Kelly, Abbott's mantra is that 'the West, like Australia, must possess the self-confidence to defend its interests and its universal values.' This fear, that Western civilisation is feeble and on the brink of collapse, has been a right-wing talking point for years now, though the evidence for it is weak.

More to the point, though, this line of argument actually plays right into Turnbull's key message since becoming PM: one of optimism and confidence, a sense that right now is a great time to be alive and be an Australian. Where the hard-right sees only threat and fragility, Turnbull sees a strong country with a hopeful future. Turnbull can play this card against his ideological opponents. Why are they so pessimistic about Western civilisation at a historical moment when it has never been so dominant? Why, when faced only by a small army of poorly equipped extremists, do they have such little faith in a system which has seen off Nazism and communism, and which is a magnet for every persecuted minority in the world, including Muslims?

The right's case is drenched in nostalgia for an Australian society that has disappeared and a distrust of what has replaced it. Starting with his National Security Statement today, Turnbull can counter this with a determined and resolute optimism, one which uses the strengths of modern Australia to fight extremism, and one which refuses to be spooked by a threat that Australia and its allies can contain with sustained, proportional effort.


The sixth '2+2' consultation between Australia and Japan's foreign and defence ministers took place in Sydney yesterday. For Japan, the timing was fortuitous, coming a little over two months after Malcolm Turnbull wrestled the prime-ministerial helm from Tony Abbott, whose personal commitment and investment of political capital into beefing up the bilateral security partnership is well known.

Speculation that Turnbull would visit Tokyo as his first Asian destination has proved wide of the mark. But he has already brushed past Shinzo Abe twice on the multilateral summitry circuit, as Defence Minister Marise Payne has met her counterpart, Gen Nakatani. Yet the suspicion has lingered that under new management, with a fresh national security line-up (Julie Bishop excepted), Canberra might aim to navigate a more neutral path in its key Northeast Asian relationships. So, yesterday's 2+2 provided Japan with an early opportunity to re-embed the 'special strategic partnership', and to probe any changes of tone, or heart, Down Under. 

Anyone looking to argue that the Turnbull Administration intends to peg back the relationship with Tokyo is unlikely to find much evidence to support that thesis from the public dynamics around the 2+2 meeting or the accompanying Joint Communiqué.

None of the four principals described each other's country as an 'ally', as Abbott famously said of Japan. But there were plenty of mutually reinforcing codewords on display in yesterday's interactions, from Marise Payne's description of Japan as 'our key partner' in the region and one of Australia's highest priorities for defence engagement, to Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida's depiction of the bilateral bond as a linchpin of security in the Asia-Pacific.

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The military symbolism behind the ministers touring the amphibious assault ship (cum HADR response vessel) HMAS Canberra at its Sydney base was also clear. It was enough to signal, from both parties, that this remains a security and defence partnership ranked highly after their military alliance with the US; one with strategic overtones. 

The language of the joint communiqué itself is somewhat restrained, but no fewer than seven repetitions of the word 'strong' seem designed to convey the image of a Canberra-Tokyo ministerial quartet singing volubly in unison from the same strategic hymn sheet.

So who is the target audience, apart from the Japanese and Australian publics? The simple answer to that, of course, is China, despite the two governments' efforts to cast the 2+2 cooperative agenda widely, in terms of global terrorism, North Korea, peacekeeping and peace-building. 

One of only two direct references to China in the Joint Communiqué highlights the importance of building 'a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship… through dialogue, cooperation and engagement.' But strategic concern about China is the unmistakable refrain that runs through the Joint Communiqué's opposition to 'coercive or unilateral actions' in the East and South China Seas, and its expressions of mutual support for the rule of law at sea, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. 

In yesterday's opening exchanges, Nakatani boldly underlined Japan's opposition to 'self-righteous assertions which are incompatible with international law and order' and could drastically change the region's strategic environment. He asked for Australia's support to 'send a clear message' that such attempts will not be condoned.

Lengthy interrogation at the press conference about the prospects and modalities for Japanese and Australian security and defence cooperation in the South China Sea, and on the submarine acquisition essentially boils down to same thing: what are Japan and Australia prepared to do in the face of China's seemingly relentless strategic push? On freedom of navigation, bar strong support reiterated at the 2+2 for the US decision to undertake operational assertions, it appears that neither ally has yet committed to undertaking their own naval or air activities in support.

On submarines, my takeaway from yesterday's press conference was that the post-Abbott penny has well and truly dropped in Japan; they know now they are in a commercial dogfight with the more export-savvy German and French bidders. Hence Nakatani's visit to Sydney was preceded by a trip to Adelaide (and that of a Japanese industry delegation several weeks ago). In the press conference he played the two trump cards in Japan's hand: unrivalled experience in the design and construction of long-range conventionally powered submarines and a strategic relationship that is not only bilateral, but trilateral, when the US-made combat system for the Collins' replacement is taken into account.

Minister Payne had the presence of mind to welcome the submission of this torpedo-like pitch without appearing to endorse the Japanese bid. That, it seems, is another defence decision the Government is content to put off to a more convenient date. With $50 billion at stake, it's worth the wait.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.