How to fix the flaw at the heart of Australian politics

I recently returned from four years serving as Australia’s ambassador to Israel, a country known for its fractious politics and unstable, coalition governments. During my term, I dealt with only one Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But I served four different Australian prime ministers – Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

To lose one prime minister may be misfortune. To lose two may indicate carelessness. But to cycle through four prime ministers in four years, and be on the brink of yet another defenestration of a sitting prime minister, suggests something more profound – a structural flaw at the heart of Australian politics.

There are several easy targets to blame for Australia’s new-found fondness for political instability.

There is the relentless and unforgiving poll-driven media cycle and its class of political journalists: demanding a response to every bad poll, forever fuelling leadership stories, and predisposed to analysing politics as a football match – calling the game without any reference to the substance, merit or contest of competing ideas.

There are the politicians themselves: increasingly careerists for whom politics is a profession, not a public service, and whose instinct for self-preservation readily overrides broader appeals to party unity, party discipline, and the expressed will of the electorate.

Then there is the voting public: impatient, ephemeral in its loyalty, readily bored with politics, and demanding of the next big talent.

Finally, there are the institutions themselves. A prime minister who is elected by his or her party, not by the public; a system where the party room can depose a prime minister, without reference to the electorate; and a political term that is short (three years) and not fixed in duration.

Each of these factors bears some of the blame for the situation we find ourselves in today. Most are out of our control: the product of changing times and changing norms. But one element stands out as susceptible to reform, and that is the political system itself.

Australia’s current constitutional system did not proceed from any grand design. Constitutional conventions were held to draft it prior to Federation, but on the whole our system of government largely imported the Westminster model. There were not the ferocious arguments about how to construct good government in a republic and avoid a tyranny of the majority, such as those which characterised the debate during the development and adoption of the United States Constitution, for instance. Australia’s constitutional evolution was incremental, rather than revolutionary.

Australia has always been a pragmatic nation. When national circumstance or values have changed, we have been prepared to update our constitutional arrangements accordingly. During the Second World War we allowed the federal government to assume sole authority to levy income tax, recognising that a secure revenue base for the federal government was instrumental to the war effort. In 1967 we amended the constitution to grant full and proper rights and recognition to Australia’s Indigenous population.

Racked as our current system is by instability, to the detriment of good government, we should be prepared today to make similarly far-reaching changes.

Part of the problem is that the prime minister of the day holds no direct mandate from the Australian public. The public sees the prime minister as its own property, voted into office by it at the election. Hence the outrage when a sitting prime minister is dumped without having faced or lost an election (now the normal means of a transfer of power in Australian politics). But our constitutional system means that the prime minister is simply first among equals, the holder of an office which is bestowed – and can be removed – by his or her political party.

Part of the problem is that the term of the federal parliament is both short and not fixed in duration. With only three-year terms, Australia is almost unique amongst liberal democracies. In Canada and Germany they have four-year fixed terms. The UK has five-year fixed terms, as does France. But in Australia, an election is always just around the corner, meaning members of parliament are forever focused on their electoral survival – and less so on the national interest. The steady drip of opinion polls and the relentless media cycle exacerbates the short-termism.

Successfully amending the constitution in Australia is no small feat, and it should not be undertaken lightly. But our politicians, by proving themselves so willing to depose sitting prime ministers without reference to the electorate, have shattered a norm on which much of the stability of the Australian political system rested. Perhaps it is up to us – the voting public – to repair this damage.

Neither a directly elected head of government nor longer parliamentary terms – both options which warrant serious examination – are unusual for liberal democracies. The challenge for Australia would be to conduct this debate above the realm of politics-as-usual. A blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission, involving former senior politicians, from across Australia’s political spectrum – and at both state and federal level – would be a start. While at it, they could address some other anachronisms of our present constitution, including the dual-citizenship prohibitions, the lack of Indigenous Australian recognition, and imbalanced federal-state relations.

If our political system is broke – and it surely is – then we should be prepared to fix it.

Published as an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald 23 June 2018.

Antiquated School Day is Failing Everyone

We spend a great deal of time in Australia debating the curriculum we teach our children and the teaching methods deployedand wringing our hands about NAPLAN tests and OECD rankings.

But in doing so we seem to assume the structure of school – particularly the “when” – is set in stone. Gonski Mark 2 is just the latest example of this misdirected debate.

Though teaching methods, curriculums, society and our expectations of the education system have changed vastly in the past 70 years, the major structural parameters of the system have not.

The standard remains the one set in the post-World War Two era. Children are taught roughly from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, for roughly 40 weeks a year, from the ages of five to 18.

Over a period in which the nature and structure of work, society and family life have undergone profound transformations, the school routine has remained largely untouched.

Any institution that survives largely unchanged for almost 70 years is either remarkably well-designed, or is remarkably resistant to evolution and outside pressures. I believe it is the latter.

By any conventional measure, the school system in Australia should be ripe for disruption.

At a time when a major policy challenge for all levels of government is to increase workforce participation, especially of women, schools remain structured around the now antiquated post-war family structure.

The school routine continues to assume that one parent (the male) works a full-time job and the other parent (the female) is a full-time carer. Today the norm is entirely reversed: almost two-thirds of families with children have both parents working (with the figure higher still for single-parent households).

In an age when we seek to get more out of our existing resources, be it accommodation (Airbnb), transport (Uber), roads (autonomous vehicles), office space (WeWork) or data storage (cloud-based computing), the utilisation of our schools as an asset class remains woeful. Most school assets – the buildings and infrastructure – are used only during school hours, or roughly 15 per cent of the time.

We expect government services to adapt to the tempos and demands of modern life, yet the school system remains stubbornly resistant to even the contemplation of change.

And in an economy which demands increasingly high levels of skill and education, if we are to maintain our standards of living and way of life, perhaps some of the answer lies simply in more hours of education and learning.

Working families with children in primary school face particular struggles. If both parents work a regular full-time job, then dropping the children at school and making it to work on time is almost impossible. Parents manage this through a combination of before-school care, one parent starting work later (if their boss allows such flexibility), or relying on grandparents. But why not simply start the school day at 8am, and make lives easier for these families?

The afternoon pick-up at 3pm poses similar challenges. Again, some combination of part-time work, after-school hours care (for which places are in short supply), and grandparents or other carers are used to manage this.

The reality is that most primary age children with both parents working are doing some form of after-school activity, either on the school grounds or elsewhere, for at least several afternoons a week.

But if this is the case, why not mainstream it into the school day? Why not have service providers use school facilities to offer a full range of after-school activities, from sports to dance, music to art, rather than the one-size-fits-all after-school care currently on offer? Why not have service providers rent out school facilities and create a valuable stream of income for schools?

I’m not calling for children to be over-programmed. But if they are doing the equivalent of full-time days, then at least we can give them some variety and stimulation.

School holidays are another testing time for working parents. With upwards of 12 weeks of school holidays each year, but two working parents usually having access to at most a combined eight weeks (and only then if they never take a holiday together), bridging this gap is a continual source of stress.

Children’s holiday’ programs are often expensive, hard to access, and with their disparate locations and hours put a further strain on family logistics.

Meanwhile for 12 weeks a year, school facilities sit largely unused. So why not open the schools during this period and offer school holiday programs from there, using external service providers?

No doubt any one of these suggested reforms throws up complex policy challenges and will involve taking on a number of vested interests who prefer the status quo. But governments should be brave enough to tackle such challenges directly, rather than tinkering around the edges with measures such as the child care subsidy.

We fundamentally need to rethink school if we are to make it easier for working parents to educate their children, earn a living, and balance work and family pressures. Stubborn adherence to the current school system is failing nearly everyone – children, parents, society and the economy at large.

Originally published as an opinion piece in the Sun Herald on 17 June 2018.

EU Leaders Finally Grasping Wisdom Behind Australia’s Border Rules

The outcome from the European Union’s “emergency summit” on refugees and irregular migrants makes for curious reading. Emerging from more than 10 hours of talks in the early hours last Friday in Brussels, European leaders claimed to have averted a continent-wide migration crisis.The solution? Once among the most self-righteous critics of Australia’s border protection policies, Europe’s leaders now seem well on their way to adopting as their own large chunks of Australia’s border protection approach.To start with, European leaders are finally beginning to acknowledge that they have a serious problem with illegal migration — and that their inhabitants are none too happy about it. Previously in a form of denial about the scale of the challenge they face, in Brussels European leaders stated their determination to “prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015”, an implicit acknowledgment that Europe had lost control of its borders.Europe is also beginning to recognise it has become a soft touch for people-smugglers, and that this is fuelling further people movements. In language familiar to Australian ears, Europe’s leaders acknowledged they needed to “definitively break the business model of the smugglers” and so save lives by eliminating the “incentive to embark on perilous journeys”.Next up, Europe’s leaders agreed to build “controlled centres” across Europe to provide for “rapid and secure processing” of asylum claims — with genuine refugees resettled but other irregular migrants returned.Though euphemistically put, what the EU is talking about is migrant detention centres. But they also went one step further, calling for the consideration of “regional disembarkation platforms” in countries outside Europe, predominantly in northern Africa in places such as Libya and Tunisia, where refugee claims could be assessed without creating a “pull factor” towards Europe.In all but name, Europe’s leaders have landed upon their equivalent of ­Australia’s offshore processing centres.Concern over uncontrolled and irregular migration has become a major — perhaps the major — political force in Europe. But large chunks of Europe’s political elite have until now failed to grasp this reality or concede the legitimacy of public concern over uncontrolled borders. The result has been a growing populist backlash across Europe.In Italy, a new government has emerged that has made restoring control over borders and people movements its highest priority. In Austria, Hungary and Poland, governments are demanding a more hard-headed European response to unregulated people flows. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel — Europe’s longest serving and most senior leader — is fighting for her political life, under pressure from the demands of her Bavarian coalition partner for a tougher line on migration. And in Britain, of course, growing public anxiety about the level of migration drove much of the support for Brexit.In the US, similar public ­anxiety about migration is driving politics.Though the temptation to indulge in schadenfreude is strong, we should welcome Europe’s overdue recognition of reality and its adoption of border protection and migration policies that are familiar to Australia. And we should use it to seek to modernise the global rules that underpin the system, most importantly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.The convention played a critical role in helping resettle displaced populations in Europe after World War II. But it was not designed for today’s world of mass people movements, mass travel and mass communications.There is an almost endless supply of people seeking to leave their countries and resettle in the West, and these days — unlike in 1951 — there is the means to reach the destination. Some of these are genuine refugees, though a large portion are not fleeing persecution but simply seeking better lives for themselves and their families — and who can blame them?The sheer volume, however, is completely beyond the capacity of European countries or Australia to absorb without fundamentally upsetting the internal balance and social cohesion of these nations. While the humanitarian urge to accept everyone who makes it to your shores might be strong, this can be no basis for policy — as Europe is slowly learning.Whether we seek to modernise the 1951 convention or augment it with other agreements, the time is ripe for a global effort to reach a new set of understandings around people movements.These understandings should continue to provide protection from persecution and a pressure outlet from conflict zones and humanitarian crises. They should seek to improve conditions in so-called source countries, and so tamp down on the push factors that drive much of migration. But they should also be frank in accepting that destination countries have a sovereign right to control their migration intake.Originally published as an opinion column in The Australian on 5 July 2018.

Iran Nukes Deal is the Lesser Evil

Iran Nuclear

The Middle East enters a particularly volatile and dangerous period as the Syrian civil war moves towards its end stages. Bashar al-Assad, the leader who uses chemical weapons against his own people, will likely be the victor and reunification will be on his terms. The West will have little say. The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Ankara last month to determine Syria’s future, and this accurately reflects today’s disposition of forces inside Syria. With the defeat of Islamic State, the US and its allies — Australia included — have largely vacated the field. Targeted allied airstrikes may have limited the use of chemical weapons, but they have done nothing to alter the basic trajectory of the war or loosen Assad’s grip on power.

As Assad and his enablers, Russia and Iran, go about reconquering the rebel-held parts of Syria, the risk of a collision between Israel and Iran grows. Israel has made clear, through word and deed, that a permanent Iranian military presence and the establishment of Iranian military infrastructure inside Syria is a red line. Israel will act militarily as it has in recent weeks. For Israel, preventing the Iranian military from entrenching on its northern and eastern borders is a core strategic interest.

Iran, however, having invested so much in Assad’s survival, is bent on reaping a return and seems determined to build a land corridor to the Mediterranean and resupply routes for its proxy militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and to acquire military bases and weapons-manufacturing facilities inside Syria to apply pressure on Israel. Israeli satellite images show five Syrian air bases where it is claimed Iranian Revolutionary Guards are stationed.

In recent weeks, the proxy struggle over several years between Israel and Iran has threatened to turn into a direct confrontation. On February 10, Iran flew what appears to have been an armed drone into Israeli airspace. The Israeli air force attacked the air base from which the drone was launched and Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet. Then, on April 9, Israel launched a direct attack against the same air base, killing seven Iranians. Early yesterday there were further airstrikes inside Syria. It seems sophisticated weaponry, including Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, were targeted.

Iran has promised to settle the score. If and when Iran attempts to do so, and Israel reacts, there is a genuine risk of a full-fledged conflict, and one that has the potential to pull in a host of outside powers, including Russia and Turkey. This is how wars start in the Middle East.

Added to this volatile mix is the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Next week Donald Trump will be required to recertify the deal for it to remain in effect. It’s an agreement about which the US President has been scathing — the “worst deal ever”.

Revelations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early yesterday will have hardened his hostility towards it. The tranche of Iranian documents Israel released, which appear genuine, damn Iran’s behaviour.

They make clear that Iran had an active, sophisticated and co-ordinated nuclear weapons program, known as Project Amad; that it sought to preserve and expand the nuclear know-how acquired even after formally shelving the project; and that it lied to UN agencies, and the world, about the true nature of its nuclear activities.

The Iran nuclear deal has serious shortcomings. It has failed to transform Iran’s destabilising regional behaviour or strengthen moderating political forces within Iran, as its architects had hoped. It does not address Iran’s ballistic missile development or its support to terrorist groups across the region. And when key sunset provisions expire, from 2025 onwards, restrictions on Iran’s centrifuge and enrichment capacity and its ability to stockpile enriched uranium will be progressively lifted. When coupled with clear evidence of Iranian intent to acquire nuclear weapons, these shortcomings are grave indeed.

In its more modest aim to impose a freeze on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and buy some time, the deal has been a qualified success. Iran, which was marching towards a breakout nuclear weapons capability in 2015, had its ambitions set back at least a decade.

Rather than abandoning the deal, Trump should listen to his European allies, including Britain, France and Germany. He should seek to widen the existing agreement with possible side deals that cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional interference, and that seek to extend the sunset clauses. He should use the leverage provided by the explosive Israeli revelations to demand stricter conditions on Iran’s behaviour.

With all its imperfections, the nuclear deal is a net stabilising factor. Seek to improve it and use brinkmanship if necessary to compel a renegotiation — as Trump has done with North Korea. But do not cancel it in the absence of a credible alternative.

Malcolm Turnbull will have much to discuss with French President Emmanuel Macron as he visits this week. But they should make sure time is found to discuss the Middle East, given the dangerous new phase it has entered.

Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 2 May 2018


Call Putin’s bluff and end his lethal game

Putin May

Australia’s recent foreign policy white paper laboured the phrase “rules-based global order”, citing its preservation and maintenance as the lodestar of Australian foreign policy.

Many saw it as code for opposing aggressive Chinese action, particularly in the South China Sea, and this was part of the purpose. But this rules-based global order is a broader concept than upholding freedom of navigation on the high seas. It encapsulates a system, now fraying, that has served our interests well for more than 70 years. The most flagrant challenger to this system is present-day Russia.

Under President Vladimir Putin, who steadily has turned the Russian state into a vehicle for his personal ambitions and grievances, Russia has broken or flouted nearly every important principle that underpins the postwar global order: the acquisition of territory by force as seen in the annexation of Crimea; gross meddling in the internal affairs of another state as seen in Russian interference in US (and other) elections; indiscriminate use of force against civilian populations and targets in Russia’s air campaign in Syria; reckless provision of sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems to Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists, leading to the downing of a civilian aircraft and the deaths of all on board.

A fortnight ago in the English town of Salisbury, Russia added two further norm violations to its catalogue of misdeeds, with its attempt at an extrajudicial assassination of a political dissident on foreign soil using a proscribed chemical weapon. Britain, rightly, has been outraged by these actions and by the subsequent Russian disdain — a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders — that greeted British demands for an explanation.

British retaliatory steps, including the expulsion of Russian spies and diplomats, are welcome. But they quickly will be reciprocated by Moscow and will do little to alter Russian behaviour. For this the West, especially the US, needs to make clear that this sort of Russian statecraft is no longer acceptable.

It must demonstrate its resolve to retaliate in ways that truly hurt Putin. The joint statement from the leaders of the US, Britain, France and Germany condemning the attack and ascribing Russian responsibility is a welcome first step. The leaders state plainly that the attack is not only a clear violation of international law but also an act that “threatens the security of us all” — as it does — and fits a pattern of irresponsible Russian behaviour elsewhere.

Overnight the US also strengthened its sanctions regime against Russia, placing sanctions on five groups and 19 individuals, the toughest measures against Russia since Donald Trump took office.

People often mistake Putin for a chess grandmaster of statecraft, acting strategically and with foresight and clear purpose. But Putin is a poker player. He plays a weak hand aggressively. He probes what he can get away with, relying on the unwillingness of others to call his bluff. And he has proven remarkably successful in this approach because he has found such unwillingness abundant.

Barack Obama made the mistake of not treating Russia as a serious adversary during his time in office, treating Putin as the “bored kid at the back of the classroom” — an irritant but not worthy of serious attention.

Trump risks making the mistake that what Putin craves is respect, and that if he gets such respect his behaviour will moderate. But the record shows that Putin responds only to concerted and united pressure, pushing until the moment he meets resistance.

The West has more forceful options at its disposal. Not only can it introduce crippling new sanctions or put NATO on a more aggressive posture towards Russia, it also can play at Russia’s game, revealing intelligence that will embarrass Putin, and hurt his domestic support base (much as the Panama Papers did).

Russia needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the West’s resolve, especially as — after sham elections on Sunday — Putin will rule Russia until 2024.

Australia should be adding to the diplomatic pressure on Russia. Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a strong joint statement condemning Russian actions. We should summon the Russian ambassador in Canberra and seek an explanation, making clear we share the outrage of our allies at this attack. We should consider expanding our own sanctions regime against Russia, following the US lead.

The Prime Minister should raise the issue this weekend with his visiting Association of Southeast Asian Nations colleagues, all countries that share our interests in upholding international norms, and attempt to forge consensus on the unacceptability of Russian actions of this nature. And we should support British efforts to hold Russia accountable in international forums. This is what defending the rules-based global order looks like.

Published in The Australian, 17 March 2018

Post-script: Australia announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats (engaged in intelligence activities) from Australia on 27 March 2018, part of a globally coordinated move which saw Western countries expel over 100 Russian diplomats worldwide. This sort of unity and resolve is exactly what is required.


Iran’s Ambitions Threaten to Ignite the Next Major Middle East Conflict

Last weekend there was high drama on Israel’s border with Syria across the Golan Heights.

In the early hours of Saturday, an advanced Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. Within minutes, the drone was intercepted and destroyed by an Israeli attack helicopter. The Israeli air force then conducted a strike inside Syria, destroying the mobile command vehicle that guided the drone. On its return, the Israeli F16 fighter jet was hit by Syrian air defence batteries. The jet crashed inside Israel and both crew members ejected. In retaliation, Israel struck against 12 further targets inside Syria, including three air defence batteries and four Iranian positions.

Given the amount of conflict already under way in the region, not least in Syria and Yemen, this may seem like a small incident. But its significance is much larger.

For several years now, Iran has been exploiting the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to build a presence along Israel’s northern borders. Iran has established a significant military footprint inside Syria, sending military advisers, “volunteer” Shia militias and hundreds of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Indeed it was Iranian ground forces, coupled with Russian air power, that rescued Bashar al-Assad’s regime from near oblivion two years ago and have since restored it to the strongest force inside Syria.

Iran also has used its base inside Syria to funnel increasingly advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, its military proxy in Lebanon.

Hezbollah today is a formidable military force. It possesses tens of thousands of rockets, including several advanced, medium-range, Iranian-made mis­siles that can strike targets anywhere inside Israel. Though Israel frequently destroys Hezbollah-bound weapons transfers in transit, this effort depends entirely on the quality of intelligence. Inevitably, some shipments make it through.

Finally, Iran has been building military infrastructure and facilities inside Lebanon and Syria, designed to threaten Israel.

The command post that launched the Iranian drone was one such facility. Active attempts are under way to establish factory production lines for precision-guided missiles inside Lebanon.

Iran’s goal is the ability to project power and make its presence felt throughout the Middle East, and to create assets that can threaten Israel. It is seeking to build a land corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean to do this. Israel, quite justifiably, is alarmed by Iran’s ambitions, and is taking steps to frustrate Iranian goals.

The two nations have been engaged in a quiet, low-simmer conflict for several months now. Israel frequently attacks Iranian targets inside Syria, including advanced weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Iran, meanwhile, continues to probe Israel’s defences and test its readiness and red lines.

As Iranian efforts to entrench its presence become more advanced and more aggressive, the tempo of these clashes is accelerating and conflict is spilling out in the open, as it did last weekend.

As the Islamic State-Daesh presence in Syria is slowly vanquished, the question of what takes its place becomes more and more pressing, with outside powers increasingly intervening to shape the new Syrian landscape.

Russia wants to retain a client in Damascus and access to air and naval facilities. Turkey wants to prevent a de facto Kurdish state emerging along the length of its southern border. And Iran wants to retain a permanent military presence inside Syria.

Iran’s regional ambitions are alarming not just Israel but most of the Sunni Arab states in the region.

While crowds in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut were cheering the first downing of an Israeli fighter jet since 1982, you can be certain that in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi leaders were (albeit behind closed doors) cheering the fact Israel gave Iran a bloody nose.

This is the new fault line at work in the Middle East: a Sunni Arab-Israeli bloc seeking to constrain Iran from redrawing the regional map in its favour.

Though they lack formal diplomatic ties, behind the scenes there is a great deal of co-ordination under way between Israel and countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which suddenly find themselves sharing existential security interests.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ceased to be the defining feature of the region’s security. Instead it is Iran’s ambitions — and the moves and countermoves that accompany them — that are driving regional developments.

The Iranian nuclear deal, while it succeeded in constraining Tehran’s nuclear program, has not managed to alter Iranian ambitions or behaviour.

And this behaviour is threatening to ignite the next major conflict in the Middle East, one that will involve several major powers, and that inevitably will embroil Australia.

Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 13 February 2018

Foreign influence in our politics must be checked

With a fortnight’s hindsight, it is worth looking back at the Bennelong by-election and a valuable lesson Australia must learn from it. With the vote fully counted, we know the government has breathed a sigh of relief — the incumbent, Liberal John Alexander, was returned with a comfortable majority. But the other story — with national security implications — emerged once we had looked at a more detailed analysis of the voting.

Days before the Bennelong poll, a 1700-word open letter was widely circulated among the Australian Chinese community, urging it to vote Labor and, in doing so, “take down the far-right Liberal ruling party”, which it described as “against China, against Chinese, against ethnic-Chinese migrants and against Chinese international students”.

It concluded with an appeal to vote against the Liberals to “protect the dignity of we Chinese!”.

Written in Mandarin, but unsigned, it was attributed to “a group of Chinese who call Australia home”. It was shared on the Chinese social media app WeChat by Yan Zehua, an Australian citizen who is vice-president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, a group so manifestly a mouthpiece for Beijing, with close links to China’s notorious United Front Work Department, that even Bob Carr has urged it be closed down.

As The Australian has reported, Alexander fared markedly worse at those booths with a high proportion of residents of Chinese ancestry.

Was this the result of the “China-phobia” accusations hurled against the government by Labor in the last week of the campaign? Or was it the result of this letter? If the letter played a part, and was linked to agents of the Chinese government — entirely plausible — this marks a shocking, blatant attempt at gross interference in Australia’s internal affairs, and at the very least an investigation into the provenance of the letter is warranted.

There can be little more affronting than a foreign power interfering in the electoral process of a democracy.

Apparent attempts by Russia to intervene in last year’s US presidential election are, quite rightly, a matter of serious investigation. Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been appointed special counsel with the express purpose of investigating such efforts.

Australia needs to confront attempts to undermine our institutions and the integrity of our political system with similar seriousness.

Newly announced measures to strengthen our legal framework against foreign interference and subversion are a welcome step. Increasingly, we also will need to improve the resources of our intelligence community devoted to this task.

“Active measures” — operations designed to exert clandestine influence over domestic politics in foreign countries, including by interfering with elections — are re-emerging as a favoured tool of statecraft.

The modern digital landscape offers far more opportunities for effective “active measures” than the Cold War ever did. Though Russia is the most accomplished practitioner, China’s capabilities in this area are growing, and Australia is an obvious target.

Today’s digital age means that disinformation, propaganda and rumours designed to influence or destabilise an opponent’s political system can be launched almost instantaneously, from across the globe, timed for maximum impact and targeted towards a narrow audience. Unlike overt steps or traditional covert action, such measures are low-cost, low-risk and come with a high degree of deniability.

It is little wonder that, in the words of one of the leading proponents of this new doctrine, Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, “long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals”.

The use of foreign political donations in a crude attempt to sway the policy positions of politicians and political parties, which we have seen here already, is merely a low-sophistication sampling of what we can expect in the future.

If we are to be successful in combating such attacks, we need to start recognising that our very sovereignty — our freedom to make our own choices and determine our own course of action — is at stake.

We also need to drop the morbid fear we have acquired of causing offence to China, which these days seems to shadow every policy measure.

I know of few other countries with such avid readers of the editorial pages of the Global Times or who seize on predictable comments from a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman to warn that the entire bilateral relationship is imperilled.

Claims the other day that the Australia-China relationship is “finely balanced” or at a “tipping point” because Australia has taken measures to protect our sovereignty from foreign interference are ridiculous.

Australia behaves entirely respectfully towards China’s sovereign prerogatives and internal affairs, and when we disagree we declare so openly and respectfully. We have every right to expect and demand the same.

Can anyone doubt that China would take equally fervent measures if it believed a foreign power was seeking to stoke independence sentiment in Hong Kong or subvert the composition of the politburo standing committee?

Commentators like to frame the strategic dilemma for Australia as one of having to choose between the US and China. But in truth the more acute choice we face is whether we are prepared to risk the relationship with our largest trading partner and export market to defend our freedom of action, sovereignty and preferred world order, or whether we will allow the creeping Finlandisation of Australian external policy.

Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 28 December 2017

Trump’s Jerusalem move could help revive peace prospects

When Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a speech on Wednesday and announced plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, he overturned almost seven decades of US foreign policy.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, successive US administrations — and indeed almost the entire international community, Australia included — have maintained that the status of Jerusalem is disputed.

It was 100 years ago this month that Anzac troops marched into Jerusalem, capturing it for the ­Allies from the Ottoman Empire in December 1917. The subsequent 30-year period as a British mandate territory came to an end with the UN partition plan of 1947, which provided for the creation of two states: one Jewish, one Arab. Jerusalem was to be governed by a special international regime because of its unique status.

The Jewish leadership at the time accepted the partition plan. The Arabs rejected the plan and attacked the newly declared state of Israel. When the fighting ceased, Israel was in control of the western half of Jerusalem while the eastern half, including the Old City, was controlled by Jordan. When Israel again came under attack from neighbouring Arab states during the Six-Day War of 1967, it ended up in possession of all of Jerusalem, which has been under full Israeli control since.

It makes no sense to deny the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to Jerusalem, the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Israel, or the revered place Jerusalem holds for the Jewish faith. UN resolutions that attempt to deny this connection are a disservice to history and a discredit to the multilateral system.

It also makes little sense to pretend the western part of Jerusalem is not sovereign Israeli territory — Israel’s Knesset, ­Supreme Court, the official residences of its prime minister and president, and many other state institutions lie within it.

Foreign dignitaries, including Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, base themselves at west Jerusalem’s King David Hotel during official visits. As an ambassador, I would travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem several times a week to meet ministers and officials.

Even if Israel were to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, it would ­remain in possession of west ­Jerusalem.

In this sense, the US President’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is, as he described it, “nothing more or less than a recognition of ­reality”.

And moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is an acknowledgment that under any possible future scenario, west Jerusalem will remain part of Israeli territory.

But Trump’s new approach does carry with it significant risks. Jerusalem is a hot-button issue in the Middle East and the merest mention of changes to its status are enough to set off violent upheavals throughout the Islamic world. Opinion in the Arab and ­Islamic worlds will be inflamed by this decision.

Fulfilment of a campaign promise alone cannot justify the risks. If this move is to support efforts towards a peace agreement, as Trump declared, rather than derail the prospects, several steps must accompany it.

First, the US should make clear that Trump’s statement is not an endorsement of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem, and that it expects a Palestinian capital in the predominantly Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem will emerge during final-status negotiations.

Jerusalem’s inhabitants include Israelis and Palestinians, and the city is holy to the three main monotheistic faiths. Its ­future status should reflect this character, and the US announcement should not be seen as prejudging this.

Second, the US and Israel must reaffirm, in word and deed, their commitment to maintain the status quo at the holy sites of Jerusalem, including Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) and the Western Wall, and ensure close co-ordination with the Jordanian religious body, the Waqf, that administers Haram al-Sharif. This is critical in addressing Muslim concerns about continued freedom of access to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Finally, the US — having spent a year in preparatory talks and stocktaking, and much time talking about the “ultimate deal” — should launch a new Israeli-­Palestinian peace effort.

This effort should encompass an Israeli-Palestinian track but also extend to a broader peace between Israel and the Arab world. Neither is possible without the other.

With converging interests between Israel and the Arab world over the shared threats of Iranian expansionism and Islamic extremism, and a modernising leadership in Saudi Arabia, the prospects for a peace settlement are more promising than they have been for some time.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict dip­lomacy is characterised by stale thinking and stale approaches. Too often it has sought to treat the conflict as a simple border dispute, when the source of the conflict runs much deeper.

Too often it has ignored the ­realities on the ground, seeking to turn back the clock to a fictional 1948. And too often it has failed to confront the myths both sides use to frustrate progress.

One such myth, disturbingly prevalent, denies the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem and the land of Israel, and patiently awaits the day that the Jewish people are vanquished in the Middle East. Another myth, favoured by a small but vocal minority, believes that the entirety of Jerusalem and the West Bank rightfully belong to Israel, and the Palestinians will eventually be forced to make way.

If accompanied by a serious peace effort and renewed commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, Trump’s disruptive announcement could help puncture these myths, inject some sorely needed reality into this frozen conflict, and lay the groundwork for genuine progress.

Australia should proceed cautiously. We cannot play a lead role in resolving the conflicts of the Middle East. The most we can be is a supporting actor.

We should encourage the US administration to ensure Trump’s announcement is followed by moves that underpin a renewed peace effort, and we should support such an effort. But we should be gauging developments carefully and be in no rush to replicate US policy or move the Australian embassy to Jerusalem.

Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 11 December 2017

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Superforecasting and diplomacy


The day after Donald Trump effectively secured the Republican nomination for President, when Senator Ted Cruz withdrew from the race, back in the mists of time – 4 May 2016 – I conducted a snap poll amongst Australian diplomatic staff in Israel. The question posed: what odds did they now assign to Trump eventually winning the Presidency?

Some gave him odds as high as 60%. Some gave him as low as 2%. The average was 27% – not a bad prediction, all things considered. (Nate Silver, on the eve of the election, gave Trump a 30% chance of winning.)

After this snap poll, I distributed copies of Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s excellent book, Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction to each member of staff, and started reading it myself.

As I did so, an obvious realisation began to dawn. All diplomats are part of the ‘forecasting’ profession, but we do not spend much time at all consciously thinking about how we go about our forecasting, or how we might improve it.

We make (and are paid to make) judgements and assessments all the time about what the future is likely to hold, and its implications for Australia and Australian interests. But are we any good at it? How often do we get things right? Can we improve our performance?

I came away with several lessons and conclusions from my read of Superforecasting.

Firstly, the ‘forecasting’ business is deeply unprofessional, a little like the practice of medicine until the 20th century. There is no measurement, no data, no reviews or post-mortems (except in extreme cases – think Iraq WMD). Professional pundits are rarely assessed against their track record or held accountable for their failures of insight. With no assessment of effectiveness, there is no ability to identify which methods and tools work and which ones don’t, and hence no possibility of improvement.

Secondly, we offer judgements that are very squidgy. We tend to offer judgement and predictions in qualitative terms (“the risks of X are rising”), or as a description of factors at work (“on the one hand … on the other”), and often using indeterminate timeframes (“in the medium term”). The end result means that our prediction, whatever it is, is so hedged in with caveats, and so difficult to tie down, that it can never be proven wrong. As a result, our backs are covered, but the value of such analysis to decision-makers is limited.

Thirdly, we need to be more comfortable with degrees of likelihood, or probability, and less demanding for binary judgements. We often tend to say we think something is either likely to happen, or unlikely to happen, or could go either way (i.e. an even bet). But there is a world of difference (and hence implication) between saying something is 5% likely versus 40% likely. And if we say we think an event is 70% unlikely to happen, and it in fact happens, this does not mean our prediction is wrong – the corollary is that we thought there was a 30% likelihood of the event happening.

Fourthly, crowd-sourced judgements are nearly always better than that of an individual, no matter how talented or well-informed that individual. This is because of the asymmetry with which information is held, and the fact that countervailing biases tend to cancel one another out in large enough groups.

Newly-endowed with the wisdom gained from Superforecasting, the Embassy staff agreed to embark on a forecasting exercise on questions and topics that fell squarely within our work responsibilities.

We posed ourselves 33 questions, from domestic politics (will the composition of Israel’s government change? will a Palestinian unity government be formed?), to the peace-process (will direct, final-status negotiations resume?), to the risks of regional conflict involving Israel. Each of the questions is time-bound, and for each we were required to give an answer on  the basis of a percentage likelihood. We’ve structured the scoring to incentivise more confident answers (so someone who predicts something with a 90% likelihood gets more points than someone who predicts it with only a 60% likelihood, but conversely loses more points if their prediction turns out to be wrong).

One of the questions we asked ourselves, for instance, was the likelihood of a Resolution being adopted by the UN Security Council which condemned Israeli settlement activity before 20 January 2017 (we asked this question back in October). Some people put the odds of this as high as 60%; others as low as 5%; and the average (or crowd-sourced) answer was 33%. It turned out that this in fact happened  – UNSCR 2334 was adopted on 23 December 2016.


Most of the questions have a timeframe out to 1 May 2017, so we will only be able to assess our effectiveness, and identify any hidden ‘superforecasters’ amongst us, at that point.

But already the exercise has fostered some fresh curiosity, and instilled some extra discipline, in our work.

It has thrown a light on what are the more important and consequential questions we need to answer, and the links between some of them.

We now throw around probabilities when we talk about scenarios (“80% likely”), rather than just reaching for qualitative terms whose ambiguity is high (“probable”).

We adjust our estimates in response to new developments and evidence, recognising that predictions cannot remain static.

Most importantly, it has instilled some humility. We’ve recognised that the future is, by definition, unknowable, and that even low-probability events will happen from time to time. As a result, we should never put too much faith in forecasts, and we should always be prepared for scenarios at odds with conventional wisdom. (And 2016 should have brought that home to all of us involved in some way in international politics.)

As a new Administration takes office in Washington, we have a whole new series of questions and scenarios to ponder, including in the Middle East. The forecasters will be busy.