Behind the scenes at Westminster and the teetering fate of the British government lies an even more profound change in British politics: the very real possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom.
In this situation Australia needs to tread carefully and maintain its good relations with what has emerged as its more stable European partner, the European Union, while offering silent support for whatever governments or countries could emerge from Brexit.
Is the UK headed for dissolution?
The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The publication of the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement – a hefty 585-page tome – has revealed what has been implicit in the “British” vote to leave the EU all along: that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism that will unwittingly lead to the break-up of the UK.
Behind the government’s rhetoric of “global Britain”, there is no such thing as the “British people” in a political sense any more. The referendum revealed significant divisions between attitudes to EU membership in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. While Prime Minister Theresa May tried to reposition “global Britain” in relation to Europe and the rest of the world, Britain itself dissolved from within.
Prime Minister Theresa May refers to the UK as a “precious union”. If only more people felt the same. An LBC-YouGov poll in March found that a majority of (mostly English) voters wanted to leave the EU rather than keep Northern Ireland in the UK.
In October, research published by the Centre on Constitutional Change showed that a clear majority of English leave voters would be happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the UK as the price of Brexit.
The irony is that it is the resistance of 10 MPs from the Ulster loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and about 60 hard-line English Conservative Brexiteersis most likely to plunge the UK into an existential crisis. Their intransigence will destroy the thing they profess to defend.
The text of the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement was at pains to appease concerns among the Ulster unionist community about maintaining the integrity of the UK (unsuccessfully as it turned out).
The prospect of the agreed backstop – a single customs territory that the UK could not leave without EU consent and which would ultimately keep Northern Ireland in a special relationship with the EU after Brexit – was not something Brexiteers and the DUP could stomach.
Across the Irish Sea, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, asked: if Northern Ireland got special treatment, why not Scotland too?
In fact, the withdrawal agreement made no mention of Scotland at all. This disregard for the overwhelming Scottish vote to remain in the EU has pushed Scotland closer to another referendum on independence.
Brexit has created a new and deep cleavage in British politics that cuts across old political divisions. Far fewer people identify as Labour or Conservative than identify as “leave” or “remain”.
Add the national dimension to this politics and some new options emerge. Some hard Brexiteers must be considering ditching Scotland and Northern Ireland as an acceptable cost for “British” (read “English”) independence from the EU.
The ghost of empire has haunted the Brexit imaginary from before the 2016 referendum. Its critics derided “global Britain” as “Empire 2.0”. But the memory of empire cuts two ways. Brexiteers see the EU as a threatening imperium. The withdrawal agreement would leave the UK as a vassal state – a state that is subordinate to another – and therefore must be rejected.
Would a second referendum help?
Brexit has also left unresolved questions about who is actually in charge in Britain. Calls for a second referendum have grown, suggesting “the people” rather than government or parliament is the ultimate source of authority on this matter.
A second referendum has the advantage of presenting the electorate with a concrete proposal for leaving. It would temper the unrealistic and downright false claims of the leave campaign in 2016. It might end the talk of “respecting the wishes of the British people” to leave the EU.
In truth we don’t really know what exactly people voted for: only 6% of leave voters said they thought Britain would be better off economically by leaving.
But a general election would be a better bet. It would effectively be a referendum on the deal. It might also return a government with a majority – something Britain has lacked since May’s miscalculation last year.
What does this mean for Australia? Australia was name-checked in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday as a country offering the prospect of a quick free trade agreement. Britain needs Australia in a way that it hasn’t since world war two. It would be best at this delicate moment to stop recklessly encouraging the British government from the sidelines: no more talk of one-page free trade agreements.
Australia must continue with its (slow) progress on the Australia-EU free trade agreement negotiations begun in June. The EU has remained remarkably unified during the Brexit negotiations despite tensions of its own. The EU is coming out of its own crises of the past decade. Now it’s Britain’s turn to teeter on the brink of disintegration.
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Strikes illegal under international law
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
- there was convincing evidence of large-scale and extreme humanitarian distress;
- there was no practicable alternative to using force in order to save lives; and
- the use of force in response was proportionate and time-limited to relieve humanitarian suffering.
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
Illegal but legitimate?
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Humanitarian intervention or regime change
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
A head-spinning series of events in the past few weeks have taken us from the United States pulling out of Syria, to analysts predicting the beginning of a third world war.
What has really happened in Syria, what are the ramifications of the joint strike from the US, France and Britain, and what can we expect from the key players?
Certainly, the mess in Syria and heightened tensions in the Middle East make us all fear an impending world war, especially when both the Russian and US presidents engage in a round of chest-thumping. Despite this, there is no certainty that a world war will be triggered from the Syrian conflict.
The latest chemical attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, followed by the US, British, French retaliation, is really about aligning an unpredictable Trump with the Syria policy of the state and military establishment in Washington.
Why the strikes?
A world power like the US is seldom reactive. It often uses events as key moments to implement new policies or shift policies. An apparent correlation of events with policy implementation justifies the policy in the eyes of internal constituents and the wider international community.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has followed an open and consistent policy: declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the legitimate government of Syria, always support his regime to ensure it doesn’t collapse, and morally justify its involvement as a struggle against terrorism. The unspoken policy is to build up a challenge to Western dominance over not only the Middle East, but geopolitical world order.
Yet, the US, and by extension Western policy on Syria, was tentative, unclear and seemed to change course over the seven-year conflict.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to opposition groups, hoping they could muster enough power to dismantle Assad.
The Obama administration shifted its policy after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 prompted it to push for a United Nations resolution demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles. This in turn gave impetus to peace talks in Geneva. Apparently, the stockpiles were not destroyed, as we have seen more chemical attacks.
Obama admitted his strategy failed, as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Russian President Vladimir Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. Efforts to make progress in the Geneva talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to make any meaningful progress even as late as 2017.
In the early months of his presidency, the expectation was that Trump would change the US policy on Syria. It was uncertain what trajectory it would take, and when it would come to pass.
Not much happened until yet another chemical-gas attack by Assad in April 2017. The US responded with a massive missile attack, taking out 20% of Assad’s air force. The result was that the Trump administration committed to a more active involvement in Syria and the complete dismantling of the Islamic State presence in the country, but not necessarily the removal of Assad.
It is now apparent there was a fundamental difference between Trump and the key people in his administration in their understanding of the US’ Syria policy.
For Trump, it was always about eliminating IS. On April 3, he announced that the US’ primary mission in Syria was “getting rid of ISIS”. Since this had now been completed, he could bring the troops home.
Yet, in December 2017, Defence Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue its presence in Syria as a “stabilising force” beyond IS.
In January 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the US would stay in Syria beyond IS, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iranian and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
So, Trump’s withdrawal intentions, or rather the public announcement, came as a surprise to his own administration as well as the international community. In response, the US special envoy for the global coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said:
We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.
Other officials from the US administration and military made conflicting statements.
Trump’s withdrawal announcement opened the ground for other players to assert their plans. On April 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in Turkey, at which Putin announced:
We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria.
The trio’s plan included an intensified Turkish operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG,” the Kurdish military force that was backed by the US in its bid to eradicate IS from Syria.
It seemed Syria would be left to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad. Until, of course, the most recent chemical attack in Douma, a suburb near Damascus, on April 7. The attack was blamed on the Assad government even though it vehemently denied it, and there were allegations of rebel involvement.
Importantly, the chemical attack conveniently served the faction in the US administration advocating for a greater involvement in Syria. Their arguments pushed Trump towards retaliation. In a matter of days, Trump went from vowing withdrawal from Syria to saying they have a “big price to pay”.
A military response in the form of a missile attack was inevitable, and so it took place on April 13, when the US and its allies, Britain and France, made “precision missile strikes against the Syrian government”. The six-day delay was really to gain international support for the attack so that it did not appear to be a showdown between Russia and the US.
Where to from here?
The most recent events in Syria were really about aligning Trump’s understanding of Syrian policy with that of the state and military establishment. The policy is to stay in Syria beyond IS, preventing its revival and preventing Iranian and Assad forces from regaining territory.
It is unlikely there will be any other military strikes by the US and its allies anytime soon. There are two possible wild cards though – Trump’s unpredictability and a possible Russian retaliation.
Elements within the US administration in favour of continued US involvement in Syria will have to keep Trump calm – give him reasons why he should continue committing to Syria, while preventing a direct Russian-US confrontation. Building a coalition with France and Britain prior to the missile retaliation served this purpose. It gave Russia the impression that the matter was a concern with the international community, rather than just the US.
Trump’s exaggerating nature and bombastic language in his tweets run the risk of escalating the situation. But they also help contain Russia, which is always unsure what Trump may say and do next.
A Russian response beyond condemnation is unlikely. Putin recently won a landslide victory in the March presidential elections. He is in no hurry to thump his chest into an all-out brawl with the US due to internal politics.
Furthermore, Russia is already in a diplomatic crisis over the assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in London.
The US, Britain and more than a dozen European countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation. Putin is already quite vulnerable in the international scene. He will not enter a fight he is not certain to win.
While the US and its allies may feel morally justified in attacking the Assad government targets, any such intervention is unlikely to help the people of Syria. They will continue to be collateral damage caught in the crossfire of geo-politics.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have declared two Russian diplomats personas non grata – in other words, they are expelling them from Australia.
The decision to expel the pair is a show of solidarity with the UK over the assassination attempt on two Russian nationals, former Russian colonel Sergei Skripal (who was recruited by British intelligence) and his daughter Yulia, in the small city of Salisbury on March 4.
In a joint statement, Turnbull and Bishop said the two diplomats were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”, and are now required to leave Australia within seven days.
This is a rare move. However, it is not the first time Australia has expelled Russian diplomats implicated in covert intelligence activities. In mid-1993, Australia secretly expelled six Russian diplomats on “suspicions of spying”.
Historically, Australia was of strong interest to Soviet and Russian intelligence.
There were several reasons for this, including Australia’s close security and defence ties to the US, the UK and other NATO countries, and its access to highly sensitive intelligence as part of the Five Eyes agreement.
Australia also has access to advanced military technology provided by its allies. It plays an important role in the US-led Asia-Pacific anti-ballistic missile defence.
In recent years, Australia’s intelligence community has expressed concern about the extent of Russian and Chinese intelligence-gathering activities in the country.
Posting a serving intelligence officer to work under a diplomatic cover is a common practice of various intelligence agencies, particularly those that do not have special agreements concerning the legal presence of intelligence personnel in a country of interest. Russian intelligence services, such as the Foreign Intelligence Service SVR (sluzhba vneshnei razvedki – political and economic intelligence) and the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU (glavnoe razvedyvatel’noe upravlenie – military intelligence), engage in such practices.
Diplomatic cover provides an intelligence operative not just with diplomatic immunity. It also gives an operative a legal right to engage with various groups of a targeted nation, from political and business elites to fellow diplomats, journalists, social activists, academics, and community groups.
Counterintelligence agencies have ways of identifying such operatives and tracking their activities, including contacts with key local stakeholders. Expelling identified, undeclared intelligence officers is common practice when a country wants to showcase a robust response and a clear political message to its political opponent. In this case, it is Russia.
Identifying the two diplomats as spies sends a powerful message to Russia and its intelligence services. But the world of intelligence is a never-ending game of shadows, with its own rules, codes of conduct and practices.
Australia expects that, in return, Russia will declare at least two Australian diplomats from its embassy in Moscow personas non grata. It is likely the Russians will use the same logic as Australia in choosing who to send home.
By keeping the pressure on Russia, the West is trying to alter Russia’s strategic behaviour, reducing the impact Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness has caused to the US-led rules-based order.
There is also a clear attempt to weaken Russia as a strategic competitor, as the world’s number-two military power, by making its economy bleed under sanctions. But what effect might this latest round of confrontation create?
Certainly, the expulsion of some 130 Russian diplomats/suspected intelligence operatives will curtail Russian intelligence operations across Europe, North America and Australia.
However, we should not underestimate the potential of Russian intelligence services. It is likely they will restore their intelligence-gathering capacity very quickly. Russia has a proven global intelligence-gathering capability, and the expulsion of some 130 agents will not undermine it in the long run.
Also, only 23 countries have followed the UK’s response against Russia. About half of EU member countries have not joined in the action so far. Some major powers in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, including China and India, have kept their distance. That makes this new round of Russia-West confrontation a war of yet another “coalition of the willing”.
Russia is unlikely to back down to pressure from the West, nor will it admit its alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on Skripal. The investigation into the attack continues, and no final conclusions have been drawn yet.
We should also recognise that the West has seriously underestimated the level of Russian resilience to sanctions as well as its ability to challenge the US-led rules-based order.
In terms of future steps, Australia might reconsider the level of its involvement in the upcoming football World Cup, which will be held in Russia in June-July this year. However, it is unlikely the Australian team will boycott the event.
More targeted sanctions may be imposed, but these actions are likely to trigger a counter-response from Russia. Already, Russia-Australia bilateral trade has gone down: the level of bilateral economic trade was A$687 million in 2016, down from A$1.837 billion in 2014. If Russia is to take further economic counter-sanctions against Australia, it may choose to target Australia’s agricultural exports.
Neither Australia nor Russia consider high-level political dialogue with one another a priority. Yet maintaining some form of a dialogue is important.
Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is a member of several key international organisations that are critical to Australia, including the G20 and APEC. Russia plays a critical role in the ongoing war in Syria and crisis in Ukraine, the war against Islamic State, in curtailing the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran, and in stabilising Afghanistan.
Cutting ties with Russia or suspending dialogue with it on some key international security issues such as combating terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or North Korea would not contribute to global stability.
The Australian government decided to show decisiveness, determination and strong resolve. Australia has once again shown its strong support and solidarity with its key allies such as the UK. But let’s hope the government shows the same consistency, resolve and determination next time other major powers undertake reckless activities, such as China’s strategic gaming in South China Sea.
The Australian government is expelling two Russian spies as part of a broad international retaliatory action against the nerve agent attack on the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain earlier this month.
The diplomats have been “identified as undeclared intelligence officers”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement on Tuesday morning. “Undeclared intelligence agents” are spies.
More than 20 Western countries, including the US, EU countries and Canada, are expelling more than 100 Russians, in a dramatic escalation of the push against Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May told the UK parliament this was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.
Turnbull and Bishop said the Russians had to leave within a week “for actions inconsistent with their status”.
“This decision reflects the shocking nature of the attack – the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II, involving a highly lethal substance in a populated area, endangering countless other members of the community,” they said in a statement.
“It takes into account advice from the UK government that the substance used on 4 March was a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. Such an attack cannot be tolerated by any sovereign nation.
“We strongly support the call on Russia to disclose the full extent of its chemical weapons program in accordance with international law.
“This attack is part of a pattern of reckless and deliberate conduct by the Russian state that constitutes a growing threat to international security, global non-proliferation rules against the use of chemical weapons, the rights of other sovereign nations and the international rules-based order that underpins them,” the statement said.
Turnbull briefed Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who immediately backed the action.
“I have spoken to the security agencies. I am very supportive of this measure,” Shorten told reporters.
“These are undeclared agents and so therefore it is inappropriate that they be in Australia.”
Asked whether he believed it was beyond doubt that the Russians were involved in the nerve agent attack, Shorten said “our security agencies have that view and therefore I think this is a proportionate action today”.
Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in a critical condition.
The Russian embassy issued a statement saying: “It is astonishing how easily the allies of Great Britain follow it blindly contrary to the norms of civilised bilateral dialogue and international relations, and against the common sense. The modern world is not in a stage when it is possible to dictate anything to anybody, regardless of the nostalgia for past grandeur in certain capitals.”
The statement said that “neither the Russian side, attempt on which citizens’ life was made, nor other states possess impartial exhaustive information about the ‘Skripal case’”.
“Such flagrant and primitive campaigns as the ‘Skripal case’ that are crudely orchestrated by London, could only trigger further erosion of international relations architecture on which peace and security in the whole world during the post-war period were rested.”
Russia’s ambassador in Canberra Grigory Logvinov dodged the question of whether the Russians expelled are spies. “No ambassador would give you an answer, and actually ask your authorities how they could judge who is a special agent or not. Within my embassy, there are only career diplomats,” he told the ABC.
Australia ranks 12th in the Open Budget Index, and scores 74, much higher than the global average of 42 and the OECD average of 68. But Australia’s budget could still be more transparent if it included more on the budget’s impact on welfare and tax and by gender.
The Open Budget Index is published every two years and ranks countries using a transparency score, which is based on a survey for each country about publishing of budget documents, budget oversight and public participation.
This year, there were 115 countries in the index and Australia was included for the first time. Australia ranks behind our neighbours New Zealand and also behind the United States, United Kingdom and France. The top three countries in the index are New Zealand (with a score of 89), South Africa (89) and Sweden (87).
Each country’s survey for the index is prepared independently by an in-country civil society organisation or academic researcher. Applying standardised questions and based on evidence, researchers at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute conducted the Australian survey. The assessments are also reviewed anonymously..
How transparent is the Australian budget?
The survey assessed Australian federal budget process for the 2015-2016 year and the first half of the 2016-2017 year. Australia’s government performs well in publishing most budget documents at different points in the budget process.
The budget documents include: Budget Paper No. 1 (with a score of 87), the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report (with a score 93) and the The Auditor-General annual report (81). The government reformed these documents in the 1990s with the introduction of the Charter of Budget Honesty.
Where the Australian budget falls down is in engaging the public in the budget process. The index evaluates public participation with 18 indicators. Australia’s weakest score is in budget participation (41 out of 100). This indicates limited opportunities for the public to engage in the budget process.
For example the Australia government doesn’t publish a pre-budget statement and publishes less information in the budget that has been approved by the parliament and the government summary of the budget (a simpler and less technical version of the government’s budget proposal and other budget documents). Australia also lags behind New Zealand in transparency of most reports.
Yet, given participation opportunities are much scarcer in most other countries in the world, Australia is in fact one of the top performers on this measure. Almost all countries have only scant opportunities for public participation (score 40 and below), except New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Philippines.
Where Australia scores really well is in its budget oversight by the Australian National Audit Office (a score of 100). But Australia presents a mixed picture on the checks and balances in overseeing the budget. The parliament provides adequate oversight at the executive and audit stage (that gets a score of 67); but limited oversight at the formulation and approval stage for the budget (with a score of 48). Overall, Australia gets a score of 70 out of 100, lagging considerably behind Norway (91) and Germany (89).
The main barrier to improving this is the lack of pre-budget debate by the parliament. Budget Paper No. 1 is given to members of parliament less than two months before the start of the budget year, and in-year budget implementation is not examined by a parliamentary committee.
Room for improvement
It’s crucial that budget processes are fair, open, democratic and accountable. Australia performs well generally on budget transparency – as we should expect as citizens in a robust parliamentary democracy. But there is some room for improvement.
For example, Australia’s budget contains much less information than in the past about distributional effects of budget policy on taxes and welfare. The government is no longer providing “cameo” tables, which show the projected impact in the real disposal incomes of different hypothetical families, as it did in the previous budgets prior to 2014-15.
The Australian budget also does not contain any analysis of the budget by gender. This is in contrast to the 1980s, during that time Australia was the pioneer in introducing gender budget analysis.
These gaps show us why it’s important for us to keep an eye on transparency. We should not be complacent. We need more public reporting, analysis and opportunities for public participation in the budget process.
Miranda Stewart, Professor and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Teck Chi Wong, Research Assistant at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Australian National University
A Soviet-designed “Novichok” chemical is the nerve agent responsible for poisoning a former spy and his daughter, British Prime Minister Theresa May said today.
Sergei and Julia Skripal were found collapsed on a park bench on Sunday March 4 in the English town of Salisbury, a few hours after eating lunch and spending time at a restaurant and pub nearby.
As reported by the BBC, May said the UK must stand ready to take “extensive measures” if Russia does not provide an adequate explanation for the use of this agent on British soil.
What are the origins of Novichok?
The Novichok group of molecules are nerve agents developed by the Soviets from the late 1970’s – but never produced on a large scale, at least to the best of public knowledge. They are referred to as third generation nerve agents to indicate their production as a follow-on to the G-series agents such as sarin (also referred to as “GB”) developed in Germany prior to WWII, and the V-series agents (such as VX gas) first developed by the UK in the 1950’s.
The name “Novichok” translates colloquially from Russian as “newbies”.
Scientists who worked on the Novichok project disclosed details from 1992 onwards. They stated that the project goals included developing weapons that:
could not be detected by the then standard NATO chemical weapons detection sensors
have potential to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention
would be easier to produce using methods and materials prevalent in pesticides industries
were designed from the outset to be “binary” chemical weapons (where two relatively non-toxic materials are mixed together just before dispersal to minimise the danger to the personnel delivering the weapons).
How would Novichok use be confirmed?
Members of the public said that Julie Skripal appeared passed out on the park bench in Salisbury, and her father was making strange movements with his hand. The two remain in a critical condition in hospital.
Symptoms are given the mnemonic “SLUGEM”:
Salivation – the famous “foaming at the mouth”
Lacrimation – “crying”, or tears pouring from the eyes
Emesis (vomiting) – as the body loses control over muscles, particularly those of the sphincters
Miosis – one of the key diagnostics; the muscles that cause the pupil to constrict become fully activated and the pupils become pinpoints in the iris.
The final “‘M” is sometimes given as “muscle spasms”. The type of spasms associated with organophosphate poisoning are somewhat diagnostic.
Although some of these symptoms are common with other nervous system disruptions, doctors are taught to look for these symptoms together as a sign of exposure to organophosphates.
Apart from the physical signs and symptoms, to confirm identity of the agent, police and doctors take blood or other fluid samples, or wipe the patient’s skin with a gauze to pick up any residue of the agent. Those samples are reasonably stable and could be sent to an analytical chemistry laboratory for identification.
The UK has an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) designated laboratory run by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Chemical and Biological Systems. The lab is located at Porton Down, around 10 miles from the scene of the attack.
In Australia, the equivalent OPCW designated laboratory is operated by the Defence Science and Technology Group.
The Handbook of Recommended Operating Procedures for Analysis in the Verification of Chemical Disarmament (also known as “the Blue Book”) does not have a specific method for detecting Novichok agents. However, it would be reasonable to assume that they would be detectable by the methods available to a well equipped defence science laboratory.
How could Novichok have been administered?
Nerve agents such as sarin are typically used in the form of a gas or vapour. But Novichok agents can be made in a solid form, most likely a powder. This would make them a relatively simple agent to be used on a battlefield (as may have been the original design motivation), or to add to food or to be left in a home as may be the case with the Skripals.
Nerve agents are bioavailable from the gut – that is, they can absorb into the body after being eaten. That route of delivery isn’t well studied, but is consistent with the slightly slower onset of symptoms in Sergei and Julia Skripal.
Novichok agents are said to be particularly effective at penetrating the central nervous system (that is, the brain and spinal column) and causing more severe neurological symptoms than is typical for other nerve agents.
As well as Sergei and Julia Skripal, a policeman has become seriously ill as a result of this incident – it’s not clear whether this was through attending to the sick pair on the bench, or visiting Sergei Skripal’s house.
Furthermore, the UK government has issued a public health advisory notice for people who were in the pub and/or the restaurant at which the Skripals may have been poisoned. For people who may have been exposed to very small amounts of Novichok, the advised washing of clothing would act to dilute or deactivate the compounds.
Will the ex-spy and his daughter survive?
A reported case of accidental exposure of a Russian physicist to Novichok in 1987 described the following events:
He staggered out of the room, his vision seared by brilliant colors and hallucinations. He collapsed, and the KGB took him to a hospital.
By the time he arrived his breathing was labored. In another hour, his heart would have stopped. His entire nervous system was gradually ceasing to function.
The physicist was lucky. The hospital he was taken to, the Sklifosovsky Institute, includes the nation’s top center for poison treatment.
There, Dr. Yevgeny Vedernikov saved his life.
But the scientist was at the edge of death, unaware of his surroundings, for 10 days. He couldn’t walk for six months. He was dogged by depression and an inability to concentrate. He found it difficult even to read. To this day his arms are still weak, and he has never been able to return to work.
Although he survived, the gas left him with permanent disabilities.
This previous incident suggests that while the Skripals could theoretically recover, they may not be in a fit state to act as reliable witnesses to their own attempted murders.
The question of who was responsible will remain – although British Prime Minister May has come to the conclusion that,
Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.
We’re waiting for an official Russian response.
This piece is republished with permission from Commonwealth Now, the 59th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis on the relevance of the Commonwealth of Nations in today’s geopolitical landscape.
Twelve years after William the Conqueror sailed across what’s now known as the English Channel to invade England, kill the king and claim the crown in 1066, he constructed the Tower of London.
Defiant locals viewed the stone tower, built into the remnants of the city’s Roman wall, as a symbol of the oppression of the continental regime. For the new monarch it was an important defensive hold on the north bank of the Thames, a useful place for temporary retreat if needed.
Over the following millennia the tower, more than any other building, has represented the power of the throne: a palace, treasury, public-record office, mint, menagerie and, most famously, a prison – the place where opponents were imprisoned and, sometimes, executed.
Now it has more than a touch of Disneyland – a World Heritage site visited by nearly 3 million people a year, and home to the crown jewels, the most glittering embodiment of a former empire.
Sentiment, glamour, heritage and power are a heady mix, and over the past decade the tower has gone from being a dour embodiment of imperial might to the place that one in ten of those who come to the second-most-visited city in the world pay to see.
It is one of six historic Royal Palaces, a royal charity with commercial and political clout. This was symbolised most compellingly in 2014 when the precinct was covered with nearly 1 million red ceramic poppies – one for each of the 888,246 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the first world war.
The unexpected and overwhelming success of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, and subsequent sale of each flower, presented the challenge of success for the tower’s management. What next could match this achievement?
In 2017, I was a member of a group of international cultural leaders invited to meet with the tower’s executive to brainstorm new ideas that could help continue this success. We were a diverse group of artists and administrators from many countries.
Those from the former colonies – South Africa, Uganda, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia – had plenty of suggestions:
include the history of the empire (those jewels…)
invite artists from the Commonwealth to create and present works that engage with history
provide new points of connection with the City of London, and with local communities in East London – many of whom trace their heritage to lands once ruled by Britannia.
The initial reaction was swift and somewhat unexpected. “What has that got to do with the tower?” one executive asked, his face revealing his genuine astonishment.
To those of us from the former colonies, who had grown up in places named for long-forgotten monarchs and were quickly discovering how much we had in common, it was straightforward. The empire had been built in the name of, and to the benefit of, the Crown. In country after country, on five continents, when independence was granted or won, the royals presided and then departed.
By the end of the day, it seemed there was a polite hint that this unexpected idea might possibly be something that might be considered – maybe. None of us left the meeting thinking it was likely the tower would include a more robust representation of the legacy of empire anytime soon, let alone attempt to reconcile what had been done in the name of the Crown.
As those who opposed William the Conqueror had learnt, like their successors in far-flung lands who were later subjected to British rule: to the victor goes the spoils.
A changed power balance
We are so accustomed to hearing about American exceptionalism that British exceptionalism is rarely discussed. But, as the epigenetic precursor of the American condition, it deserves consideration. It may help make sense of the Brexit vote, which mystifies those not steeped in centuries of British myth-making and its resurgent Europe-as-other drumbeat over the past two decades.
It did not take long after the narrow vote to leave the European Union was declared in June 2015 before a new phrase intruded into public discussion.
Seventy years after the war that marked the end of the British Empire, a quaint, ahistorical notion emerged. In the jargon of the day, it was time for the Commonwealth to become Empire 2.0: a sphere of influence with one-third of the world’s population, one-fifth of global trade, and the dominant global language.
It did not take long before British political leaders were invoking this revival, reciting Rudyard Kipling on journeys abroad, conjuring a nostalgic vision of a wealthy mother country enriched by trade with the former colonies.
No-one bothered to ask whether this vision was shared by the independent states that had once been part of an empire. When they did, the answer was unexpected. The power balance had changed – trade with Europe, China and the US were more important.
If there is a moment that marks the end of the British Empire it was when the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed out of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour at midnight on June 30, 1997, on her last voyage. Charles, Prince of Wales, was there to oversee the handover to China, or what he called “the great Chinese takeaway”, with accompanying displays of military might and unlikely promises of “one country with two systems”.
On the flight back to London, Charles wrote in his diary that Prime Minister Tony Blair:
… understands only too well the identity problem that Britain has with the loss of an empire and an inability to know what to do next. Introspection, cynicism and criticism seem to have become the order of the day and clearly he recognises the need to find ways of overcoming apathy and loss of self-belief by finding a fresh national direction.
Charles was surprised to realise that he was seated in business class, and the Labour politicians were on the lower deck of the British Airways jumbo in first class:
Such is the end of empire, I sighed to myself.
Two decades later, as the Empire 2.0 dream gained some traction in Britain, Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the anniversary of the handover by stressing the overwhelming importance of China being “one country”.
At that moment it was unequivocally clear that power and influence had moved east. Beijing was now the emerging global epicentre.
The decline of British exceptionalism
The creation in the 1960s of what was called the “New Commonwealth” was an example of British exceptionalism.
The New Commonwealth was conceived as a progressive league of nations with some shared history, values, institutions and language, which came into its own as negotiated settlements and bloody wars of independence in the former colonies concluded in the years after the second world war. Never before had a fallen empire found such an ingenious way to hold on to influence.
The New Commonwealth marked the beginning of a grand experiment. It extended rights and recognised the connection of people from beyond the eight nations that founded the Commonwealth in 1949, to those from former colonies in the rest of the world.
During the years of Empire, the “mother country” had a special appeal, and people gravitated to the “green and pleasant land” in the north Atlantic to study and work.
As the Commonwealth grew, more people came from equatorial lands to work and live in British cities. As novelist Zadie Smith reflected:
… to have been raised in London, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment …
Of course, as a child I did not realise that the life I was living was considered in any way provisional or experimental by others: I thought it was just life. And when I wrote a novel about the London I grew up in, I further did not realise that by describing an environment in which people from different places lived relatively peaceably side by side, I was “championing” a situation that was in fact on trial and whose conditions could suddenly be revoked.
Britain changed as a result. But when it joined the Common Market in 1973, the hard work of interrogating and reconciling the past was pushed aside, before a settled understanding of the legacy of empire could be fully realised.
Britain’s leap into Europe cast countries – including Australia and New Zealand – adrift, like teenagers thrown out of home before they were ready. They found new partners and geographic destinies, and the past was buffed with nostalgia.
What now for the Commonwealth?
The history of the Commonwealth during the period from 1973 to 2015, when Britain shifted focus to Europe – and its four freedoms of movement of people, goods, services and capital – is an interesting story of redefinition, shifting power relations and emerging values.
During those decades, the Commonwealth of Nations and its London-based secretariat pursued, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, an increasingly human-rights-focused agenda: educating, empowering, encouraging the rule of law and sustainability, excluding countries that stepped beyond acceptable norms.
As time went on, the Commonwealth seemed to make less sense. Surveys suggested it was a relic from another age – today, only 16 of the 52 member countries retain the Queen as head of state. The Commonwealth Games endured as an important international sporting fixture, but royal tours became less frequent and the once relatively free movement of people between the former colonies became more complicated.
Expert groups were appointed to test the continuing relevance of the institution in the face of public “indifference”. They recommended reforms to ensure the Commonwealth of Nations might continue to exercise geopolitical and cultural influence.
The tensions between the Global North, and its focus on human rights, and the Global South, which resented any hint of imperialism, took a toll on its legitimacy.
After the underwhelming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth in 2011, The Economist took the advocates of what was to become Empire 2.0 to task.
Talk of the Commonwealth forming the dynamic, like-minded, free-trading core of a new British global network for prosperity is, to use the technical term, cobblers. The Commonwealth is many things: a talking shop, a useful place to exchange best practice on everything from education for girls to fighting malaria, an occasionally effective forum for putting pressure on regimes to clean up their governance or face the embarrassment of suspension. But it is also seriously dysfunctional.
Following negotiations, a new Commonwealth Charter was signed by the Queen, as head of the organisation, in March 2013. Designed to give new meaning to an institution crafted for another era, it restates democratic and independent values and notes:
… that in an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of and need for the Commonwealth – as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development – has never been greater.
The resilience of the new charter and the commitment of member countries to “mutual respect, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, legitimacy and responsiveness” will be tested in 2018. The Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast will set the scene, with an inclusive, competitive, people-to-people exchange, followed by the People’s Forum of civil society groups, and then CHOGM in London in April 2018.
These meetings will consider the many challenges of creating a robust multilateral organisation that represents most of the world’s poorest, most populous and youthful countries, against the uncertain backdrop of succession planning for the new head of the Commonwealth.
Despite the added complication of Brexit negotiations and the nostalgic attachment to past glory, the prospect of Commonwealth becoming Empire 2.0 remains, as The Economist suggested, “cobblers”.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.