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From fill-in to full-time Foreign Minister

Safe pair of hands: Foreign Minister Marise Payne (Photo: IISS/Flickr)
Safe pair of hands: Foreign Minister Marise Payne (Photo: IISS/Flickr)
Published 28 May 2019 14:00    0 Comments

On Sunday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Marise Payne will be Minister for Foreign Affairs in his post-election cabinet. Selected to take over the portfolio last year after Julie Bishop’s resignation (and reportedly at her recommendation), Marise Payne had just eight months in the role before the election was called.

As previous minister for defence and a veteran of 21 years in parliament, Payne was seen as a safe pair of hands. She managed the portfolio – including publicised visits to China, Indonesia (twice), India, the United States (twice), Thailand, Myanmar, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea (twice), Nauru, France, Britain, plus Brussels and Geneva – without causing any negative media stir.

No gaffes. No controversy. About the worst she was accused of was being super-cautious. Assuming this was the brief she was given by the Prime Minister, she fulfilled it admirably.

Now Payne has the chance to put her own stamp on the position. What passions might she bring to the role?

Washington talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January (Photo: US Department of State/Flickr) 

Passion projects

To be fair, foreign ministers are required to cover everything: they don’t get to decide that they are just not that into one continent or another. And then they need to deal with events (or as I think of them, events, dear boy, events). A global crisis can quickly become the defining issue in their term.

There is relatively little discretionary time for things that they don’t have to do, but just want to do. However, there is some.

For example, Julie Bishop was passionate about the New Colombo Plan, a program that has given 50,000 young people the opportunity to live and learn in Asia. Other areas included women’s economic empowerment and innovation in Australia’s aid program.

Based on Payne’s 11 formal speeches in the role, what indications are there of the passions she might pursue when she can?

Enduring security

In her speeches to date, there’s a definite sense of continuity with her previous job as Defence minister. Security is brought to the fore – as the first duty of the Australian government – and economic issues can feel less central, more as a means to protect ourselves and stay safe.

Clearly Payne will continue with Australia’s economic diplomacy. She’s made strong statements supporting the India Economic Strategy and announced measures to increase business’ role in aid delivery. But I don’t think her passion project will come from the economic agenda. She’s more likely to ask “where is the battlefield today?”.

In January, addressing the Raisina Dialogue, India (Photo: MEAphotogallery/Flickr)

Regional focus

Payne is strongly focused on the region, defined as the Indo-Pacific. (In her speeches, “Asia” as a region is not referred to, the only references are sub-regions such as Southeast Asia and the names of specific institutions, such as the East Asia Summit). She makes the case that the Indo-Pacific is key to Australia as the most dynamic region in the world.

She is also very focused on the Pacific Islands, describing Australia as having a unique role to play. In her first speech she noted that she comes to her new role as with “valuable experience of the concerns and aspirations of the Pacific, built indeed over many years”. Her first international visit was to Nauru for the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum and she’s announced initiatives such as a Pacific Fusion Centre and expansion of the Pacific Labour Scheme.

A role for Australia

The words used to describe Australia’s international role can be revealing, whether it’s Kevin Rudd’s “creative middle power diplomacy”, Malcolm Turnbull’s enthusiasm for living in “the most exciting times in human history” or Bishop’s attempt to convince Australia it’s a “top 20 nation”.

Foreign ministers are required to cover everything … A global crisis can quickly become the defining issue in their term.

Payne hasn’t settled on a repeated phrase yet, but the concept is clear: an Australia that is “engaged and active and agile” in advocating its position and is “an independent and clear voice seeking to shape our region for the better”.

In saying what Australia stands for, she is succinct: “we stand for an international order based on rules and cooperation.” Her speech to the UN General Assembly recognises “the reality of a world in which the power of great states shapes the international system” but holds true to the simple proposition that we are safer in a world managed “by agreed rules rather than by the exercise of power alone.”

Her Australia is pragmatic; in a time of rising nationalism and geo-political competition the response is to “defend our interests and be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented”. In a more competitive and contested era, it needs to be self-reliant: “Australia is taking responsibility for our own security and prosperity.”

But rather than being buffeted by the “more uncertain, competitive and contested world”, Payne offers a real sense that Australia has agency, weight and influence to try to shape a region that is favourable to its interests. A clear area of passion will be setting rules and norms in what she calls “the great project of an inclusive, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

Talks in January with UN Secretary-General António Guterres (Photo: Evan Schneider/United Nations)

Human rights and gender equality

As a parliamentarian, Payne has a reputation for caring about human rights, good governance and civil society. There is a sense of this in her launch of Australia’s Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty and remarks on freedom of expression, religion and belief at the UN Human Rights Council. It’s easy to imagine other projects fuelled by this passion.

Payne is also avowedly a feminist and is on the record encouraging women in defence and security. On Sunday she was also named as Minister for Women, giving the potential for synergy between these roles.

As a careful minister, it’s hard to be sure what mark Payne will make in her first full-term. Of her speeches, only the one to the Australian Institute of International Affairs set out to give a broad vision for the role. But there are indications.

I applaud her commitment to engaging with Australia’s region. And I hope the release of the Soft Power Review sparks a focus on how Australia can influence behaviour and thinking in the region through the power of attraction and ideas.

Australia’s presidential politics

(Photo: Saeed Khan via Getty)
(Photo: Saeed Khan via Getty)
Published 20 May 2019 14:30    0 Comments

Watch enough sport in Australia and the so-called “Americanisation” of culture is readily apparent. In Australian rules football, where contract arrangements increasingly follow the example of US sports, commentators often slip from referring to resting players on the bench or the pine to being in the “dugout”, a baseball term; or coaches describe the frenetic play by borrowing the word “scrimmage” from the NFL.

So too politics. In Australia ­– as a reminder for foreign readers ­­– the prime minister is not directly elected in the fashion of a US president. Voters elect local members, and the party selects the leader and there is no direct mention of the “Prime Minister” in the Australian Constitution. But anyone watching the 2019 election campaign would have sworn this was a contest where Scott Morrison was himself on everyone’s ballot paper.

By focusing on himself, Morrison also made it all about Shorten, and forced the news media to focus its coverage on the choice between the two leaders.

In political advertising on social media, it was Morrison’s face and Morrison’s message. In the traditional media, in newspapers and on television, the Liberal campaign made Morrison’s opposite number Bill Shorten the exclusive focus as “the bill Australia can’t afford”.

This election wasn’t the first time US presidential style intruded into an Australian election campaign, but the emphasis on the choice between the two leaders goes some way to describing the surprise result. Morrison was criticised during the campaign and in the lead up for making it all about him. But his tactic is perhaps clear in hindsight. That by focusing on himself, he also made it all about Shorten, and forced the news media to focus its coverage on the choice between the two leaders, as much as Labor tried to emphasise its team. And Shorten’s biggest consistent negative in the opinion polling over recent years was the public’s dislike of Shorten himself.

Of course, that same opinion polling also had Labor ahead in two-party preferred terms, which turned out wrong. Exit polling on the night also had Labor winning. The betting markets backed Labor. I thought Labor was going to win, and wrote back in January in an article for The Diplomat, “Barring a political miracle, it seems inevitable the conservative government will fall.” Well, as he claimed on Saturday night, Morrison got his miracle.

There is also a tendency in post-election analysis to assume every move by the victor was inspired and see the loser’s campaign as fundamentally flawed. But it is never so simple, as an Australian political operator with close ties US Republicans reminded me some years back after he’d spent some time in the US, watching the campaign where Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama. There were still things the Romney campaign did well, he insisted.

Professional politicos have long cultivated international ties, with Australians especially interested in trends from the US and Britain. It’s not for nothing that Australia’s political system is sometimes referred to as a “Washminster” style of government, and flushed with success from Saturday’s election, Morrison won’t be letting go the focus on his one-man leadership show anytime soon. (At least I got that bit right.)

Australia’s election: what the hell just happened?

Pundits and headline writers have painted this as a miracle for the Coalition but that framing is based on the fact expectations for Labor went unmet (Photo: William West via Getty)
Pundits and headline writers have painted this as a miracle for the Coalition but that framing is based on the fact expectations for Labor went unmet (Photo: William West via Getty)
Published 20 May 2019 10:30    0 Comments

Not everyone who was hoping for a Labor victory took the loss well. But if, as the sore losers claimed, the unexpected return of the centre-right Morrison Government shows that Australians are racist, greedy, mean-spirited and stupid, then it must have come over the electorate rather quickly.

After all, this is roughly the same group of voters that elected Labor leader Kevin Rudd and his party to office in 2007, and his successor Julia Gillard to minority government in 2010. It overwhelmingly passed a same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017. It is a nation which, according to Lowy Institute polling, is generally well disposed to immigration. And the respected Australian Election Study shows that across policy areas such as multiculturalism, abortion rights, gender equality, indigenous issues, recreational drugs and immigration, Australian attitudes have become steadily more liberal since the 1980s.

The other popular explanation for the result was that the Labor opposition had taken too big a risk with its bold policy agenda, leaving it vulnerable to the government’s “scare campaign”. Possible, but there are at least three other ways to interpret the evidence. First, maybe the policy agenda was right but the salesman was wrong. Or second, it’s not that the salesmanship was poor or the policies too bold, they just happened to be the wrong policies.

Then there’s a third explanation, one which will bring even less comfort to Labor: the policy agenda was irrelevant. The result simply reflected the fact that the Labor party has become steadily less popular with voters since the early 1980s. Granted, Labor’s primary vote did spike in the 1993 and 2007 elections, and no doubt its supporters were hoping for something similar this time around. But the long-term trend is clear and was reinforced at this election, with a primary vote to Labor of 33.9%, almost 1% down on the dismal 2016 result. The Liberal-Nationals Coalition primary vote declined too, again consistent with long-term trends (although the decline is more gradual and halting for the Coalition than for Labor).

Scott Morrison, joined by wife Jenny and daughters Lilly and Abbey, celebrates at the Liberal Party reception on Saturday night (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty)

The result, in terms of lower-house seats, was a narrow victory for the Coalition, meaning it will either preside over a minority government or a paper-thin majority. The pundits and headline writers have painted this as a miracle come-from-behind victory for the Coalition which gives Prime Minister Scott Morrison overwhelming authority, but that framing is based entirely on the fact that expectations of a Labor victory were unmet, expectations which were, it seems, based on dodgy polling.

So rather than this being for Morrison a “Keating 1993” moment – when then prime minister Paul Keating snared what appeared an unlikely majority ­– it is probably more accurate to think in terms of Gillard’s minority government win in 2010 or Turnbull’s one-seat majority in 2016. In turn, that means we’re not looking at a revived and rejuvenated Liberal government but at a party which has limped to the slimmest of victories against a Labor opposition even more exhausted of support and sympathy than anyone imagined.

The new Morrison government has a wafer-thin mandate and no policy platform to speak of. The best-case scenario is that, like the minority Gillard Government, Morrison gets a lot done. The worst case is something like Turnbull’s 2016 term. Given that several of the new centrist cross-bench members have promised strong action on climate change, we may see Morrison caught between his own party’s right wing and the independents keeping the government in office.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, flanked by his wife Chloe, concedes defeat (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty)

Don’t assume, then, that the chaos of the last decade is over. It may actually get worse because the historical forces driving that chaos have not abated. Former Liberal leader Tony Abbott inadvertently put his finger on the reason why. In his graceless statement on the death of the Labor Party’s longest-serving prime minister, Bob Hawke, Abbott claimed Hawke’s “key achievements ­– financial deregulation, tariffs cuts, and the beginnings of privatisation – went against the Labor grain … he had a Labor heart, but a Liberal head”. That Abbott saw the grief for this beloved figure as an opportunity to make a partisan point is symptomatic of the ideological bubble in which our politicians operate. So convinced are they of the urgency of scoring a point against their opponents that ordinary human decencies begin to give way.

Globalisation, the economic liberalisation of the 1980s, the decline of blue-collar jobs in advanced economies, the feminisation of the workforce, and the death of communism have all swept through Australia, leaving both our major parties behind.

And yet, didn’t Abbott have a point? Hawke liberalised the economy and pulled the teeth of the union movement to encourage wage restraint. In the process, the entire basis of Australian party politics was undermined. That arrangement had been simple and clear: organised labour on one side, capital on the other.

What Abbott perhaps fails to appreciate is that Hawke’s reforms were a disaster for the Liberal Party because it deprived the Liberals of an enemy. With the union movement blunted, what was the Liberal Party really for? That question became even harder to answer when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The Liberal Party had already been deprived of its domestic adversary, and now its other raison d’etre, fighting the Cold War, had also ended.

Here at the Lowy Institute, we are dedicated to studying Australia’s place in the world, but sometimes it helps to reverse the perspective. Global trends have had a transformative effect on our domestic politics. Globalisation, the economic liberalisation of the 1980, the decline of blue-collar jobs in advanced economies, the feminisation of the workforce, and the death of communism have all swept through Australia, leaving both our major parties behind. This election once again demonstrates how drained of authority and purpose they both are. Trouble is, we still have no idea what, if anything, can replace them.

What a Shorten government will mean for the US-Australia alliance

Little differences (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)
Little differences (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)
Published 17 May 2019 14:30    0 Comments

To start, I think it’s pretty likely that Labor will win on Saturday, meaning a change of government in Australia. So my comments will be based on that assumption.

In broad terms, a Labor government is not going to present any major challenges to the US alliance and its central role in Australian international policy. Bill Shorten’s approach, and that of his likely ministers, is very centrist on foreign and defence policy.

It will be in the detail of alliance management and the day-to-day operational side of things were minor irritations may crop up.

There are two mutually reinforcing trends at play here: first, a good number of the key players are decidedly pro-US and strongly support the place of the alliance; and second, even those on the left of the party who are more sceptical and might otherwise try to push for a more “independent” foreign policy believe that defence and security issues are a potential political vulnerability, and see retaining tight ties to Washington as an easy way to see off that potential weakness.

Equally, I don’t see any appetite for any significant adjustment to the big macro settings of Australia’s policy at this point in time. In basic terms, expect the status quo to continue.

Labor leader Bill Shorten during a visit to Australian troops serving in Afghanistan (Photo: Defence Department)

But it will be in the detail of alliance management and the day-to-day operational side of things were minor irritations may crop up. We are still not particularly clear on Shorten’s foreign policy preferences. He has so far evinced little real interest in foreign and defence policy – one person I know who briefed him two months back reported that he looked like a kid being forced to eat his greens – so much will depend on personnel and issues.

First, will Shorten delegate foreign policy to the Foreign Minster (a la Paul Keating to Gareth Evans) or will he, as has been the overwhelming trend in recent years, drive foreign policy out of the Prime Minister’s Office? If so, who he appoints as his senior international/foreign policy person will be key.

Second, much will also depend on who is appointed as Foreign Minister and to a lesser extent Defence Minister. At present it looks as if Penny Wong will continue from shadow to the foreign ministry and Richard Marles will take up defence. But should it turn out the other way – and there are whispers of this – with Marles as Foreign Minister, it’ll matter because he is certainly much more in the pro-US camp than Wong.

So what are the issues that’ll test the alliance under Labor? Quite a few things could crop up, but I’ll focus on three main ones.


Labor has tried to run a small target on China, flat batting efforts to try and get the Opposition to support opinions put forward by former party figures, the likes of Keating and Bob Carr. But there is a chance that Labor moves a little away from the current China status quo ­– that is to move from the more critical position that the Coalition has established.

Not likely immediately, but differences over China are probably the biggest potential challenge.


The “Pacific step up” has been an interesting initiative of the Morrison government and plainly about using Australia’s considerable heft in the South Pacific to try to counter China’s efforts to increase its influence. In approach and design, and to the point the policy intersects with ties to Washington, it runs counter to the way Labor has historically approached aid and development issues, and there’s the distinct possibility of a shift here.

Labor is planning to put nearly $250 million back into the aid program and it is unlikely to operationalise this in the same way as its predecessors.

Defence spending

There’s a reason Labor ministers and the Defence Department have historically had a fraught relationship. Australia has committed to a very large defence spending program and Labor has said it will deliver on the ambitious commitments made in the 2016 Defence White Paper. But, it has also made a series of very, very ambitious spending plans across government, and in areas which are of a higher political priority than defence.

Labor’s plans are predicated on getting controversial tax reforms through the parliament which it will find difficult to achieve in what is almost certain to be a divided senate. If Labor is looking for savings, it’ll go to Defence pretty quickly. And this will annoy Washington, who already thinks Australia isn’t doing or spending enough in the portfolio.

Trying to grin, and bear it

Finally, I think Labor will find it harder diplomatically managing relations with the Trump White House than the Coalition. This is in part a question of party alignment – Labor finds Democrats easier to get along with understandably – but also it will find it harder to keep the rictus grin of the face when dealing with some of the – ahem – more unusual aspects of the Trump administration.

So, while the change in government is not going to mean big changes or challenges in the alliance, there is a higher chance of friction and frustration. That’s not to say it will happen, just that alliance management will be a tad more difficult under Labor.

Peeling back the label in Australia’s America and China relationships

Navigating great powers: SailGP Championship on the San Francisco Bay this month (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Navigating great powers: SailGP Championship on the San Francisco Bay this month (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Published 16 May 2019 12:00    0 Comments

For American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a great intellect was the ability to “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” By this measure, Australian foreign policy has been very smart for decades.

Australian leaders have long used a duality to describe and guide our foreign relations: China is our most important economic partner; America is our most important security partner.

Australia has not been alone in keeping ideas about “economics” and “security” separate. The success of globalisation since at least the 1970s was based on most countries doing similarly. Security was something managed by states; economics was something driven by private interests, safeguarded by global institutions, and characterised by interdependence.

But today, security and economics are rapidly converging. This is best captured by the growing popularity in policy circles of the term “geoeconomics” (a somewhat awkward portmanteau of a portmanteau, denoting that matters of geography, politics and economics are increasingly interlinked).

For Australia, this has put the duality at the core of our foreign policy under pressure.

Photo: Getty Images

The obvious stress fracture appeared in 2016, when the Australian Government rejected two Chinese bids for a majority stake in electricity network Ausgrid – a deal that would have netted the New South Wales state government around $10 billion. This was an about-face from the previous year, when the sale of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company barely raised a red flag inside government.

A strategy that navigates the rise of geoeconomics, and articulates the values and interests inherent in our respective relationships with America and China, will be a central foreign policy challenge.

The government’s 2018 decision to effectively ban Huawei from the roll-out of Australia’s 5G network – despite the cost to Australian consumers – underscored the new reality, that security and economic interests are no longer mutually exclusive.

The convergence of economics and security is not just noticeable in relations with China. Under President Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology, America is increasingly putting security and economics on the same side of the ledger, and asking its allies and partners to do likewise.

Creating a strategy that navigates the rise of geoeconomics, and articulates the values and interests inherent in our respective relationships with America and China, will be a central foreign policy challenge for the incoming federal government.

Already, we are seeing politicians trying on new tropes for size. On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred to America as a “friend” and China as a “customer”.

Incidentally, this is not a complete mischaracterisation: Australia’s economic relationship with China is largely transactional rather than trust-based. China may be our most significant trading partner, but America remains our largest source of foreign direct investment. This is something that the “China is our most important economic partner” narrative has tended to underplay.

Nonetheless, the “customer” label missed the mark. A customer relationship is cursory only. Conversely, a long-term, productive relationship with China, with open channels of communication and clarity about our respective interests and expectations, is essential.

Photo: Getty Images

But Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s response – that he sees China not as a customer but “a complex, dynamic society” like “Japan or Korea or Indonesia” – is also an inadequate frame. For one, by listing China in a catalogue of Asian countries, Shorten is inadvertently playing into the “Asian values” narrative that China has invoked to dismiss legitimate criticisms of its own actions. Moreover, China is in fact not a society like any other. The incentives and actions of its citizens and businesses are increasingly influenced by, and co-opted to serve the interests of, the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

As Australia’s political leaders seek to settle on the best way to characterise our relationships with the United States and China, they would do well to keep three things in mind.

First, China is actively pushing economics and security together across our region, epitomised in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China uses its economic footprint for strategic gain and political leverage. Complete abandonment of the economic-security duality would play into this worldview.

Second, and on the other hand, a strict separation between economics and security is also risky. The Victorian Government’s surprise decision last year to sign a memorandum of understanding with China supporting BRI highlights the shortcomings of such an approach. Victoria failed to see the geopolitical forest for the investment opportunity trees. Thus, while the duality should not be abandoned, it does need some new caveats.

Third, narratives are not just useful in foreign affairs, but are also important for keeping domestic audiences informed and engaged. This is particularly significant in the case of Australian businesses – which no longer have the luxury of outsourcing security concerns to “rough men and women on the border”. Instead, Australian businesses are increasingly front-line players in security matters.

Our companies must defend against state-sponsored cyber and information attacks. Their business dealings are used as pawns in “sharp power” gambits by foreign states (consider exporters’ uncertainty about whether their coal is being held up at Chinese ports to “punish” the Australian government; or media outlets facing intimidation and discrimination for holding “anti-China” views). Australian institutions also engage in research and development of “dual-use” technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotech which will have both civilian and strategic applications. Consequently, any narrative that fails to recognise and include business as a key national security stakeholder will not be sustainable.

In his recent book, On Grand Strategy, John Lewis Gaddis reminds us that the F. Scott Fitzgerald test applies to strategists, too. He also furnishes readers with another sage piece of advice: leaders do not always need to be precise and decisive; sometimes, dithering is useful.

In this sense, the next government should not feel compelled to force Australia’s relationship with China and the United States into neat, discrete boxes. Different, at times conflicting, aspects of each relationship can coexist in our national narrative at the same time.

Our leaders should also take their time to fine-tune how we conceptualise the interplay between our economic and security interests. With China-US economic and security relations in a state of flux, a mercurial President in the Oval Office and an American election looming, we have time on our side to develop a strategy that fits the changing circumstances.

Young, energised, ready to vote, and maybe decide two elections

With two-thirds of India’s population under 35, their votes could well sway the outcome (Photo: Arun Sankar via Getty)
With two-thirds of India’s population under 35, their votes could well sway the outcome (Photo: Arun Sankar via Getty)
Published 16 May 2019 10:30    0 Comments

Two of the world’s democracies on either side of the Indian Ocean will see their elections culminate this weekend. Australians will go to the polls on Saturday, while Sunday marks the final day of India’s staggered voting season.

On the face of it, there is little to link the two elections: one country is poised to replace its conservative government, while the other is likely to double down in support of its incumbent populist leader. In one country there are 16 million voters, the other has 900 million potential voters.

But one facet is the same: the influence of young voters in both places will play a major role in the outcome.

These Australian school kids can’t vote – yet (Photo: William West via Getty)

In Australia – where voting is compulsory – the Australian Electoral Commission last month announced a record enrolment rate across the board, an all-time high of 96.8%, and of those aged between 18 and 24, almost 89% are enrolled, or 1.69 million people. The figure is just shy of the enormous voter turnout for the 2017 same-sex marriage survey, where youth enrolment was at 1.7 million. 

Far from the general view that young people are apathetic, they are engaged and keen to be part of the political process.

The figures reveal that, far from the general view that young people are apathetic, they are engaged and keen to be part of the political process.

According to youth radio station Triple J, young people could decide the outcome in up to 20 marginal seats. These include Melbourne and Brisbane, which cover each city’s CBD, and Canberra. The high proportion of young voters in those seats could have an impact on which way they go. 

Of the issues that affect young people, alongside the traditional concerns of jobs and education, there is a somewhat surprising new entrant: mental health. Mental health issues are rising among young people in Australia and globally. The major parties and the Greens have extensive mental health policies, with the incumbent Coalition promising more than half a billion dollars towards youth mental health services.

Young Australians are also extremely concerned about climate change. In fact, environmental issues could well be the driving force behind the record enrolment numbers. If tens of thousands of school students are willing to bear the wrath of parents, teachers and political leaders and walk out of school to rally for action on climate change, it’s likely that the protest will translate into votes for those old enough. 

Across the Indian Ocean and young people in India are similarly politically energised. With two-thirds of the population under the age of 35, their votes could well sway the outcome. There is a precedent to this: in 2014, the youth vote is credited with helping usher in the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Modi.

But will they vote, and will they again vote for Modi?

In the five years since the last election, the landscape has shifted significantly. With a youth bulge combined with newfound aspirations to climb the ladder, the need for more jobs to be added to the market is pulsatingly urgent (India’s demographic timebomb). The problems of unemployment and underemployment have increasingly been making global headlines in recent years, such as the time when a study found unemployment at a 45-year high, or when 19 million people applied for 63,000 vacant menial jobs on the railways.

The ascension of Modi brought with it the politics of populism and a rise in Hindu nationalism, but also some policy missteps – such as demonetisation – which has led some to question whether Modi is as solidly capable as his steely reputation would have him.

The youth vote is one that appears polarised. On one hand, the seething tension and anger over the lack of jobs could manifest in a large-scale protest vote against Modi, while on the other, their faith in his populist promises could be the key to returning him to power.

One thing is certain: young Indians are extremely politically and electorally aware.  A March poll found that eight in 10 believe that voting should be compulsory, while three-quarters said they thoroughly research local candidates before voting. The poll, of 200,000 Indians – mostly aged between 18 and 35 and mostly in major cities – also had strong feelings about the way elections were conducted. 

Despite this, many young people might miss out on exercising their rights to vote, thanks to a lack of structures in place to allow for reliable postal or distance voting. With many living away from their home towns for work or study, travelling to a relevant polling booth might simply not be an option.


What’s on offer? Pacific policy and Australia’s election

Is it a hot topic at Fiji’s port? What are major parties in Australia offering in terms of Pacific policy? (Photo: Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Is it a hot topic at Fiji’s port? What are major parties in Australia offering in terms of Pacific policy? (Photo: Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 16 May 2019 06:00    0 Comments

The Pacific has undergone a foreign policy renaissance of sorts, with politicians and policymakers falling over themselves to proclaim their commitment to the region and its vital importance to Australia. Leaders of both major parties have been increasingly speaking about the region, while starting to place the Pacific at the very centre of their foreign policy agendas.

Despite an apparent unity ticket, there are some important differences in how the major parties may approach the Pacific after the election.

But with the Australian election to be held on Saturday, what are both major parties offering in terms of Pacific policy and reengagement with the region?

At face value, there is a bipartisan consensus on the importance of the region that will likely continue regardless of the outcome at the polls. There is broad support of the premises of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and the 2016 Defence White Paper, where the Pacific and its strategic significance takes centre stage. Both parties have also begun to commit greater resources towards the Pacific and speak about the region in a different manner, shown by the adoption of a more inclusive language that emphasises “partnership not paternalism” and Australia’s membership of “a Pacific family”.

Despite this apparent unity ticket, there are some differences in how the major parties may approach the Pacific after the election. The starkest difference is the broader regional role that Australia should play.

Scott Morrison outlines his Pacific strategy in November (Photo:

The Coalition has emphasised importance in its Pacific policy, echoing the suggestion by some that Australia’s place in the region should be underpinned by what is effectively a policy of “strategic denial”, to ensure that Canberra is not challenged by an increasingly present China. Labor, on the other hand, has emphasised the region’s economic development and the impact of climate change, opting to avoid the language of confrontation but rather focus on “the economic betterment of the ten million people of the Pacific Islands themselves” and for Australia to become the “partner of choice” for the region (although the latter phrase has been used by both sides of politics).

Morrison’s Pacific pivot has been marked by establishing new diplomatic posts across the region, proposing new annual bilateral security meetings, creating a new development financing facility (echoing a similar proposal by Labor), and a strong commitment to building Australian naval presence and regional defence capacity such as its joint redevelopment of the Lobrum naval base with the US on PNG’s Manus Island.

These initiatives, along with seeking stronger bilateral ties with nations in the region such as Fiji and multinational efforts such as the four-party electrification of Papua New Guinea, all aim to deny the opportunity for Beijing to further entrench itself politically and militarily in the Pacific. A re-elected Coalition government would likely continue this effort of effective strategic denial, working closely with allies and Pacific island nations to rebuild and maintain Australia’s regional primacy.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten speaks at the Lowy Institute in 2018 on a Labor approach to foreign policy

Labor will likely seek to rectify what has long been a thorn in the Coalition’s side by committing to more ambitious action on climate change and emissions reduction. After many years of inaction and damaging ministerial blunders, changes in environmental policy would undoubtedly be met with enthusiasm across the Pacific. While Labor is not following a policy that could be interpreted as strategic denial like that of the Coalition, Labor’s initial proposal for an infrastructure financing facility and to double current levels of development funding suggest that it will seek to offer alternatives to Beijing’s tempting concessional loans and infrastructure programs.

Labor has also pledged changes in key elements of current policy which will raise the Pacific’s profile in Canberra’s international relations, committing to “put the Pacific front and centre in [its] regional foreign policy” and to encourage regional collaboration and economic empowerment. The reinstatement of the portfolios of international development and the Pacific back into cabinet, re-evaluation of visa and travel arrangements with PNG, as well as the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Program and Australian regional broadcasting services, have all been signalled as likely changes to Pacific policy should Labor form the next government.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the Pacific looks set to benefit. However, there are shortcomings to either approach that will need to be addressed by the major parties.

The Coalition’s focus may help to reassert Canberra’s place as the region’s preeminent partner, but its failure to effectively climate change and implement more ambitious environmental targets may deny Australia future opportunities. Labor’s continued ambiguity over the “partner of choice” concept has also been criticised, overlooking the increasingly complex geopolitics of the region and presuming that Pacific nations will have to choose one development partner over another.

Nonetheless, there is no escaping that both major parties offer more substantive regional policies than in previous years. The centrality of the Pacific in policymaking is likely to continue. Whether the cornerstone will be Labor’s focus on development and climate change, or the Liberals’ increased interest in strategic denial, that’s a decision that will rest in the hands of the Australian electorate when people go to the ballot box on Saturday.

Time to reverse the Indonesian language disaster on our shores

If only to bargain in the Bali markets, you’d think learning Indonesian would be popular in Australia (Photo: Gustavo Thomas/Flickr)
If only to bargain in the Bali markets, you’d think learning Indonesian would be popular in Australia (Photo: Gustavo Thomas/Flickr)
Published 15 May 2019 06:00    0 Comments

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong’s efforts to set out a vision for Australia’s foreign policy on Asia, embodied in Labor’s “FutureAsia” plans, are admirable. The specific focus of fostering knowledge of and engagement with Southeast Asia is welcome.

A key part of enhancing Southeast Asia knowledge capability is investing in languages, with Indonesian being the most obvious example. Australia needs to begin by taking positive steps to address the image problem of Indonesia that affects interest in Indonesian language studies.

Australia needs to begin by taking positive steps to address the image problem of Indonesia that affects interest in Indonesian language studies.

Several years ago, I taught Indonesian in a primary school and high school in Victoria. In the classroom, I was confronted by my students’ negative perceptions of Indonesia. I had assumed that students might want to study Indonesian, at the very least in the hopes of going on a future holiday to Bali and learning how to bargain in the markets.

Instead, it was clear that the vague understanding many students had about Indonesia came through exposure to negative Australian media or their parents’ views.

A lack of knowledge on basic facts contributes to these misperceptions. For example, as a Lowy Institute survey found, most Australians are not aware that Indonesia is a democracy. Since 2015, the number of people surveyed who correctly answered that Indonesia is a democracy has dropped by 10%.

Basic facts about Indonesia should be common knowledge in Australia, because it affects the attitudes people have towards Indonesia.

In my former role as a primary school teacher, I had an 11-year-old student tell me that they didn’t want to learn Indonesian because their mum and dad said that Indonesians are terrorists. It’s pretty hard to reason with an 11-year-old when extensive media coverage of terrorism, general public perceptions and perhaps even their own parents might support this false stereotype.

In addition to the image problem, Australia needs to radically overhaul and reinvest in institutional support for Indonesian studies.

Daily, I live through the consequences caused when universities make fatal decisions to cancel their Indonesian language programs, as a number of universities in Australia have done. These decisions are made, in part, because of the broader absence of a social, economic and political ecosystem in Australia that supports Indonesian studies.

“Taste of Australia” in Jakarta (Photo: Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)

Seriously low numbers of primary and high school uptake in Indonesian create negative downstream consequences for higher education institutions. In turn, the scale of Asian language programs in primary schools and high schools across Australia affects enrolments in languages at university.

In my high school, there were just five students in the Year 12 Indonesian class. When high schools choose to axe their Indonesian program, as in fact my old high school later did, this has major flow on effects for universities.

Language programs often depend upon on a steady number of students in the intermediate to advanced language classes. Without strong numbers of students graduating from high school having studied Indonesian language, the potential pool of students who go on to study Indonesian at university diminishes rapidly. When there are so few university students choosing to study Indonesian, this presents challenges for the viability of university programs.

But I also see the opposite problem. On my campus, I come across students who want to study Indonesian, but can’t. While studying and gaining credit through another university is theoretically possible, its often a logistical impossibility because of the challenges that students face to coordinate classes at two different universities and campuses.

As a result, some students that I know who learnt Indonesian in high school stopped studying Indonesian. This is an incredible waste of talent and interest in Indonesia.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong speaking at the Lowy Institute on 1 May. 

So what can be done? Penny Wong’s vision on greater engagement with Southeast Asia is admirable but needs to be backed up with a long-term plan to enhance both general and specialist knowledge of the region.

Any major effort to make Indonesian studies a national priority in Australia would require a holistic approach. The government must take the initiative and acknowledge its role as an important driver of incentives for change. This includes incentives for students to choose Asian languages and support for universities to maintain or enhance their Asian language programs.

Shifting the dire predicament of Indonesian language studies in Australia in my lifetime will require a fundamental change in direction for the education sector across the board - primary schools, high schools and universities.

Its time for the next Australian government to reverse the Indonesian language disaster on our shores. After all, the “Asian Century” really should be the time to start learning an Asian language.

Australia struggles for clarity on the South China Sea

USS Ronald Reagan leads Carrier Strike Group Five and Expeditionary Strike Group Seven ships in an exercise in 2016. (Photo: US Navy/Creative Commons)
USS Ronald Reagan leads Carrier Strike Group Five and Expeditionary Strike Group Seven ships in an exercise in 2016. (Photo: US Navy/Creative Commons)
Published 14 May 2019 06:00    0 Comments

The Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor has noted the absence of China discussion in Australia’s current election campaign, a state of affairs which prompted his colleague Sam Roggeveen to observe that “Bipartisanship on China is becoming a form of collusion”. Given that the Coalition seems to have decided against participating in a debate on foreign affairs, it is unlikely that the Australian electorate will learn anything more prior to Saturday 18 May when the polls open.

However, this is not to say that the Coalition and Labor have identical policies on, or approaches towards, relations with the People’s Republic of China. One crucial aspect of this is Australia’s response to China’s expansion and coercion in the South China Sea. In mid-2016 the former Shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Conroy, said that Australia would have “failed the test” if it did not stand up to Chinese “bullying” in the South China Sea. He advocated authorising the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features there. In October 2016, the current Shadow Defence Minister – Conroy’s successor, Richard Marles – echoed this suggestion, saying that the RAN should be “fully authorised” to conduct such FONOPs. 

On the eve of a national election, Labor lacks a clear policy on the possible use of Australian military force in an operation directed against ambiguous territorial claims made by the People’s Republic of China.

The then-foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was quick to criticise Labor’s pro-FONOP position in the House of Representatives. She claimed that Marles had “decided that Australia should escalate tensions” by conducting FONOPs, “something that Australia has not ever done before”.  Bishop implicitly – but clearly – suggested that the Coalition’s policy was not to conduct such FONOPs: Canberra instead should “be seeking to de-escalate tensions … Australia should not take sides, and we should continue to urge … peaceful negotiations”. This is not a formal Coalition policy but given Bishop’s words and the fact that Australia has not yet conducted a FONOP, any decision to do so would be a departure from the status quo. Under these circumstances, it is fair to say that the Coalition has an implicit, but reasonably clear, policy of not conducting FONOPs. 

I have not found any record of Marles’ 2016 comments having ever been retracted, corrected or disavowed. But he has sought to clarify his remarks, in a way. According to a report of a recent interview, he “would not be drawn on whether the Shorten government would authorise the navy to conduct a freedom of navigation patrol within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands claimed by China”. In a separate interview, when directly asked about FONOPs he has said that it is “not really possible to answer question from … Opposition”. This is directly at odds with his 2016 endorsement of such operations. 

So for those trying to parse out the differences between the two parties, this is where we stand: the Coalition with an implicit, but reasonably clear, policy of not conducting FONOPs. On the Labor side, we have contrary claims: strong endorsement of FONOPs in 2016, but a more recent statement that such policies cannot be decided while in Opposition.

This is a sad state of affairs. On the eve of a national election, Labor lacks a clear policy on the possible use of Australian military force in an operation directed against ambiguous territorial claims made by the PRC. Having advocated such an operation in 2016, the Shadow Defence Minister now equivocates and hedges. What is the voting public meant to make of this? Those who oppose Australian FONOPs under current conditions, like I do, might worry about Labor’s ambivalence. 

The Coalition policy is unannounced, informal and implicit, but at least it is discernible and reasonably clear. If Marles’ 2016 comments remain accurate, and if the ALP does intend to order FONOPs if it wins government, then not disclosing this to voters would be a shameful act. I rarely agree with The Australian newspaper’s Greg Sheridan, but his humorous assessment of 2016 still rings true today: “On the South China Sea, Labor has neither the courage to be a lion nor the reverse courage to be a mouse; instead, it looks like a donkey, braying indecipherably”. Marles talks about having the “courage to assert our national interest when we find ourselves in a position of difference to China”. Before it worries about mustering the courage to order a FONOP, the ALP should have the courage to level with the Australian public about its policy intentions. 

One final point is worth noting. Although I am critical of the ALP, the Coalition has not covered itself in glory here, either. If it is happy to lambast the ALP for advocating FONOPs, then it should be willing to acknowledge, formalise and defend its own policy of not conducting them. Australia would be well-served by both sides of politics treating these questions as substantive and critical issues, rather than merely as opportunities to score points against domestic political opponents.   

Charting 50 years of turning tides in Australian politics

A new Labor cycle appears to be under way when looking back across the decades
A new Labor cycle appears to be under way when looking back across the decades
Published 13 May 2019 06:00    0 Comments

Australians will choose a new national government on 18 May in the context of two underlying trends: a record number of independents already now in office across the country and a political cycle that points to a Labor victory.

The below chart of elected members of parliament across the national, state and territory legislatures shows how the country has had a relatively clear cycle of political change over the past five decades. At the same time, it shows that there are now more than 100 independent or minor party representatives in those legislatures, which is record for the modern post-Second World War party system, and also arguably a record since nationhood a century ago.

Foreign observers of the election are likely to associate any change from the incumbent centre-right Liberal-National Party coalition government to Labor (as the opinion polls suggest) as a change in the national zeitgeist. That is not surprising since the national government controls foreign, defence, trade and immigration policy.

The Australian political cycle begins at the state level and then only flows through to the national level several years later at its more mature point.

But the chart shows that the Australian political cycle begins at the state level and then only flows through to the national level several years later at its more mature point. These cycles appear to be relatively independent of the economy as Australia has not had a recession for 27 years.

In the apparent new Labor cycle the number of Labor legislature members nationwide overtook the Coalition two years ago at the West Australian state election. But the Labor tally has been rising steadily for more than four years since the Victorian election in November 2014.

The shape of the last conservative cycle (2008–2017 coinciding with the leadership of prime minister Tony Abbott) lends support to the widely held view that Australian politics is becoming more intense and volatile due to factors that are found across the world, such as declining voter loyalty and the rise of digital media.

At their peak the Coalition parties held a greater share of seats nationally than during the previous conservative cycle associated with the leadership of prime minister John Howard, who is generally seen as the coalition’s most successful leader in recent times. But the Abbott cycle lasted less than nine years compared with an average of about 13 years for the last four cycles.

As a new Labor cycle appears to be under way it is interesting to note that the last two Labor cycles (associated with prime ministers Bob Hawke in the 1980s and Kevin Rudd in the 2000s) lasted longer than neighbouring conservative cycles. But the conservatives held a greater proportion of seats across the country at their respective peak, potentially making them more politically powerful.

The rise in independent or minor party legislature members passed the symbolic 100 point as a result of strong support for non-major party candidates at recent state election in Australia’s most populated state, New South Wales. But it was underpinned by minor party success at the recent Victorian state election and some losses by the federal Liberal party at the national level due to resignations and by-elections.

That independents or minor parties have crossed the 100 threshold will alarm the political establishment (Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty)

This new record reflects longer term trends including the rise of the Greens party, the success of moderate independents in normally safe conservative seats, and a flurry of small right-of-center parties such as One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Analysts are split over whether the current election will see a return to two party polarisation, due to some sharp policy differences between the Labor and conservative parties or more minor party strength.

Nevertheless, the revelation that the independents or minor parties have crossed the 100 threshold will only add to alarm in the political establishment about difficulty assembling the majority governments, which have been the norm in the country’s traditional two-party system. Yet while non-major parties have won as much as a third of the primary vote overall at some recent elections, their share of seats is still much lower due to the way the electoral system works. Although they now hold a record number of seats across the country at 108, this is only 13% of the seats.

Australia has had two notable periods of previous non-major party success: the centrist Australian Democrats in the 1990s and the conservative and Catholic Democratic Labor Party in the 1960s. But they were largely contained to upper houses of Parliament, whereas independents and minor parties are now winning seats in lower houses where governments are formed, which means they can exert more power or simply disrupt government policy.

In an example of the rising concern, my Lowy Institute colleague Sam Roggeveen recently tweeted that this fracturing of the two party system has implications for Australia’s place in Asia.

The independents and minor parties do tend to have common views on some foreign policy issues, such as scepticism towards trade liberalisation and dislike for traditional realist foreign policy towards major neighbours, including China and Indonesia. However, on some specific controversial Asian policy issues such as capital punishment for drug traffickers, immigration and acceptance of refugees, the left and right-wing minor parties mostly tend to cancel each other out. This provides governments with more room to move on these Asia-related foreign policy issues.

The fracturing of the Australian electorate away from the major parties and the shortening of the political cycle are likely to make government more challenging, but it is nevertheless worth viewing this through an Asian prism.

Recent elections in Malaysia and Thailand have resulted in unwieldy multi-party governments, and India looks like sliding back that way in the current election. The Indonesian election has reduced the number of recognised parties, but a multi-party government will still be needed to pass legislation. And even in Japan the long-running conservative Liberal Democratic Party has to pay heed to the centrist foreign policy views of its Komeito coalition partner. Australia is far from alone.