Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Australian Politics

Welcome to my site

I am a Research Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

My latest books are: 

Carr, A & Ball, D. eds. A National Asset: 50 years of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Canberra: ANU Press, 2016.

Carr, A & Wallis, J. eds. Asia-Pacific Security: An Introduction, Washington D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2016.

Carr, A. Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2015.

My latest journal articles are:

Carr, A. ‘I’m here for an argument: The cost of bipartisanship in Australian defence and security policy’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 2016 (Article accepted for publication 20/06/2016)

Carr, A. ‘The politics of the 2016 Defence White Paper’, Security Challenges, 12 (1), 1-17, 2016.

Carr, A. ‘The Engagement pendulum: Australia’s alternating approach to irregular migration’, Journal of Australian Studies, 2016 (Article accepted for publication 03 March 2016)

Carr, A & Baldino, D. ‘Defence Diplomacy and the ADF: Smokescreen or strategy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs 70 (2), 139-158, 2016.

Carr, A. ‘Muscling up to the World: For constrained democratic leaders, foreign policy is another country’, Meanjin Quarterly, 74 (4), Summer, 132-139, 2015.
My full academic C.V and links to other papers can be found on the publications page.


My teaching includes:

Australian Strategic Policy –  Masters Unit (STST8004), Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence, ANU.

Australian Foreign and Defence Policy – Masters Unit, Australian Command and Staff College.

Research Supervision – PhD, Masters Sub-Thesis, Honours levels. Topics for supervision include: Middle Powers, Australian security and defence policy, Asia-Pacific Security.


This site began life as an outlet for political blogging while a PhD student. I’ve had to give up blogging given my other publishing tasks. These days this website serves as an online home to my publications and is mainly updated with book reviews.

I can be contacted at

Engaging the neighbours

Engaging the neighbours: Australia and ASEAN since 1974 by Frank Frost 

Eengaging-the-neighboursngaging the Neighbours: is the definitive history of Australia’s attempts to work with and through ASEAN. An institution often mocked for its style, but which has been critical for the security and prosperity of the region.

Australians often describe their nation as facing a choice between its security and economic partners. Yet as Frank Frost details, for everything but the risk of a major power attack on Australia, ASEAN is Australia’s main security partner. Whether the issue is regional conflicts, keeping the major powers from competing in Southeast Asia, irregular migration, drug smuggling or terrorism, ASEAN has been the vehicle for Australia to find security in Asia and with Asia.

At times, Australia has been the ‘odd man in’, pushing for change in a way the rest of the region was not comfortable with. Sometimes our patience has been rewarded, such as with Australian contributions on the Cambodian peace accords or the creation of APEC. At other times, such as Kevin Rudd’s ill-fated Asia-Pacific Community proposal, the divergence has been a source of embarrassment for Canberra.

Many ascribe significant cultural differences to explain the halting and sometimes difficult relationship between Australia and Southeast Asia. But the differences are just as vast within ASEAN as they are between it and the land down under. More important than issues of language or what novels each society reads, is the political culture they adopt. That is, how does politics operate, how are decisions made, divisions resolved and minorities treated.

Australia’s political culture is firmly in the adversarial, legal, majority rules western model. ASEAN’s style can seem at times the reverse of that. Consensus is the order of the day, norms and traditions dominate laws, and the 80% saying yes often have less power than the 1% who says no.

Frost reveals how ASEAN and Australia have managed to forge a very effective partnership. The overlap of interest is real, and while this does not mean they will automatically or easily cooperate, both are pulling in roughly the same direction. Despite occasional public rhetoric to the contrary, there is a hunger and opportunity for an Australian voice in the region. But how it is given, and whether it is done with an awareness of what is already underway is often key.

In Rudd’s case for instance, the mandarin speaking diplomat showed both a lack of knowledge of Southeast Asia, and a lack of care for their concerns. In 2008 he proposed a new multilateral forum in a region already feeling overburdened by them. He talked of emulating the European Union, despite the obvious horror this would cause. And he proposed his forum without any prior consultation in a region whose leaders don’t like surprises.

If only he had consulted Frank. At the time, Frost was still working in the Parliamentary Library, as Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst and Research Director. Frost’s style is very readable, but it carries the legacy of a career in the bureaucracy. It is very straight down the line, and researched as carefully as any book can be.

This can lead to an occasionally dry style, but anyone wanting to pick up this book to know about ASEAN Australia relations can take great confidence that anything they later cite or quote is accurate. As the journalist Graeme Dobell recounted in his launch speech, he tried to encourage ‘Less facts, more Frank’ to Frost while the book was being written. In a few spots he clearly succeeded.

There are therefore important insights by the author on the importance of mutual ideas of ‘region’ in shaping the way Australia and ASEAN interact. Equally, Frost demonstrates that Australia needs to show a genuine concern for the problems faced by Southeast Asian countries, and can’t just engage whenever Canberra has its own problems to solve. Finally, as many have argued elsewhere—including yours truly— Indonesia is the gatekeeper for Australian initiatives. With Jakarta onside, Canberra’s ideas will be given a fair hearing. Without it, the task is extremely difficult.

The question is increasingly asked whether Australia may ever become a member of ASEAN. On this, Frost’s conclusion seems a clear no. At least for the foreseeable future, they are too different, and the costs for Australia in particular outweigh the benefits. But even as an observer sitting outside the core mechanisms, Australia’s security and well-being is intimately tied to ASEAN’s.
Understanding exactly how this relationship has developed is therefore vital for everyone interested in Australia’s place in the world. In just 200 tightly written and extensively documented pages, Frank Frost has provided an invaluable account.

(P.s As an ANU Press publication, while hard copies are for sale in bookstores, a free PDF version is available on the publishers website).

Why the future is workless

Why the future is workless by Tim Dunlopdunlop_workless

It’s 9:29pm on a Friday night. I’ve had dinner, watched a movie, and finished a glass of wine. And yet two minutes ago, I sat down at my computer and checked my work email.

Everywhere we look, computers are changing the face of work. We are plugging them into existing machines so they can drive themselves. We are custom building machines to enable them to manufacture everything from iPods to houses. And mere software itself is replacing human workers, spitting out stock reports or providing medical advice.

According to Tim Dunlop, there are three ways we as a society are responding to this change. The ‘Business as usual’ school of thought recognises the change, sees there’s a profit to be made from it, and hopes that our historical experience —where machines create as many jobs as they consume— will hold. The ‘Back to the future’ school by contrast pines for the industrial era, rails against ‘neoliberalism’, and want protectionism and a large welfare state to manage the disruption.

Neither is that attractive or coherent as a world view. Instead, argues Dunlop the future needs to be ‘Workless’. In this engaging and accessible book, Dunlop argues that we need to fundamentally re-think how society is organised if we are to manage and indeed benefit from the radical changes occurring in who does the labour of our society.

The link between technology and the organisation of society is one that has long been recognised —just ask yourself why you live in a city but your great great grandparents may not have. As the machines change, so must we. The heart of Workless is Dunlop’s argument for two essential political adjustments to smooth the transition. One material, the other moral.

First, he strongly endorses a Universal Basic Income. Showing the results of trials around the world, of emerging scholarship on the idea, he argues that only through such a scheme can we provide a financial floor which sustains those who will lose part or all of their work to computers. That is, between 40 and 70 percent of us if the predictions are true.

Second, he wants society to abandon its ‘work ethic’. The notion that anyone who doesn’t work is a bludger, that work is what ought to define us and our value. Wrapped into this is a somewhat erratic argument against neoliberalism and the cost of economic reforms of the past thirty years.
As much as I really wanted to love this book, it is this second theme that I struggled with. In part because I have a more pro-free market and optimistic outlook than the author. But more so because even with a UBI and robots everywhere, I still want a human society which is ambitious, that strives, that builds and creates anew.

Ironically, it was a book Dunlop draws on early on in his analysis which began to pull this thread loose for me. Dunlop draws in the work of Hannah Arendt to make the important distinction between ‘labour’ —menial tasks required for survival— and ‘work’, meaning the higher level acts of creation and destruction which define human achievement.

Dunlop only makes occasional reference to what humans would do in a society where all questions of labour were handled by machines. Like Arendt, he makes occasional reference to the ancient Greeks, recognising that on the back of slave labour, they made astounding advances in astronomy, mastered mathematics, and created the foundations of western philosophy, science, art, governance, theatre and history.

But, in a point I’m sure Arendt liked to stress, these were not people without a ‘work ethic’. On the contrary, they were fiercely competitive, willing to publicly condemn those who did not live up to their social ideals. They were not a people who allowed public retreat to the comforts and indulgences of home. You lived your life in public, and were judged for it. They created the Olympic Games precisely to judge who was the strongest, the fastest, the bravest, and the best among them.

So following Dunlop, I agree there is a need to radically rethink our society in light of the technology of change, and I am increasingly willing to support a UBI as a minimum first step. But following Arendt and the Greeks, I want to preserve a deep ‘work’ ethic in our society.

Let us leave labour to the machines, and free men and women to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their own work. Into creating art, building communities, starting businesses, designing and refining ideas and participating in public governance as a genuine and ongoing act of citizenship.

Not only do I find this a more invigorating vision of society than the one Dunlop implies, I fear his anti-market tangents in the book will unnecessarily alienate many potential supporters to his ideas. That’s a shame. This is a bold and engaging book by one of Australia’s best thinkers, and it tackles one of the fundamental questions of our time. SoWorkless is an important contribution, but the task of working through the social changes of the digital revolution is only just beginning

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy by Ross BabbageBabbage_game_plan

You may not know the author of Game Plan, Ross Babbage, but you know his work. The ‘Defence of Australia’ policy was built by many hands, but in the words of Des Ball, Babbage was the ‘conceptual leader’. In ‘Game Plan: The case for a new Australian grand strategy’, Dr Babbage signals his view that defending Australia now requires a new set of overseas hands, primarily from the United States.

Babbage’s strategic evolution has been a long time coming. His PhD thesis, dozens of papers, chapters and books such as the widely acclaimed ‘Rethinking Australia’s Defence’ and ‘A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond the 1990s’ were key contributions to the development of Australian defence policy from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

To be sure, the US alliance was always a vital part of this policy. It was ‘self-reliance’ not ‘independence’. But the weight was on Australia to show that it was up to the task of its protecting its front yard. While Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and others fleshed out the force structure details, Babbage, Ball and others drove the conceptual debates, along with bouncing around the Northern Territory identifying how the terrain could be protected and the best technology for doing so.

Even as Babbage began to move away from this approach — as did many of his peers in the era of globalization and international terrorism— he kept a core focus on Australian capacity. His controversial 2008 paper ‘Learning to Walk among Giants’ and subsequent ‘Australia’s strategic edge in 2030’ report became known as the ‘Aunty Jack’ strategy. To protect the country, Babbage argued Australia had to be able to “‘rip an arm off’ any major Asian power that sought to attack Australia.”

In Game Plan, however, Aunty Jack has put away the boxing gloves and moved permanently in with Uncle Sam.

As far as I can tell, gone is any reference to a major offensive capability. And while Australian capacity is a vital concern for Babbage, it is in the context of a regional build up, and one thoroughly integrated with US weapons systems, supply chains, intelligence and command and control mechanisms.

There are many who have advocated for greater cooperation between Australia and the United States, and the greatest strength of Game Plan is the flesh it puts on those bones. It offers detailed ideas that are often fresh and engaging. These include proposals for becoming a regional intelligence hub (particularly for maritime domain awareness), creating an Australia–US Strategic Planning Group, greatly increased US basing in Australia, and building an Indo-Pacific training ground, using Australia’s vast spaces to help train partners and allies such as Singapore, Japan and Indonesia.

On one level, I’m not surprised the offensive capacity has been scaled back. It drew significant criticism, was extremely expensive, and probably more show than substance in terms of the overall design of the ADF. But as my own thinking has evolved, I’m somewhat disappointed as well. There are many ways to defend Australia, and the loss of the one figure clearly advocating a strong counter-punch as a deterrent seems a loss to the debate.

The absence of this controversial idea, may also explain why Game Plan seems to have sunk so quickly. Outside a Paul Monk column which describes it as ‘well received in senior military and security circles and deserves to be widely read and discussed’, I’ve seen precious little discussion of it. Which is also a reflection of just how little debate and discussion there is of Australian defence policy issues, despite the obvious challenges and the scale of resources government policy involves.

Game Plan also hurts its own cause with its approach. At just 100 pages and put out by a minor publisher, it’s a difficult book to lay your hands on. And for the informed reader who makes the effort, a lot of the book is extremely general and introductory in tone. As if it might serve to introduce people to the idea that there’s a country called China with a growing military, and a country called the US which people have some doubts about, and maybe we should modify our current policy approach in response.

These concerns aside, Game Plan is a useful contribution to the debate. Probably one more for the specialists. Credit should also go to Menzies House and Connor Court for publishing it. Here’s hoping for a dozen more from them, as many hands are needed for the heavy conceptual lifting to raise Australian strategic policy to the level it will need to confront the coming challenges.

Australia’s Second Chance

Australia’s Second Chance by George MegalogenisMega_Aus_Second_chance

In the field of ‘big-picture’ books by journalists about Australian politics, Paul Kelly is the hall of famer who still rightly claims attention. But the rising star is George Megalogenis.

Megageorge as he is widely known has recently produced two important books. The Longest Decade told the counter-narrative story of the similarities between Paul Keating and John Howard. So good was it that I believe Paul Kelly paid it the ultimate compliment by trying to write the same tale in his own The March of Patriots. Megalogenis then returned the favour by retelling the story of Kelly’s The End of Certainty, examining and advocating for the liberalisation of the Australian economy in The Australia Moment.

In Australia’s Second Chance Megalogenis has again set out for new territory, arguing that Australia’s prosperity and success depends not just on being an open country economically but an open country for migrants. The book shows that Australia was and always has been a nation defined by migration. This, alongside the question of population is a central element of the nation’s success.

In telling this story, Megalogenis usefully brings to popular light the role and status of the Irish and Chinese during the gold rush era, the link between the 1890s depression and the White Australia policy, and the efforts from the 1940s onwards to try and open up the country again to migration. The writing fairly clips along, and he helpfully doesn’t just focus on tired moments like Eureka and Gallipoli but tells of a steady clear narrative showing the vital importance of migration for national prosperity.

In writing a neat history however, Megalogenis’ work can sometimes imply a deterministic history. Much like his excellent, The Australia Moment, the outcome of any particular moment seems obvious and even necessary. The heat of conflict, the division, the possible alternatives are tamped down so as to clean up the narrative and progress the story. The end result seems somewhat bloodless. I found this more concerning in his earlier book ‘The Australia Moment’, because it seemed to imply there had once been an era where reform was easy and popular. But there’s a trace of it here too in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’.

The book is split into three sections. “The Rise” is Australia’s relative openness as a colony. “The Fall” charts the nation turning inwards against the Chinese on the gold fields, through the depression the 1890s, the establishment of White Australia and the muted 1920s. Finally “The Return” covers the post-war boom and through till today. All three sections are handled well, with the extended coverage of the early pre-WW2 years an important, and too often overlooked element of the nation’s story.

While this organisation makes the books purpose clear, you wouldn’t exactly know it from the title or cover design. Instead we get a book pitched as ‘What our history tells us about our future’. Likewise the introduction sets out as if it is just a simple retelling, only cryptically noting in one line ‘the thread that connects the past to the present and future is the ongoing conversation between those who came to these shores, and those who received them’. It may well be that this is simply the act of the publishers, who might (perhaps rightly) believe that such an approach would help entice a wider crowd, and lower readers’ guards given the controversial and tired nature of the issue.

But I suspect it was, at least partly deliberate. The bargain journalists tend to enter into when they write books is that they will focus on telling what has happened, but will hold off from looking ahead to say what should happen. By keeping to history re-examined, not a future imagined, they maintain their status as objective observers. Yet, Megalogenis is not afraid of making strong judgements on what was the right policy in the past. And in this case, he clearly passionately, and personally believes that Australia needs to much more fundamentally acknowledge and engage with migration.

While I was already a convert to this argument, I think the message in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’ is important and true and needs to be widely read and debated. It could also be made in stronger generalised terms. There is a vast literature on immigration and economic performance that could have been drawn upon to show that it’s not just because of our history that we should welcome immigration. It’s a general truth that immigration has many net positives for economic development. This literature is relatively easy to access and explain for a public audience, and gives us important guidelines for trying to work out how to achieve the best results in the future.

As such, given Megageorge’s reputation and track record, it would have been nice to see him wade into the ‘big Australia’ debate and argue clearly what Australia should do in the future. To stake out a position and help drive the national conversation about our relationship with migration and population. That’s a higher degree of difficulty, especially given the desire to remain an independent journalist. But get it right and it really would knock Kelly off his perch.

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment  by Clare O’Neil, Tim Watts Oneil_Watts_two_futures

A few weeks ago, Australia’s Minister for Arts gave a lovely little speech about books and politicians as writers. In it he said:

“The current crop of my Federal Parliamentary colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, of the kind rising backbenchers are wont to write to advertise their intellectual wares; or memoirs of the “where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault” variety”.

Given the timing, I suspect Brandis had Two Futures in mind with this line. For all the proliferation of blame sharing memoirs —particularly from the previous government— there are very few real policy blueprints around. Mark Latham made his name by writing them, and Cory Bernardi has tried the same — though I regret reading the former, and won’t read the latter.

Two Futures by Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts is therefore to be welcomed as a relatively rare break from the pack. Both were elected in 2013, but are already well regarded by insiders. Their book justifies that by trying to think through six big issues Australia must manage: Democracy, Inequality, Technology, Climate, (Economic) Growth, and The World.

Wisely the authors avoid prediction —save for a slightly odd concluding chapter which contrasts two futures —and focus on the key trends in operation today. They try and gather a reasonable factual basis and look ahead to what this might mean for the country in 2040. In turn they set some general policy principles to help take advantage of the opportunities and alleviate the challenges.

The simple fact that economic growth and foreign/defence policies were included as standalone chapters should be strongly applauded. Most Labor/left policy books I’ve encountered downplay these topics. Indeed many party figures would rather never talk about these issues, seeing them as unwinnable for the left, lacking any vote changing issues, and less appealing than safe ground like health or education. I think such a view is both cowardly and wrong, so I’m glad to see O’Neil and Watt face these issues directly.

The foreign and defence policy chapter* starts with a largely standard analysis of the trends. But its conclusion that we should think of Australia as a Southeast Asian power is something I strongly agree with, and very much welcome as a contribution to the debate. I suspect many in the public will like it as well.

The economics chapter however felt like it was the most difficult for the authors to write. It’s more descriptive, the arguments less well connected, the policy prescriptions less specific. There are more appeal for independent experts —especially the Productivity Commission— to provide the answers via reviews and reports. The chapter also quickly moves onto issues of education and participation. The authors embrace the liberalisation of the economy over the last thirty years as fundamental to national prosperity, but where it goes next is not really engaged head on.

The stand out chapter for me in many ways was on Democracy, which I think addressed some quite fundamental issues in a frank and honest way. It also offered the most innovative and specific of the policy proposals in the book. The climate and inequality chapters were interesting mostly for their different tone. Both try to look at the opportunities and get perspective on the challenges. This is a welcome break from the moralising, pessimistic admonition that for many on the left is their standard rhetorical approach. It also helps that these chapters in particular and the book overall is well written with some clever turns of phrase.

Our now former Minister for Arts might be right to note the way such books are often used to help advance careers more than debate. But Two Futures is a book that seems genuinely interested in ideas, and one where the authors have done their homework, drawing from scholarly material and reports to develop those ideas. For this reason, the sheer exercise alone strikes me as something to be encouraged, whatever the merits of any individual chapters or policy proposals. If more backbenchers took up the task, Australia’s future in 2040 would look far brighter indeed.

*Disclaimer – I had a chat to Tim about the production of the World chapter, though the ideas and arguments in it are entirely his and Clare’s.

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy by Coral BellBell_Dependent Ally

One lesson I have come to learn in my brief time in academia is that it is not wise to just try and write ‘about’ a subject, with the hope the argument or insights will come later. There’s often a pressure to contribute your name to the current debates, but unless you really have something to say, the result is often more generic, less engaging and less memorable than you’d hope.

This was my surprising reaction to Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy. Widely regarded as the classic work on the alliance, I got the feeling reading it that Bell wanted to write about the alliance (having done so indirectly for much of her career), but didn’t really have anything urgent to say.

The title of the book suggests a demonstration of Australia’s reliance on the UK and US. That is a theme, but it’s assumed as much as argued. Typical of Bell though, this book contains an original take on the issue. Rather than identify the cause of Australia’s dependence in a psychological need for security as the Left argues, Bell places it in the global lot of middle powers in a hierarchical world. Australia contributes to the global balance of power via its connection to the large states.

This asymmetry she seems to argue is inescapable while also far less harmful than many on the left presume. It’s not that the dependence doesn’t exist — as scholars such as David McLean or pundits like Greg Sheridan have argued — but rather it is somewhat harmless. She seems to find it far less interesting than noting internal changes in Australia, an evolution of ideas about its region, identity and capacity. There are occasional moments —1942 & 1963— where dependence emerges but it quickly returns to the comfortable, albeit unbalanced, norm of a smaller country making its own way in the world.

Dependent Ally does a solid job of covering the big debates, drawing out the nationalist threads of rejection, setting in context the moments of followership and poking holes in the common myths of the day — For instance the historical record is clear that Australia pushed the US to deal with Vietnam, a threat of much more direct concern for Canberra than D.C, rather than the other way around.

The final chapter is worth a read in its own right, though all the insights there — the importance of personality to the alliance’s health, the economic and social benefits Australia has gained from migration—seem somewhat unconnected to the historical cataloguing that preceded it. As such, I was left uncertain of what Bell was trying to say. There’s not enough scholarly scrupulousness or punditry passion to really define the book. Bell is consistently engaging, but at a lower altitude than many of her best works. The problem may simply be that of time. The book was published in 1988, and we know far more these days, with much richer archival and historical material to draw on.

Virtually everything written on Australian foreign policy at some point engages with the country’s relationship with the UK and US. In my recent review of the literature substantially on the ANZUS alliance I found more than 350 entries (and I’m still counting). It was perhaps inevitable then that Bell, a fantastic commentator on US policy in the Cold War would turn to how to look at how Washington’s policy has shaped her own country of Australia.

This is probably still the best one volume treatment of Australia’s relationships with its great and powerful friends. But I’d rather read books that either trace one single thread, like David Lowe’s biography of Percy Spender, or that reveal a particular moment in fresh detail, as James Curran does in ‘Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at war’ (review coming soon).

Trying to say it all, and writing ‘about’ a topic, often means saying nothing much at all. Or not really making clear what you want to say. Either way, this was a surprisingly disappointing read. Though my admiration of Coral in the pantheon of great Australian contributors to the study of world affairs remains firm.

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender  by David Lowe Lowe - Spender

Bob Carr’s central complaint during his time as Foreign Minister (my review of his Diary here) was not the travel, food or company, but a lack of time. 18 months was too short to do anything he moaned. Percy Spender had just 16 months and was the most influential Australian Foreign Minister of the 20th century.

Spender is something of a forgotten figure in Australian history. This is partly because his time at the top was so short, but also because his story runs against the dominant narrative of his era. We think of the Menzies reign as British, cautious and somewhat lethargic. Spender was none of these things.

In this highly readable — albeit academic — biography, David Lowe illuminates a figure who is brash, bold and innovative. Spender was willing to take risks, worked at racehorse pace (often managing a federal parliamentary seat and significant caseload at the NSW bar) and challenged many of the fundamental ideas of his time.

Spender belongs to a significant, though minority school of foreign policy in Australia: The rationalists. This is not to claim a super intelligence. Rather he was guided less by tradition, culture or national pride and more by a nose for where the big geopolitical trends were taking his country and a willingness to embrace them.

Out of his wide reading and early embrace of air travel (allowing multiple quick trips at a time when his Prime Minister still took a month to sail to England) Spender helped form two of the pillars of current Australian foreign policy.

Most famously, he cemented an alliance with the United States, securing something that half a century of Australian leaders such as Deakin, Lyons, Curtin and Evatt had only talked about. This was a singular feat, given the deep reticence in both Washington D.C and Canberra for any such pact. Such was the importance of this relationship, Spender jumped from Foreign Minister to Ambassador to America to help cement the ties beyond what the legal framework assured.

Spender also helped to push and drag a reluctant Australian government towards embracing Asia. As Menzies once mocked him lightly in a cabinet meeting ‘Come on Percy lets have your thesis about Southeast Asia’. While many saw the coming Cold War as requiring Australia to return forces to the Middle East or Europe, Spender helped keep the focus on Asia and combatting Asian communism.

His main achievement in this direction was the Colombo plan. Often seen today as merely a form of student exchange (as its namesake today embodies), it was part of a far grander effort to help build and develop Southeast Asia as a bulwark against communism and as a neighbourly gesture of service to integrate Australia and the developed world into the developing one.

Spender had hopes of becoming Prime Minister, but he never seems to have gotten very close to the big chair. When all hope was extinguished in 1951 his energy soon turned away from federal politics. After just 1 year and 128 days as Foreign Minister (along with Treasurer in the 1939-40 government and member of the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council for the length of the Second World War) he left.

After that he spent seven happy years as Australian Ambassador to the United States and nine less successful years on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He was and remains the first and only Australian appointee and spent three years as President and chief justice.

We should not be surprised that Spender’s story is unknown today. Most Australian foreign policy history is. To those on the left anything before Gough or even Keating is dismissed as cringe worthy dependence. To those on the right, only two relationships mattered, the UK then US and anything else was somewhat pointless and a waste of time. Spender’s story however shows that there is much to be proud of, and nothing to take for granted in the evolution and development of Australia’s approach to international affairs.

The revival in the last few years of interest in Spender’s story is important not just to overcome a historical ignorance. Spender’s actions matter because his, like our own, was a time of change and transition. He cut through because he was prepared to assess the big changes and push, negotiate, bargain, bully and dream about where and how his country could succeed. Such ambitions and innovations are needed again today, and time once again, is not on our side.

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s by Ross BabbageBabbage - coast too long

Like most of my generation I grew up watching Bush Tucker Man. A fun show, with a serious purpose: working out how do defend Australia. While Les Hiddins was the khaki front man, it was the geek squad like Ross Babbage who made the idea a reality.

It might seem a simple idea ‘design your forces to defend the country’ but putting it into practice requires a lot of thought. Especially in a country as big and diverse as Australia. While Hiddins looked at gathering ‘tucker’, Babbage and others looked at the tides, winds, bridges, population centres, and tried to work out how they could help national strategy and force structure.

It is strange to some today, but during the Cold War Australians held a real fear of invasion. We’ve largely discarded that concern now (See the Lowy Poll 2015), but by reading books like this, you can see how authentic such concerns were.

Intriguingly, the two main worries in ‘A Coast too Long’ are ones Australia no longer worries about. The first is nuclear war, a threat that still exists but it is understandable why most of the concern faded with the end of the Cold War.
The second is low-level conflict, a scenario where small groups of elite forces run around the northern territory damaging vital equipment. Think Konfrontasi in Kakadu. This was a real animating concern for much of the 1970s and 1980s, though many debated how to respond.

If just low level coercion, it would be very difficult to get allied support. Likewise Australia’s escalation options would be limited. A conventional strike against the opponents population or resources could seem disproportionate and shift international perceptions of who was the aggressor.

It’s somewhat strange to see such concern, given its absence from contemporary debates. Yet it’s not clear why it’s not a concern. We might think a modern Indonesia wouldn’t engage in such action, but if national relations really degraded (such as if Australia and Indonesia ended up on different sides of a second Cold War), it’s quite plausible.

Another fascinating area is the section looking at the strategic importance of Christmas Islands and Cocos Islands. While neither is worth wholescale defence, they add a lot to current defence capability (increasingly so in an era of autonomous drone equipment).

This is necessarily a book for the scholars and defence nerds. But there’s a lot to learn in this book about the geography of Australia. Just as Bush Tucker man showed the diversity of the top end on the micro scale, there are dozens of maps in ‘A Coast Too Long’ which show the intriguing nature of the country on the macro scale.

It seems that with the 2015 Defence White Paper, Australia is slowly moving away from the Defence of Australia concept. This seems the right direction, but work such as that by scholars like Babbage, Ball, Langtry and others will remain vital if we ever need to defend this long long coast.

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff?

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff ? by Allan Behm Behm - No Minister

Many reasons have been offered for why the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government fell short, but fundamentally I believe it came down to a failure of governance. They had smart, capable people, there were good ideas and policies and no shortage of hard work. But they couldn’t put it together in a sustained or effective fashion.

‘No Minister: So you want to be a chief of staff’ helps show exactly what that means. To be clear, Behm’s purpose is not to explain what went wrong, but rather try and show how to make government work, at least from within a single Minister’s office. Behm spends much of the book explaining how he set about his task as Greg Combet’s Chief of Staff, and how he thinks about issues of leadership, management, and building an efficient, trusting, value-driven team.

Behm’s position in the Minister for Climate Change’s office was always something of an oddity around Canberra. As Allan reveals early on, the intention had been for Combet to take over the Defence Portfolio, hence bringing in the ‘bow-tied assassin’* who offered a deep knowledge of the Defence organisation, the public service and a fine strategic mind.

One of the values of this book is that it focuses on the governance of governing. That is, how do you do the job? How do you build and manage relationships internally and externally so that you can achieve what you want to achieve.

That’s a vital issue and one often sidelined in our discussions of why the three baby boomer PMs (Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott) have been collectively viewed as failures. As one perceptive piece in The Atlantic recently noted ‘A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theatre criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances’. Behm’s book is a good antidote to that. While there are some amusing character sketches, the weight of the book is on the process of running a government, rather than lumping it all on the ability of the PM to spin their way ahead.

Behm spends a lot of time in this book talking about wisdom, which he views as experience diffused through reflection. As such, he is quite critical of many of the young jocks that often ran the show in the Rudd era, though he is quick to sincerely praise many of the young staffers he personally worked with.

On this score, I must stress that I bear no actual wisdom as to life on the hill. I’ve never worked in a ministerial or political office, though like many in Canberra I’ve wondered if I could endure. But I do have friends and colleagues who have toiled those long hours at a variety of levels, and I’ve read my fair share of memoirs and accounts, so take the rest of this review with that caveat in mind.

One notable theme is the issue of ‘wheel-spinning’: That is, lots of effort for little result. While making no excuses for the long hours, Behm rightly notes how much work seems to be done that doesn’t end up furthering the aims of the government. While it’s something we can all reflect on in our own areas, I admit to wondering about the willingness of so many political operatives to sweat the small stuff. Every issue is treated as fundamental and worth responding to rather than keeping a focus on the larger issues of strategy that ultimately determine elections and legacies. Instead as Behm laments ‘in the current environment, politics is totally preoccupied with and consumed by tactics’.

One other message of the book is the idea of civility as a requirement for the process to occur. Behm stresses the necessity of politics being a hard business and he is happy to criticise individuals and parties he disagrees with. Yet he argues throughout that notions of ‘civility, decorum and respect’ are the functional basis for being successful in the profession of politics. In one intriguing line he suggests ‘a government’s image of competence is not really helped where scorn and disdain replace civility and decorum.’ While we often don’t link the concepts of capacity and civility, the most capable figures I’ve encountered have often been the most civil. It’s those who doubt their ability to perform at that level who tend to be the real scrappers searching for every inch of advantage.

Two final concerns that resonated with me were his concern about the rise of cynicism about and in politics, and the need for clear agreement and articulation of principles before policies are developed and announced. Neither claim is new, but they seem fundamental starting points for constructing a more effective political environment.

While I love a good memoir, I’ve largely left alone the stream of books by the politicians of the Rudd-Gillard era. They are all out much too soon for any real reflection to have occurred. ‘No Minister’ however is the second book by a staffer I’ve read and enjoyed. Given my favourite book on the Keating government is Don Watson’s beautiful ‘Reflections of a bleeding heart’, maybe more encouragement should be made for staffers, rather than their bosses, to pen memoirs and tomes.

Of course, with such a theme, this book will only be read by Canberra insiders, but that’s probably the audience who need to read it most. Highly recommended. As Greg Combet says in the foreword ‘it’s a gem.’

*Behm is famous for his preference for bow-ties. And pleasingly, if you look carefully at the cover, the advisor is also fashioned with a bow-tie.

City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them

City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them  by Jane-Frances Kelly, Paul Donegan Kelly_City Limits

We have become a nation of Two Australia’s. But the divide is not based on class, skin colour, or wealth (per say) but on how close to the CBD you live. Those in close enjoy access to good jobs, access to good services, high house values, higher levels of gender equality at work and lower work-life balance issues. Those further out suffer in all these areas.

This is a fantastic, if scary book. It combines several of the biggest issues of modern Australian life, and shows how they are centrally connected to our cities, and how we are comprehensively failing to address them.

The argument begins by noting that while the knowledge-economy was thought to have enabled us to all work ‘anywhere, anytime’, in fact it has pushed us towards the CBD. Where manufacturing let people live in the suburbs near the big plants, today’s economy forces everyone to head to a central point. So much so that 80% of Australia’s economy now occurs on 0.2% of our land.

But that’s not where the people are. Certainly not those who are new, poor, disadvantaged or just on average salaries. This book, if anything undersells, a story of two Australia’s. And while transport, governance and other concerns are part of the issue, the real culprit here is housing policy.

The pursuit of the Australian dream is killing the Australian dream. By assuming everyone wants a large, detached house in the outer suburbs we have built cities which are increasingly harming our lives and our economy.

We are not building enough houses for people, nor the kinds of houses they want, nor in the places they want. Rich suburbs with access to good services and jobs have become virtual forts, keeping out anyone else who wants to access these benefits. Notably one area the authors do not point the finger at is population growth. The problem is not that we are growing too fast, but that we’re doing such a bad job of managing it that all growth is a problem. Likewise foreign investment is about 1% of the market, so again it’s not the culprit.

Tackling this will be tough. Unlike many other countries, there’s usually no one responsible for an entire city (hence why we should abolish the states, though that’s a topic for another day). Worse, it will require both sides of politics to sacrifice beloved policies. The Right needs to embrace more public transport (especially trains). The left needs to recognise that housing policy regulations are crippling the very ‘working families’ they claim to speak on behalf of. And both sides need to become much much better at engaging with the public to see what they want and find what trade offs they will accept.

There’s much to recommend about this book. In fact, anyone interested in Australia’s politics, economy or social changes should pick it up. Best book I’ve read this year in fact.

Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific

I’m delighted to announce the release of my next book, ‘Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific‘, published by Melbourne University Press.



Winning the Peace seeks to explore and explain how Australian governments, during the modern period of Australia’s engagement with Asia (from 1983 till today), have attempted to use their defence and foreign policies to shape the region. While there were certainly times of tension during this period, such as the spikes around the end of the Cold War and during the early years of the War on Terror, the region has been largely defined by peace. Because of this peace and thanks to Australia’s relative size as a ‘middle power’, the government’s attempt to change how other states act and think was not sought through the deployment or use of force but through military and diplomatic engagement and persuasion.

Australia’s smaller size meant it had to be strategic in its efforts. It had to determine which changes were priorities, it had to re-organise and develop its resources, it had to deploy them effectively and efficiently, and it had to be able to sustain the effort in the face of competition and rejection. This book focuses on the three main ‘campaigns’ the Australian government has undertaken since the early 1980s to reshape the Asia-Pacific in pursuit of its national interests.

Table of contents

1  Introduction
2 Conceptual Framework
3 History of Australian Foreign and Defence Policy
4 Australia and Irregular Migration
5 Australia and Weapons of Mass Destruction
6 Australia and Trade Liberalisation
7 Can Middle Powers Promote Norms?
8 Conclusion

Where to buy the book?, Random House, Booktopia, etc. Best to order online, paperback or e-book copies available.


To mark the launch, I’ll be writing some guest posts on The Lowy Interpreter blog, and having a launch at Parliament House. Full details will be published here shortly.

The Right and the Bill of Rights

In (yet another) back down, the Rudd Government recently abandoned its call for a bill of rights. Instead it is introducing a ‘Human Rights test’ for all legislation, leading to much rejoicing by many liberal and conservative Australians (which I’m labeling here right wing, with left wing liberals tending to support Rudd’s -original- push for a Bill of Rights as I do). Yet their joy is somewhat surprising given that the Australian Right wing tend to define themselves (rhetorically at least) by their desire to restrict the reach & power of government and encourage individual freedom. Which is exactly what a bill of rights is designed to do, hence its position at the heart of the US constitution, the most liberal document in history.

Andrew Norton helpfully tries to explain this apparent contradiction in a good post over at his blog:

In a democratic system, classical liberals will tend to be more sceptical than social democrats and the median voter of actual and proposed regulation by the state. But I don’t think this is inconsistent with believing that classical liberal freedoms should be achieved within the persuasion-based, evolutionary and open democratic system. Even within a pro-freedom perspective individual rights and freedoms can conflict – let alone all the conflicts with other values that people hold – and there is little reason to believe (as many opponents of bills of rights have argued) that courts will do a better job of deciding on the trade-offs than democratic politics.

a distinction can be drawn between an in-principle opposition to constitutionalising some rights and a tactical judgment that the bill of rights we would end up with would not support the classical liberal conception of individual freedom. I think this does help explain the lack of enthusiasm for bills of rights among classical liberals, even where they might support constitutionalising a limited list of rights or freedoms. Aided by the various UN treaties, the concept of ‘human rights’ has expanded way beyond what classical liberals have ever supported, to make them the basis for big rather than small government.

While the arguments about risking giving too much power to the courts are valid, and one should always be skeptical if modern politicians can reach the wisdom of political philosophers such as Jefferson & Adam’s, Norton’s comments still seem to me somewhat partisan. His main concern seems the content of a Rudd/Gillard(or Abbott?) introduced Bill of Rights, rather than the concept as such. That it is, had a classical liberal Prime Minister introduced a bill of rights, I expect he would be significantly more inclined to support it. Which leaves me wondering why none on the right are proposing to write their own Bill of Rights?

There’s two good reasons they should: First, if there was a right wing version on offer, the debate would shift from the rhetoric of angry partisans (like this) towards debating which principles and the specifics. A debate about how to code a protection of free speech, or whether the government can compulsory acquire private land would be a useful debate.
Second, if those on the right support the concept (as opposed to their concerns over Rudd’s specific version) then now is the time to propose an alternative. The campaign for a Coalition government to implement economic liberalism didn’t just spring from nowhere in 1996, but was pushed & argued over throughout the 1980’s and maintained until the time was right (whilst critically giving support to the ALP Government when it agreed with this approach). With Joe Hockey the likely candidate to take over the Liberal Party once they lose the upcoming election, liberals have a good chance to gain a leader who will at least listen to their views. Assuming the ALP stay in office for another two terms, by 2016 a Coalition Government could win office and pledge to implement a Bill of Rights which has been around for 5-6 years in public debate (removing the fear factor) whilst adhering to a strict ‘negative’ set of limits on government/society, rather than the more left wing desirer for positive rights to food/shelter/support etc.

I believe a Bill of Rights has a fundamental worth, that will unite people of all political philosophies across the left and right. Guaranteeing free speech, restrictions on discrimination, and basic rights of people who fall under the watch of the security apparatus of the state would help ensure that the ‘democracy of manners’ which rules Australia does so within confines that do not trample over the individual. For those of a liberal persuasion, both the Howard and Rudd governments have infringed individual freedom and shown little concern about doing so, in economic, social and security area’s. There are legitimate concerns about increasing court influence to deal with, however the High Court has already involved itself in these issues (such as ABC v Lange 1997 on free speech). A carefully constructed negative set of rights could infact help clarify what the public want, rather than allowing the much freer interpretation available today where lawyers and judges can draw on all constitutional and legislative documents.

Having an alternate proposal (while a lot of work) would increase the quality of the debate, let those on the right set the terms of what a bill of right should be (helping dispatch poor/unworkable ideas such as a right to an income) and far more than any comparison with UN treaties, let Australians debate and define the basic freedoms we as a people insist on for a good society. Given the move to presidential prime ministers, increasingly invasive technology options for the government and centralising federalism, sitting back and hoping all will be ok is not a sensible option.

Gallipoli, Eureka and Australia’s foundational myths

Last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, the usefulness of Gallipoli as a foundational story of Australia came up repeatedly. Many correctly noted that it is a story which is difficult for migrant Australians or even those born since 1970 to identify with. Everyone knows the strikes against the ANZAC story, they were all male, white, invading a country we had no significant animosity towards, it was a losing effort, and we were forced to undertake it by generals who cared little for our soldiers’ safety. Yet the panel members seemed to both acknowledge this, and see nothing in our history that could replace it. Peter FitzSimons even flat out asked a lady which peacetime heros she would like to replace the ANZACs/soldiers, suggesting only that another fight such as Kokoda could replace it. What surprised me is that no one brought up the story of Eureka, whose appeal is clear in the way Australian organisations from the extreme left through to the far, far right have claimed the flag as their own.

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross By Charles Doudiet

Most should know the basic story. Individual miners during the Gold Rush in Victoria became slowly more outraged and eventually rebelled at the increasing taxation (without representation) on their basic mining rights, along with their inability to vote & restrictions on private property in the face of government and police control. In early November 1854 the miners formed the Ballarat Reform League demanding among other things: full manhood suffrage (though excluding Aborigines), abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers’ and storekeepers’ licenses and reform of administration of the gold fields. All are core Australian values, and some that (such as paying parliamentarians and having secret ballots) ideas that Australia can claim as its own contributions to democratic practice and theory worldwide.

After a number of acts of provocation on both sides, the miners gathered on Bakery hill to protest & concerned about attack formed a stockade. At dawn on 3 December 1854, the military attacked, killing 22 and ending the stockade within minutes. But the colonial government finally recognised the miners concerns and changes began to filter down, protecting their rights and restricting the power of local authorities to infringe on individual rights of the miners.

Compared to Gallipoli, Eureka has something for every Australian. Those involved were fighting for a individual rights to conduct free enterprise (in effect they were self-employed small businesspeople), they banded together in solidarity to demand fair working conditions, they were democratic and seeking fair representation & capable administration, they were a very multicultural and multiracial audience (though the Chinese were absent race relations were decent at Eureka) and many women were strongly involved. It was also an episode thoroughly invested in republicanism, a strain of political thought that stretches back to the Greeks and the Romans and insists on diffused power, encouragement of civic virtues and civic education and which informs much of the practice and values of Australian democracy.

Many have previously advocated for Eureka to take a higher place in our history and national story. H.V Evatt (a hero of our current Prime Minister) said Australian democracy was born at Eureka and Prime Ministers such as diverse as Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam all used it heavily in their speeches. Mark Twain even called it the ‘finest thing in Australian History’. And, even the latest ALP candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, contributed to a 2004 book called Imagining Australia which also calls for its revival as the basic story of Australian identity.

Much work would be required to remind Australians of the story, and to extricate it from its claimed position by militant unionists and racist nationalists. But it represents a story all modern Australians can find much to appreciate and find unity with. It deserves to be remembered and re-enter the national debate.

The return of the rank and file

Two significant developments in Australian politics this week may point to a hopeful re-emergence of the rank and file within the ALP, and potentially the Coalition as well. Last night in the ACT, the rank and file voters (572 voted) over-ruled a deal between the factions and chose their own excellent candidates:

Economics professor Andrew Leigh and businesswoman Gai Brodtmann have taken the spoils in two hotly contested Labor preselection battles in the ACT. Labor holds the seats of Canberra and Fraser by comfortable margins, ensuring a hard fought battle for preselection on Saturday.
Canberra was the closest call, with Ms Brodtmann securing just four more primary votes than government adviser Mary Wood before the final distribution gave her a 123 to 109 advantage. In Fraser, Mr Leigh, a professor at Canberra’s Australian National University, had barely more than half the primary votes Nick Martin had accrued….But in an eight-horse race, the independents gave Mr Leigh a winning boost by sending their preferences his way, securing the 37-year-old’s win by 144 votes to 96. Mr Leigh said he felt extraordinarily lucky and humbled by the support.
He paid tribute to his fellow candidates, saying it was terrific battle, fought on “a discussion of big ideas about the future of Australia and what we want to achieve for the country”. His research lies in poverty and disadvantage.
Ms Brodtmann, who runs a communications consultancy business in Canberra with her husband, ABC political journalist Chris Uhlmann, was equally humbled by the victory

Personally I couldn’t be happier about the victory of Andrew Leigh. He is a very hard working, but original thinker and from my limited interactions with him, a great down to earth guy, but I’ll write more on that in a future post. What has national significance is that there had been a factional deal, with the left getting Canberra (and their candidate of Mary Wood) and the Right getting Fraser (Nick Martin). To add further pressure, pre-selectors were expected to vote two at a time and show their vote to the other, a rather outrageous breech of the Australian-pioneered secret ballot. While most party members will object to such factional control, it was particularly the case in the ACT which (remains!) the only area in the country where the rank and file control 100% of the selection. Hence the possibility of an upset like this. Let us hope this will encourage other rank and files around the country to also try and buck the factional heavies. Given that Rudd is not a factional man, and has decided to appoint his cabinet without reference to them, the last few years have seen a few setbacks for the factions and the slight (very slight) chance of a shift in their power.

The other significant news, and one that has significance for both parties is the successful running of the Kilsyth primary in Victoria. Encouraged by Premier John Brumby and for a seat where a 1% swing would cause it to change hands, this could represent a major shift in the way Australian politics operates. Because of the role of the Prime Minister we will never see US style primaries for the leaders of our parties, but a move to primaries to select the local candidates within seats offers both parties a way to re-energise their memberships (which have fallen from involving nearly half the population in the 40’s to just hundreds per seat today). I’ve blogged about this before, but from all accounts the primary seems to have been a success both in encouraging people to vote & energising ALP supporters. If the ALP wins the seat in November’s victorian election, then we may see both major parties starting to move to adopt such an approach. It will be resisted by many especially the factions and groupings which dominate both parties, but it, like the election of Leigh and Brodtmann in the ACT represent a good step forward in ensuring an open and competitive political system in Australia’s major parties.

Update: Some figures from Kilsyth: The branch has boomed from 50 to 300 members, and 170 voted on the day.