Black Lives Matter... everywhere

By Leah Craven in Saint Paul, Minnesota

2 September 2015

Leah Craven is the recipient of the 2015 US Studies Centre–World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States. This post was originally published at the World Press Institute blog.

The fraught relationship between police and the African American community in the United States played out on television screens across the world, as riots broke out in many states in response to a spate of deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement.

The depth of the anger and despair of the protestors who took to the streets highlighted to the international community the level of injustice African Americans feel occurs within their community. Many felt that the deceased men were portrayed as thugs and drug dealers, when in some cases they were simply walking down the street — unarmed.

Tensions between the African American community and police can be traced back to the harsh slave patrols, through to segregation under the Jim Crow laws, to police brutality during the civil rights movement.

"It's been a relationship that's been strained from very early times,” says Tanya Gladney, Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St Thomas University.

“Police are a symbolic image that’s seen as denying justice. But at the time they were just upholding the law because there were unjust laws.”

Although laws have changed, the legacy of the injustice cannot be underestimated. Associate professor Tanya Gladney says it is crucial to consider the impact of the psychological wounding that has occurred across generations when assessing the recent deaths of young black men.

“It’s almost like a trigger that strikes up old wounds from historical times with the feeling that law enforcement is seen as an oppression. It’s an entity that dominates and oppresses the African American community.”

“When you’re trying to restore that trust and these current events are taking place, they continue to fragment.”

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted in July found that six in 10 Americans think race relations in their country are poor, and four in 10 believe they are getting worse.

Despite the removal of discriminatory laws, if you are black in America, you are more likely to be less educated, poor, go to jail, and die in custody than the rest of the population.

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Many parallels can be drawn with the indigenous community in Australia. If you are indigenous in Australia you also are more likely to be less educated, poor, go to jail, and die in custody. Mistrust of law enforcement also has a historical context. It is rooted in the Stolen Generations, when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents by white authorities. Today, the likelihood of arrest is about 20 times greater for an indigenous Australian than the rest of the population. And like young African Americans, young indigenous men complain of racial-profiling by police, as they feel they are unfairly targeted and harassed.

You don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to see the tension. Some years ago I went to a local police station in Sydney to report a crime. The police officers treated me with respect, and my complaint was taken seriously and investigated.

However, during that same visit I saw a very different side of the police force. Two indigenous teenagers had been brought in for questioning because their boyfriends were suspected of committing a crime, and could not be located. The girls sat quietly in the lobby waiting for their interview.

As the officer approached to escort the girls to an interview room he launched into an unprovoked verbal attack, “you little sluts, tell us where they are.”

The contempt was mutual. The girls responded, “you scum, you think you’re above the law.”

The exchange continued along these lines for about ten minutes.

I was astounded. As a middle-class white person, I had never seen anything like it.

While the similarities in police–community relations in Australia and the United States are clear, there is one crucial difference — in America minor infractions can escalate into a gun being fired.

From an Australian perspective, part of the problem in the United States appears to be gun control. Given guns are easily accessible to civilians, police understandably fear deadly violence. It’s a dangerous job and an officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift.

Guns have been outlawed for two decades in Australia, and there has been a dramatic reduction of incidents of gun violence as a result. It would be rare for an Australian police officer to be shot at by a civilian, because the vast majority of people do not have guns. For that reason, the threshold is much higher before an officer would even consider reaching for a weapon.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor and Black Lives Matters activist, says while widespread gun ownership issue is certainly an issue in the United States, the root of the problem is much more complex than gun laws.

Like Gladney, she believes the current situation can be linked to the historical oppression of African Americans by white authorities.

“There’s a racial aspect here that has its roots in slavery in terms of hyper-fear of African Americans in general and in particular of African American men. During the days of slavery when black men tried to escape from plantations they were seen as fugitives, they were seen as dangerous — there was a lot of propaganda that was put out there, posters and other things that portrayed them in a very menacing way. Those perceptions have continued,” Levy-Pounds says.

“There is a widespread perception of black men as being prone to criminal conduct. Those perceptions of black men as being portrayed as dangerous play a role in terms of how they are treated when they come into contact with law enforcement.”

Levy-Pounds was a legal observer in Ferguson during the riots. She was deeply concerned by a group of white civilians who called themselves “The Oathkeepers.” They stood on the rooftops of businesses armed with guns — but had travelled from interstate and had no connection to the properties they were supposedly protecting.

“If these had been African American men standing on the rooftops with rifles — there is no way the police would have allowed this to happen.”

The fact that these white men were allowed to intimidate people with weapons, and unarmed black men have been shot by police for a minor infraction, doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of police-community relations in some parts of the country.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Police departments across the United States will soon be compelled to offer their staff anti-bias training. Officers are likely to use more force depending on the level of threat they perceive and the training is designed to compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to consider black men a greater threat than others.

Both Australia and the United States have progressed in leaps and bounds when it comes to improving opportunities for minority groups over the past few decades. But it’s very clear that when it comes to police–community relations, there’s still a long way for both countries to go.


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Our racist counterparts

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 June 2015

Those of you who weren't at the Centre's recent Police Violence and Protest in America panel event missed a great discussion, but the good news is you can catch up with it right here, courtesy of ABC Radio National's Big Ideas, who broadcast the event.

One moment I thought stood out was a point made by our lecturer David Smith on the temptation of many white Australians to look at recent turmoil in Ferguson or Baltimore and see it as symptomatic of an American pathology from which we here are fortunately shielded:  

One thing I've learnt ... having lived in the US, having a lot of relatives in England, is that when you're a white person in a white-dominated society, the other country's white-domination is always worse than yours. In Britain, and even in the United States, Australia is often a shorthand for horrific racism, but our mental model of racism here is often the US South; I was shocked by things that I heard just in casual conversation in Britain. And I think that we always tend to see structures of racial domination in other countries far more clearly than we see our own, and we're often far more likely to rationalise our own structures of racial domination. So the fact that there are Aboriginal communities in [Australia] who live in conditions that are basically like pre–Civil Rights African American communities in the South; the fact that there have been 340 black deaths in custody since the Royal Commission in 1987; I think that sometimes we don't see that as part of the same kind of class of problem.

It's true that the kind of cultural structures that create racism are specific to individual societies, but there is danger in treating America as a spectacle of prejudice that doesn't exist here in ways that are just as damaging. We can learn from watching the United States, but not if we understand it as a cautionary tale that flatters the good opinion we have of ourselves.

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Did Obama just suggest America make voting mandatory?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

19 March 2015

Obama voting

The President and two of his fellow citizens cast voluntary votes 

US media outlets are reporting on something that doesn't have a whole lot to do with the importance of middle class economics, the putative subject of a speech President Obama made at the City Club of Cleveland today. Here's what the Associated Press highlighted, for instance:

They say the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. President Barack Obama wants to add one more: voting.

Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting in the U.S. while speaking to a civic group in Cleveland on Wednesday. Asked about the corrosive influence of money in U.S. elections, Obama digressed into the related topic of voting rights and said the U.S. should be making it easier — not harder— for people to vote.

Just ask Australia, where citizens have no choice but to vote, the president said.

Iiiiinteresting. But just how forcefully did Obama back a transition to an Australian-style voting system? Here's the video of the event; the question that inspires the president's musings, about campaign spending limits, begins at the 1:06:58 mark:

Obama begins his response with discussion of the negative affect of money on politics, and the difficulty of overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that made it easier for Americans to donate to parties and candidates. Then he turns his attention to creative ways of overcoming the influence of money:

I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I’m going to go ahead and say it now. I don’t think we should be making it harder to vote, I think we should be making it easier to vote and — what I haven’t said… I’ve said that publicly before. So my Justice Department is going to be vigorous in terms of trying to enforce voting rights; I gave a speech down in Selma, at the fiftieth anniversary that was incredibly moving for me and my daughters, and the notion that in this day and age, that we would be deliberately trying to restrict the franchise makes no sense. And at the state and local levels, you can push back against that and make sure we’re expanding the franchise, not restricting it. In Australia and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map of this country. Because the people who tend not to vote, they’re young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups. And they’re often the folks who are scratching and climbing to get into the middle class and they’re working hard. There’s a reason why some folks want to keep them away from the polls, but we should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term. In the long term, I think it would be fun to have a constitutional amendment process about how our financial system works. But realistically, given the requirements of that process, that would be a long-term proposition.

This isn't exactly a full-throated embrace of the Australian voting system; on the face of it, it's really more of an endorsement of inclusive franchise laws and high turnout elections. Yet the only thing the President mentions here that he hasn't said publicly before is mandatory voting, which he says would be "transformative." He definitely seems to like the idea, but he pitches it as more of a pipe dream than a solid proposal. (On the other hand, when he says "that may end up being a better strategy in the short term," does he mean boosting turnout or actually mandating voting.)

To be clear, there is no way the United States will adopt an Australian-style voting system. For a start, the Constitution gives the states the responsibility of running elections, so the only way to get a nation-wide mandatory voting requirement passed would be for all fifty states to agree to it. Furthermore, there's a very good chance such a law would be unconstitutional; I can see a decent argument that requiring someone to vote would be a form of compelled speech, something the court has previously ruled is a violation of the First Amendment. And, finally, the US's individualistic culture seems a poor fit with a mandatory voting law; I expect that even if one were enacted, it would be so widely flouted that enforcement would be next to impossible. Australia's high turnout rates — and the US's low ones — have as much to do with our respective cultures as our laws. Whether Obama likes it or not, Americans will not any time soon be forced by law to vote.

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Getting defensive

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

7 July 2014

China Airborne

Here's something from (Centre visiting fellow) James Fallows's excellent 2012 book China Airborne:

Each national culture has a point about which it is most defensive, because on that point it has its own most serious doubts. You can’t provoke most Americans by pointing out that the country has had a very warlike record for a very long time. Many Americans view this heritage as an achievement rather than a failing, and even those who don’t aren’t likely to feel insulted or personally threatened by this critique.

Yet let a foreigner tell an American that the country is “declining,” and there will be a reaction. Denial, assent, an argument that there’s still hope — something. The intensity of the reaction obviously underscores the point that this is one of Americans’ longstanding sources of self-doubt. Other countries — Japan, Germany, England, Russia — have similar points of defensiveness. What is most deeply concerning to a culture (as for most individuals or families) is often the most difficult or infuriating for outsiders to bring up.

As Jim suggests in his still wonderful 2010 essay, "How America Can Rise Again," this isn't a new insecurity for the United States. I connect it to the nation's exceptionalist roots — Winthrop's City Upon a Hill; Jefferson's self-evident truths — which create not just an ideal but also its negative: if America is the world's last best hope, that means that hope might fail. To consider America to be the world's one indispensable nation, we must imagine a world in which America has been dispensed with.

I'd add to the fear of decline that America's other insecurity is the notion that it might not be united. I say, not infrequently, that to discern a country's deepest anxieties, one must look to its name: Democratic Republics Of Wherever are usually not, and such. And the United States is so insistent on its unity because it fears so deeply that, unlike other nations, which are built on ancient ethnic bonds, its polity, built on ideology, might not be able to endure.

This is why the spectre of extreme partisanship is so important to American political discourse, why George Washington feared party politics, and why every president who comes along promises to mend the electorate's divides. It's why region is so important to Americans, and why the national bonds between Northerner and Southerner, or Easterner and Westerner, or between black and white, that appear so obvious to the outsider can seem so fragile to the insider. It's why the Civil War is always so central to America's understanding of itself and the way it shapes its future: this is the moment the country came closest to disunity, but was also its most forceful affirmation of its unity.

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Jim goes on:

In modern China, one of these always sensitive subjects is the idea of China's full "equality" or maturity in modern international society, especially to the white Western nations that for centuries have been in economic and political control. (Competition with Japan is a separate and equally tangled political question.) This is the significance of the phrase "Hundred Years of Humiliation" to describe China's period of subjugation to foreigners and the repeated insistence by Chinese spokesmen on full dignity, equality, and respect in international dealings.

And later, on Chinese concerns of "splittism":

Chinese people who are familiar with American history point out the many similarities between the current Han attitude and the drive toward Manifest Destiny thinking in the United States from the nineteenth century onward.

As for Australia's national insecurity, I'm tempted to suggest something about fairness, but that might be too myopic, too concerned with current political disputes, and too ignorant of our underlying paranoias, the sort I can't easily grapple with because, like all my countrypeople, I'm captive to them. So perhaps the correct answer is the question of whether Australia matters: are we influential, do people care about us, does the world realize that we are as important as we think we are? Or, to ground that question in familiar terms: has the tyranny of distance defeated us?


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In China, whither ANZUS?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 June 2014

Sarah Ferguson's interview with Hillary Clinton on 7:30 this evening included a rather ambivalent consideration from the potential presidential nominee of how the ANZUS Treaty applies to any potential conflict the US might have with China. From the transcript:

SARAH FERGUSON: So what would happen, God forbid, if there was a conflict with China over those islands? Could that trigger the ANZUS alliance with Australia?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I hope we never even get close to thinking about that seriously because I hope that cooler heads will prevail. But I don't understand the aggressive posture that China is taking, declaring air defence zones and informing people they can't fly through what is international air space without getting Chinese permission. We of course are paying no attention to that. Pushing around the little Philippines, claiming property, small rocks and shoals, confronting Vietnam over its efforts to determine whether they have resources in what are clearly territorial waters. That should not go without an international and certainly a regional reaction. And what I tried to do as Secretary of State, working very closely with Australia, was to put together a regional alternative, a code of conduct, if you will. Now China hasn't bought off on that yet, but I think you have to keep pressing it because they don't want to be embarrassed or have the rest of the region basically claim that they are behaving in an aggressive manner, so this has to be a joint effort by all parties affected.

That's a lot of words, none of which are yes or no. And though the Treaty is worded so as to offer the respective parties some wriggle room, it's text suggests a Chinese attack on the US over the Senkaku would trigger the Treaty. Article IV:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

And Article V: armed attack on any of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of any of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott seemed in closer accordance with the Treaty's text when he told US President Barack Obama last week that "Australia will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States." As my colleague Tom Switzer pointed out in The Drum, however, Abbott's defence minister David Johnston seems to have quite a different idea about the Treaty's terms:

The Washington definition of a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. David Johnston may have met that definition last night on the ABC's Lateline. When pressed by host Tony Jones on whether the US alliance "commits Australia ... if the US is in a conflict in our region", the Australian Defence Minister said: "I don't believe it does."

When Alexander Downer made similar remarks 10 years ago, he was widely denounced, not least by the Americans, privately at least. At the time of writing, no one, including the Prime Minister, has clarified the Defence Minister's frank remark. Perhaps Johnston's response to Jones' important question has more significance for US–Australia relations than the White House meeting today.

Clinton's response was far more elegant — and hence far less contentious — than Johnston's, but each has in common a reluctance to acknowledge that US and Australian security commitments could one day put the nations in conflict with China. 

I'm inclined to believe conflict between the US and China is unlikely. No one would benefit from war in East Asia, and as much as all parties involved might like to stake out advantage where they can, there's little sign of the sort of genuine hot-headedness that turns foreign policy miscalculation into disaster. Australia will likely never have to choose between the US and China. But, regardless of the reluctance of politicians to speak it aloud, if the worst were to happen, Australia's already made its decision.

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Tony's Newt idea

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

13 January 2014

Australian PM Tony Abbott and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

It's not often I'm stumped by references to US politics in Australian news, but I gotta admit, when I read the lead story in today's Oz, I was thrown for a bit of a loop. The context: Aussie PM Tony Abbott has announced plans for a "repeal day," in which the government would "seek to abolish more than 8000 redundant federal laws ... as part of its plan to slash red and green tape by $1 billion a year." I don't have a strong stance either way on whether this is a good idea (which laws? redundant according to whom?); it was a later graf that confused me:

The "repeal day" concept is borrowed from the US, where congress has regular repeal days. The West Australian parliament also stages an annual repeal day. The federal government plans to hold two a year.

Uh, wait... what? This was the first I'd ever heard of the concept! What are these regular repeal days Congress supposedly conducts? And how could they possibly work? After all, the Congressional legislative schedule is highly dependent on the committee system; Madisonian democracy is not designed to permit governments to pass tranches of legislation all at once. And considering the House and the Senate run their affairs separately, and are often controlled by different parties, whence the comity and coordination a Repeal Day would require?

I smelled a rat. And I was right to. It turns out Congress does not currently conduct regular repeal days. And though it once did, it only did so as a half-baked political stunt engineered by DC's crown prince of half-baked political stunts, Newt Gingrich.

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The details:

First of all, if Repeal Day is anything in the US, it's the anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment, the one that repealed prohibition. Even in this regard, however, it's mostly a marketing stunt for various entities with an interest in Americans drinking more — the Museum of the American Cocktail, beer industry lobbyists looking for tax cuts, the MillerCoors brewing company. There are also occasional references to Repeal Day marking the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Nothing about red tape though.

Prohibition ends

If this is the government's plan for Australian Parliament... well, actually, I don't have a problem with that

So where does the idea that Prime Minister Abbott's "repeal day" has its roots in American politics come from? A 2012 media statement from Western Australian premier Colin Barnett provides a clue:

Repeal Day concept similar to ‘Corrections Calendar’ procedure of US House of Representatives

Aha! And what is the Corrections Calendar procedure?

Turns out it was a scheme dreamed up by failed presidential candidate and former House speaker Newt Gingrich and adopted by the House (n.b. not Congress) in 1997. A 2003 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report provides the background:

On June 20, 1995, the House of Representatives passed a resolution (H.Res. 168) by a 271 to 146 vote to create an expedited procedure to repeal or correct laws, rules, and regulations that are, as then Rules Chairman Gerald Solomon stated, "obsolete, ludicrous, duplicative, burdensome, or costly." The resolution amended the House rulebook by repealing the Consent Calendar and replacing it with a new Corrections Calendar.

Bills placed on the Corrections Calendar were to be ones that were "ambiguous, arbitrary, or ludicrous," had broad bipartisan support, and had been favourably reported by a committee. The speaker would introduce the bills after consultation with the minority leader, debate would be limited to one hour, the bills could not be amended, and, due to this suspension of regular House rules, would require a three-fifths majority for passage. 

There are clear problems with comparing the Abbott proposal with the Gingrich one. For a start, though the House is the more majoritarian of the two Congressional chambers, party discipline is nowhere near as tightly controlled as that in the lower house of a Westminster parliament. Further, the crucial supermajority requirement is completely missing from the Australian proposal. What's more, while both the Australian and US legislatures have powerful upper chambers, in Australia, the Senate is the weaker of the two, whereas in the US, the Senate can more than match the House — the Australian House of Reps is a comparatively more powerful body than its US counterpart. And finally, where the Gingrich proposal sought to rapidly deal with legislation on which there was broad consensus, if the Government's media release is any guide, the Abbott government plans to use "Repeal Day" to push forward a decidedly partisan agenda:

Mr Pyne said repeal day would provide MPs with an opportunity to highlight the cost of the more than 21,000 new regulations introduced by the Rudd and Gillard governments and the Coalition’s plan to cut the ineffective and inefficient regulation.

“It’s vitally important that the Parliament moves to address the burden of regulation that is strangling our economy.”

“On repeal day, Members will be able to outline clearly to their constituents the benefits of reducing the volume and cost of Labor’s red and green tape.

Now, there's nothing wrong per se with pushing partisan agenda; it's what governments who win elections are supposed to do. But this has very little to do with the noncontroversial sprucing for which the US Corrections Calendar was designed.

Then again, maybe it does. After all, Gingrich was a speaker who approached politics as warfare and considered stunts to be meaningful achievements in and of themselves, and it looks like the Corrections Calendar was more about messaging than efficient government. Here's how the New York Times reported the very first bill passed by the procedure:

The House of Representatives today inaugurated a procedure to allow lawmakers to overturn unnecessary Government rules and proved that one politician's case of bureaucratic overkill is another's essential safeguard.

On the first test of what Speaker Newt Gingrich calls Corrections Day, the House voted, 269 to 156, to give San Diego a permanent exemption from the Clean Water Act's requirement that the city thoroughly purify sewage before piping it deep into the Pacific Ocean.

As matter of substance, the vote had little meaning. The Environmental Protection Agency has already promised to give San Diego a five-year, renewable exemption from the law. In addition, the measure approved today is identical to a provision in amendments to the Clean Water Act that the House approved in May. And the Senate is unlikely to approve the legislation no matter how many times the House passes it.

The San Diego case was Gingrich's favourite example of a "dumb" regulation, his first act of business under his new procedure, and yet it was a problem that had already been solved before the vote had been held. And Corrections Day was devoted to contentious concerns from the start. As the Times continued:

When the House approved the Corrections Day procedure last month, Mr. Gingrich said his intention was to use it for measures that were not controversial. But the 269 votes in favor of the bill today were only 14 more than the 60 percent needed.

Not only was the procedure used for unnecessary ends, its very existence was probably superfluous. The 2003 CRS report said:

[T]he Consent Calendar fell into disuse as the House increasingly employed other procedures (unanimous consent or suspension of the rules) to process noncontroversial or relatively noncontroversial legislation ... Subsequently, public hearings were held on the Corrections Day concept ... Some witnesses also wondered why existing procedures, such as suspension of the rules, could not be employed for corrections legislation.

Sure enough, Gingrich's grandiose political manoeuvring proved to have a short shelf life. A 2005 CRS report eulogises the Corrections Calendar, euthanised that year by the House:

Repeal of the Corrections Calendar. H.Res. 5 amended the House rules in several places to remove all mention of the “Corrections Calendar,” a procedural device created in the 104th Congress to expedite the consideration of legislation that corrected, or eliminated, ambiguous laws and regulations.


The procedure was used with some frequency during the 104th Congress, but its use declined markedly in succeeding Congresses. Twenty-one bills were considered from the Corrections Calendar in the 104th Congress, but in the three subsequent Congresses (105th-107th) a total of eight bills were considered using the procedure. No bills were considered from the Corrections Calendar in the 108th Congress. House leaders concluded that the purpose of the Corrections Calendar could be more easily achieved through the use of other procedures for the consideration of legislation such as unanimous consent or suspension of the rules.

This is a quintessential Gingrich stunt: a piece of political communication disguised as government reform, a vainglorious launch, and an ignoble finish after its promise proved to be entirely illusory. That's not to say that the Abbott government's plan will necessarily take on the same characteristics. But let's not pretend Australia is adopting a regular and proven function of US government. It's an adaptation of a mercurial fancy of one of contemporary America's most destructive politicians and it was quietly jettisoned close to a decade ago when it proved to be completely unnecessary.


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The libertarian

By Evin Donohoe in Sydney, Australia

15 November 2013

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Dr. Adam Lockyer. You can see more of their posts here

After a recent mass-shooting in the US this September — where twelve people were killed at a Navy Yard in the nation's capital — Barack Obama once again assumed his least relished role as president: that of Comforter in Chief. 

Sounding like the worst kind of broken record, Obama went through his list of now-familiar exhortations. He channelled the collective outrage of a nation powerless to stop harming itself. He rolled out statistics of gun ownership linked to gun deaths. He called, again, for stronger background checks on gun permits, something that Congress has refused to allow in spite of overwhelming popular support. And Obama praised other nations, including Australia, for enacting strong gun control measures in the face of national tragedies. But are these strong measures that liberal Americans regularly commend us for at risk in the new parliament? 

Australia’s gun reforms were one of those rare legislative unicorns: large-scale, sweeping laws that enjoyed broad popular support, despite some strong resistance from particular constituencies such as farmers, and, arguably, have achieved what they set out to do. There have been no gun massacres in Australia since 1996 and the rate of decline in gun deaths has doubled.

There is much debate and dissent as to the effectiveness of gun control laws. Very few areas of public policy are as rich in quotable studies and statistics, allowing policy-makers and commentators of any ilk (myself included) to cherry-pick the metrics that support only their views. Yet the fact remains that Australia’s gun laws are a paragon of effective legislation among gun control advocates both at home and abroad. 

Enter Senator-elect for New South Wales David Leyonhjelm. He immediately made noise with claims that it was “an objective fact” that the Sandy Hook Massacre would have been avoided if teachers had been armed and that John Howard’s gun reforms had made no difference to gun deaths (a statement Politifact rated as "mostly false"). Leyonhjelm’s most headline-grabbing policies (legalisation of marijuana, dissolution of public bodies, pro-gay marriage, and pro-guns) cast him as a US-style libertarian, a brand of politician increasingly typical in America but a genuine curiosity in this country. Despite the not insignificant popular support that his pro-equality, pro-weed stances will bring him in certain progressive electorates, his inability to get on board with the one thing John Howard ever did that people overwhelmingly agree on could hurt him.

It’s hard to imagine Leyonhjelm’s call for softer gun laws gaining traction here anytime soon. Melbourne shootings in 2002 and 2007 resulted in even tougher gun laws and helped initiate further gun buybacks. News out of South Australia last month is that they’re introducing further gun control legislation as a response to an uptick in gun crime. However, Leyonhjelm’s position as a Senate cross-bencher and his status as a relative political oddity will keep him in the spotlight for the next six years. If he spends his political capital wisely and is able to tap into and excite populist support amongst those Australians who are pro-guns, then he may succeed in re-opening the debate on gun control just a crack, or at least pushing the Overton Window far enough towards one that he's able to tee it up for the future. 

There is much, both culturally and structurally, that Australia borrows from America but there’s just as much that we spurn, in many ways adhering to the axiom “do it second, do it right.” Australia’s approach to guns, then, is best summed up in by John Howard:

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"I did not want Australia to go down the American path. There are some things about America I admire and there are some things I don't. And one of the things I don't admire about America is their ... slavish love of guns. They're evil"

America’s extreme divisiveness on the issue verges on the schizophrenic. It’s a place where Bill Clinton, a Democratic president who passed two major gun control bills* and recently hit a winner with progressives by linking gun reform with voting rights, can, with a straight face, say that one of his favourite TV shows is 24­a gun-loving, torture-praising action drama that more resembles a Dick Cheney wet dream than anything describable as “reality.”

On guns, Australia isn’t even in the same ballpark as America and won’t be for a long time, if ever. But with the election of a pro-gun libertarian to the Senate, it's no longer a purely intellectual exercise for us. For the next six years, at least, guns are back on the agenda.

* It does behove the personal, if not political, survival of any US president to advocate gun control, seeing as guns are the leading cause of death among sitting US presidents. Of the eight presidential deaths in office, four were a result of gunfire. With a 9.3% chance of being shot and killed (four out of forty-three presidents), and with a direct, explicit ability to drive legislation that would help prevent that from happening, I’m pretty sure I’d be pushing for stricter gun laws too.


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Shutdown effects not confined to US

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

15 October 2013

Here at the Centre today we held a briefing on the political and economic consequences of the US overnment shutdown, featuring analysis from Centre CEO Bates Gill and visiting scholar and senior international economist with Westpac Bank Huw McKay. You can nowload and listen to the whole thing here, and I'd recommend doing so; both Bates and Huw were able to give the subject the kind of detailed analysis you don't readily find in the media. 

One part from Huw's presentation [PDF] I'd particularly emphasise is his prediction that the resolution to the shutdown will have such significant economic effects that worldwide economic growth predictions for 2014, including for Australia, should be downgraded:

Growth expectations for 2014

The WBC figures are Huw's revised predictions — note that he has the Eurozone going from weak growth to negative growth and Australia downgraded from 2.75 to 2.3 per cent.

Huw comments:

We really should be revising our growth numbers down for 2014 — for the US and for the world — once you go through what any possible deal could look like and what it would mean in terms of concessions on other side. We have some experience on this front, and every time it's come with either sequestration or some sort of concession on entitlements, some sort of concession on other aspects of discretionary spending, and it's always meant that the drag on economic growth from the public balance sheet has increased. Most of the uplift ... from growth in the calendar year 2013 and 2014 — most of that is actually predicated on the fiscal drag disappearing and that manifesting itself in improved economic growth.

Now, we think that the authorities in the United States actually understimated fiscal drag in the current year and there's still some of that to come through, and we also think that fiscal drag should be embodied in 2014 and their underlying fiscal assumptions are a little softer anyway. But if you don't want to forecast the 2.6 — which the IMF is now talking about for the United States — and you do build all of this in, well your 3.6 for the world doesn't make any sense either. The rest of the world needs the US to be strong, if they are to grow at their potential rates. If the US is weak, as we anticipate it wil be, you'd have to start making very, very different assumptions about the emerging markets and also the advanced countries, that one per cent for Europe, which you look at next year, much of that is predicated on the Europeans being able to send goods outside the zone. And if the US is softer, their ability to do so will be less. If the US is soft, the emerging markets will do less well, and Europeans will sell less goods in the emerging markets. Everybody is linked here. And so there is a cascading effect — a very large cascading effect —in terms of growth expectations and any downgrade of US growth prospects will bring with it. So we shouldn't be under any misconceptions here: this political malaise has economic consequences for the US economy in '14 and consequences for the rest of us.

What does that mean? Basically that, from experience, we can know that this won't end without the Republicans demanding some concession in the form of reduced spending, and reduced spending is exactly what the US economy doesn't need right now. So if the GOP gets its cuts, the American economy will be weakened and so too, accordingly, will that of the rest of the world.

Here's Huw specifically on the impact on Australia:

The Reserve Bank of Australia's view on economic growth here, that is preconditioned on improvements in the US economy, improvements in the global economy, and the backstop that would give us in a difficult time as we transition away from mining-led economic growth. We're not so optimistic there, and that's one of the reasons why we think interest rates will be coming down in Australia in early 2014 and not be remaining on hold. 

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Obama 2012 and the Australian election

By Evin Donohoe in Sydney, Australia

30 September 2013

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Dr. Adam Lockyer. You can see more of their posts here

The Australian federal election resembled a US presidential contest more than any one prior. Former prime minister Julia Gillard's January announcement of an election date set the tone from the outset, creating a de facto, months-long campaign reminiscent of the long term primary contests seen in the United States. Indeed, one could even compare Gillard's June 26 ousting to a US incumbent losing her party's nomination contest to an outside challenger.

With Kevin Rudd reclaiming the leadership, we were reminded that he was alternately praised and scoffed at in 2007 for running a “presidential” style, candidate-centric campaign, successfully creating and trading off of (in the short term at least) a cult of personality. This year saw K-Rudd Version 2.1 doubling down on the same strategy.

Enjoying a commanding early lead as preferred prime minister and staying ahead while Labor at large was struggling in the polls, he had every incentive (besides even his alleged crushing megalomania) to make the campaign as “American” and as much about himself, as possible.

This forced the opposing Coalition parties to respond in kind. Both major parties were borrowing from the Obama 2012 playbook. Most visibly, each solicited multiple “small donors” with relative success, despite one commentator's deriding of the practice as “pitiful for a Prime Minister calling an election.” Anything but pitiful, it was downright presidential. And it was effective. Donating also gives voters a sense of ownership over a campaign, which leads to greater levels of activism and participation. And the extra cash certainly doesn't hurt.

Obama-style voter targeting strategies were credited with helping prevent a Labor wipeout in Western Sydney, and in some cases K-Rudd didn't just borrow Obama's tactics — he borrowed his people to help execute those tactics.

This influence in our democratic process doesn't look like disappearing any time soon, but are the shiny, new-fangled tactics of the Americans the best fit for Australia? How does all this fancy footwork play out on the ground?

I'd volunteered for the Obama 2012 campaign in Virginia and a friend, a veteran of the 2010 Adam Bandt campaign in Melbourne, challenged me to work on an election in Australia and compare the two.

Being a fairly decent example of your typical inner west leftie, I went online and contacted the Labor Party, the Greens, and Get Up. The plan was to volunteer for whichever one got back to me first. And then I waited.

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And waited.

And waited.

Labor called after about a week, but only to invite me to a Kevin Rudd campaign event. Rather than press the issue of volunteering, I was by then quite enjoying the waiting game and decided to hold out until someone asked me to volunteer. Finally, a little more than a week out from the election, the Greens called to ask if I could hand out how-to-vote cards. After literally weeks with my hand (half) up, someone had finally taken advantage of it.

That it took weeks for not one but three major political organisations in this country to meaningfully respond to a potential volunteer is telling. In America, volunteers are a vital and precious resource, so much so that a great deal of the work of volunteers is just recruiting more volunteers. That there was anything short of an immediate response in Australia implies that perhaps corralling volunteers simply wasn't a top priority. If so, this represents either a strategic misstep or a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that an army of volunteers simply doesn't have the same impact in Australia as they do in America.

One of the chief goals of an American campaign is to increase voter turnout, and one of the best ways to do this is to just get a ton of people to make as many phone calls and knock on as many doors as possible. But with turnout in Australia being compulsory, the effect of a strong grassroots operation is perhaps a little muted by comparison — although there may be some wiggle-room at the fringes as campaigns will seek to register the growing number of young people not on the electoral roll.

However, despite the less-than-perfect fit, the American tactics are here to stay. In the voluntary-voting, full-moneyed free-for-all of the American system, new tactics and technologies are constantly evolving and those who don't adapt become political prey to their more advanced opponents. Australia, a smaller — and poorer — electorate than the United States, won't have the resources or incentives to evolve at the same pace, leaving strategists here in the luxurious position of watching what the Americans do and cherry-picking the best bits to use here.

Most importantly, it seems to be working.


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Abortion politics not restricted to Texas

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

26 June 2013

Wendy Davis filibustering an abortion bill in Texas

Earlier this month, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard caused a stir when she said the election of opposition leader Tony Abbott could result in "an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better." Jacqueline Maley's response was typical:

Of all possible '90s throwbacks — high-waisted jeans, scrunchies, the music of Mariah Carey — a renewed debate about abortion law has to be the least welcome. Isn't this something we settled more than a decade ago?

As Anne Summers wrote, criticism of Gillard wasn't restricted to the right:

Yet she has been roundly attacked for doing so, and not by the usual misogynist mainstream media crowd. Before they could even get their gleeful paws on the story and trumpet, yet again, how foolish and misguided the PM was to re-engage the "gender wars", they were — astonishingly — knocked out of the ring by the dismissive comments of several feminists.

Gillard's speech was "a rather desperate attempt to exploit the gender tensions that exist in our society," proclaimed academic Eva Cox. She described it as "rather limp, probably professionally devised".

Destroy the Joint bandwaggoneer Jane Caro weighed in, attacking Gillard for raising the issue of abortion: "Strategically, this is not something that should be shouted loudly from the rooftops and certainly not by our first female PM," she wrote in Fairfax Media on Wednesday. Then there was the "Sorry Julia. But women aren't buying your gender wars" headline on the usually Gillard-friendly mamamia website.

Peter Hartcher provides the background:

But the attempt to exploit abortion took Gillard into a league of political desperation unseen since McMahon. Much of the media reporting this week has described it as an abortion "debate".

But there is no real debate. Neither main party has any intention of changing the status quo. It is a settled matter. It was settled 40 years ago. It was settled in favour of legalised abortion. It is merely posturing and innuendo by Gillard in an attempt to create a fear campaign.


Abortion became legally available not because of a parliamentary act but because of a 1972 decision of Justice Levine in the NSW Supreme Court in the case of Regina versus Wald. The argument in the political arena was irrelevant to the law.

Australia's opinion on abortion politics is that they're a problem we don't have. We cringe at the United States' public tussles between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. Many of us feel relieved that abortion isn't under constant threat from conservative demagogues. The unfortunate thing is, however, our understanding is entirely backwards. For the most part, abortion rights are protected more strongly in the US than in Australia. The refusal of Australians to make abortion a political issue, as Prime Minister Gillard did, has resulted in laws that are far more restrictive and tenuous than those of even the most conservative American states.

Take Texas, for instance. Today has seen a great deal of attention directed at the legislature of the Lone Star State, where Wendy Davis, a Democratic senator, has mounted a 13 hour–long filibuster to prevent the state senate from taking up a bill that would greatly restrict access to abortion for women in the state:

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Wearing pink tennis shoes to prepare for nearly 13 consecutive hours of standing, a Democratic Texas state senator on Tuesday began a one-woman filibuster to block a GOP-led effort that would impose stringent new abortion restrictions across the nation's second-most populous state.

Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth began the filibuster at 11:18 a.m. CDT Tuesday. To derail a vote in the GOP-dominated Senate, she must keep speaking on the bill until midnight — the deadline for the end of the 30-day special session.

Before Davis began speaking, her chair was removed. reports that Davis must speak continuously — and stay on topic — the entire time. She is not allowed to lean against something for support. And she will not be able to stop or take a break, not even for meals or the restroom, during the entire 13-hour ordeal.

Thank god, Australians have been thinking, while we tweet encouraging remarks using the #standwithwendy hashtag, that this is not part of our politics. Thank god Australian women do not have such a tenuous hold on their rights. Only, what would the bill Senator Davis is filibustering do?

The bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require abortion clinics to meet the same standards that hospital-style surgical centers do, and mandate that a doctor who performs abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Supporters of the bill, including the governor and other top Republicans, said the measures would protect women’s health and hold clinics to safety standards, but women’s rights advocates said the legislation amounted to an unconstitutional, politically motivated attempt to shut legal abortion clinics. The bill’s opponents said it would most likely cause all but 5 of the 42 abortion clinics in the state to close, because the renovations and equipment upgrades necessary to meet surgical-center standards would be too costly.

Now compare this to abortion law in an Australian state like Western Australia:

Legal up to 20 weeks, some restrictions particularly for under 16s. Very restricted after 20 weeks.


After 20 weeks of pregnancy, two medical practitioners from a panel of six appointed by the Minister have to agree that the mother or unborn baby has a severe medical condition. These abortions can only be performed at a facility approved by the Minister.

Or South Australia and Tasmania:

Legal if two doctors agree that a woman’s physical and/or mental health endangered by pregnancy, or for serious foetal abnormality. Referral for counselling compulsory in Tasmania. Unlawful abortion a crime. *NB An abortion law reform bill has been passed by the Tasmanian lower house in April 2013, and is awaiting debate by the state's upper house. If passed it decriminalise abortion on request to 16 weeks gestation, and after that point if two doctors approve.

The Texas law would still be as liberal as those of some Australian states!

Which doesn't mean it's a good law. Nor does it mean it's a constitutional one. In the US, unlike Australia, women have a constitutional right to privacy; the Supreme Court has ruled that a state must allow abortions until the point of foetal viability. Under current precedent, the proposed Texas law would violate the US Constitution.

Australians — or, at least, those who care about women's rights — should look at the battles of the US and see a country willing to protect its citizens' freedoms, not a citizenry fighting over issues we are too mature to make the stuff of politics.


There is nonetheless one area in which Australia betters the US where abortion rights are concerned: public funding. Stephanie Peatling explains:

But the area where the Commonwealth plays a huge role in relation to abortion is Medicare funding.

The Commonwealth could decide to no longer provide public funds for pregnancy terminations. It could reduce the level of funding or change the circumstances under which women receive rebates.

Like any other health service cost is a factor for people when deciding whether or not to go ahead with a procedure.

The US doesn't have a system of universal health care like Australia. But it does provide some government support of health care, for instance, with Medicaid and now the Affordable Care Act. But a 1976 law known as the Hyde Amendment bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortions except in the case of rape or incest. Australia is clearly far more progressive than the US in this regard.


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NSA surveillance: The Australian dimension

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

11 June 2013

One defence the US government has made of its until-recently clandestine programs surveilling electronic communications is that the efforts are targeted at foreigners — President Obama, for instance, said in a press briefing "with respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to US citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States." Or, as The Guardian report on the NSA's leaked PowerPoint slides detailing the PRISM program put it:

The presentation claims Prism was introduced to overcome what the NSA regarded as shortcomings of Fisa warrants in tracking suspected foreign terrorists. It noted that the US has a "home-field advantage" due to housing much of the internet's architecture. But the presentation claimed "Fisa constraints restricted our home-field advantage" because Fisa required individual warrants and confirmations that both the sender and receiver of a communication were outside the US.

The idea here being essentially that because the US has commercial dominance within the tech industry, its citizens deserve special treatment when it comes to privacy. Which is all very well if you're a US citizen — and it is little wonder American politicians are making this defence, since US citizens are the ones who vote them in and out of office — but it's not so reassuring if you're one of us unfortunate souls who spend our lives outside the last, best hope of the world. (Note that the oft-overheated discussion about drones has been dominated by the same dynamic.)

This point, that "US citizens and ... people living in the United States" is a set of people that does not include Australians, has seemingly come to Canberra's attention however. From Ellen Fanning's interview with foreign minister Bob Carr on SBS's The Observer Effect on Sunday (h/t Tom Krause):

ELLEN FANNING: Look, Bob, I know you're the Foreign Minister and you're not supposed to, you know — you're supposed to be careful in what you say about the Americans, but how — Obama is standing there saying, "Well, don't worry, it doesn't affect Americans." Hello, hello, over here, down here.

BOB CARR: I would like more information. This story is just breaking. I got a desire to know how it might impinge on the rights and responsibilities ‑ the rights and freedoms of Australians. Beyond that, I'm not going to venture into it because it is in the realm of security and intelligence and there's a longstanding practice on both sides of politics not to comment on that for very obvious reasons.

ELLEN FANNING: Will you ask them about it?

BOB CARR: I'll certainly get a report on what this means for Australia and for Australians.

A report! A please expain is better than nothing, I guess, but it would be good if the Australian government were a bit more forceful in protecting its citizens' from the scrutiny of snooping foreign powers. (Though that may be a bit much to ask considering reports that the Australian federal police are engaged in a warrantless surveillance program of their own.)   

It does not pay to be naïve about this; the US, like all governments, engages in espionage against foreign nations and foreign nationals to protect its own interests. It is not compelled to be concerned for the interests of people who are not subject to its laws. But when this espionage is revealed, foreign governments should not be expected to greet the news happily, and should seek safeguards for their own citizens. That applies particularly to foreign governments that are supposed to be closely allied with the US. German chancellor Angela Merkel's response, for instance, is entirely appropriate. 

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Meanwhile, in the Observer Effect interview, Bob Carr seemed to hint at a purpose of the NSA surveillance: 

The reason for the height of detention to security post September 11 is that some time in the future the attack could be a really substantial one, not just turning planes into bombs at — with the destruction of those thousands of lives, but detonating a nuclear weapon in the heart of a popular city. That's what this is all about after September 11.

It's difficult to know what to make of this though. Is it undisciplined candour from the Foreign Minister? Groundless speculation? Either would fit in with Carr's track record. Either way, if hoovering up millions of phone and internet records is all that stands between the US and a nuclear holocaust, there's certainly no reason for that hoovering to be conducted with such secrecy and so little oversight. 


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Immigration in the American mirror

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

8 April 2013

I've talked before about Australia's habit of using America as a mirror — "Australians feel their history should look like the United States', or, at least, that the United States' history is an apt lens through which Australians can understand their own" — and how this predilection can lead us to misunderstand both ourselves and the US. Bianca Hall illustrates this well in the Sydney Morning Herald today:

The faces of those who step from the navy boats ferrying them to shore from Indonesian fishing vessels on the horizon are strained. One man is helped onto the jetty. His leg is missing below the knee. Others carry babies. The frail and elderly are helped into wheelchairs to make the short journey to the buses waiting to take them to detention centres.

From up close, the sight recalls Emma Lazarus' The New Colossus, the poem to welcome the millions of immigrants to Ellis Island in New York, engraved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty. ''Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.''

But times and attitudes have changed. Since the Hawke government refused to give refugee status to 600 mainly Cambodian boat people who arrived in Australia in 1989, Australian sentiment to those who seek to come to our shores without invitation has been lukewarm.

There is nothing wrong with Hall's argument — that people fleeing oppression have a right to claim asylum in Australia — but the allusion is curious. As much as Australians might like to imagine that, as a new world country, its experience with immigration echoes that of the United States, the similarities are extremely superficial. The American experience with immigration is considerably different to Australia's, and the iconography surrounding the State of Liberty speaks to America and tells us little about Australia.

For much of its history, the US had no immigration laws. The "tired ... poor ... huddled" masses of Lazarus's dedication are economic migrants, the exact thing those seeking to demonise asylum seekers accuse them of being. America has always seen itself as a place of reinvention, where people could leave old economic systems and circumstance behind and reinvent themselves.

Australia has adopted for itself similar rhetoric, but it has historically had a far more complicated relationship with immigration. Indeed, having a lukewarm "sentiment to those who seek to come to our shores without invitation" has rather been the norm. After Federation, the first act passed by Parliament was one that restricted immigration, and in its early years, Australia was not a particularly welcoming place to most outsiders. The nation saw itself as a British place that should legislate to maintain its Britishness. (Americans once upon a time also saw their land as a bastion of Britishness, but that's before they went to war with the United Kingdom and set up a self-governing republic of their own.) Much of the reason Australia ever opened itself up to greater levels of immigration at all is that it feared being invaded by unfriendly (and un-white) neighbours to the north.

That is not to say that Australia has been as hostile to immigration as official policies have suggested. Chinese immigrants have been a part of the country's fabric since the 19th century, the White Australia Act was weakened many years before it was officially revoked, and when we finally did welcome in greater numbers migrants from outside the British isles, we did so wholeheartedly. And America has never been as indiscriminate in welcoming all newcomers as it would like to believe — think of the periodic resurgence of nativist movements from the Know Nothings to the Minutemen, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the race-based legal barriers of its own America introduced once it began regulating immigration. 

But, conceptually, the United States and Australia have had different perspectives on immigration, whether legal, illegal, or for the purpose of claiming asylum since their respective foundings. Using the American experience to understand Australia's obscures, rather than reveals, the truth.

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The US pivot to Asia

By Sinclaire Prowse in Sydney, Australia

26 March 2013

Sinclaire Prowse is a student in the Centre's Master of US Studies program. In this video, she talks to associate professor Brendon O'Connor about the US pivot to Asia, and how Australia's strong military relationship with the US is affecting its ties to other nations in the region.

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A defence of dysfunction

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

1 February 2013

A few weeks ago, during a discussion of the differences between US and Australian politics, a friend expressed frustration over the lack of party discipline in the American system. The thing is, she explained, sometimes individual politicians just have to be willing to suppress their interests for the collective good of the party or else you'll never get anything done. We get that here in Australia. 

It's an understandable sentiment. It's easy to feel pessimistic when John Boehner can't exert any control over his caucus or when rural Democrats distance themselves from President Obama's positions on gun control or climate change. 

However, there's a price to be paid for unanimity, and a danger in creating some monolithic conception of party ideology over and above what its members actually support.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin may have a different view on climate change than most other Democrats. But it's a position that reflects the feelings of his constituents. And to act like there's a duty for him to abide by party norms is to ignore the concerns of the West Virginians who voted him into office. 

Similarly, the rise of the Tea Party has not been a positive development in American politics, but this wasn't some unwanted change forced upon a helpless public. Voters were frustrated with Obamacare and the bleak economic climate. Conservatives were angry with a Republican establishment that they  saw as unwilling to take a hard line stance on spending. The people who showed up to the polls wanted change and they got it.

And  there's something healthy about the fact that an outside political movement could shift the political debate so quickly. That veteran politicians, with more money, name recognition and the support of their party leadership, could be ousted in primary challenges.  

Because while progressives might be frustrated by the changes in the GOP over the last several years the process cuts both ways. Ultimately the same populist  forces and electoral mechanisms that helped the Tea Party come to power also allowed a little known senator from Illinois to upset Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. And that provides a sense of hope for those outside the current system who want to change it. 

The US political system is a messy and often dysfunctional one. And there's countless changes I would want to make to improve its effectiveness. But while a government without primaries and party line votes might be more efficient at times it also sacrifices much when it comes to democratic accountability. And that's not a trade off I'd want to make.

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Incivility and American politics

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

29 November 2012

A tweet by Australian Labor Party MP Steve Gibbons

Here's something to think about next time you hear complaints about how "toxic" or "uncivil" America's political culture is. From today's Sydney Morning Herald:

One Labor MP, Steve Gibbons, was less subtle when he tweeted at 7am that Abbott was a ''douchebag'' and the deputy opposition leader, Julie Bishop, a ''narcissistic bimbo''.

Mr Gibbons is at least a bipartisan insulter — it was he who called Rudd a ''psychopath with a giant ego'' in February — but he was off-script.

Note that this is a member of Australia's federal parliament making these comments — and that an Australian paper found his comments so unremarkable that it only thought fit to bring them up in the 12th and 13th paragraphs of a 15 paragraph story about an entirely unrelated subject. (Gibbons has since deleted the tweets and apologised to "all those offended.")

By contrast, think of the outcry in the US when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson interjected "you lie" during an address by Barack Obama to Congress. Fox News called it "an extraordinary breach of political decorum." In Australian politics, not a parliamentary session goes by without someone or other interrupting to insult his or her political opponents.

Earlier this year, Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, said Australian politics was suffering due to "Americanisation." It was one of those silly statements Australians are wont to make, by which they reason the US is so obviously responsible for anything distasteful in our culture that no supporting evidence needs to be provided. Rather, as folks like Steve Gibbons demonstrate, political nastiness is as Australian as Vegemite or the Boxing Day Test. The US should beware the Australianisation of its politics.

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Attempted democracy

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

5 November 2012

The first time I saw an American election up close was in 2004, when I was living in Bellingham, Washington. Seeing long lines and punch card ballots at my local polling booth*, a thought first struck me that has recurred every so often since: Americans love democracy, but they're so bad at it. I wasn't any more reassured when, that evening, reports out of Ohio told of such poor electoral preparation in minority heavy districts had resulted in people waiting deep into the night to cast a ballot at polls that only remained open due to court order.

For the most part, I'm being unfair here. America's a big country and, for the most part, tales of confusing ballots, voter disenfranchisement, and poor organisation are the exception, not the rule. (Gerrymandering and partisan redistricting, however, is very much the rule.) But my sour take on one of the United States' msot valued traditions pops its head up again every so often, and, well, here's a current report from Florida:

What began Sunday morning as an attempt by the Miami-Dade elections department to let more people early vote devolved into chaos and confusion only days before the nation decides its next president.

Call it the debacle in Doral.

Elections officials, overwhelmed with voters, locked the doors to their Doral headquarters and temporarily shut down the operation, angering nearly 200 voters standing in line outside — only to resume the proceedings an hour later.

As one voter quoted by the Miami Herald said: "This is America, not a third world country ... they should have been prepared." I've voted in elections in Australia for more than a decade and never encountered anything like the experience described by The Herald.

But perhaps my experience is the anomaly. Centre visiting professor Simon Jackman makes a good point about comparisons between :

It isn’t really a fair comparison, since there isn’t such a thing as “US election administration.”

Rather, like national elections themselves, there is a “rich tapestry” (um “wild riot”?) of state and county level election administration systems in the United States, with much variance in law, technologies, budgets, professionalism, partisanship and traditions.

... I’ve been banging on about this for years to Oz journos etc; Australians ought to better understand and appreciate the minor admin miracle that the [Australian Electoral Commission] is.

True! And as such, might I offer a modest proposal to the various US electoral administrators? The AEC has a history of helping other countries run their elections — Cambodia and Namibia are notable examples. America, why not outsource your electoral administration to Australia? Our commission can offer you fair, non-partisan redistricting; efficient polling places without short lines or difficulty of access; and simple, straight-forward ballots that won't have you casting a vote for Pat Buchanan when you wanted to pick Al Gore. 

Think it over and get back to us. America has done so well out of globalisation; why not globalise your elections?

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*On the other hand, one aspect of my visit to an American polling booth was enormously positive. On that day, I went inside and told one of the workers that I was a visitor from Australia and was curious about how Americans conducted their elections. She gave me a sample ballot paper and a couple of "I voted" stickers as souvenirs. Later on, when things had got a bit quieter, I got a chance to try out one of the voting booths and create a few hanging chads on my punch card. Great experience.



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When the levy breaks

By Erin Riley in Sydney, Australia

1 November 2012

Seaside, NJ, after Hurricane Sandy

As the water recedes, and the East Coast is faced with the significant clean up after Hurricane Sandy, it’s probably worth a minute to consider whether it’s possible for the US to mimic the actions Australia took after the Queensland floods.

After a period of significant flooding in Queensland in 2010–11 — covering an area of around a million square kilometres and claiming 44 lives — ­the Queensland state and Australian federal governments faced a pretty large reconstruction bill, both to replace infrastructure and to assist those who couldn’t receive flood insurance.

This isn’t unlike the situation in the US right now. Hurricane Sandy’s bill is difficult to calculate at the moment, but no doubt it will number in the many billions of dollars. And as the Wall Street Journal explained, private insurance companies won’t be on the hook for much of it:

Sandy is expected to become one of the costliest storms ever. But a substantial share of the tab won't be picked up by insurers, because standard homeowners' policies don't cover flood damage.

Instead, an indebted federal flood-insurance program is expected to pay for billions in property damage, while local, state, and federal taxpayers will likely take the lead in financing repairs to subways, roads, and other infrastructure.

As such, the US federal and state governments are likely to face a hefty bill, not unlike their Australian equivalents did after the Queensland floods. So how did the Australians address it?

A couple of months after the floods, the Australian Government passed legislation that would temporarily raise taxes to pay for the reconstruction. All Australians earning over $50,000 per year would pay an extra one per cent tax in the 2011–12 financial year. The levy only applied to people who were not affected by the disaster, and raised about a third of the total needed for reconstruction. The rest of the money required was raised through spending cuts and delaying scheduled infrastructure projects.

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All-in-all, it was a pretty balanced policy that was a sensible response to an unprecedented event.

Yet it’s hard to see the US adopting such a policy. Raising taxes has become such an anathema to the Republican Party in particular that even in the face of overwhelming destruction, the idea of even a temporary raise taxes will be off the table. In reality, paying a small extra amount in tax to help the East Coast rebuild would be a deeply patriotic act. But the notion that taxes should not be raised, except perhaps on the wealthiest Americans (and even then it’s still pretty unpopular), is so deeply embedded in the current American political discourse that not even a major disaster such as Hurricane Sandy could shake it.

Which is a shame, because kicking in a little bit extra for those whose lives have been affected by this would be a pretty decent thing for citizens to do, and the perfect project for a lame duck session.


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Voting: A democratic right or a civic duty

By Blair McVicar in Los Angeles, California

3 August 2012

In Winter 2012, 42 University of Sydney students travelled to Los Angeles as part of the US Studies Centre's UCLA Study Abroad Program. We've asked them to provide us with updates about their experiences while in California. Click here to read more about their experiences.

Uncle Sam wants you to vote

I came to the United States still undecided on how I felt about compulsory voting, and whether it is a good idea or not. Over the past three weeks, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue, and deliberating over it in my head in some depth. However, I am still unable to reach a solid conclusion as to where I stand — and this is perhaps because I am not yet educated enough on all of the repercussions that the issue can have on politics and society.

The fact remains that Australia is one of only a few countries in the world that forces its citizens to enrol to vote, with the expectation that citizens see this as their civic duty. Many Australians find this ethically fulfilling, and take pride in this legal requirement. Even though the penalty for not voting is rather trivial, most Australians still make the effort to turn up to the polling booth on voting day. This appears impressively democratic and helps to ensure that all Australians have the chance to have a say in who represents them. It is comforting to Australians to know that no one has been excluded from this process, either by the law or by the unethical influence of candidates and companies that may attempt to marginalise or repress those who they believe may actively vote against their interests.

In the United States, the approach to voting is rather different. Rather than it being a civic duty per se, it is seen as a democratic right. Being forced to vote in a nation that has always valued individualism and freedom over anything else is seen by many as unethical. It makes little sense to force those who are apolitical and potentially unaware of what they are voting on to turn up to a polling booth. Many would argue in response to this that it is important that everyone has a say in who represents them, regardless of their level of political interest. However this higher notion of democratic inclusion does not always run so smoothly. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, having the choice to vote is more important than the act of voting itself, and this is reflected in the approach of many to the issue of voting in the United States.

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This is where an interesting dichotomy between Australia and the United States begins to take shape. There are vast differences in both countries in terms of how potential issues with each system are thought out. Advocates of compulsory voting often argue that a US-style system opens up the opportunity for excessive political influence from powerful actors, which in turn can force undue pressure onto citizens and groups in society. Thus, the focus in the US is often shifted to motivating marginalised groups to vote, particularly groups with historically low voter turnout rates, such as Latinos. This can have one of two results: a candidate can place excessive attention on a group that has higher economic and political power (such as wealthy Anglo-Saxon Americans, for example) in order to help ensure that they are elected. Or, alternatively, they can focus more heavily on those who have been historically marginalised (i.e. Latinos), by creating policies that may encourage higher voter turnout from these groups. Either way, the results of an election can be significantly skewed because of one of the fundamental problems with a system of voluntary voting: too much time and money is spent on encouraging certain groups of society to vote (or not vote), whilst others are often ignored or neglected because they are seen to be less politically valuable.

In spite of this, a system of compulsory voting such as the one that we have in Australia does not come without its problems. Many of these problems are often neglected because we are preoccupied with justifying the superiority of this system, without thinking about all of the repercussions that can come with it. We pride ourselves on not having the fundamental problems that the United States often faces in terms of prioritising selected groups over others in order to achieve electoral success. Nevertheless, Australia faces an altogether different problem in terms of understanding the role that different groups can play in the voting process, and how this can often skew the results of an election. In an ideal world, one would like to think that the focus in Australia should be on ensuring that marginalised and less-educated groups are well informed on the issues that they are voting for before heading to the polls. It is undeniable that there exists a large number of Australians who have cast their vote based on little understanding as to what the issues in an election are. Even if people are aware of the issues, this is arguably not enough. The role that the media plays in terms of generating negative politics in Australia means that almost all Australians can, without too much pain, generate an opinion on at least one political issue. However, this is often formed based on what they heard in the media, on talkback radio, or similar. Knowing the existence of issues should be heavily complemented by recognition of possible solutions to this issue. It is very easy to criticise and oppose — but I would suggest that this should be done carefully, with an alternative solution in mind. Only then is it possible for citizens to appreciate the candidate that they believe will best serve them.

It is potentially elitist to suggest that Australians who vote purely on the basis of an opinion formed through one or two news stories should perhaps not vote. However, before dismissing this completely, one should observe the potential validity of this argument. A lack of political interest quite often correlates with a lack of political understanding, particularly of contemporary issues. Should someone with almost no interest in an issue, and a limited understanding of the issue, be allowed to vote on it — potentially affecting its outcome? Wouldn’t it be rational to just allow those who choose to vote on an issue the right to decide for what they believe to be the most desirable outcome?

But of course, one of the issues with this argument is that it implies that those who choose not to vote will most likely not be affected by the outcome. Quite often this is not the case, and there are many who would argue that those who will be affected by a decision or outcome should have a say in this, regardless of whether they actually have a genuine interest or not. And this is where a rather dramatic difference in ideology surrounding the issue of voting becomes more apparent. As I have suggested, those who are affected by an outcome perhaps should be required to vote for who they believe to be best at delivering this outcome. But then, does this mean that those who won’t be affected by the outcome should also be allowed to have an equal vote on the issue? Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Perhaps all women who intend to have an abortion, or even all women regardless, should be actively required to vote on the issue so that the outcome is indicative of an electorate-wide consensus that would form from this requirement. But then should men be allowed to have a say on the issue? It may not affect them as much as it would women, so should their votes be equal to those of women? Or instead, should the issue only be voted on by those who decide that it is of importance to them, with those seeing it as not important or as a non-issue not required to vote on it?

There are valid arguments for both sides in this case, and I personally find it very difficult to reach a conclusion as to what I feel would be the best process. By removing the requirement to vote, the issue may be resolved in a way that is more indicative of public opinion, with a significantly lower likelihood of the result being skewed by those less informed or less interested. However, what is to say that this could not happen regardless, due to the influence of the media, community groups, family and friends? Or perhaps an advocate for either side of the debate may be very effective in mobilising people politically on the issue, and in the process potentially misconstruing the reason or the nature of the vote in order to achieve an outcome that they see as most desirable? Of course, I used the issue of abortion as a simple example of how both compulsory and non-compulsory voting systems can create different results, while potentially minimising the inefficiencies that can arise in the voting process. There does still exist some overarching inherent problems with democracy that are very difficult to control, particularly when there usually exists a large part of a voting population in any electorate (big or small) that is misinformed, less educated, or unreasonably influenced. And until this problem is resolved, I am unable to decide on what I feel about the issue. I am unable to decide mostly because I don’t have a solution, and it would be incredibly incongruous of me to do so.


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NBC vs Geography

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

29 July 2012

America's official Olympics broadcaster is doing a top notch job:

A screencap of NBC's Olympics page about Australia

Check the description: Yep, on NBC, it's Australia that's located in central Europe and bordered by Germany and the Czech Republic. American writer Ambrose Bierce once quipped that war is god's way of teaching Americans geography. The, Olympics, apparently, are insufficient to do the job.

NBC has since updated its description to "The world's sixth-largest nation in area and the smallest of the seven continents. Located in the Southern Hemisphere between the Indian and Pacific Oceans." That's a bit "mostly harmless" for my taste, but at least it's accurate.

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Gillard: "You think it's tough being African American?"

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

2 April 2012

Australian media is reporting an anecdote told by PM Julia Gillard at a private fundraiser in Sydney this past Thursday:

According to people at the function, held at Pyrmont on Thursday night, a candid Ms Gillard regaled guests with a joke she often shares with the US President, Barack Obama, when they meet and discuss the prejudices they experience.

'I'm good mates with Barack Obama,'' Ms Gillard was quoted as saying.

''I tell him, 'you think it's tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister'.''

I'm sure this went over well with Gillard's audience, but I couldn't help thinking that something innocuous, even obvious, to Australians wouldn't be so well-received in the US. Most Australians likely take it as given that a black man holding high office in America would encounter some forms of prejudice. (I'd say many more would accept this proposition than the one that Gillard faces prejudice due to her gender.) But President Obama would likely prefer Gillard's comment didn't reach ears back in the US.

Obama goes to a great effort to avoid suggesting that he thinks it's tough being African American. Calling overt attention to racial prejudice in America creates too much of a headache for a man who wants to be seen as representing all Americans. See how understated he had to be when he made clear that he understood the racial dimension to the Trayvon Martin case — and how even then he couldn't avoid controversy. When Obama said "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum accused him of trying to turn the case into a racial issue.

Gillard's story was fine for Australian ears, but it's the last thing her "good mate" Obama would want to reach American ears.

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Rick Santorum is right

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

22 March 2012

A mailer that a Mitt Romney-associated SuperPAC sent to voters in Alabama

The picture above is a missive sent to voters in Alabama from the Mitt Romney-supporting SuperPAC Restore Our Future. It echoes a line Romney supporters used against Santorum in South Carolina. Clearly it didn't work — "Washington insider" Rick Santorum won the Yellowhammer State's primary — but I'm more interested in the substance of the attack than its efficacy. It might not play well among conservatives in the Deep South, but this crazy idea is one Santorum was one hundred per cent right to support.

Romney's and Santorum's differing views on the issue were explicated in a debate prior to the South Carolina primary. Romney:

"I don't think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again. That's my own view."


"Governor Romney's super PAC has put an ad out there suggesting that I voted to allow felons to be able to vote from prison," he said. "I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe people who have — who were felons, who served their time, who have extended, exhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?"


The former Pennsylvania repeated his question, noting that "This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes, in the African-American community."

"The bill I voted on was the Martin Luther King Voting Rights bill," he continued. "And this was a provision that said, particularly targeted African-Americans. And I voted to allow — to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence. Do you agree with that?" he prompted.

Santorum is right. Laws that restrict from voting people who have been convicted of a felony and served their time disproportionately affect African Americans — and Latinos. As of 2000, 4.7 million Americans [PDF] are temporarily or permanently restricted from voting because they have been convicted of a crime. It's a policy common to many states, yet one that makes no sense. It is entirely unreasonable to continue to punish a criminal after he has served his sentence, and counter-productive to re-integrating him into society by denying him the basic right of enfranchisement that underpins democratic government.

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One thing Santorum was eager to point out, however, was that he didn't support voting rights for people currently serving time for a felony. He was fine with stripping convicts of the right to vote — he just wanted to re-enfranchise them once they had been released.

But why shouldn't all citizens in a democracy — even those imprisoned — vote? What harm could come of maintaining that the right to vote is a basic right that should be available even to society's worst members? Isn't their value in treating suffrage as an intrinsic entitlement rather than a privilege to apportioned out or taken away by the state?

I ask because I'm quite familiar with a country that permits prisoners to vote, with no apparent harm. This is from the Australian Electoral Commission's website:

If you are serving a full-time prison sentence of less than three years you can vote in federal elections.

If your sentence is three years or longer, you can remain on the roll but you are not entitled to vote until you are released from prison.

Somehow Australian* democracy has flourished even while we allow criminals to vote! America, why not follow suit.

* If you're an American who thinks now would be a good time to make a "founded by criminals" joke, don't bother! It's not that it's offensive — far from it — it's just that we have heard them all before, and, in this case, your comments won't be useful in the slightest!


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The American mirror

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

20 February 2012

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard with members of the Australian Defence Force during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets members of the Australian Defence Force in Darwin

It's curious the way those of us outside the United States are wont to use America as a mirror to understand our own lives. Here's how Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard commemorated the Japanese Bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942, during World War II:

“For too many Australians the history remains unknown,” Ms Gillard told the Seven Network in an interview.

“I was determined to change that by ensuring that we did mark this (the anniversary) as a national day, that we told the story of what happened all of those years ago, 70 years ago, when Darwin was bombed.

“This is really Australia's Pearl Harbour and we should understand it.”

It's not that the bombing of Darwin shared no similarities with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, though there were significant differences. When Japan attacked the United States, the US was not yet involved in the war. When Japan attacked Darwin, it had been at war with Australia for more than two years. Both Japanese attacks represented historic assaults on each country's home territory, but Australia had long been nervous about threats from the north, while Pearl Harbor ruptured American faith in isolationism. Gillard's comparison isn't spurious, but it isn't intuitive either.

But those of us in Australia like to see echoes of American history in our own. Just as the United States had its founding fathers, we speak — a little absurdly — of our own equivalents, and lament that they are not as well known. (It is with good reason; the founders of the US fought a war and wrought a whole new system of government from nothing, while Australia's founders managed the not unimpressive but predominantly bureaucratic task of convincing six colonies to join in federation.) 

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When Labor MP Joel Fitgibbon gave the inaugural Edmund Barton Lecture at the University of Newcastle in 2008, he voiced a not uncommon Australian complaint [PDF]:

It’s probable that the names George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are better known to Australians than the name Edmund Barton. Yet Barton was as leading a figure in the creation of our own federation, as were the three famous Americans in the drafting of the US Constitution.

A 2000 New York Times article details this national anxiety:

''It seems that Australians know more about the first president of the United States, George Washington, than they do about Edmund Barton, our own first prime minister,'' the booklet concedes, adding: ''But perhaps that's because our nation was created with a vote, not a war.''


Tony Eggleton, director of the centenary program, said focus groups that had been questioned about Australia's founding fathers were ''often embarrassed'' that they knew much more about American history than that of Australia and Prime Minister Barton, who headed the first federal government for three years. Mr. Barton's words, ''We have for the first time in history a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation,'' are much better known here than his name.

Similarly, here's Waleed Aly comparing America's political culture to that of Australia's:

Australia's political culture would never allow this. Edmund Barton is no George Washington, and no prime minister elicits anything near the reverence that Lincoln does in the US. Menzies may be the Liberal Party's touchstone, but no Labor prime minister would dream of embracing him as his ideal leader. Lincoln was a Republican, yet that has not detained Obama from invoking him over and over again. Lincoln's prophetic aura allows him to transcend party politics. Australia has no political prophets because no civil religion exists here strong enough to accommodate one.

Australians feel their history should look like the United States', or, at least, that the United States' history is an apt lens through which Australians can understand their own. Gillard's invocation of Pearl Harbor yesterday is an appeal to Australians to elevate an event in their own history by framing it as a natural equivalent of an important event in US history. We want America to act as a mirror: if we can see ourselves reflected in America, we might be able to use its understanding of its own history to enhance our understanding of ourselves.

Why do Australians do this? Part of it is due merely to US cultural hegemony: America's voice is so loud on the global stage that its history can't help but seem important even to those who don't share it. There's also the cultural and historical similarities between Australian and the United States that spur us to look for ourselves in America: Our common British origins, our mutual geographical isolation representing a cultural break from Europe, our shared subjugation of our native populations, our development of democratic institutions and open, pluralistic societes.

But I suspect that it is also a function of America's talent for narrative — its gift for telling stories about itself. The United States was born as a modernist nation, one that saw itself as set on a path of determined and inevitable progress. The American project was to achieve its manifest destiny (a westward expansion to achieve American domination of the entire continent), foster democracy and liberty, and to act as a model for the rest of the world (the "city on the hill"). America reads its history as a series of connected events: signposts marking its national progress. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor becomes not just an event, it is part of the ongoing American story, and has attained mythic significance as a result. It speaks to American innocence, and explains the US's rise from New World isolation to global superpower as being a byproduct of its defence of liberty, not any imperial ambition.

When Australians want to elevate the importance of events in our own history, then, we look for ways they echo American history. US history comes with an emotionally compelling and morally fulfilling narrative already constructed. Pearl Harbor is important to Americans, and if Darwin is Australia's Pearl Harbor, then Darwin must, by corrollary, be important to us. The outcome of this borrowing, however, is that we end up seeing our history as a jumbled version of someone else's: the same events imbued with the same meanings, but reconstituted out of context and haunted by the ghosts of another nation's story.


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Seven mistakes Aussies make when talking about US politics

By Erin Riley in Sydney, Australia

4 January 2012

As we turn to the Iowa caucuses, there are a few mistakes that it’s easy for Australians to make — and frequently do — when discussing US elections. So here’s my list of seven mistakes Aussies often make when they talk about American politics.

1) They assume American political parties are homogenous

American Political parties truly are big tent — in each party, there are a wide spectrum of beliefs and voting patterns in Congress. Using a conservative-progressive scale, which is oversimplified but has its uses, the most progressive Republicans are more so than the most conservative Democrats. Within parties, there are groups that hold different things to be valuable. Assuming “Republicans are X” or “Democrats are Y” really underestimates the huge amount of variety in US politics.

And this variety is important because most legislation is bipartisan. Caucuses arranged around issues are incredibly useful. They allow Congresspeople who represent districts with similar issues to join together. Representative Sam Farr, for whom I interned in 2010, is the co-chair of the House Ocean Caucus, a bipartisan committee primarily made up of representatives from coastal districts for whom Ocean management issues are important.

Related: Assuming American political parties have party discipline.

2) They don’t realise political philosophy is actually pretty important

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Political philosophy plays a far more obvious role in American politics than it does in Australia, yet as Australian observers, it’s easy to focus on policy itself, rather than the philosophical debates that underlie it. Often, the issue for many Republicans isn’t whether something like health care is a good thing, but whether it should be the responsibility of the federal (rather than state) government. The boundaries of government, what government exists to do and what it does not, and which government ought to be responsible for things is a far more central and important part of the American political conversation.

By representing the debate as being about whether something is good, rather than whether or not the US federal government should be the ones doing it, much of the important nuance in the debate is lost.

3) They assume that foreign policy is important to voters

While as non-Americans, its easy to get caught up in foreign policy issues, the truth is that elections aren’t usually won or lost on the power of foreign policy. The economy matters more. Cultural issues matter more. A small subset of Americans vote on foreign policy, but most don’t. in 2012, it will be the economy that matters most.

4) They overestimate the power of the Presidency

Oh, this is a big one. It’s amazing how often Australians talk about the President as though they operate as the Prime Minister. The role is very different. Separation of powers — which we talk about in the Australian system but don’t really experience in the same way — is key. Congress makes the law; the President does not. Saying “the President will do this” or “Obama should have done that” displays a very naive understanding of what the Presidency actually can and can’t do.

I don’t want to get all primary-source on you, but it’s worth looking at the Constitution at this point. Here are the powers of the Presidency:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Compare that to the powers of Congress:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Congress is far more powerful, and the President far less, than many understand.

5) They think Evangelical Christians are very influential

Yes, they’re there. Yes, they vote. Yes, they vote in large numbers. But if you want to look at voting blocks that really influence elections, the age and wealth of voters is far more significant. Conservative Christians do not rule the United States with an iron fist, and there are plenty of people in both parties who identify as Christian yet don’t support traditional “culture war” issues.

6) They assume it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys

This is more of a summary of many of the points above, but given the Democrats’ pretty significant popularity in Australia, often there’s a tendency to treat Republicans as the bad guys. In reality, their policy positions are far more varied and nuanced than once might assume, and the vocal, tea party type is just one of many kinds of Republicans. Portraying all Republicans as hard-right, super conservative Evangelicals is lazy, and it doesn’t at all serve to help us understand the US more comprehensively. It does, however, feed into anti-American stereotypes which abound.

7) They think the US would be better off with a Parliamentary system

People often talk about the problems in the US Political system as though they are fundamental- it’s either the existence of a powerful extreme conservatism or the lack of a parliamentary system that causes most of the problems. They’re not. The separation of powers, the incredible diversity of US political parties and the centrality and importance of individual rights is part of what has made the US the great modern democracy. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it needs some tweaking. But these are not fundamental problems.

Rather, there are some pretty significant structural issues that have caused a lot of the US’s current political problems. You could significantly reform the US system not through huge, fundamental system change, but a couple of minor adjustments:

  • National popular vote for the President. Get rid of the electoral college
  • Change the Senate representation rule to reduce the massive disparity. Introduce a tiered system where the largest states get 6 Senators, the mid-sized states get 4 and the small states get 2. That way, you preserve the state-based nature of the Senate, but understand the interests of a citizen of Montana should not be weighted at 66x those of a citizen of California.
  • Get rid of the filibuster. Allow the Senate to pass legislation by a simple majority. The supermajority plus the current Senate representation method means that Senators representing just over 14% of the population can prevent something from passing. That’s hardly what the framers of the Constitution could have had in mind. Yes, that tyranny of the majority is a real and important thing to consider, but that’s what the Bill of Rights is for.
  • Eliminate anonymous holds on nominations. They’re just undemocratic.

This post was originally published at


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President Obama's speech to the Australian Parliament

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 November 2011

US President Barack Obama speaks before Australian parliament

US President Barack Obama spoke before Australian parliament this morning. He used the occasion to reaffirm the ties between the two nations, taking particular care to accentuate their shared cultural background, and to recognise Australia's invocation of the ANZUS treaty in 2001 and its subsequent military contribution to the war in Afghanistan. The US has "a new focus in the Asia Pacific," the President said. "Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation." Though the US is looking at reducing some military spending as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, Obama said, it will not be introducing its spending in the Pacific. "America is a Pacific power," he told Parliament. "And we are here to stay."

After the jump, the full text of Obama's speech. The Sydney Morning Herald has the video.

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President Barack Obama speaks to the Australian parliament

Prime Minister Gillard, Leader Abbott, thank you both for your very warm welcome.

Mr Speaker, Mr President, Members of the House and Senate, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for the honour of standing in this great chamber to reaffirm the bonds between the United States and the Commonwealth of Australia, two of the world's oldest democracies and two of the world's oldest friends.

To you and the people of Australia, thank you for your extraordinary hospitality. And here, in this city — this ancient "meeting place" — I want to acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land, and one of the world's oldest continuous cultures, the First Australians.

I first came to Australia as a child, travelling between my birthplace of Hawaii, and Indonesia, where I would live for four years.

As an eight-year-old, I couldn't always understand your foreign language. Although, last night I did try to talk some Strine.

And today I don't want to subject you to any earbashing. I really do love that one and I will be introducing it into the vernacular in Washington.

But to a young American boy, Australia and its people — your optimism, your easy-going ways, your irreverent sense of humour — all felt so familiar; it felt like home.

I've always wanted to return. I tried last year. Twice. But this is a Lucky Country. And today I feel lucky to be here as we mark the 60th anniversary of our unbreakable alliance.

The bonds between us run deep.

In each other's story we see so much of ourselves. Ancestors who crossed vast oceans-some by choice, some in chains.

Settlers who pushed west across sweeping plains. Dreamers who toiled with hearts and hands to lay railroads and to build cities.

Generations of immigrants who, with each new arrival, add a new thread to the brilliant tapestry of our nations.

And we are citizens who live by a common creed-no matter who you are no matter what you look like, everyone deserves a fair chance; everyone deserves a fair go.

Of course, progress in our societies has not always come without tension, or struggles to overcome a painful past. But we are countries with a willingness to face our imperfections, and to keep reaching for our ideals.

That's the spirit we saw in this chamber, three years ago, as this nation inspired the world with a historic gesture of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

It's the spirit of progress, in America, which allows me to stand before you today, as President of the United States. And it's the spirit I'll see later today when I become the first US president to visit the Northern Territory, where I'll meet the traditional owners of the Land.

Nor has our progress come without great sacrifice.

This morning, I was humbled and deeply moved by a visit to your war memorial and pay my respects to Australia's fallen sons and daughters.

Later today, in Darwin, I'll join the Prime Minister in saluting our brave men and women in uniform.

And it will be a reminder that — from the trenches of the First World War to the mountains of Afghanistan — Aussies and Americans have stood together, we have fought together we have given lives together in every single major conflict of the past hundred years. Every single one.

This solidarity has sustained us through a difficult decade.

We will never forget that the attacks of 9/11 took the lives, not only of Americans, but people from many nations, including Australia.

In the United States, we will never forget how Australia invoked the ANZUS Treaty — for the first time ever — showing that our two nations stand as one. And none of us will ever forget those we've lost to al Qaeda's terror in the years since, including innocent Australians.

That's why we are determined to succeed in Afghanistan. It's why I salute Australia — outside of NATO, the largest contributor of troops to this vital mission.

And it's why we honour all those who have served there for our security, including 32 Australian patriots who gave their lives, among them Captain Bryce Duffy, Corporal Ashley Birt, and Lance Corporal Luke Gavin.

We will honour their sacrifice by making sure that Afghanistan is never again used as source for attacks against our people. Never again.

As two global partners, we stand up for the security and dignity of people around the world.

We see it when our rescue workers rush to help others in times of fire and drought and flooding rains.

We see it when we partner to keep the peace — from East Timor to the Balkans — and when we pursue our shared vision: a world without nuclear weapons.

We see it in the development that lifts up a child in Africa; the assistance that saves a family from famine; and when we extend our support to the people of the Middle East and North Africa, who deserve the same liberty that allows us to gather in this great hall of democracy.

This is the alliance we reaffirm today — rooted in our values; renewed by every generation.

This is the partnership we've worked to deepen over the past three years.

And today I can stand before you and say with confidence that the alliance between the United States and Australia has never been stronger.

As it has been to our past, our alliance continues to be indispensable to our future. So, here, among close friends, I'd like to address the larger purpose of my visit to this region-our efforts to advance security, prosperity and human dignity across the Asia Pacific.

For the United States, this reflects a broader shift.

After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.

In just a few weeks, after nearly nine years, the last American troops will leave Iraq and our war there will be over.

In Afghanistan, we've begun a transition, a responsible transition so Afghans can take responsibility for their future and so coalition forces can draw down. And with partners like Australia, we've struck major blows against al Qaeda and put that terrorist organisation on the path to defeat, including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden.

So make no mistake, the tide of war is receding, and America is looking ahead to the future we must build.

From Europe to the Americas, we've strengthened alliances and partnerships.

At home, we're investing in the sources of our long-term economic strength — the education of our children, the training of our workers, the infrastructure that fuels commerce, the science and the research that leads to new breakthroughs.

We've made hard decisions to cut our deficit and put our fiscal house in order — and we will continue to do more. Because our economic strength at home is the foundation of our leadership in the world, including here in the Asia Pacific.

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.

Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region.

From the bombing of Darwin to the liberation of Pacific islands, from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to a cold Korean peninsula, generations of Americans have served here, and died here. So democracies could take root. So economic miracles could lift hundreds of millions to prosperity.

Americans have bled with you for this progress, and we will never allow it to be reversed.

Here, we see the future.

As the world's fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority and that is creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.

With most of the world's nuclear powers and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

As President, I have therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.

Let me tell you what this means.

First, we seek security, which is the foundation of peace and prosperity. We stand for an international order in which the rights and responsibilities of all nations and people are upheld. Where international law and norms are enforced. Where commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded. Where emerging powers contribute to regional security, and where disagreements are resolved peacefully.

That is the future we seek.

Now, I know that some in this region have wondered about America's commitment to upholding these principles. So let me address this directly.

As the United States puts our fiscal house in order, we are reducing our spending. And yes, after 'a decade of extraordinary growth in our military budgets — and as we definitively end the war in Iraq, and begin to wind down the war in Afghanistan — we will make some reductions in defence spending.

As we consider the future of our armed forces, we have begun a review that will identify our most important strategic interests and guide our defence priorities and spending over the coming decade.

So here is what this region must know.

As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in US defence spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.

My guidance is clear.

As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.

We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace. We will keep our commitments, including our treaty obligations to allies like Australia.

And we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century. Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in this region.

The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.

Indeed, we're already modernising America's defence posture across the Asia-Pacific.

It will be more broadly distributed — maintaining our strong presence in Japan and on the Korean peninsula, while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia.

Our posture will be more flexible — with new capabilities to ensure that our forces can operate freely. And our posture will be more sustainable — by helping allies and partners build their capacity, with more training and exercises.

We see our new posture here in Australia.

The initiatives that the Prime Minister and I announced yesterday will bring our two militaries even closer. We'll have new opportunities to train with other allies and partners, from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

And it will allow us to respond faster to the full range of challenges, including humanitarian crises and disaster relief.

Since World War II, Australians have warmly welcomed American service members who've passed through.

On behalf of the American people, I thank you for welcoming those who will come next, as they ensure that our alliance stays strong and ready for the tests of our time.

We see America's enhanced presence in the alliances we've strengthened.

In Japan, where our alliance remains a cornerstone of regional security. In Thailand, where we're partnering for disaster relief.

In the Philippines, where we're increasing ship visits and training. And in South Korea, where our commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea will never waver.

Indeed, we also reiterate our resolve to act firmly against any proliferation activities by North Korea.

The transfer of nuclear materials or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies.

And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.

We see America's enhanced presence across Southeast Asia.

In our partnership with Indonesia against piracy and violent extremism, and in our work with Malaysia to prevent proliferation.

In the ships we'll deploy to Singapore, and in our closer cooperation with Vietnam and Cambodia. And in our welcome of India as it "looks east" and plays a larger role as an Asian power.

At the same time, we're re-engaged with regional organisations.

Our work in Bali this week will mark my third meeting with ASEAN leaders, and I'll be proud to be the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit.

Together, I believe we can address shared challenges, such as proliferation and maritime security, including cooperation in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the United States will continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China.

All of our nations — Australia, the United States, all of our nations — have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China-and that is why the United States welcomes it.

We've seen that China can be a partner, from reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to preventing proliferation.

And we'll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation.

We will do this, even as continue to speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.

A secure and peaceful Asia is the foundation for the second area in which America is leading again — and that's advancing our shared prosperity.

History teaches us the greatest force the world has ever known for creating wealth and opportunity is free markets.

So we seek economies that are open and transparent.

We seek trade that is free and fair. And we seek an open international economic system, where rules are clear and every nation plays by them.

In Australia and America, we understand these principles. We're among the most open economies on earth.

Six years into our landmark trade agreement, commerce between us has soared.

Our workers are creating new partnerships and new products, like the advanced aircraft technologies we build together in Victoria.

We're the leading investor in Australia, and you invest more in America than you do in any other nation, creating good jobs in both countries.

We recognise that economic partnerships can't just be about one nation extracting another's resources.

We understand that no long-term strategy for growth can be imposed from above.

Real prosperity — prosperity that fosters innovation and prosperity that endures — comes from unleashing our greatest economic resource and that's the entrepreneurial spirit, the talents of our people.

So even as America competes aggressively in Asian markets, we're forging the economic partnerships that create opportunity for all.

Building on our historic trade agreement with South Korea, we're working with Australia and our other APEC partners to create a seamless regional economy.

And with Australia and other partners, we're on track to achieve our most ambitious trade agreement yet, and a potential model for the entire region-the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The United States remains the world's largest and most dynamic economy. But in an interconnected world, we all rise and fall together.

That's why I pushed so hard to put the G20 at the front and centre of global economic decision-making — to give more nations a leadership role in managing the international economy, including Australia.

Together, we saved the world economy from a depression. Now, our urgent challenge is to create the growth that puts people to work.

We need growth that is fair, where every nation plays by the rules — where workers rights are respected and our businesses can compete on a level playing field; where the intellectual property and new technologies that fuel innovation are protected; and where currencies are market-driven, so no nation has an unfair advantage.

We also need growth that is broad — not just for the few, but for the many, with reforms that protect consumers from abuse and a global commitment to end the corruption that stifles growth.

We need growth that is balanced, because we'll all prosper more when countries with large surpluses take action to boost demand at home.

And we need growth that is sustainable.

This includes the clean energy that creates green jobs and combats climate change, which cannot be denied.

We see it in the stronger fires, the devastating floods and the Pacific islands confronting rising seas.

And as countries with large carbon footprints, the United States and Australia have a special responsibility to lead.

Every nation will contribute to the solution in its own way, and I know this issue is not without controversy, in both our countries.

But what we can do — what we are doing — is to work together to make unprecedented investments in clean energy; to increase energy efficiency; and to meet the commitments we made at Copenhagen and Cancun.

We can do this. And we will.

As we grow our economies, we'll also remember the link between growth and good governance — the rule of law, transparent institutions and the equal administration of justice.

Because history shows that, over the long run, democracy and economic growth go hand in hand. And prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.

This brings me to the final area where we are leading — our support for the fundamental rights of every human being.

Every nation will chart its own course.

Yet it is also true that certain rights are universal, among them freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders.

These are not American rights, or Australian rights, or Western rights. These are human rights.

They stir in every soul, as we've seen in the democracies that have succeeded here in Asia.

Other models have been tried and they have failed-fascism and communism, rule by one man and rule by committee.

And they have failed for the same simple reason.

They ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy — the will of the people.

Yes, democracy can be messy and rough, and I understand you all mix it up good during Question Time.

But whatever our differences of party of ideology, we know in our democracies we are blessed with the greatest form of government ever known to man.

So, as two great democracies, we speak up for these freedoms when they are threatened.

We partner with emerging democracies, like Indonesia, to help strengthen the institutions upon which good governance depends.

We encourage open government, because democracies depend on an informed and active citizenry.

We help strengthen civil societies, because they empower citizens to hold their governments accountable.

And we advance the rights of all people-women, minorities and indigenous cultures — because when societies harness the potential of all their citizens, these societies are more successful, they are more prosperous and they are more just.

These principles have guided our approach to Burma, with a combination of sanctions and engagement.

Today, Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest.

Some political prisoners have been released and the government has begun a dialogue.

Still, violations of human rights persist. So we will continue to speak clearly about the steps that must be taken for the government of Burma to have a better relationship with the United States.

This is the future we seek in the Asia Pacific-security, prosperity and dignity for all. That's what we stand for. That's who we are.

That's the future we will pursue, in partnership with allies and friends, and with every element of American power.

So let there be no doubt: in the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.

Still, in times of great change and uncertainty, the future can seem unsettling. Across a vast ocean, it's impossible to know what lies beyond the horizon. But if this vast region and its people teach us anything, it's that the yearning for liberty and progress will not be denied.

It's why women in this country demanded that their voices be heard, making Australia the first nation to let women vote and run for parliament and, one day, become prime minister.

It's why people took to the streets — from Delhi to Seoul, from Manila to Jakarta — to throw off colonialism and dictatorship and then build some of the world's largest democracies.

It's why a soldier in a watch tower along the DMZ defends a free people in the South, and why a man from the North risks his life to escape across the border. Why soldiers in blue helmets keep the peace in a new nation. And why women of courage go into the brothels to save young girls from modern-day slavery, which must come to an end.

It's why men of peace in saffron robes faced beatings and bullets, and why every day — from some of the world's largest cities to dusty rural towns, in small acts of courage the world may never see — a student posts a blog; a citizen signs a charter; an activist remains unbowed, imprisoned in his home, just to have the same rights we cherish here today.

Men and women like these know what the world must never forget.

The currents of history may ebb and flow, but over time they move decidedly, decisively, in a single direction.

History is on the side of the free-free societies, free governments, free economies, free people. And the future belongs to those who stand firm for these ideals, in this region and around the world.

This is the story of the alliance we celebrate today. This is the essence of America's new leadership, it is the essence of our partnership. And this is the work we will carry on together, for the security, the prosperity, and the dignity of all people.

So God bless Australia, God bless America, and God bless the friendship between our two peoples.

Thank you very much.


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Welcome, President Obama

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 November 2011

Barack Obama landing in Canberra, Australia

(Photo SMH)

...And the President has touched down in Canberra. He'll be officially welcomed at Parliament House later this afternoon. Here's the White House blog laying out Obama's schedule:

On Wednesday, the President will meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the two will hold a joint press conference. Later that day, President Obama will be hosted at a dinner at the Australian Parliament House. On Thursday, the President will give an address to the Australian Parliament, meet with parliamentary leaders, tour a primary school with Prime Minister Gillard, and visit a military base in Darwin — where he'll speak to a combined audience of U.S. marines and Australian troops.

May he have an enjoyable and fruitful visit, even if it is a short one .

After the jump, Obama with Prime Minister Julia Gillard today.

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard greets President Barack Obama

(Photo SMH)

Elsewhere, check out what our USSC experts have to say about the visit. Previously, Erin Riley speculated that had the Gulf of Mexico oil spill not prevented Obama from making his previously scheduled visit, Australia might still have Kevin Rudd as its prime minister.  


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Dodgy Obama reporting, part II

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

8 November 2011

It was News's editorial silliness that drew my ire in the first edition of this series, but the most recent is a simple case of manufacturing a story where there is none. Witness Sean Nicholls of the Sydney Morning Herald, writing in this past Saturday's paper: 

Judith Guertin recalls it as an otherwise unremarkable conversation between two women taking a summer class at the University of Hawaii in the 1960s.

She and Stanley Ann Dunham were studying textile design and weaving, a subject in which Ms Dunham, an anthropologist, was majoring.

As they swapped life stories Ms Dunham remarked she had tried to visit Australia with a view to seeking an academic posting. But, she told her new friend, there were difficulties because her child was black.

Whatta scoop! Woman once talked about Australia with American president's mother!

But surely the Herald wouldn't print an article based on something so flimsy. Surely Guertin must have known the late Dunham well enough to impart something interesting about Obama's family?

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Ms Guertin, 66, a retired postal worker, remembers Ms Dunham as ''quite charming'' but says she did not really get to know her.

Ah. But can the Herald wring anything more from this stillborn story?

She remembers she had plans to travel to Australia and speculated it was for more than a holiday, given her degree.

''So she probably wanted to go work on a dig or study there. She would be interested in the Aborigines, I'm sure.''

Probably. I'm sure.

In fact, apart from a clarification that the reported conversation occured as the White Australia policy was being dismantled, Nicholls doesn't even delve into the most interesting part of the story: Whether, within many Australians' living memory, a white American woman would have had trouble getting an Australian visa if she an African American child.

The shoddiness is a shame, because the same edition of the Herald had a smart preview of the 2012 election — now fewer than 365 days away. 


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Mostly harmless

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

18 March 2011

I certainly appreciate Jonathan Kolieb's piece supporting the Australian/US Alliance; both nations stand to benefit from closer ties, and well-constructed arguments such as Kolieb's help make the benefits more apparent. I would, however, suggest that he tamp down his starry-eyed optimism a bit:

The US-Australian relationship could develop into something akin to the special relationship the US enjoyed with Britain during the 20th century. Indeed, this is a worthwhile goal our policy makers and politicians should seek to attain: not to supplant Britain, but to become the equivalent in the trans-Pacific sense — America's vital ally in the Asia-Pacific.

Certainly this is a worthwhile goal, but I'm not confident it is an entirely realistic one either. Julia Gillard's trip to Washington was undoubtedly a success, but we should not allow our expectations to get too lofty. The USSC's Tom Switzer made this point well in a column for the Age last week:

But it is also important to recognise we're not the only apple of America's eye. In January, Barack Obama said: "We don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people." In July, Obama hailed the "truly special relationship" between the US and Britain, telling David Cameron there was "no closer ally and no closer partner" than Britain. A few weeks earlier, Obama told the Indian people that "they have no better friend and partner than the people of the United States". The point is clear: ours is one of many special relationships in Washington.

Until recently, Kolieb worked in the Australian Embassy's Congressional Liaison Office, and I am sure he knows all this. But while it is true that the rise of Asia offers Australia the opportunity to strengthen ties with Washington, we should also be realistic about our expectations. As affectionate as Americans are toward Australia, their opinion of our country is often reminiscent of the two word description an intergalactic encyclopedia gave the planet Earth in Britsh author Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The evaluation?

"Mostly Harmless."

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Tossing around the political football on climate change

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

8 March 2011

US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard passing an Australian Rules football.

US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard toss a an Australian Rules football in the Oval Office

Australian PM Julia Gillard is in D.C. today, where she will meet President Barack Obama, address a joint sitting of Congress, and speak before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other things. According to the Sydney Morning Herald's Phillip Coorey, however, one thing she won't be talking about is climate change.

That's a shame, but it's to be expected. The combination of a still shaky economy and the Republican takeover of the House has all but completely driven thoughts of combating climate change from the American political agenda. I do believe criticism the U.S. receives on its lack of action in addressing global warming can be a little overblown, but the change in awareness of the issue I've experienced since returning to Australia a couple weeks ago has been striking. Whether it's because we in Australia have a centre-left government or because of the summer of climate-driven destruction the country has just gone through, unlike Washington, Canberra is willing to say terms like "emissions trading" and "carbon tax" as if this were still 2009 and the Copenhagen Summit was stil a gleaming beacon of hope.

Speaking of 2009, back then I pointed out that America actually had been working to combat global warming, despite its inability to legislate for a scheme to limit emissions. I said that even though the U.S. did not have a national scheme, it had constructed a number of regional schemes to address climate change. Such intranational efforts might not attract a lot of attention, but they are on the radar of those in the political sphere. Gillard, for instance, mentioned them on the floor of the Australian parliament recently [PDF], in support for her own carbon scheme:

Our country too, as the world moves to a lower pollution future, needs to be there moving with the rest of the world. We cannot afford to be left behind. And the world is moving. Thirty-two countries have moved, 10 US states have emissions trading schemes, and as we move and as the world moves to a lower energy future we need to price carbon.

Sadly, however, the U.S. influence works in both ways. The previous day, the Australian opposition's Shadow Minister for Climate Action Greg Hunt used American hostiity to argue against the government's scheme:

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Let us look at the United States, with 19.7 per cent of global CO2 emissions. We know that they will not adopt a cap-and-trade system at any time in the near future. The most likely combination to have done that—the House of Representatives, Senate and the President—has passed. One of the Democrats’ own Senate candidates, Governor Joe Manchin from West Virginia, stood up with a gun, nailed the cap-and-trade bill to a tree and shot the cap-and-trade bill. That is what the friends of the bill do—they shot the bill on national television. There will be no change in the United States.

Manchin's stunt was a campaign commercial for West Virginia, and as a representative of a coal mining state, he'll almost certainly be pleased to hear that his words are having such a wide hearing. Good or bad, what America does influences the whoe world. Not just West Virginia.

Indeed, if Gillard is to say anything to America on the subject of climate change, it should be defensive, not offensive. Manchin refers in this commercial not just to cap and trade, but to the EPA. That's the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is currently required to regulate carbon emissions. Republicans — and some Democrats — would like to strip it of that power. The success of such an attempt is by no means assured, and it is to be hoped that it should fail. America does have the capacity to play a leadership role on this issue, and the world does not need it to lead in the wrong direction.


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America's zombie plague of unemployment

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

28 January 2011

I've been away from Australia for more than a year now, and while checking out the news on Julia Gillard's proposed flood levy, I realised I didn't have much of an idea on what Australia's economic indicators looked like at the moment. So I did some Googling, expecting the stats to be good, but I was shocked at how good: 5 per cent unemployment, 2.7 per cent inflation, 4.75 per cent cash rate! After all this time in the U.S., those sort of figures seem like the stuff of fantasy.

America is feeling a bit better about its prospects at the moment, which likely explains the uptick in Barack Obama's approval ratings to around 50 per cent. The economy grew 3.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2010, but, as of December 2010, the unemployment rate is still 9.4 per cent, and it will be many years before it falls to the full employment Australia is experiencing at the moment.

How bad are things? I came across this video showing county-by-county unemployment since January 2007, and it's pretty alarming. The purple and black spreading across the country reminds me of a zombie plague, and there's a long way to go before it recedes. 

This comes via Latoya Egwuekwe. A larger version is here.

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