Anthony Albanese has been sworn in as prime minister and has jetted off to Japan, following a brief presser noteworthy for its inclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment of this loose, unedifying, “shit blizzard” of a campaign came last Friday, when Scott Morrison declared that should he win the election he would change.

May 20, 2022

The avoidable war

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

US President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Between China and the United States, Kevin Rudd tells me, is an alarming static of incomprehension, mistrust and bad faith. Direct channels of communication are negligible to non-existent, diplomacy largely exhausted. Instead, there exists a paranoid antagonism made fuzzy by the absence of clear boundaries to their rivalry and the absence of formally declared areas of cooperation. Within this context, the risk of misapprehension and miscalculation between the two great powers is disturbingly high – and so too the risk of catastrophic escalation. “The term I use is ‘mutually assured non-comprehension’,” Rudd says. “And that’s not because the Chinese and the Americans don’t know a lot about each other. But there are aspects of their domestic political drivers which they don’t know sufficiently. And I have seen domestic factors in any country, democratic or non-democratic, often have been the decisive drivers of external policy behaviour. And we must also understand that China itself is not monolithic. Xi Jinping is the paramount leader, but the 95-million-member Chinese Communist Party contains within it a rather extraordinary diversity of views. And that’s something which Western political actors need to be aware of.”

Before entering politics, Kevin Rudd was a student of China and later a diplomatic officer there. At the Australian National University, he studied Chinese language and history, acquired fluency in Mandarin, and wrote his honours thesis on the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. As a diplomat, he was posted to Stockholm and Beijing, and walked among the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As prime minister, he met with Chinese leaders and had intimate discussions with its current president, Xi Jinping. Rudd is now a student of Chinese affairs again: he’s currently completing a doctoral thesis at Oxford on Xi, and woe betide his assessors.  

He has also just published a book on China–US relations. It’s called The Avoidable War, and it serves, essentially, as a warning to Americans: don’t sleepwalk towards an incalculably destructive war. That outcome is avoidable, he says, just as World War One was – a war that seemed unthinkable until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Rudd proposes, with some qualifications, a historic framework to the current friction between the two great powers. It’s what the scholar Graham Allison refers to as Thucydides Trap. Allison defines this as “the natural, inevitable discombobulation that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power”. That is, the violent jostling of a rising power with an established one. 

In History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the mutually destructive suspicions of Athens and Sparta. Athenian ascendancy clashed fatally with Spartan primacy, but the conflict wasn’t necessarily inevitable – it was fuelled by warped interpretations of each other’s intentions. Suspicions that became braided and mutually reinforcing.

Having surveyed 500 years of conflict, Allison offers 16 case studies for the “trap”, 12 of which resulted in war. It’s sobering. The weight of precedent suggests that war between the US and China is more likely than not.

But, Rudd says, history is not necessarily fate. The threat of warped interpretations can be mitigated by diplomacy and explicitly defined guardrails to the rivalry. History might rhyme, Rudd says, but “the agency of individuals matters too”.

In early February, as Beijing’s Winter Olympics were opened and before Putin invaded Ukraine, China and Russia released a long joint statement. They’d been doing this since 2001, when the two countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, but this one seemed like an alarming deviation from the previous. Each country ratified the other’s contempt for US hegemony, and tacitly reinforced the other’s territorial claims – i.e. upon Ukraine and Taiwan. While the statement declared no formal alliance or mutual military obligations it was conspicuously belligerent and forbiddingly declared that there were “no limits” to their cooperation. China also expressed its opposition to the expansion of NATO.

The statement went largely unremarked upon here, but I asked Rudd what it suggested about Chinese ambition and strategy. “It was significant,” he says. “It was right out there. Not just in terms of no limits to future collaboration, but also for the first time China explicitly opposing any future NATO expansion. And on top of that, taking a position which supported, quote, Russia’s legitimate territorial interests, unquote. So the length, scope and provocative content of that declaration was a significant departure from the 10 previous such joint declarations.

“It’s not simply a relationship of convenience,” Rudd says. “It’s structural. First, the Chinese want a benign border to their north, and in the history of China–Russia relations, it’s invariably not been benign. Second, a benign border to the north allows China to focus its strategic energies against the United States, rather than worry about another major power on an exposed northern frontier. Third, the Russia relationship is useful to China because it creates a whole series of secondary and tertiary distractions to the Americans beyond the Asia–Pacific, like Syria, Libya and Ukraine. And finally, Russia is a source of major energy and agricultural supply. So, for all those reasons – each of them independent of Xi Jinping’s and Putin’s mutual distaste for the United States – it’s a pretty robust relationship.”

That relationship is governed by two authoritarian men: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Reading their official pronouncements about their respective countries’ histories and futures – pronouncements that are frequently cast in the language of destiny – it has long seemed obvious that both men view themselves as almost divinely exceptional, born to assert their will to reshape history and restore national glory. Rudd has spent a good amount of time with both, and I asked him how he thought these men conceived of themselves.

“I met Putin a number of times,” Rudd says. “I’ve read a lot of that which he’s said about the Russian nation and the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian nation, and therefore his predisposition towards revanchism and revisionism. And in Xi Jinping’s case, he does see himself as a great man of history, and sees himself through the great achievements of Mao. Like Putin, he seeks to change the course of history to that which would otherwise have been, which brings us back to the broader question of structure and agency in international relations. So, no. It’s not unfair to say that they conceive of themselves as men of destiny.”

About that “broader question” of structure and agency, I asked Rudd how singularly influential he thought Putin was in the current war in Ukraine. This question may seem obvious. Putin, as the long-reigning Russian leader, declared and is now prosecuting an indescribably brutal and fatuous war. How could his influence be questioned?  

But if Putin wasn’t leader, would someone else – compelled or supported by Russia’s czarist instincts, its mystical chauvinism, its memory of humiliation (humiliations arguably compounded by the West’s lack of magnanimity in the 1990s) – have filled Putin’s breach?

It’s a disturbing question, not least because it might suggest some reduction of Putin’s agency – the man ultimately responsible for this obscene war. But is Putin’s violence informed by history or his unique psychopathology? The answer can also be a very complicated mixture of both.

Like the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle – who famously wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” – Rudd stresses the importance of individual leadership. “I object to Thucydides Trap writ large, in that it’s a determinist view of history, which basically says we’re all fucked,” Rudd says. “So, I simply don’t accept that as a proposition, not just at a normative level, which I find objectionable anyway, but at an empirical level. I mean, leaders make choices. Churchill could have chosen to conclude we’re all fucked, because the balance of power of the Nazis was against us, but he didn’t. And Zelensky could have chosen to conclude we’re all fucked, because he’s up against the Russian army. But he chose not to. Agency is a very powerful thing in politics.”

It’s not preordained, in other words. And so we come to the thrust of Rudd’s book. He’s sensitive to historical forces, and deeply knowledgeable of them, but is wary of overly abstract or fatalistic interpretations of them. “That’s why the premise of the book is: we’re not simply strapped onto this historically determined future trajectory, which has as its endpoint crisis, escalation, conflict and war,” he says. “Individual leadership can prescribe exit ramps whenever it chooses to.”

Rudd’s point is that the antagonism between the US and China has no clear off-ramps, no clear rules, no clear channels of communication. I ask Rudd if it’s possible to harmonise anyway, when there are such extreme ideological differences. Or, if some form of non-lethal strategic competition is formalised between the powers – as Rudd says it must – is one cost of that simply accepting a certain level of CCP malignancy, not least its enormous “re-education” camps?

“If you accept that strategic competition is also an ideological and ideational debate,” Rudd says, “then it follows, as night follows day, you’re going to have a position which is structurally critical of human-rights abuses within China, whether it’s Tibet, whether it’s Xinjiang or whether it’s dissidents within the country itself, like the human rights lawyers that have been arrested. My argument ideologically is may the best system win.”

And may the best side win without the eruption of mushroom clouds, Rudd adds.

As prime minister, Paul Keating would often say that we need to find security in Asia, not from Asia. But for a very long time, we’ve conceived of our regional security in one way: seeking shelter beneath the umbrella of the United States.

What’s troubling about this, besides its myopia, is that it assumes the infinitely sustained power and stability of our great patron. But this was never guaranteed, and today American democracy is a diminished and questionable thing. Donald Trump may return in two years, or if not Trump an acolyte. But beyond that, the rich and contradictory vastness of America seems increasingly ungovernable. I asked Rudd if we had placed all of our eggs in one basket.

“My argument is always one about walking and chewing gum, which is to be maximally active and rooted in institutions in Asia and around the world, which [would] maximise the prospect of common security,” Rudd says. “But at the same time, being equally realist about the need to have your alliance structures in order so that if common security arrangements fail that you have alliance structures to fall back on.”

But we haven’t done that, Rudd says. For years our foreign policy has been a strange mix of slothfulness and energetic denunciation. On China, it has been a series of belligerent rhetorical improvisations. But, Rudd says, there’s something else – something uniquely weird.

“We [effectively] don’t have a foreign minister,” Rudd says. “We have a defence minister who is also the foreign minister. That’s relatively unique in Australia’s modern history. That’s the first point. Second is that this idiot defence minister believes that not only a national security policy needs a series of megaphone declarations, but that Australian foreign policy is best advanced by megaphone declarations. That constantly conflates and confuses two things: the declaratory nature of this country’s foreign and security policy on one hand, versus the operational nature of its foreign and security policy on the other. So, a more sophisticated diplomacy would, frankly, talk less and do more. My constant criticism of the current Australian government’s China strategy is that they talk a lot and they do very little. And when they have done stuff, they’ve flogged off the Darwin Port to China and other crazy stuff like being missing in action in the Solomons when their presence was needed. But they’ll give you a thousand speeches about the threat of China.”

We need to get much smarter about that threat, Rudd says. The stakes are too high not to.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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Labor today released its costings as planned, though not before another unedifying display from a press pack that has repeatedly demanded to know the deficit (but cracked it when Labor tried to send them to Canberra for the announcement).

It was ironic that A Current Affair performed yesterday’s hard-hitting political interview, while it was the political journos in the travelling press pack who undertook the embarrassing A Current Affair–style chase.

Thank God someone has finally identified Scott Morrison’s real problem with women! It’s not that his government has consistently legislated in a way that undermines women’s safety and equality (only one Coalition candidate has committed to taking action for women’s safety if elected, despite more than 400 other candidates undertaking to do so).

How much thought did the Coalition put into its eleventh-hour “Super Home Buyer” scheme? The idea of raiding superannuation to buy a house has long been opposed by high-profile Liberals, from John Howard to Peter Dutton, based on the obvious fact that it will drive up prices.

The polls must be dire. In a press conference hailed as “incredibly significant”, Scott Morrison today made what has been seen as a huge concession about his performance as PM: he knows he needs to change.

May 13, 2022

Election special: Who should you vote for?

By Russell Marks
Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Opinion polls claim that between 5 and 10 per cent of all voters haven’t yet decided who they’re going to vote for at the federal election on May 21.

There are a few tools around that might help undecided voters make up their minds. The ABC’s Vote Compass is one: it comprises 30 propositions, and then lets you know which of the parties currently polling at least 5 per cent of the primary vote (that is, Labor, the Coalition or the Greens) best aligns with your responses.

Here’s a more finely tuned questionnaire to illuminate your electoral options, and it only has half the number of questions. Each response has a corresponding symbol, or group of symbols, which you tally up as you choose the responses best representing your point of view. At the conclusion of the questionnaire, we will explain how the symbol you selected most indicates your political alignment. Hopefully this will help guide your vote on election day.

  1. The greatest single achievement of the Coalition’s current nine-year term in government is:
  1. The sheer fact that it’s survived nine years despite having more prime ministers (three) than policies (one, which failed anyway – the religious discrimination bill). ■ ▲ △
  2. Its successful avoidance of such woke “reforms” as a kangaroo-court corruption commission and a market-based scheme to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and, in the process, destroy businesses, jobs, livelihoods and all light and joy in the world. ●
  3. Its magical ability to make most of Labor’s policies disappear. ▲
  4. Its bestowal of a knighthood on Prince Philip. 
  1. Campaigning leaders of major political parties should know what the cash rate is when it’s been the same for the past year. Do you agree or disagree?
  1. Somewhat agree. Ideally, yes, they should know it. But is this really the biggest issue facing Australia right now? If we’d wound back the negative gearing, capital gains and franking credits tax concessions years ago, we might not be in this mess. ▲ △
  2. Strongly disagree. Journalists who direct “gotcha” questions at politicians who can’t answer them are completely ruining politics. ■
  3. Strongly agree. Leaders who can’t give straight answers to basic questions are unqualified to be prime minister (unless they’re leading the Liberal Party, in which case it’s fine). ●
  4. What is a cash rate and how much do I get? ♞
  1. What is the best possible answer to the following question: “Was it a mistake not to announce that you were taking leave during the Black Summer bushfires?”
  1. “Frankly, yes. I’m human, and I made an error of judgement. I obviously didn’t think it was going to have any major consequences, but all I can do now is to apologise, promise it won’t happen again, and to focus on getting all possible support to our firefighters.”▲ △
  2. To say nothing while shaking in silent rage at the interviewer for an inappropriate length of time. 
  3. “Look, I can’t even believe we still have this concept of ‘leave’ in this country. We need to get productivity up and leave entitlements way down. Unions are really killing Australia.” ☹
  4. “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” ●
  1. Imagine you are the leader of a major political party. Who would you consult for advice about how to respond publicly to an allegation that one of your female staffers was sexually assaulted inside Parliament House?
  1. Your spokesperson for women, your specialist advisers and maybe even an expert or two: you’re conscious that you’re a man and you want to make sure get this moment right. ■ ▲
  2. Your specialist advisers and experts: you’re a woman yourself, but you want to make sure you’re conveying the most appropriate message in this particular moment. ♂
  3. Your wife, Jenny. ●
  4. Your Special Envoy for Women, Tony Abbott. 
  1. The policy differences between the Labor and Liberal parties can best be described as:
  1. The difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which of course invokes the memorable comparison made by Bob Catley and Bruce McFarlane in their 1974 book critiquing the Whitlam government and its repudiation of radicalism in favour of a disturbingly conservative social model. ▲
  2. Massive. It won’t be easy under Albanese, you know. ●
  3. Ginormous. Here’s what Australia needs to do to the Morrison government: “shake it off”, like Tay-Tay.■
  4. They’re all snouts at the trough. You can never trust Labor, the Liberals, the Greens, the Democrats, One Nation, Family First, the Liberal Democrats, Nick Xenophon, Bob Katter, that Lambie woman, the Democrats, the Republicans or the Justice League of America ever again. (Though we’re preferencing the Libs, as it turns out, so you can probably trust them at least a little bit.) $
  1. A fair taxation system is one which:
  1. Encourages ambition and innovation while prioritising social cohesion and poverty elimination via universal social security and proper funding of public education, health, transport and our zero carbon goals. ▲ △
  2. Has me paying much less tax while other people pay more tax. ■
  3. Has everyone paying less tax while everyone also complains about public services going down the gurgler. ●
  4. Means sitting Coalition members in marginal seats have access to enough public funds to secure their re-election, and retiring MPs have access to extraordinarily generous pensions for the rest of their lives while they also earn big retainers as consultants to fossil-fuel companies. ●
  5. Please explain? ✪
  1. Scott Morrison is doing a good job as prime minister. Do you agree or disagree?
  1. Strongly agree. (I work for the Liberal Party and this is my personal opinion, which may or may not be shared by my employer.) ●
  2. Somewhat agree, mainly because he’s actually survived an entire term – that’s the first time since John Howard did it between 2004 and 2007 – and because he’s somehow managed to make us forget this government had two PMs before him. ●
  3. Neither agree nor disagree. I also can’t decide what movie to watch this weekend, who to barrack for in the footy or whether I prefer my chicken cooked or raw. ♞
  4. Somewhat disagree, mainly because I actually strongly disagree but I want to sound reasonable and I don’t want people to think there’s too much difference between me and him. ■
  5. Strongly disagree, because he’s a lying, sexist, pork-barrelling, hypocritical slime-bucket. ▲ △
  1. Classic chicken korma should include:
  1. Chicken cooked well enough to reasonably eliminate the risk of salmonella. ■
  2. A plant-based chicken substitute.  ▲ △
  3. Undercooked chicken that looks pink even through the curry sauce, and no matter what the lighting.  ●
  4. Fish and chips. It’s not spicy, right? ✪
  1. Locking up innocent people fleeing persecution in prisons detention centres run by the Australian government in other countries for indeterminate lengths of time is entirely consistent with Christian values. Do you agree or disagree?
  1. It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing. They’re just not consistent, objectively, as a matter of fact. No, I’m not a Christian. ▲ △
  2. Somewhat agree. Don’t ask me to justify it. It’s just the most pragmatic response I can provide for the time being. We all want A Better Future, don’t we? ■
  3. Somewhat agree. It all depends on how you read the Bible. Matthew 25:31-40, which is the parable about Jesus being the stranger to whom the righteous gave food and drink, could well be a warning about fifth-column terrorists. ✞
  4. Entirely agree. What’s the issue? ●
  1. The solution to the crisis in aged care involves:
  1. Paying aged-care workers proper wages. ■ ▲ △
  2. Installing a registered nurse in every aged-care facility. ■
  3. Claiming credit for calling a royal commission whose recommendations we’re not prepared to implement. ●
  4. Investing in revolutionary anti-ageing technology, which is being designed by the same researchers who are about to solve the problem of CO2 emissions by capturing them all and stuffing them underground. ●
  5. Knighting Queen Elizabeth II. 
  1. The biggest threat to Australians’ freedom of speech right now is:
  1. The fact that Julian Assange is being deported from England to the United States to be prosecuted for publishing leaked secret documents that convey the truth about what the US and its allies really do (as opposed to what they say they do). ▲
  2. Australian laws that allow at least 22 government agencies to secretly access a journalist’s phone and internet data for the purpose of identifying the journalist’s confidential source, and which also make it a crime – punishable by imprisonment – to merely report on the existence of such a warrant. ▲
  3. An Australian law which makes it a crime for anyone who works in an immigration detention centre to tell anyone else, without the permission of the secretary of the Australian Border Force, about what they’ve seen or heard in the centre. ▲
  4. Codes of conduct that prevent, on pain of being sacked, anyone who works for an Australian government department or agency from saying anything publicly – even if they do so anonymously – which contradicts or criticises government policy. ▲
  5. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful (though not criminal) for bigots to say racist things about other people in bad faith. ● ⇨ ☹
  1. To solve the problems caused by incoherent leaders’ debates during election campaigns, we need:
  1. An independent Debates Commission, because a new bureaucracy is almost always the answer to everything. ▲
  2. More eloquent political leaders, with actual skills in oratory, rhetoric and persuasion. ✹
  3. A Worm, but not a left-wing one like we had before. ●
  4. To check out what’s available on one of the three streaming services I’ve signed up to and rarely access. ✔
  5. A former Skyhooks guitarist and a huge gong. ✔
  1. A hung parliament would be:
  1. The worst possible thing to happen to Australia since the murder of Phar Lap. ● ■
  2. A great thing, if the balance of power is held by Greens and teal independents who push a minority Labor government to actually create A Better Future. ▲ △
  3. A great thing, if the balance of power is held by sensible MPs who force the Libs to parachute Tony Abbott back into the prime ministership – or at least to install someone who can make this country great again. Like Peter Dutton. 
  1. Labor has dumped its past proposals to claw back some of the tax concessions that benefit investors (negative gearing, the capital-gains discount, franking credits), believing that those policies cost it election victories in 2016 and 2019. If it again fails to form government after the 2022 election, to what or whom should it attribute blame?
  1. Anthony Albanese. Life wouldn’t have been easy with him. ■
  2. I don’t really care how Labor will explain its own failure to win the second straight unlosable election, but “gutless incompetence” might be a good start. ▲
  3. ScoMo. He is truly a miracle sent from Heaven. ● ✞
  4. Rupert Bloody Murdoch. ▲ △ ■
  5. The free market. ☹
  1. After nine years of this Coalition government, Australia is in a better place than it was in 2013. Do you agree or disagree?
  1. Strongly agree. And it would be in an even better place had those Labor impostors not illegally occupied the ministerial benches for six interminable, pink-batted, carbon-taxing, anti-witch-ditching years. ●
  2. Somewhat agree. At least Peter Dutton is a few steps closer to absolute power. ⇨
  3. Are you kidding?! Stagnant wages, record household debt, record public debt, interest rates at emergency lows and on the rise, inflation hitting non-discretionary items, aged-care crisis, mental-health crisis, housing crisis… and they’ve ripped hundreds of billions out of the budget to give rich people tax cuts! On top of that, there’s no plan for carbon emissions, and no movement on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Thanks for nothing, dickheads. ▲ △ ■


Now tally up the symbols that correspond with your answers. The symbol you have most of indicates your political alignment.

● If you collected mostly black holes, you should vote for the Coalition and its policy vacuum.

■ If you collected mostly squares, you need to vote for Labor and Albo’s hip new glasses.

▲ We suspect you know that the equilateral triangle = The Greens. You’re overeducated as it is.

△ Caught between the Blue and the Green? Find a teal independent and vote for them.

$ Clive Palmer has certainly spent enough cash to buy your vote, so you should probably give it to his United Australia Party.

✪ One Nation

✞ Family First

Clearly you’re a fan of blowing things up. Bring back Tony Abbott.

⇨ Go find a fringe Senate party way off to the right of One Nation.

☹ Is the Institute of Public Affairs running candidates this election?

♞ Donkey vote

✔ Isn’t this the sensible thing to do anyway?

♂ This is a trick response. All prime ministerial candidates in this election are men.

✹ Unfortunately there’s nobody for you to vote for, sorry.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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