The philosophy and attitudes underpinning and guiding the direction of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) can be traced to the early years of the Howard government. Since that time there has been a steady erosion of the 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 Philip Ruddock attempting to influence and then undermine the decision-making process of the Refugee Review Tribunal. Onshore 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 of colour to our north. 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 after the September 11 attacks. Many refugees were fingered by the government and the Murdoch press as potential terrorists, and all were demonised as a result. Howard's Coalition 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, the agency 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 fanfare and publicity. The conditions relating to the detention of asylum seekers, the length of time they were held and the turning around of 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 took us to war based on a lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. He lied about the reason for a 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, the Office of National Assements and Defence relating to the Middle East was 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 lied, distorted and ignored peer-reviewed scientific advice, and instead relied on charged emotional argument.
The AFP and ASIS were used to stop the departure of asylum boats at the 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 even social policy, including 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 Nine 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, and it believes the ABC, along with many other public undertakings, should be privatised. It also believes the private sector should be the primary source of advice for the government.
Successive Coalition 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 leaning toward the US - even so, that was enough to set the Coalition's right wing barking and pulling at their chains.
Trump exploded on the scene, bullying and blustering, with most in the Coalition 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. 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 regarding the origin of the COVID-19 virus, which they declared required an investigation of its apparent origins in Wuhan, 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 advised students and tourists not to come to Australia - an unnecessary move, it turned out, in the face of Covid border restrictions.
But "Howard hysteria" had been unleashed in full force by the government, with ASPI as its principal spear-carrier. Journalists such as Greg Sheridan and Peter Hartcher led the media charge. Academic Clive Hamilton spelt out the danger faced by universities undertaking 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 the genocide of Uighurs in Xinjiang as an example. There is no proof of the genocide of the Uighur people. There is proof of the detention of some for political purposes, and there is proof of the intimidation and repression of many others.
There is scant acknowledgment, however, of where Australia is at after 25 years of being corralled and dumbed down by a combination of government, the media and now academia. ASPI is a big part of that. It both leads and responds. The Coalition 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 which has captured the hearts and minds of the 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 the outcomes of 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 in, 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 forgone lightly.
With the government and ASPI in lockstep, does ASPI have a domestic agenda? Is it seeking, with the electorally popular China-bashing, to help get the Coalition 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 1950s 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 bilateral trade, economic and diplomatic relationships. The US, while 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, to our region and also to the US, which has used us and needs us only as a base.
- Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.