My weekly Guardian column:
Australians feel very comfortable with spying on our friends and enemies. During his visit to Canada this week, Tony Abbott, the prime minister, backed the Five Eyes intelligence sharing structure between America, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Australia, saying “our intelligence gathering has got to be done in a way that is decent and fair and which doesn’t betray the fundamental values that we are doing our best to uphold”.
According to the recently released Lowy Institute 2014 poll, the majority of Australians agree: 70% of us feel it’s appropriate to monitor the activities of nations with which Canberra has poor relations. Half argue it’s acceptable even against friendly states. Australians have no issue with Indonesia, East Timor, France, Japan, America and New Zealand being spied on by their own government.
Despite there being vast evidence that Australia is arguably essentially spying for commercial purposes against a poor neighbour such as East Timor over its valuable oil and gas reserves, these facts don’t appear to concern Australians.
What the Lowy poll doesn’t ask is how Australians feel about Canberra and its US allies spying on them. One of the invaluable revelations of former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was confirming the US government’s mass surveillance of its own citizens. Would Australians feel happy knowing faceless spy agencies are recording, collating, monitoring and storing private details about their lives? I hope not.
In Britain this week, actor Stephen Fry slammed the British government for its “squalid and rancid” response to the Snowden revelations. Yet in Australia, there has been very little dissent over them at all. With bipartisan, political backing for American influence on the Australian homeland, it’s revealing how few public condemnations have been heard (with some notable exceptions). For this reason alone, intelligence agencies, the federal government and media backers feel little pressure to be answerable for their secret business.
The Lowy Institute should have probed these issues far more, instead of rehashing tired questions about Australians’ love of the US alliance. The poll report muses on the “continuing relevance and durability of the US alliance for our nation’s security” while never allowing any questions that may challenge this notion. Does the US alliance make Australia a client state of Washington (as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser states in his new book)? Should Australia continue to buy overpriced weapons and planes from multinational US arms manufacturers?
I’m reminded of the classic Noam Chomsky quote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”
The Lowy poll adheres to this rule with mostly safe and predictable questions, and therefore receives expected answers. Elsewhere, the Lowy poll asks mundane questions about how Australians feel about world figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Merkel. It stands to reason that since media coverage of western leaders is largely benign, showing the supposed good intent of their democratic credentials, Australians overwhelmingly like Obama and his ilk (though no questions about US drone strikes which kill many civilians). Equally, non-western leaders, such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Xi Jinping, are very unpopular.
This is another confected result. Since the Snowden leaks last year, Washington has ramped up the rhetoric blaming Beijing for its outrageous spying infrastructure against American businesses and government, even going so far in May of charging some in the Chinese military for hacking. Beijing is demonised as uniquely evil, unfairly gaining commercial advantage over its rivals. This is a classic smokescreen which attempts to change the conversation away from the Snowden documents, which detail extensive US spying on Chinese interests.
When the media gives Washington’s claims far more credence and coverage than Beijing’s, we shouldn’t be shocked that Australians tell the Lowy Institute that they don’t trust the Chinese leader.
Despite these deep hesitations, the Lowy results provide some instructive news about local attitudes. Asylum seekers have been so successfully demonised for so many years that sympathy for their claims and boat people in general is shamefully low. Pressure for serious action on climate change is rising at a time when president Obama is encouraging a reduction in carbon emissions while countries run by neo-conservatives, such as Canada and Australia, are moving even further towards embracing a coal future. Abbott is out of step with public opinion.
One sign of a healthy and mature nation is how it relates to the world and the most vulnerable people in it, and it’s encouraging that 70% of Lowy respondents see poverty reduction, rather than foreign policy objectives (a stated goal of the Abbott government), as central to our outward posture.
A think-tank that didn’t see its main purpose as supporting and strengthening the foreign policy status quo would have designed a far more imaginative and insightful annual poll. In the meantime, Lowy has given us an incomplete picture of Australian attitudes towards some of the most contentious issues of our time and shown the public to be conservative, caring and cautious – the inevitable result when our media is so selective in its coverage of crucial news.