The philosophy and attitudes underpinning and guiding the direction of the Australian Security Policy Institute (ASPI) can be traced to the early years of the Howard government. Since that time there has been a steady erosion of core values that might once have been said to constitute the Australian social fabric.
The first was the undermining of the rights of asylum seekers, with Ruddock attempting to influence and then undermine the decision making process of the Refugee Review Tribunal. On shore detention facilities were expanded as men, women and children, were made to spend longer periods in detention. Then there was Tampa and Howard’s election moment when he sneered and spat out, ‘We will decide who comes here.’ A throwback to, or more likely a revival of, the white Australia policy, which was based on a fear of an influx of people to our north and of colour. The fact that asylum seekers arrived by boat fed the long held primal white fear of an Asian land grab.
Policy relating to the arrival of asylum seekers was mixed by the Howard government into the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, 9/11. Many refugees were fingered by the government and the Murdoch press as potential terrorists and all were demonised as a result. Howard’s LNP government used both as an election strategy and deployed hysteria as a tool. The aim was to herd a concerned if not fearful electorate into the corral. It worked.
The AFP assisted this process with the dramatic exposure of ‘terrorist’ cells. Intentionally or not, they became aligned with a government seeking to maintain enhanced levels of community anxiety for electoral manipulation and advantage.
To assist in maintaining a sense of threat Howard turned to the armed forces. Initially he deployed the Navy to turn back asylum seeker vessels. This was done aggressively, with much fan fare and publicity. The conditions relating to the detention of asylum seekers, the length of time and turning around boats in international waters were illegal under International and domestic laws.
Howard further raised the profile of the military by committing Australian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was deemed unpatriotic and disloyal to question these deployments. Howard lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, which was given as the reason for Australia going to war. He lied about the reason for a subsequent deployment of Australian troops to Afghanistan. The Murdoch press backed him. Truth became a casualty. Hysteria was used to address legitimate criticism.
Expert advice on the treatment of refugees was ignored and strategic and foreign policy advice from DFAT, ONA and Defence relating to the Middle East, marginalised. The advice of experts and scientists in other areas was ignored or ridiculed. This particularly related to climate change and the use of fossil fuels, where in pursuing its ideology, the government has distorted and ignored peer reviewed scientific advice and lied and often using charged emotional argument.
The AFP and ASIS were used to stop the departure of asylum boats at source in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Appointments to senior public service positions were increasingly determined by the loyalty shown or likely to be shown to the government by recipients. The increasingly unquestioning responsiveness of the federal public service to the political imperatives of government became apparent in climate, energy, water, strategic, defence and social policy, in areas such as aged care, Robodebt and Indigenous affairs. In all of this the government received the backing of the Murdoch press and after the Channel 9 takeover, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
The ABC has been hard pressed to maintain its independence. Starved of funds by government it has cut back on programs and hard edged commentary. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has influence with the LNP government. It believes the ABC, along with many other public undertakings, should be privatised. It also believes that the private sector should be the primary source of advice for the government.
Successive LNP governments have allowed the US to dominate thinking on strategic and foreign policy. When Trump became President, the relationship became closer. Morrison admired him and sought to move further into lockstep with US foreign policy. China became the dominant issue.
Obama had moved to ‘Pivot the US to Asia.’ Basically, a policy to contain China. Gillard agreed to rotate US troops through Darwin and undertake joint exercises. Tension in trade and economic relations between China and the US was increasingly the defining aspect of their bilateral relationship. Australia, under Gillard, sought a path between the two although heavily on the side of the US, even so that was enough to set the LNP right wing barking and pulling at their chains.
Trump exploded on the scene, bullying and blustering, with most in the LNP welcoming his arrival. They endorsed his hard line on China and it was at this point that ASPI’s influence began to grow. Under Morrison the so-called debate on China was marked with growing hysteria and hostility. This was primed and fostered by ASPI. To bolster their case right wing commentators began referring to China as Communist China and some academics and researchers were able to assert sustained Chinese cyber attacks on universities, scientific, industry and government institutions. Together with the media they sought to throw doubt on the motives and destination of joint scientific research and on the activities of students.
Australian Xenophobia, once directed against Islam and Arabs, was now directed against China. It reached its apotheosis with Morrison, Dutton and Payne’s attack on China on the origin of the Covid19 virus, which they declared was Wuhan and required an investigation staffed by inspectors. That amounted to a declaration of war which Australia had no chance of winning. China suspended imports of agricultural goods including, barley, wine and meat and advising students and tourists not to come to Australia, ineffective in the face of Covid border restrictions.
But the tool of Howard Hysteria was unleashed in full force by the government with ASPI as the principal spear carrier. Journalists such as Sheridan and Hartcher led the media charge, Academic Clive Hamilton spelt out the danger faced by universities with continued co-operation with Chinese researchers.
ASPI is funded by the Australian government, and several large US arms manufacturers. It claims to be independent. It also claims that China is expansionist, a military danger and a repressive state and cites genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang State as an example. There is no proof of the genocide of Uyghur people. There is proof of detention of some for political purposes and there is proof of intimidation and repression of many others.
There is scant acknowledgement of where Australia is at after 25 years being corralled and dumbed down by a combination of government, media and now academia. ASPI is part of that. It both leads and responds. The LNP now has ASPI as its preferred source of advice on China. DFAT and Defence have been marginalised. The Lowy Institute gets a look in from time to time but it is ASPI who has captured the hearts and minds of government and many in the media.
The government is using China as a domestic vote winner. It has no concept of what a war with China would entail. It collectively lacks the emotional intelligence to envision outcomes from such an undertaking. Does ASPI? If so, what is its agenda in pushing the line that China is an ever present and increasing military danger? If not, what is it engaged upon and why? We know that arms manufacturers like international tension as it increases sales, particularly US arms manufacturers. The sale of arms by the US is an important aspect of their economy and not something, given their present economic circumstances, to be foregone lightly.
With government and ASPI in lockstep does ASPI have a domestic agenda? Is it seeking, with the electorally popular China bashing, to help get the LNP re-elected? Anything seems possible in the Australia of today. Harnessing hysteria for electoral purposes has little precedent in this country. For students of history and politics the last time it was deployed in Australia was by Menzies in the 1950’s, against the background of the Cold War, and during the Conscription Campaigns of 1916 and 1917. Hitler and Goebbels used it in Nazi Germany against the Jews.
As a result of the deployment of hysteria, half truths and no truth as an instrument of foreign policy, China, our biggest trading partner and the most powerful country in the region and soon the world, has frozen us out of significant bi-lateral trade, economic and diplomatic relationships. The US, which whilst apparently sharing our views, has not been frozen out.
It would be interesting to see what ASPI thinks of this. We may soon lose part of our iron trade with China, perhaps when the Confucius Institutes are closed around Australia. Then we will be trapped in the ice and of increasing irrelevance to China, the region and the US which has used us, needing us only as a base.
Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.