The billion dollar race to the White House

By Ainsley Halbmeyer in Sydney, Australia

10 August 2015

Ainsley Halbmeyer is the Centre's media and communications intern.

In 2012, the spending related to the presidential race by both the Democrats and Republicans combined totalled more than $2 billion. That’s more than the GDP of 27 different nations

This is an absolutely staggering figure, but it is expected to be significantly outshone by the 2016 race. You’d like to think that, to be a presidential candidate, you need strong policy, raw vision, political charisma. But if you want to be a presidential candidate in America in 2016, you need million-dollar donors and Political Action Committees which can funnel your contributions. It’s all about the money, and unsurprisingly the top candidates for presidential nomination are also those with the most to spend — Donald Trump is the current Republican frontrunner, a billionaire who has given millions to his own presidential bid.

This election, more than any before, is testing and pushing the rules and boundaries of campaign finance law. Two landmark rulings in the Supreme Court in 2010 essentially allowed corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of, or against, presidential candidates — as long as they aren’t directly contributing to a campaign. This has led to the rise of "Political Action Committees," or PACs, ostensibly independent groups that essentially act as shadow political parties.

To understand how this works, take a look at Right to Rise, the super PAC which is promoting Republican candidate Jeb Bush’s nomination. It announced in July that in the first six months of 2015, it raised more than $103 million — before the race for the presidential nomination had even begun. CBS reported that nearly every single presidential candidate in 2016 has their own super PAC, raising vast amounts of money behind the scenes. While not allowed to coordinate with an official campaign committee, PACs are often run by friends, former staffers, and even family members of the candidate they are helping. Right to Rise was founded by Jeb Bush himself.

In order to justify this technically legal — but, at best, morally dubious — fundraising, the Supreme Court argued that because these funds are not spent in coordination with a campaign, they do not give rise to corruption. But when conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch are able to spend a planned budget of nearly $900 million on the 2016 race — a figure that rivals the spending of the Democratic and Republican parties themselves — it is hard not to see how vested interests with money to spend aren’t covertly shaping the politics of the presidential race.

The most cynical of us will take away from this a perception that American politics in 2016 is directly answerable to multi-million dollar corporations and the top 1 per cent. Even if candidates do have genuine political visions, if politics is seen to be the exclusive domain of the elite and privileged, it is unlikely to encourage political engagement with average American citizens. They are much more likely to feel disconnected and disaffected with the politics of the super-rich.

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American Daily: August 5, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

5 August 2015

Based on an average of the five most recent national polls, the candidates invited to be on stage for the 9:00 P.M. ET debate will be: Donald Trump (23.4%), Jeb Bush (12.0%), Scott Walker (10.2%), Mike Huckabee (6.6%), Ben Carson (5.8%), Ted Cruz (5.4%), Marco Rubio (5.4%), Rand Paul (4.8%), Chris Christie (3.4%) and John Kasich (3.2%).

  • How the New York Times botches its coverage of Hillary Clinton.

These readers aren’t alone. The press critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen wrote on Twitter: “I have resisted this conclusion over the years, but after today’s events it’s fair to say the Times has a problem covering Hillary Clinton.” Rachel Maddow said last week on MSNBC that the attitude of the national press corps, including The Times, is, “Everything Hillary Clinton does is a scandal.” And James Fallows of The Atlantic called what he sees as a Times “Clinton vendetta” a “serious lapse,” linking to a letter the Clinton campaign wrote in response to the Times story.

Let’s start with the basics. Clinton was elected with 43% of the vote, to Bush’s 37.5%, a difference of nearly six million votes. To overtake Clinton in a two-way race, then, Bush would have needed to gain the lion’s share of the Perot vote, about two-thirds of it. But in the exit poll conducted on Election Day, just 38% of Perot’s backers said Bush was their second choice. Thirty-eight percent also said Clinton was. “The impact of Mr. Perot’s supporters on the campaign’s outcome,” wrote The New York Times, “appears to have been minimal.” The Washington Post’s conclusion: “Ross Perot’s presence on the 1992 presidential ballot did not change the outcome of the election.”

After her mother cast her out, Alena made a journey familiar to many trans people in the deep south – to the north. Eighteen months in the big city put Alena well on the road to achieving Caitlyn Jenner’s challenge: getting to be who she really is. In Atlanta’s more permissive environment she began to build a life as a woman. She had a job working in a call center, rented her own small apartment, and acquired a small circle of trans friends who encouraged her to present herself outwardly as Alena.

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In defence of ISDS in the TPP

By Sinclaire Prowse in Sydney, Australia

30 July 2015

Sinclaire Prowse is a Non-Resident WSD Handa Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum and a graduate of the United States Studies Centre’s master’s program. This piece was originally published in The Diplomat.

As Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations continue in Maui this week, Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) is proving to be a hot domestic topic in party countries.

ISDS is a provision in bi- and multi-lateral investment agreements and treaties that allows investors to sue states over treaty breaches. The investment chapter of the TPP will almost certainly include an ISDS procedure.

ISDS has been subject to negative criticism by prominent politicians and parts of the media across most TPP party countries.

For these critics, there is concern that ISDS provides a channel for investors to sue governments. US Senator Elizabeth Warren has suggested that its inclusion would “tilt the playing field in the United States further in favour of big multinational corporations”.

Some believe that state sovereignty would be compromised by the inclusion of ISDS in the TPP.  A New Zealand politician has brought a bill before Parliament to outlaw free trade agreements that include ISDS. Others are concerned that ISDS cases are frivolous and waste government money.

Many of these concerns have been overstated and deserve to be corrected.

Firstly, ISDS is not a new concept. The United States has 50 agreements with ISDS mechanisms and has never lost a case.

The United States already has international agreements containing ISDS with six of the eleven countries in the TPP. The other five countries (Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, and New Zealand) together have more than 100 agreements containing ISDS mechanisms.

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), more than 90 per cent of the nearly 2,400 bilateral investment treaties in force worldwide have operated “without a single investor claim of a treaty breach”.

For disputes which do end up in arbitration, states have won cases twice as often as investors. When an investor does win, awards are a very small proportion of the claim.

The case that has been frequently cited to spark fear recently is the Philip Morris Asia tobacco case, or the first and only investor-state dispute that has ever been brought against Australia. 

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Australia implemented tough anti-smoking legislation in 2011 that required all cigarettes to be sold in logo-free packages. Philip Morris Asia, a Hong Kong–based company, is challenging Australia’s legislation under the 1993 Hong Kong Agreement, suggesting it interferes with its right to use its trademarks.

Signed in 1993, the Hong Kong Agreement does not include the explicit ISDS safeguards that have been written into Australia’s more recent agreements. While this case is yet to be decided, it strengthens the point that strong ISDS provisions need to be written into investment treaties and agreements.

The reason investors are usually unsuccessful in bringing ISDS cases against states is because trade negotiation officials ensure significant protection provisions are included in agreements containing ISDS. The TPP will incorporate the results of more than 20 years of reform in ISDS.

It is clear that ISDS provisions are all in the language.

According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, the TPP will have state-of-the-art ISDS protections. It will give TPP party countries the ability “to protect legitimate public welfare objectives such as public health, safety, the environment, and the conservation of living or non-living exhaustible natural resources.”

The case record around the world is also instructive. In the Chemtura v. Canada case, for example, an ISDS panel rejected a claim that the Canadian government’s actions to ban the use of a chemical product breached Canada’s obligations under NAFTA, and underscored the right of government to pursue its own scientific and environmental regulations.   

If TPP regulations are as strong as these, and recognise each country’s inherent right to regulate in important areas such as health and safety, government sovereignty will not be compromised.

Hence, it is in the fundamental national interest for governments to ensure strong ISDS provisions are included in the TPP to prevent the scenario critics outline.

Whether TPP negotiations are concluded this week or not, it is certain that ISDS provisions will be included in the investment chapter. 

It is therefore important that the public in each party country is made aware of the facts surrounding ISDS in order to put the mechanism into perspective. 


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China: the first few weeks

By Jessica Shannon in Shanghai, China

27 July 2015

Jessica Shannon is an undergraduate student with the University of Sydney. In winter 2015, she will travel to Fudan University as part of the Centre's Shanghai Study Abroad Program. During her travels, she will be contributing to the Centre's blog.

As a group, our first two weeks in China were packed full of adventure. We spent the first week in Shanghai and the second week in Beijing, further splitting our time between site visits, tourist attractions, and cultural escapades (think snake-eating attempts and taking rickshaws home at midnight).

The site visits were incredibly interesting, as we had the opportunity to hear from a broad range of companies about their experience operating in China. Our presenters relayed firsthand how issues such as the recent Chinese wage growth and the corruption crackdown affect their business operations. One point that stood out to me was that regardless of concern surrounding China’s slowing growth, 5–7 per cent growth in a 10 trillion dollar economy still generates an unparalleled amount of business opportunity. Slower growth is also more likely to be sustainable, which helps paint an even more compelling picture of China’s future as a major economic power.

We also had time to visit a number of historical sites, including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall. I especially loved the Summer Palace, as the gardens were beautiful. It was easy to see how emperors and empresses of the past relished it as a summer escape. We got some great snaps, including a group power pose at the Great Wall.

Great Wall pic

Ultimately, the everyday cultural experiences have been my favourite part about visiting China. In terms of food, I think I’ve had more chilli in the past two weeks than I have in the past year in Sydney. My chopstick skills are also improving rapidly, as I don’t think I’ve used a fork since I got off the plane. I love being able to walk out on the street and almost instantly find a vendor selling a delicious fried rice or noodle dish for 10 RMB — just under two dollars. Even when I don’t like certain foods, such as snakes and silkworms, it is still very cool being able to try. A few other novel experiences have included bargaining in hectic market places and shopping for traditional dresses. Hopefully there are many more to come!

Traditional dresses

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New land, new experiences, new food

By Tom Pantle in Beijing, China

20 July 2015

Tom Pantle is an undergraduate student with the University of Sydney. In winter 2015, he will travel to Fudan University as part of the Centre's Shanghai Study Abroad Program. During his travels, he will be contributing to the Centre's blog.


Day One: The group of Sydney University students, a.k.a. my family for the next 6 weeks, checked in at our student accommodation at Tonghe International Village, a place which helps you become a little more grateful for the living conditions we're used to back in Australia. Later that night we enjoyed a chance to bond over some spicy Chinese cuisine in the French Concession.

Day Two – Day Five: Time to get down to business. The organised site visits set up by the Centre have been incredible! We’ve been blessed to learn more about conducting business in China from the US Consulate, General Motors, Rio Tinto, Disney, and many more. One resonating piece of advice that appeared consistent throughout these visits was the importance of guangxi. This term refers to building relationships between business partners and the importance of returning favours to those who help you.

However, what’s work without a little play? The Australian Chamber of Commerce drinks was an amazing chance to network with extremely successful people in Shanghai, such as the CEO of Westpac’s Asian division or the European representative for intellectual property law in China. Other amazing experiences include the multitude of rooftop bars overlooking the city skyline. At night, the mixture of pollution and ambient lighting makes the view of the city simply spectacular. From high profile encounters to the smoke filled rooms of local student bar Helen's, our first week in China has been unforgettable.


Day Seven: The Capital. The six-hour journey, travelling at 300km per hour on a train is the best way to get to Beijing, honestly! After a crazy first week in Shanghai, the train ride was a great way to lay back and enjoy the scenery of Chinese villages and farms passing you by.

Our first night in Beijing was interesting. We visited the Donghuamen night markets, which offered a delicious display of spiders, snakes, worms, and maggots — what more could you want? After avoiding the fine cuisine and pressuring others into eating fried spiders, we did some bargaining along the narrow streets, a perfect opportunity to practice our Mandarin: Tai gui le!

Day Eight – Day Fourteen: The visits organised for us in Beijing were a mixture of professional and tourism. Our formal visits included Peking University, the Australian Embassy, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.

The real highlight of Beijing and my favourite destination so far has been visiting the Great Wall of China. Despite all the hype, seeing the wall in all its scale and beauty truly passed all expectations. It’s a must for any serious traveller.

Other cultural experiences included Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and a dodgy rickshaw ride through the streets — hutongs — of Beijing.

It’s been a pleasure checking back in! This is just the first two weeks of my amazing journey; I can’t wait to see what else China has in store. Zaijian!

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American Daily: July 20, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

20 July 2015

The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, as a racist in Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman, has been variously described as a “bombshell,” “shocking” and a “revelation” in early reviews. The New York Times suggested that the new novel “could also reshape Ms. Lee’s legacy.” Yet scholars who have written on race and the legal system in To Kill A Mockingbird are less surprised. “If you read the book from a racial justice perspective,” Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a novelist and former law professor, commented, “it wouldn’t surprise you that this is who Atticus is.”
These crude regional stereotypes ignore the deep roots such social ills have in our shared national history and culture. If, somehow, the South became its own country, the Northeast would still be a hub of racially segregated housing and schooling, the West would still be a bastion of prejudicial laws that put immigrants and black residents behind bars at higher rates than their white neighbors and the Midwest would still be full of urban neighborhoods devastated by unemployment, poverty and crime. How our social problems manifest regionally is a matter of degree, not kind — they infect every region of the country.

As a songwriter, I’ve spent the better part of my career trying to capture both the Southern storytelling tradition and the details the tall tales left out, putting this dialectical narrative into the context of rock songs. My band’s best-known work, an album we recorded a decade and a half ago called “Southern Rock Opera,” is an examination of life in the South after the Civil Rights era, in the form of a coming-of-age tale of a Southern boy about my age who grows up to become a famous musician before dying in a plane crash while on tour. The album wrestled with how to be proud of where we came from while acknowledging and condemning the worst parts of our region’s history.

  • Cool pictures of New York and Los Angeles from above.
New York from above

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Shanghai boardrooms and great climbs

By Emily Serifovski in Shanghai, China

15 July 2015

Emily Serifovski is an undergraduate student with the University of Sydney. In winter 2015, she will travel to Fudan University as part of the Centre's Shanghai Study Abroad Program. During her travels, she will be contributing to the Centre's blog.

As our first fortnight in China draws to a close, I think I can safely say that the last two weeks have been nothing short of incredible. The program began in Shanghai with a week of site visits. From the factory floors of Detmold Packaging and GM, to board rooms at the tops of Shanghai’s tallest buildings, each site brought new insights into US–Australia–China relations and the ways business is conducted in China. I was impressed time and again, by how willing each company was to engage with us and our difficult-at-best questions. Even Disney, with all its top secret information, held back very little when discussing the difficulties in adapting their business model to the Chinese market.

Rio Tinto

These site visits were interspersed with some traditional sightseeing: to Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China. The visit to the Great Wall has been the highlight of the trip so far. We made the collective decision to tackle the "difficult" section of the wall, and difficult it was. There were so many stairs, and at one point we were on hands and knees due to the steepness of the wall, but the view at the top was worth every stair. We were pleasantly rewarded with a toboggan ride to the bottom of the mountain.

Great Wall

I was simply not prepared for the abundant intelligence brought to the program by my fellow participants. Some of the best moments of this trip so far have occurred on our bus rides between airports and stations, businesses and food destinations, wherein we have debated the merits of the TPP (which was later discussed at length with political and economic chief of the US consulate William Duff), the Kardashian empire, the flaws of feminism and its unwavering importance, and whether as a species, chickens could avoid extinction if we were to stop consuming them. I am so lucky to be experiencing life here in China with such an excellent group of people.

As amazing as it has been, the move to China has not come without its adjustments. The transition from Sydney’s icy winter to Shanghai’s steamy, sweltering streets has been trying at times. The wealth disparities between the inner cities with their never-ending strips of high-end designer brands and small towns comprised of family owned stores are stark, and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the staring or the spitting in the streets. But Shanghai already feels like home, and the chaotic roads and the never-ending horn-honking are so endearing to me that I think by the end of the program it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

Great Wall

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American Daily: July 10, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

10 July 2015

Though not nearly as ubiquitous as the “stars and bars,” these totems symbolize an international segregationist philosophy of white superiority. While historians have rightly focused on the transnational dimensions of decolonization and the civil rights movement, there was also a smaller, if no less global, reaction against these trends. Both South Africa and Rhodesia actively cultivated alliances with reactionary white populations abroad, building support in the United States, particularly in the area of the old Confederacy. The Charleston shooting therefore serves as a violent reminder that American racism today is not only a regional issue — it has also been shaped by a decades-long global opposition to human and civil rights.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago, many Russians have come to blame the United States for their plight; a seething resentment over U.S. culpability in the loss of Russian national power is one of the reasons Vladimir Putin is so popular. It has only worsened since the United States has led an international effort to isolate and sanction Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine. Thus, over the past 15 months there has been a sudden, bizarro uptick of Russian interest in and around the American Southwest, most notably Texas, where secessionist sentiment never seems to entirely die out (TNM’s predecessor group, the “Republic of Texas,” disbanded after secessionist militants took hostages in 1997). In a rehash of the Soviet Union’s fate, numerous Russian voices have taken to envisioning an American break-up, E Pluribus Unum in inverse—out of one, many.
The biggest problem that I have with a theme like orientalism in fashion is that it wants so deeply to tackle something complex while being unable and unwilling to truly engage with the theme’s implications in present day. As a result, it examines orientalism as an artifact, like something of the past, while refusing to acknowledge the fuckshit that Katy Perry pulled a year ago or even the fuckshit that went on at its own Gala earlier this year. The museum’s choice to use the tradition characters 中國 was an interesting move to me; in an exploration of mainland Chinese tropes, the museum went for the more elegant looking characters rather than the simplified form, which is what actual Chinese people in mainland China in 2015 use. It stands out because the exhibition has a room about how Western designers have appropriated Chinese characters, even showing a dress that is adorned with characters from a Chinese manuscript about stomachaches.

More so than the average American sitcom, Seinfeld has had difficulty reaching global audiences. While it’s popular in Latin America, it hasn’t been widely accepted in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Two decades after it went off the air, Seinfeld remains relevant to American audiences — thanks in part to omnipresent syndicated reruns — but in much of Europe it is considered a cult hit, and commonly relegated to deep-late-night time slots. Its humor, it seems, is just too complicated, too cultural and word-based, to make for easy translation.


Florida flag

Can we just use the Alabama flag?” Florida asked.
“How about if we put our seal on it?”
“Yeah. I guess, but –”

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Going back to Cali

By Cathy Bouris in San Francisco, California

9 July 2015

Cathy Bouris is an undergraduate student with the University of Sydney. In winter 2015, she will travel to California as part of the Centre's UCLA Study Abroad Program. During her travels, she will be contributing to the Centre's blog.

Golden Gate Bridge


My first post is coming to you from San Francisco, where I've spent the last week. The week before that was spent in New York, so by the time summer school starts, I'll have already been in the US for two weeks. It's been wonderful to spend time in both of these dynamic and vibrant cities; I visited San Francisco last year, but haven't been to New York since 2009.

San Francisco

I've done a fair bit in both cities: art galleries and museums, birds-eye views of the city from the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, a few Broadway shows (okay, actually just the same Broadway show three times...), Muir Woods, Monterey and Carmel — where Clint Eastwood was mayor, and a lot of shopping.

New York

I actually did the UCLA summer school program last year, so I feel like an old hand at all of this now. I know what to expect, which is great, and I'm able to help others with questions and concerns when I can. I'm excited to get back to UCLA and make myself at home in Rieber for another summer.

[more photos after the jump]

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"You don't know what you're getting into..."

By Emily Serifovski in Sydney, Australia

6 July 2015

Emily Serifovski is an undergraduate student with the University of Sydney. In winter 2015, she will travel to Fudan University as part of the Centre's Shanghai Study Abroad Program. During her travels, she will be contributing to the Centre's blog.

Shanghai 2015 group photo

"You don’t know what you’re getting into," were the wise words imparted to us by visiting professor Linda Jakobson at our final pre-departure session at the end of May — and she’s right. What do I, a human resources–American studies major whose only travels beyond our borders have been to the United States, know about China? I know that in the past ten years, China has experienced growth unlike any economy. I know that China’s relationship with the United States is increasingly complex. I know that back-to-back episodes of If You Are the One probably isn’t the best way to prepare for a six-week stint in China, and I know the US Studies Centre’s Shanghai program is an incredible opportunity for growth and development — both academic and personal.

What I definitely do not know is a word of Mandarin beyond ni hao, how to correctly hold my chopsticks, or how different university life will be in Shanghai. But as our departure date inches ever closer, my fears are falling away to make room for unbridled excitement. I am so looking forward to seeing firsthand how business is conducted in China, and then heading back to the classroom and combining that experience with my studies in Chinese culture and business practices. I can’t wait to explore a bustling city, and wander through night markets and discover hidden treasures. In my eyes there is very little that can go wrong, and I expect it will only get better as we are able to immerse ourselves in a city and a culture with a rich and vibrant history. I can’t wait to jump in head first.

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