Yes, Syria’s Assad regime is brutal. But the retaliatory air strikes are illegal and partisan



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Civil war has raged in Syria for seven years.
AAP/ Youssef Badawi

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle

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.

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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?

Jeremy Corbyn | Response to Prime Minister’s Syria Statement.

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.




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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.

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The ConversationWith the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Further strikes on Syria unlikely – but Trump is always the wild card



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Air strikes by the US, France and Britain destroy the Scientific Research Center building in Damascus, Syria.
AAP/ Youssef Badawi

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

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.

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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.




Read more:
Explainer: the war in Syria and the possibility of removing Assad


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.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


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.

The ConversationWhile 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.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Move over Canada and EU, Australia is best placed to benefit in the US-China trade tug-of-war


Giovanni Di Lieto, Monash University

Australian firms are in a sweet spot between the bickering United States and China, where they can sell more and buy more cheaply because of weaker competition in both markets. Essentially, the mutual tariffs are a double blessing for Australia.

The latest escalation of the ongoing tariff war promises to impact on international trade exchanges to the tune of A$130 billion per year across a broad range of economic sectors, including metals, drugs, motor vehicles, electronic components, industrial machinery and foods.

Australia is one of the best placed countries in the world to reap the gains of the likely trade diversions. For example, Australian beef producers will be much more competitive in exporting to China as their American competitors have to grapple with the 25% tariff on their beef. On the other side, as China raises tariffs on soybeans, Australia could buy this product more cheaply from US farmers keen to find new distribution channels.

And the same goes for all other products appearing in the US and Chinese hit lists on both the export and import sides of markets.




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Australia’s main competitors for this double market grab are just a handful of highly developed economies with sizeable commercial ties with both the US and China. These include Canada, the EU, Japan and South Korea.

But in comparison with these trading competitors, Australia has a natural advantage due to the ease of access to maritime routes right across the Asia Pacific region.

While Europe is also in between the American and Asian continents, its overland trading routes are far less developed than the maritime ones and are also clogged by hostile countries such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India.

Canada is also at a disadvantage to Australia because of its more embedded economy and supply chains with the US. The challenging renegotiation of the North America Free Trade Agreement with the US and Mexico could also stunt Canada’s range of trading action.

Similarly across the Pacific, Japan and South Korea share Canada’s tricky position as they are too close to their powerful neighbour, in this case China. Not to mention that South Korea is also under intense geopolitical pressure from President Trump to renegotiate its advantageous bilateral free trade agreement with the US.

Australia is sitting pretty

Australia doesn’t pose a direct strategic threat to either China or the US, as its economy and military power is not too big. And it’s not so small that it can be easily trumped. Also, its location is not too close, yet not too far from any of the major contenders for primacy in the Asia Pacific region.

Australia has skin in the game but not to an indispensable degree. More important still, Australia has solid and mutually beneficial bilateral free trade agreements with both China and the US, which gives more predictability to the country’s trade and investment flows.

In fact, as the Australian Trade minister, Steve Ciobo remarked, Australia is relatively safe from any retaliatory action from the Trump administration thanks to a negative trade balance with the US.

On top of that, in terms of foreign direct investment Australia has ample room and need to diversify its over-reliance on US money. Official data show the US tops the list of foreign investment in Australia with 27% of total value by country, which is a level 10 times bigger than Chinese investments. On the other hand, Australian capital mostly flows out to the US (28% of total value) and not very much to China (only 4%).




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It’s handy for Australia that the US Trade Representative has flagged new restrictions on Chinese investment in the US to
contain “China’s stated intention of seizing economic leadership in advanced technology as set forth in its industrial plans, such as Made in China 2025”. This means more investment spillovers are likely to flow between China and Australia with more favourable terms than ever.

Deeper investment ties with China will make an increasing negative trade balance with Australia more acceptable to China over the long term. Also this dynamic places Australia’s economy in pole position to take advantage of the improving quality of Chinese financial markets. This is evident in the ongoing rebalance of the Chinese economy, as it moves towards more reliance on growing consumer demand and away from inefficient, debt-fuelled investment.

Overall we are in the presence of a paradox. What in ordinary times used to be Australia’s vulnerabilities may instead prove its strategic strength in the context of a trade tug-of-war between the US and China.

As long as the trade war does not escalate to a full-blown military conflict, on the face of it Australia can still afford to sit on the commercial fence. With this pragmatic economic approach, cynics may well define Australia as a vulture country.

The ConversationBut to be realistic, the US-China trade war gives Australia the unprecedented chance to expand its economic footprint in the geopolitical agendas of both global superpowers. At such uncertain times, even more than pure economic profit, this strategic improvement will be the sweetest fruit for the lucky country.

Giovanni Di Lieto, Lecturer of international trade law, Monash Business School, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why China is a leader in intellectual property (and what the US has to do with it)


Alice de Jonge, Monash University

United States President Donald Trump is not the first to complain about intellectual property (IP) theft by Chinese companies but ironically it was US companies’ use of China’s resources that led to the development of its powerhouse of patents.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, western firms like Apple and Intel made large profits by investing in China to take advantage of the cheap labour, often at terrific human cost. As China’s economy grew, and the population became wealthier, western firms were then able to profit by selling their products back to the wealthier children of the same labour force which made them.

The Chinese government saw this happening, and wanted western firms benefiting from the Chinese market to give something back. It established a system of approving foreign investments on the condition the businesses involved agreed to partner with local firms and transfer knowledge and skills to the local Chinese market.




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In December 2001 when China joined the WTO it entered into the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights to bring its IP laws up to a minimum international level. At the same time, the government was keen to transition from being a manufacturing-based economy to an innovation-based economy. This large step forward (as opposed to great leap) would be fuelled by expanding China’s domestically owned intellectual property.

One of China’s more controversial growth tactics has been to focus on fostering IP innovation within China. For example, the government preferences procurement of high-technology products whose IP is owned or registered in China.

This has been called a strategic attempt to commercialise non-Chinese ideas in China, and as a trade barrier potentially contravening China’s WTO commitments, including those under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement.

In 2010 the Obama administration filed a complaint with the WTO over China’s use of its innovation policies in the wind power industry. There’s been other complaints lodged relating to Chinese IP laws, one notably in 2007 argued that China has failed to enforce IP law on pirated products, even when they had been identified by victims and/or the Chinese authorities.

Since the late 1990s, China has been steadily improving the quality of its IP protection and the standard of its IP law enforcement. Many of its preferential policies favouring Chinese IP development have been wound back so as not to discriminate against foreign IP; or at least not so obviously. Other amendments have strengthened IP protection and enforcement, as well as increasing penalties for IP infringements.

In March 2017, for example, the General Provisions of the Civil Law were amended to make clear that trade secrets can be protected under civil IP laws. Amendments to the 1993 Anti-Unfair Competition Law in early 2017 also improved protection for trade secrets.




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China’s most recent, 13th five-year plan, approved by the National People’s Congress in early 2016, envisions China as a world leader in science, hi-tech and intelligent machines:

We will…expedite implementation of national science and technology programs… make breakthroughs in core technologies in fields including next generation information and communications, new energy, new materials, aeronautics, biomedicine and smart manufacturing…

Perhaps the best example of China’s goal of becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) is in the area of facial recognition technology. These systems, which automatically identify an individual from a database of digital images, are now a part of everyday life in China in areas such as public security, financial services, transport and retail services.

This technology is also just one aspect of a broader system being rolled out by the Chinese authorities. It aims to monitor and influence the whole of Chinese society (individuals and organisations) through social credit ratings.

The global facial recognition industry is forecast to be worth US$6.5 billion by 2021, and its continued growth in China is being spurred by innovative start-ups like Yitu Technology and DeepGlint.

China knows that an essential part of achieving its aim of “science and intelligent technology leadership” is putting in place high quality legal protection for intellectual property. However, as recent reports from the United States have found, there remain many deficiencies in China’s protection of trademarks, copyrights, and patents.

IP enforcement in the case of piracy and other breaches is often inadequate. Either there is no prosecution of breaches, no positive finding that a breach has occurred or the penalty applied is too light to have any deterrence value.

The ConversationHowever, for firms that do take the trouble to properly register their IP in China, protection does exist and enforcement is improving and will continue to improve.

Alice de Jonge, Senior Lecturer, International Law; Asian Business Law, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia should steer clear of the sanction fight between the US and China


Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

Even though Australia follows the United States in much of its policy, Australian exporters and consumers will be hoping we don’t get caught in the crossfire as the US and China impose sanctions on each other.

US President Donald Trump has the power to impose trade sanctions on China for its disregard of US intellectual property (IP) rights: patents, trademarks and copyright.

These sanctions could make Chinese exports more expensive or prevent access to the US market. China has already indicated it will play tit for tat, imposing its own sanctions.




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Trade disputes are often as much about rhetoric as about reality. China will remind the world that the US began as a pirate nation, harvesting European technological innovation and cultural production (such as work by Byron, Shelley, Dickens and Trollope) on the basis that it was a developing nation and because it could.

Away from the headlines China will likely take the US to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a global mechanism for resolution of trade disputes. The US has announced it will take China to the WTO over patent violations.

The US will presumably ramp up claims with the WTO against other trading partners (such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and members of the European Union) that appear on its watch list for allegedly pirating US knowhow.

What this means for Australia

Academics such as Matthew Rimmer have astutely highlighted disadvantages for Australian consumers as citizens of an IP colony. This is where we import more than we export in content and pay a premium for work from overseas.

For example, we pay more than our US counterparts for software and hardware that most people take for granted. Our IP regime – in principle and practice – construes many violations of IP rights as piracy.

Our regime is aligned with that of the US. That reflects our traditional defence policy and the significance of US investment. What is good for US companies Microsoft, Pfizer and Disney is deemed to be good for Australia.

But joining in this cascade of retaliation will jeopardise economic growth, foster political unrest in developing economies and penalise consumers. The salient feature of economic growth over the past four decades has been globalisation – trade and investment across borders – rather that fundamental productivity gains through information technology.

Integration with the global economy (alongside the hollowing-out of local manufacturing and the TAFE system) mean that we cannot turn back the clock to the days of Alfred Deakin. Deakin’s grand compromise – the Australian Settlement – promised to protect small farmers, local manufacturers and workers behind walls that restricted migration and imports.

The headline-grabbling sanctions from Trump might also not necessarily be supported. Some business leaders recognise the importance of trade across the global economy and are perplexed by the current policy that seems to be driven by Trump’s late-night tweeting rather than anything coherent.

Where does that leave China?

China’s response has so far been cool. Moderation in the public arena highlights the idiosyncratic nature of Trump’s statements. It also reflects a deeper reality.

China wants to sell high-technology products to Australia, the US and other nations. One is example is 5G telecommunication networks from Huawei.

It wants the advantages that come from exploitation of the global IP regime, with its innovators and entrepreneurs building portfolios of patents and buying leading Western brands. It is likely to emulate what we saw with Japan: from “pirate” to IP citizen, complying with laws, within a few decades.




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Made in China: three ways Chinese business has evolved from imitation to innovation


Beijing is slowly strengthening the enforcement of IP rules in key regions such as China’s Pearl River Delta. In part that’s an effort to reduce the backlash in its export markets and it’s also a recognition that growth may be a matter of fostering innovation rather than copying or cheap labour.

The ConversationAustralia sources many manufactured items from China, with that production often dependent on US, Japanese and EU IP. Our own economy depends on exports of commodities; universities are dependent on overseas (particularly Chinese) students. So we don’t want to see an increase in international tensions and don’t want a slowing of the global economy because of a cascade of tit-for-tat sanctions.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Zealand, US and UK outrank Australia in scores on budget transparency


Miranda Stewart, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Teck Chi Wong, Australian National University

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.

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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).

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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..




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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.

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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).

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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.




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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.

The ConversationThese 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

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.