Lowy Institute

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.


Jakarta has reacted to the Paris attacks with condolences, assurances that everything is under control, and scepticism from all sides that there could be any fallout at home. From senior officials to hardline Islamists, the message is that it can’t happen here. But it’s not that simple. It’s true that a coordinated attack on the scale of Paris is not going to happen in Jakarta or Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia. We could, however, see a change in tactics on the part of pro-ISIS groups here, including a decision to target foreigners.

Those who say there’s nothing to worry about are correct on their key points. Indonesia is not a member of the Western coalition bombing Syria; there’s no reason for it to be a target like France or the US. There’s no chatter that any Indonesian agency has picked up about plans for violence. The jihadi groups still active in Indonesia are focused more on getting to Syria than on undertaking any action and anyway, they are poorly trained, poorly led and largely incompetent.

But there are other signs that suggest that this is no time for complacency. More and more Indonesians are getting killed in Syria. Earlier in the year, those deaths came in battles against the Kurds, but the most recent deaths have been airstrikes – and revenge is a powerful motive. If Indonesian police have been the main victims of homegrown terrorism since 2010, we could now see a shift back toward Westerners and soft targets.

The Paris attacks drew praise from Indonesians with ISIS in Syria, among them Bahrun Naim, an ex-prisoner and jihadi intellectual who was involved in trying to organise an attack in Central Java from Syria last August. In a blog posting entitled 'Lessons from the Paris Attacks' (Pelajaran dari Serangan Paris), he urged his Indonesian audience to study the planning, targeting, timing, coordination, security and courage of the Paris teams. His readers aren’t fellow fighters in Syria, they’re too busy. He's writing for the terrorist wannabes on Java.

One of the saving graces for Indonesia over the last five years is that local terrorists have thought small. Bahrun Naim and some of his friends think bigger.

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The fact that Indonesian agencies are not picking up chatter may be partly because many of the committed ISIS supporters from Indonesia are using encrypted communications over WhatsApp and Telegram, not ordinary mobile phone communications that the Indonesian police can tap. Even if Telegram has decided now to close down pro-IS channels, it is still going to be difficult to track private groups. The jihadis are also faster to adapt to new technologies than law enforcement agencies.

Indonesian women extremists have been eager for a more direct role in jihad than ISIS has allowed thus far. Unlike al Qaeda, the ISIS leadership never sanctioned women suicide bombers, for example. But the Frenchwoman who was initially reported to have detonated her explosive vest in St Denis on Wednesday has captured the imagination of some Indonesian 'lionesses', and if policies change in Syria toward more active participation of women, that could have ramifications for Indonesia.

A power struggle between two Syria-based Indonesian ISIS commanders, Bahrum Syah and Abu Jandal, could also lead the contenders to urge their respective followers in Indonesia to undertake attacks, in a kind of lethal one-upmanship. (Bahrun Naim is with Abu Jandal.) In the absence of new leadership, there is not too much to worry about, but it could be of serious concern if anyone with combat experience or training came back from Syra to add some planning and organisational capacity to cells here.

There is as yet no ISIS structure for Indonesia, and pressure from some pro-ISIS quarters to form a unified organisation has not yet succeeded. Fortunately for us, the groups are divided along multiple lines, ideological as well as personal, and fears that a united Jamaah Anshorud Daulah or Anshorud Daulah Islamiyah could emerge, or a Wilayat Nusantara be declared, are still unrealised. If a structure does come into being, it could be more responsive to calls from the ISIS leadership for attacks on Westerners than we have seen thus far.

The Indonesian authorities are right that the risk of a Paris-like spectacular in Jakarta is low. But while the police and army have been focused on going after Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, in the hills of Central Sulawesi, ISIS has succeeded in building a network of supporters in the suburbs of Jakarta.

Bahrun Naim in his 'Lessons' article notes approvingly that the Paris attackers well understood the oath of loyalty they had taken toward ISIS and its consequences. None of the hundreds, maybe more than 1000 Indonesians who have sworn allegiance to ISIS since June 2014 have been asked to demonstrate their obedience to their leader. That could still come.

The essence of terrorism is unpredictability. If we assume that because it’s quiet now in Jakarta, it is going to stay that way, we could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama

  • Terence Wood analyses new polling data to get to the bottom of who actually supports Australian aid. (Hint: it helps to be young, educated, female and from the left end of the political spectrum).
  • David Cameron has announced that at least half of the UK's £9 billion aid program will be directed towards fragile states, up from 43% today.
  • Adam Davidson, founder of one of my favourite podcasts, takes to The New York Times to argue that the venture-capital philosophy of investing (basically, investing small amounts in many projects/ideas and then scaling up what works) can be a useful model for foreign aid.
  • Speaking of podcasts, the Innovations for Poverty Action team have released their development podcast playlist for the summer.
  • To mark World Toilet Day last week, WaterAid released a report ranking countries with the worst access to toilets in 2015:

  • David McKenzie and Anna Luisa Paffhausen from the World Bank take a look at what is being taught in more than 200 development economics courses from 54 developing countries. 
  • The Centre for Global Development's founding President, Nancy Birdsall, is stepping down after a stellar 15 year run. She will stay on until a successor is in place.
  • The Guardian takes a look at the best and worst aid videos of 2015. Here's the best: 


As the world slowly absorbs the full implications of the terrorist attacks in Paris, thoughts inevitably turn to whether events will be repeated elsewhere.

That ISIS or ISIS-affiliated groups and networks would seek to emulate the impact of the Paris attacks is almost certain. If an opportunity arises to attempt an attack on a similar scale, it is unlikely that ISIS would reject it. Its intent will persist.

The media has understandably highlighted repeated references to Australia and Australian fighters in ISIS propaganda, including in the most recent edition of Dabiq, its online magazine. But we should be clear about the role of ISIS propaganda. It aims to radicalise, recruit and inspire attacks in the West, not communicate ISIS operational priorities. 

We don’t know where Australia features in the thoughts and strategies of ISIS senior leadership. Or if responsibility for external attack planning lies with ISIS senior leadership or local networks. But it is reasonable to think that ISIS might have greater opportunity to attack the UK, Germany or Saudi Arabia for example, and that this would have a bigger impact on events in the Middle East.

Is ISIS capable of carrying out a similar attack in Australia? One way of answering this is to look at elements critical to the scale and success of the Paris attacks: the expertise of returning foreign fighters; access to weaponry; the ability to transport both across international borders; and the inability of intelligence and security agencies to monitor the individuals involved.

Around 30 foreign fighters have returned to Australia, with a further 110 Australians known to be located with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Given the size of this group and what they will have learned, it is reasonable to assume that some will have the expertise and intent to conduct a similar attack here.

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When returning foreign fighters are involved in a terrorist attack, it is proportionately deadlier. Their battlefield experience and expertise makes them a force-multiplier and a focal point for an otherwise inexperienced network. A home-grown network might attempt to replicate the attack, but its chances of success and impact are likely to be reduced.

Could Australian foreign fighters return undetected, as appears to have been the case in Paris? There are certainly no guarantees, as Khaled Sharrouf’s travel to Syria demonstrated. But a key difference for foreign fighters who left from Australia,  in comparison to France, Belgium, and the other 24 signatories of the Schengen Agreement, is they cannot travel home without providing identification by slipping from Syria into Turkey.

A lack of land borders gives Australia significantly more control over the flow of individuals in and (just as importantly in this context) out, and makes it more difficult for networks planning attacks to source weaponry and explosives from outside of Australia.

This control means that while Australia has contributed a significant number of foreign fighters relative to population size, numbers have remained relatively stable over the past 12 months. Unfortunately, this means that the number of radicalised individuals unable to leave Australia and turning their thoughts to domestic attacks has got larger.

If we’re still uncertain how the Paris attack network slipped under the radar, the emerging picture is not a positive one for European authorities. A key issue appears to be a lack of coordination between authorities internally in France and across Europe, alongside a growing list of radicalised individuals.

Successfully countering the threat, assuming that intent exists, will require Australian authorities to continue and expand their efforts in a number of areas.

The 30 returned foreign fighters will continue to be assessed and monitored. Existing measures to monitor known foreign fighters and prevent them unexpectedly returning will also continue and may soon be combined with the ability to strip the citizenship of dual citizens. Identifying any previously unknown Australian foreign fighters is also critical.

Links between terrorism and organised crime, which is a likely source of weaponry and explosives, will also be a significant focus. As will the need to encourage intelligence and information sharing across state, federal and international partner agencies. Most important will be the ability to prioritise available resources in efficiently and effectively, given existing workloads.

Authorities will also focus on minimising the impact that such an attack could have. NSW Police have announced a new 'shoot on sight' policy for terrorist situations. Training for multiple shooter attacks will be stepped up, and detailed response plans developed. These types of activities don’t prevent attacks, but can make a huge difference to the death toll.

The Paris attacks may inspire copy-cat attempts in an Australian city. We’ll hear reports about 'terrorist chatter'. But there is no inevitability that it will progress beyond that, or that it will succeed. Panic, fear and a sense of inevitably is precisely what ISIS hopes to instill.

There are a number of factors working in Australia’s favour, particularly in comparison to France. Planning these types of attack takes time, expertise and people. Mistakes are likely. Australian authorities and their international partners will need to ensure they are ready.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jordi Bolzareu


This week the attacks in Paris, and the subsequent manhunt for its perpetrators, has held the attention of the West. One thing that has struck me is the multiplicity of debates the attacks have touched and in some cases sparked anew, including on the role of the media and social networking sites, the Syrian civil war, refugee policy, European integration, intelligence failures and the future of terrorism. Daniel Woker, a regular contributor to The Interpreter, was in Paris on the night of the attacks:

Suddenly, a loud noise from the Boulevard. My wife says 'shots' and I reply 'I think not', as it sounds different to the dimly remembered live ammo exercises in my long gone army days. But a young woman runs by, gripping my arm and shouting with fear, 'viens, viens, they are shooting from cars at all of us'. We all race into the opposite direction. I distinctly remember thinking at that second how absurd that was, though of course it wasn't, as it turned out later.

Is this a new type of terrorism? Lydia Khalil suggested that the attacks displayed a mix of trends:

'Mumbai-style' attacks — multiple coordinated ambushes with small arms and suicide bombs — were certainly possible but appeared to be the purview of other capitals in the Middle East and South Asia. Sophisticated, audacious attacks a la 9/11, directed and organised by an international terrorist organisation, were a distinct but fading possibility. The consensus was that ISIS was a potent, but regional, threat and its focus was on state-building, consolidating territory in the Levant and building legitimacy for its caliphate.

What makes the Paris attacks particularly troubling is that it appears to be a confounding mix of all three trends. These were homegrown violent extremists, directed by a well funded international organisation that controls vast resources and territory, hitting purely civilian, soft targets in a sophisticated manner

Former intelligence analyst David Wells wrote on the role of Western security agencies in the attacks, and what they will view as an intelligence failure:

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The first thing to point out is there a difference between specific, actionable threat intelligence, and intelligence indicating intent. Yes, ISIS rhetoric pointed towards attacks in the West. And ISIS clearly had the capability and manpower to attempt these type of attacks. But without specific intelligence, the threat remains latent.

So does the attack constitute an intelligence failure? In the most general sense, yes. France and her partner intelligence agencies, including in the UK and US, are specifically looking for this type of intelligence. Internally, they will all regard their inability to prevent the attack as a failure.

Vanessa Newby related some personal stories about spending time in the Beirut neighbourhood that was bombed last week:

ISIS is believed to have launched this attack to punish Hizbullaah for its military involvement in Syria. I was surprised it picked Burj because this is not just  a 'Shi'a dominated or Hizbullaah stronghold', as has been reported. In fact, it is a very diverse area where if you launched an attack you would be just as likely to kill some of your own people as you would the other side. The level of support for Hizbullaah in Burj is unclear for two main reasons. First, the area is populated by a great many Syrians, who fled the Assad regime, and by Palestinians. Secondly, in the Shi'a community political support is divided between Amal and Hizbullaah.

What did these attacks have to do with the war in Syria? Rodger Shanahan suggested that ISIS may be trying to distract from the fact that it is losing territory:

In the space of 36 hours we saw suicide bombings in Baghdad and Beirut and the attack in Paris. This is unlikely to be coincidental, and more likely to be the result of explicit direction from ISIS central or implicit guidance understood by its affiliates.

In the last week and a half, the news regarding ISIS showed Kurdish forces re-taking Sinjar in Iraq, Iraq government forces closing in on Ramadi, Syrian government forces breaking a two-year siege by ISIS of the Syrian airfield at Kwereis and the likely killing of the ISIS Western poster-boy 'Jihadi John'. With the entry of Russian forces into Syria, and the bolstering of Assad’s ground forces by Iran and its militia allies, the ISIS main forces are under increasing military pressure on multiple fronts in the Middle East.

Anthony Bubalo on the growing sense of 'pragmatism' and dealing with Assad:

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull continued with his world tour this week. Binoy Kampmark on Turnbull's bilateral meeting with Germany's Chancellor Merkel and the difference with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott:

Certainly the meeting in Berlin provided an interesting counterpoint between the old and the new. After Australia's rapid turnover of leaders, it's fair to say Australia's politics and politicians have featured more frequently and in more detail than usual in German media this year.  In its coverage of the the party coup that unseated Mr Abbott as leader, for example, the popular German newspaper, Der Spiegel, went so far as to note various designations, including the title of the 'Mad Monk'.  

With the UN Paris climate change negotiations just a week away, Erwin Jackson examined what has changed since 2009 and Copenhagen:

Throughout 2015, a number of Australian businesses have released statements showing their willingness to take action on climate. The Australian Climate Roundtable brought business, investor, union, research, environment and welfare groups together. A statement was released encouraging Australia to do its bit on climate change. In September, leaders from AGL, BHP Billiton, GE, Mirvac, Santos, Unilever, Wesfarmers and Westpac Group published a statement that supports an effective Paris agreement outcome

Fergus Green from LSE and Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute have a two-part series on the end of coal. The first piece looked at the global trends in the commodity, both in terms of energy consumption and the private sector:

Moreover, coal companies are becoming increasingly isolated politically. As the corporate world perceives increasing risks of binding carbon budgets, the oil and gas industries have begun to split the fossil fuel camp and stake their greater claim to the remaining budget. Coal, after all, is the highest-emitting and lowest-value of the three fossil fuels. (The motivations of the oil and gas executives in criticising coal are no doubt self-serving, but their political-economic heft could be helpful to the fight against coal.) In a sign of the industry’s growing desperation, coal companies have even started fighting publicly amongst themselves. 

Both Adam Henschke and Albert Palazzo continued our debate on drones this week. First, Adam on whether the falling costs of autonomous vehicles is worrying:

The overall point is that, as far as the ethics of remote weapons is concerned, we have largely left the initial concerns about the remoteness behind. In some senses we are moving into a new phase of assessment, where contrasting ideas of cheapness and complexity highlight a new set of areas that require further consideration and reflection.

Albert Palazzo had a short but interesting piece questioning whether armed drones can actually affect the outcome of war:

The contribution to success in war (to victory) is an important aspect of any evaluation of the ethical utility of a weapon. I would argue that a weapon that doesn't meet ethical standards is unlikely to make a positive contribution to forcing your enemy to accept your will. Rather, it is likely to have the opposite effect.

Armed drones have dazzled many military and political minds with their ruthless efficiency. But efficiency and effectiveness in war are not the same thing. Efficiency in killing won't translate into effectiveness in war unless the ethics are right.

Fergus Hanson continued his series on the internet and power by looking at the influence of social media conglomerates like Facebook:

What does this mean for policy makers? For a start, there is a need to look seriously at options for maintaining competition online. This isn’t easy, but the Europeans have begun. We also need to consider the implications and obligations companies with global monopolies might have when it comes to issues like censorship: if a company like Facebook is where most people get their news, should it be able to apply a stricter censorship regime than that allowed in your country of origin.

Leon Berkelmans took a closer look at the make-up of services in trade:

OK. Point taken. But when we are talking about dismantling barriers to trade, it is what crosses the border that counts. You can make all the changes to accountancy regulations you want, but if the cheese can’t get across the border, it doesn’t matter.

An interesting post from Stephen Grenville on capital flows, and the links between academic and practitioner economists:

They say that the challenge for academic economists is to prove that what happens in the real world could also happen in theory. Blanchard and his colleagues have taken a useful step in this direction, reconciling theory with inconvenient reality. This might be seen as progress, if only the political-economy of international economics were not still in the hands of Keynes' 'madmen in authority … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back'.

Finally, how do observers, policymakers, academics, students and journalists see North Korea? Robert Kelly:

In short, North Korea is post-ideological and akin to The Godfather: a massive racket to shake down anyone, inside North Korea and out, to fund the self-indulgent lifestyle of a narrow elite. North Korea is what happens when Don Corleone takes over an entire country and can enforce his clan rule with a secret police rather than just capo henchman. Actually, North Korea is barely a country at all; it's an Orwellian gangster fiefdom.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mafate69.


With Japan falling back into technical recession, the temptation to question Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic reform agenda is strong. But here are three counter-intuitive takes on the latest news (with thanks to Malcolm Cook for the links).

First, Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

The Japanese economy is shrinking because Abe already succeeded in fixing Japan's unemployment problem. Japan is simply in an odd situation where low and falling levels of unemployment aren't good enough to ensure economic growth.

The Japan Times:

If Japan’s economy is in trouble, you wouldn’t know it from the stock market.

In what’s shaping up to be a pretty forgettable year for global equity investors, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan is one of the few places providing double-digit returns that are backed by profit growth. The 12 percent gain for the Nikkei 225 stock average through last week came as its companies post record earnings, and valuations rose just 2.3 percent from the end of last year.

A Bloomberg editorial:

...recessions simply don't mean the same thing in Japan as they do most everywhere else. The country has suffered seven of them in the past 20 years -- two since Abe took office in late 2012. Given Japan's declining population, its trend growth rate is at best 0.5 percent, so even downturns as slight as last quarter's 0.8 percent decline can tip the economy into negative territory...

...Even if China's slump hadn't provided an unexpected headwind, efforts to revive Japan were always going to take longer than many observers acknowledged. Difficult structural reforms are under way -- to crack open the energy, pharmaceutical and agriculture sectors, for instance; to slash tariffs under the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact; and to unwind the web of cross-shareholdings that's stifled much of Japan Inc. -- but they can't be expected to yield benefits immediately.

Photo by Flickr user Alessandro Grussu.


In Manila this week Prime Minister Turnbull, echoing the language of other Western leaders of late, spoke of the need for pragmatism when it comes to Syria:

...what we need there is a political settlement. And it is clear that the principal determinants of, the people that will decide who can be in or out are going to be the people in Syria. You know that dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful. So, clearly the, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, said in Turkey, and I endorse what he said, the approach of all the parties to a resolution in Syria has to be one undertaken in the spirit of compromise, and in a spirit of pragmatism.

It all sounds reasonable and sensible and in many respects it is. But the subtext of this pragmatism is a willingness to compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the interest of destroying ISIS. The idea that we should settle with Assad because ISIS is worse was given more clear-throated ventilation by former Prime Minister Howard this week. 

There is no question that the priority today must be to end the conflict in Syria above all else. The scale of the catastrophe in Syria means that all options need to be considered, even unpalatable ones. Indeed, this has been obvious for a number of years. In September 2013, Rodger Shanahan and I wrote:

Syrian policy needs to operate within the realm of the possible, rather than the preferable. Having signaled that it is not willing to mount a major military intervention, the West needs to focus its efforts on diplomacy. This will not be easy. The West will need to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict and its consequences without, as far as is possible, rewarding the Syrian leadership for its brutal behaviour and for the responsibility it holds for the death and suffering of millions of Syrians.

But in considering unpalatable options, it is also vital that we be clear-sighted about them.

The current formulation being used by Western leaders to climb down from the 'Assad-must-go' tree is a willingness to contemplate Assad remaining in power for a transitional period. It is upon this slender branch that a bridge was purportedly built between the US and its allies and Assad's international patrons, Iran and Russia, at the Vienna talks.

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Significantly, that bridge does not yet extend to the Syrian opposition, who were not invited to Vienna, notwithstanding Turnbull's comment above that 'dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful.'

In any event, this does not really matter because I don't believe Assad or his international backers would stick to such a deal, even if they were prepared to agree to it. Over the last four years Assad has shown that he is prepared to sacrifice every last Syrian to remain in power. So far he has sacrificed a quarter of a million of them. Why would he budge now when his military position has been strengthened by Russian and Iranian intervention and when he thinks that the West fears ISIS more than it fears him remaining in power?

Nor do I think Russia or Iran will abandon Assad easily. Every so often they float the idea that they are not wedded to Assad personally remaining in power, and to some extent this is true. Were they, for example, to be forced to choose between protecting their interests in Syria and protecting Assad, they probably would give him up. But they have never been placed in that position. Instead they suggest they might give up Assad in the hope of dragging the West closer to their position, gradually eroding Western opposition to Assad remaining in power permanently. 

It is not ordained that the US and allies such as Australia should have to be Russian or Iranian patsies. To get to closer to a political settlement, the West will have to concede some transitional role to Assad. This is the right kind of pragmatism. But it has to be accompanied by a determination to ensure that Assad's rule really is transitional.

I fear, however, that this kind of pragmatism will be accompanied by the wrong kind; the kind that has seen Western countries tolerate and even embrace myriad Middle Eastern dictators at great cost to both the people of the Middle East and to Western interests and security. These repressive, dictatorial systems have incubated radicalism and terrorism, and even at times promoted it. Repression does not create jihadism and extremism, but it creates the conditions for it to thrive, helping it to gain supporters and foot soldiers. 

It was, for example, the repressive policies of the Maliki Government in Iraq that drove Sunnis in that country into the arms of ISIS. And it was Assad's brutal response to the originally peaceful protests of the Arab uprising in Syria that transformed it into a violent civil war and a magnet for jihadists.

Yet we still turn a blind eye to this connection between dictatorship and extremism. In Egypt, for example, Western pragmatism is gradually winding down pressure on the increasingly repressive regime of President Sisi. Yet under his rule terrorism in Egypt has grown rather than diminished, as the recent bombing of the Metrojet airliner in Sinai underlined.

In the case of Syria, this wrong kind of pragmatism will mean, I fear, that after Western leaders concede to Assad a transitional role in running his country they won't have the determination, persistence or patience to stop his rule becoming permanent. In fact, I suspect some Western policymakers privately know this already; some might even favour it. They may be thinking that even if we cannot dislodge Assad after this 'transitional period', a permanent Assad is still better than the alternative. 

But they are wrong. 

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

But most damaging of all, such a deal would reinforce the view in the Arab world that, when faced with a choice, the West will always side with repressive dictators over their citizens. And we will probably still wonder why they hate us.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.


The Paris climate negotiations, which seek to deliver the next global framework for reducing emissions, kick off in just over a week. As we head into Paris, it is fair to say that close observers are optimistic but nervous.

The draft agreement is 50-odd pages long, and a number of key political issues remain to be resolved. Sticking points include:

  • how to we ensure that countries regularly ratchet up emission reduction action through time.
  • How – if at all – does the agreement capture the fact that that countries are at different stages of development? What does this mean for the contribution of less-developed countries to global action?
  • How do we ensure that the world's poorest nations are supported, financially and otherwise, to participate in climate change solutions and adapt to its impacts?

But there is also cause for confidence. The Paris negotiations seek to establish an agreement for a new common international framework that will drive domestic action. For the first time, the agreement will call for domestic actions from all countries, a critical step toward keeping warming below the 2°C threshold. This 2°C threshold is what the international community has agreed, through time, we will avoid.

The careful planning and political leg-work ahead of Paris will, it is hoped, ensure we avoid the utter chaos that marked the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

Moreover, the world has changed significantly since then.

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First, climate change is no longer seen as solely an environmental issue. Governments, national security agencies, central bankers, institutional investors, health professionals, major global businesses and many others now regard climate change, and the global response to it, as a major strategic issue that must be managed. 

More and more countries have policies to limit emissions. At Copenhagen in 2009, there were some 420 climate change laws and policies at a domestic level. By the end of 2014, there were over 800. 

Another major development is the rapid transformation of the energy sector. Renewable energy is now the world's second-largest source of electricity. The scale of uptake and rapid cost reductions is giving countries the confidence to commit to reduce emissions.

Ahead of the Paris meeting, over 150 countries have also put forward initial emission reductions targets, covering nearly 90% of global emissions. These targets vary in their degree of strength and credibility, but they also show how meetings like Paris can increase global action. Without the looming climate negotiations, many countries, including Australia, would not have felt pressure to put forward new targets and implement new domestic policies to achieve them. As a result, we're closer to the 2°C target than we would otherwise be.

Analysts suggest that achieving these targets would put the world on track to almost 3°C global warming. This is a significant improvement on previous projections of global action, which put warming at 4°C or more, but still falls short of the sub-2°C limit. The targets also imply a significant acceleration of action to decarbonise high-emissions sectors such as electricity. For example, these targets would see investment in renewable energy increase to become the world's dominant source of electricity by 2030.

Finally, businesses are increasingly seeing climate change as a strategic issue that needs to be proactively managed. Climate change is already having wide-ranging economic effects, which are expected to become more intense. There is a growing trend of investment managers, with long-term horizons or fiduciary duties, considering the effects of climate change on their members. 

Throughout 2015, a number of Australian businesses have released statements showing their willingness to take action on climate. The Australian Climate Roundtable brought business, investor, union, research, environment and welfare groups together. A statement was released encouraging Australia to do its bit on climate change. In September, leaders from AGL, BHP Billiton, GE, Mirvac, Santos, Unilever, Wesfarmers and Westpac Group published a statement that supports an effective Paris agreement outcome. 

This provides some optimism for the future, regardless of the outcomes of the Paris meeting. If the core political issues in the meeting are resolved, the outcome can be a further catalyst for global action to address climate change. 

Yet, regardless of the outcome, business, investors, communities and governments will not turn their backs on the global boom in clean energy. That train has left the station. After Paris, it will be up to our political leaders to come together to ensure Australia minimises the risks of this transition while maximising the opportunities for our nation. 

The Climate Institute has released a brief on the potential outcomes from Paris, which can be accessed here. You can also view an animation on why Paris matters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user UNclimatechange.


The view from Jakarta

Jakarta joined other world capitals this week in condemning the Paris attacks, while Australia built up business opportunities with its neighbour, and the speaker of Indonesia's House of Representatives became embroiled in a kickback scandal.

President Jokowi reaffirmed Indonesia's strong stance against global terrorism this week in response to the attacks in Paris, which were claimed by ISIS. The President said that 'terrorism of any kind cannot be tolerated', and urged greater international cooperation in response. Indonesia recently added a military counter-terrorism squad to its already strong police-run Detachment 88 and National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT). The formation of the elite military squad is intended to bolster efforts to tackle terrorism, but concerns have been raised over the potential for the overlapping authority to add to existing tensions between the police and military.

Even with these three authorities in place, ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups continue to operate in Indonesia, and almost 300 Indonesians are suspected to have joined IS in Syria and Iraq. A civil servant from the Riau Islands reportedly joined ISIS in Iraq together with his wife and three daughters in recent months. Analysts have warned that even a small number of such cases should be cause for concern for Indonesia's security.

Religious leaders in the Muslim-majority nation have been quick to condemn the latest violence in Paris. The country's two biggest Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, have called the attacks 'inexcusable' and accused the attackers of having 'tainted Islam's image'.

Within Indonesia, inter-faith intolerance has become a more widespread issue than global terrorist ideology. A recent survey by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace found Jakarta's satellite cities of Bogor, Bekasi, Tangerang and Depok to be among the least religiously tolerant regions nationwide. One region in West Java this week took the unusual step of issuing a circular demanding respect for freedom of religious expression, in line with the constitution and the state ideology of Pancasila, which guarantee freedom of worship for those practising state-recognised religions. The step was taken in response to mounting anti-Shiite activity in the region.

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Anti-terrorism was on the agenda for Malcolm Turnbull's trip to Jakarta last week, but following the Prime Minister's visit, bilateral discussions turned to matters of business. Australia's trade minister, Andrew Robb, led a huge delegation including 360 Australian business representatives to Yogyakarta on Tuesday for Indonesia-Australia Business Week. Business seems to be the safest foundation from which to rebuild relations between Australia and Indonesia at present, following tensions over spying, executions, and various issues regarding borders and boats. The trade and investment delegation to Yogyakarta was the biggest of its kind to date, signalling Australia's interest in pursuing business opportunities with its nearest Asian neighbour.

A report by the Australia-Indonesia Centre titled Succeeding Together was launched at the event, detailing the ways in which the two countries could develop joint comparative advantage in certain sectors if they improve cooperation. However, as President Jokowi remarked during Turnbull's visit last week, the proximity of Australia and Indonesia brings as much potential for friction as it does for friendship. Better business cooperation between the two countries cannot be guaranteed while government and cultural ties remain strained.

Meanwhile, US miner Freeport this week found itself at the centre of a scandal in Indonesian politics. House of Representatives speaker Setya Novanto, who was last in the international spotlight for his appearance at a Donald Trump campaign rally in New York in September, has again come before the House ethics council, this time over allegations he asked for kickbacks in return for a contract extension for Freeport. It is alleged that Setya asked for shares in Freeport in the names of President Jokowi and Vice President Jusuf Kalla during government negotiations with the company.

A report on the incident filed by Energy Minister Sudirman Said also implicates politically connected businessman Muhammad Reza Chalid and chief security minister Luhut Panjaitan, who was until recently Jokowi's chief of staff. But Jokowi has opted to leave the case to the ethics council, commenting only to media that he's aware of the online memes regarding the scandal that riff on the infamous mama minta pulsa ('mama wants phone credit') text message scam. The current trending topic is papa minta saham ('papa wants shares'), the President reportedly joked to journalists.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user hendrikMINTARNO.


The 10th East Asia Summit this weekend promises to be one of the most interesting bits of summitry in some time. This, the last stop on Malcolm Turnbull’s five-nation tour which has included one-on-one meetings with the top three on Forbes' Most Powerful List, is also likely to prove the most challenging.

Rather than the more familiar topics of economic affairs, Mr Turnbull will have to negotiate an EAS geared toward discussions on the region's myriad security concerns. It's an opportunity for him to prove his foreign policy skills and show himself to be a handy all-rounder.

Mr Turnbull has a different worldview to his predecessor. There is a streak of realism that seems to drive a manual transmission, rather than automatic, in balancing relations between Australia's chief military ally and its biggest trade partner. And his consultative, business-centric approach is far more akin to that of his Asian counterparts than Tony Abbott's hawkishness.

Canberra has recently championed the 18-member EAS, which brings together the region's two key security guarantors and India, as one of the most important summits in the region's security architecture. As Australia’s top diplomat, Peter Vargese, described it in an address to the Lowy Institute earlier this year, 'From an Australian perspective, the EAS is the regional institution which has the highest priority and the most potential'. He added: 'A core objective of the EAS should be to nurture habits of consultation across the region'.

In the wake of the Paris (and Bangkok) attacks, counter-terrorism will top the agenda this weekend. The Southeast Asian boat people crisis, and irregular migration overall, are also likely to feature.

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Indeed, with the onset of the sailing season across the Bay of Bengal and Europe's increasingly closed-border policy, the region may be set for a new, and potentially much bigger, wave of irregular maritime migration. Establishing regional frameworks to manage such flows would save lives and mitigate political fallout for national governments.

By far the thorniest issue to be discussed, however, will be the South China Sea and the US Navy's Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) last month. China's representative, Premier Li, will try to steer discussions toward a statement condemning the Paris attacks, similar to that agreed at APEC. China will also want to focus on improving counter-terrorism cooperation and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). But a draft declaration from the EAS Chair which raises concerns over the South China Sea disputes and urges adherence to UNCLOS suggests the territorial disputes could be subject to perhaps their most intense discussions yet (they are also expected to feature in the ASEAN Chairman's statement).

This year, Canberra has spoken plainly on the South China Sea. Australian diplomats have emphasised that Australia's key interest in the region is to uphold the rules-based system. Further afield, Australia has also been vocal on Russia's flouting of the rules-based system in Ukraine. This weekend at the EAS, Russia and China, the two countries which have demonstrated 'strategic behaviour' (to use the language of Varghese) to test what they can get away with rather than adhering to rule-based norms, will be at the table. The 10th EAS may be viewed, to some extent, as a critical test of these behaviours. Australia is better placed for those discussions with an unblemished, shirtfront-free, Turnbull.

Michael Wesley noted this week that the US will be looking to leaders who have not been vocal against Beijing's (or Moscow’s) whatever-you-can-get-away-with behaviour to speak up. As Wesley wrote: 'The summits offer a chance for the US to put its allies and partners on the spot'. When Obama and Turnbull met earlier this week, they sang from the same songsheet, This weekend, Mr Turnbull could be pushed to go further.

Then again, as Ernie Bower has noted, the US is 'felling its oats' after a stellar few months. The TPP is signed, its bet on Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar (in which Hillary Clinton’s political future is heavily invested) has paid off, and Washington finally pulled the pin and launched FONOPs. Obama is coming into this EAS with a strong hand. That may give Australia more room to manoeuvre. Rather than having to stand behind the US, Mr Turnbull could take a bit of distance and possibly even act as a middle man in brokering agreement.

There are continued aspirations that the EAS, particularly in its 10th year, will live up to its potential and become the premier forum for the discussion of security issues in the region. If the EAS is bolstered, through either a series of reforms or by reaching significant agreement (such as on territorial disputes), it would be a big victory for both the embattled rules-based system and improved cooperation in the region.

It would also be a big win to mark on Mr Turnbull’s foreign policy record. The greatest pressures Mr Turnbull faces ahead of next year's election are domestic. However, a stronger EAS would put another shock absorber into the regional framework to address crises such as the South China Sea dispute, which always have the potential to upset an election campaign. Moreover, a more robust EAS, enabled by Canberra, would be a crucial support for the pivot of Australia's national psyche to Asia.

Photo courtesy of Facebook user Malcolm Turnbull.