U.S. President Donald Trump is a serial liar who appears to exult, if not take pride, in every petty deceit, particularly if it casts him into the glare of publicity.
With Trump preparing to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore in a highly anticipated summit this week, it’s worth a reminder: Not unlike Kim, Trump lies to hide the brutality of his cruel policies. He lies to discredit reliable sources of information and to discredit those public institutions that educate a public to create informed citizens who are able to distinguish between the truth and falsehoods.
He will lie about the summit. He can’t help himself.
The Washington Post reports that in his first 466 days in office, Trump has made more than “3,001 false or misleading statements,” averaging “about nine claims a day.”
Trump has lied, along with a tsunami of other fabrications, about former president Barack Obama’s birthplace, he’s made false claims about why he did not win the popular vote, he’s stated he knew nothing about payments prior to his election to the porn star Stormy Daniels, and he’s wrongly declared that the U.S. is the highest taxed nation in the world.
Most recently, the New York Times reported that Trump’s lawyers have admitted that the president drafted a misleading statement about a meeting his son had with a lawyer associated with the Kremlin in Trump Tower, though for months he denied it.
He has falsely claimed 72 times that he passed the biggest tax cut in history; incorrectly states that he has eliminated Obamacare; and fallaciously argues that the Democrats were responsible for eliminating DACA (the Deferred Action for Child arrivals that he terminated).
‘The truth is dangerous’
In Trump’s Orwellian world, the truth is dangerous, thinking is a liability, and the sanctity of free speech is treated with disdain, if not the threat of censorship.
Trump uses an endless stream of tweets in which the truth is distorted for ideological, political or commercial reasons. Under the Trump administration, lying and the spectacle of fakery have become an industry and tool of power.
All administrations and governments lie at times, but under Trump, lying has become normalized, a calling card for corruption and lawlessness that provides the foundation for authoritarianism.
As in any dictatorship, the Trump regime dismisses words, concepts and news sources that address crucial social problems such as climate change, police violence and corporate malfeasance.
In Trump’s dystopian world, words such as a “nation of immigrants,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “climate change,” “democratic,” “peaceful,” “just” and “vulnerable” disappear into a “memory hole.” Under the Trump regime, language has become a political tool and operates in the service of violence, unchecked power and lawlessness.
For Trump, lying has become a toxic policy for legitimizing ignorance and civic illiteracy. Not only does he relish lying repeatedly, he has also attacked the critical media, claimed journalists are enemies of the American people and argued that the media is the opposition party. His rallying cry, “fake news,” is used to dismiss any critic or criticism of his policies, however misleading, wrong or dangerous they are.
Facts are erased
There is more at stake here than the threat of censorship, there is also an attack on traditional sources of information and the public spheres that produce them. Trump’s government has become a powerful disimagination and distraction machine in which the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy are erased.
Under Trump, language operates in the service of civic violence because it infantilizes and depoliticizes the wider public, creating what Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has called, in a different context, “the mask of nihilism.”
Trump’s attacks on any criticism of his policies and the truth go far beyond the public deploying of personal insults. In the case of his attack on the FBI and Department of Justice, his penchant for relentless lying constitutes both a possible obstruction of justice and an egregious attempt to discredit criticism and corrode democracy.
What happens when a government excludes language that addresses social problems, provides resources for the vulnerable and dismisses all information related to climate change?
Reminiscent of book-burning
Trump’s politics of erasure is more than a page out of the dystopian novels of George Orwell or Ray Bradbury, it also echoes an earlier historical period when censorship and book burning was the currency of fascist regimes. As American historian Karen J. Greenberg warns, the suppression of language opens the doorway to fascism.
The president’s fabricating Twitter machine is about more than lying, it is also about using all of the tools and resources to create a dystopia in which authoritarianism emerges through the raw power of ignorance, control and police-state repression.
Of course, Trump does not lie in isolation. He is encouraged by a right-wing disimagination machine that American sociologist Todd Gitlin rightly calls “an interlocking ecology of falsification that has driven the country around the bend” and into the abyss of authoritarianism.
Trump’s endless fabrications echo the propaganda machines made famous in the fascist regimes of the 1930s. He values loyalty over integrity, and he lies in part to test the loyalty of those who both follow him and align themselves with his power.
Trump’s lying must be understood within a broader attack on the fundamentals of education and democracy itself. This is especially important at a time when the U.S. is no longer a functioning democracy and is in the presence of what sociologists Leonidas Donskis and the late Zygmunt Bauman referred to as a form “of modern barbarity.”
Trump’s lying undermines the public’s grip on language, evidence, facts and informed judgement, and in doing so promotes a form of civic illiteracy in which words and meaning no longer matter. Depriving the public of the capacity for critical analysis and discerning the truth from lies does more than empty politics of any meaning, it also undermines democracy.
As ethics wither, people become prisoners of their own experiences, indifferent to an ignorance and brutishness in which they become complicit.
As the theatre of lies, insults, and childish petulance triumphs over measured arguments, a world emerges in which the only real choices are among competing fictions — a world in which nothing is true and everything begins to look like a lie.
If the spirit and promise of a sustainable democracy is to survive, it’s crucial to make truth-telling virtuous again. If we are going to fight for and with the powerless, we have to understand their needs, speak to and with them in a language that is mutually understandable as well as honest.
There is also a need to reinvent politics through alternative narratives in which the American public can both identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
This is not an easy task, but nothing less than justice, democracy and the planet itself are at risk.
Authoritarianism creates a predatory class of unethical zombies who produce dead zones of the imagination that even Orwell could not have envisioned, while using an unchecked language of lying to wage a fierce fight against the possibilities of a democratic future.
The time has come for progressives and others to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination.
There must be a renewed sense of social agency, and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization and set of strategies to challenge the dystopian nightmare engulfing the United States, and a growing number of illiberal democracies all over the globe.
Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, wrote after Franco destroyed the Spanish Republic: “I swear to defend until my death what has been murdered in Spain: The right to happiness.”
This tribute to justice, the public imagination, dignity and the right to be free from the curse of those who use their power to lie and malign the crucial institutions of democracy must once again be defended in the spirit of urgency and the “right to happiness” — not to mention the right to truth.
A re-elected Turnbull government wouldn’t sell the ABC, whatever scare Bill Shorten might be raising. But you’d have to be an optimist to think that if it wins, it won’t intensify its bullying and denigration of the public broadcaster.
There is more than a little irony in the Liberal federal council on Saturday delivering Labor a campaign issue around the ABC before the Super Saturday byelections.
Just a while ago, the government was surfing on the skirmishing on refugee policy ahead of the ALP national conference, only to see that dispute put on the backburner when Labor delayed the conference because the byelections were set for the same date.
The council motion came from the Young Liberals – who over the years are variously on the left or the right of the party – and called for “the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”
Unlike Labor, where conference policies formally carry heft with the MPs, Liberal council motions are non-binding.
This one has been described as “virtue-signalling” to the base. I think it is rather more serious than that. It will reinforce the anti-ABC sentiment of some in government ranks – which has reached, frankly, absurd levels.
The fact that Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues did not, would not, could not prevent its passage says a lot, especially about the Prime Minister.
When he was clawing his way towards the leadership, Turnbull was the conspicuous friend of the ABC. Now he’s critic-in-chief, as Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and the Prime Minister’s Office fire off complaints about errors and interpretations.
No one should object when the prime minister or ministers call out journalists’ factual mistakes (though they make quite a few of their own). And it is absolutely their right to argue the toss on commentary.
But we know there’s a lot more to this than robust criticism. Much of it is an attempt – that to a degree has been successful – at intimidation.
This isn’t the first government to engage in ABC bashing. On the other side of politics the Hawke government at one stage had (to borrow a Turnbullism) a red hot go. But I don’t remember any government sustaining the onslaught so strongly for so long.
What makes the assault even more concerning is that it’s part of the culture wars now engulfing multiple fronts of public debate. The media provide battlegrounds and targets in these wars.
News Corp, fuelled by financial imperatives as well as ideology, relentlessly stalks the ABC. News Corp is squeezed between the strains on the commercial media’s business model and the successful expansion, especially online, of the ABC.
The ABC is cast not simply as another competitor, but one that must be discredited in terms of both professionalism and legitimacy, by portraying it as out of touch with the “mainstream” and robbing the commercial media of what’s rightfully theirs.
As parts of News Corp have increasingly become bold, self-declared standard-bearers for the right, they are ever drawn to the ABC as a useful punching bag.
One can see what’s in this for the ABC’s commercial competitors, and indeed for a right wing think tank such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which urges that the ABC be privatised.
It’s more difficult to discern what the government gets out of its obsession with attacking the ABC to a degree disproportionate to the alleged sins of individual journalists or the organisation as a whole.
Perhaps it’s a gesture of frustration – kicking the car tyres when you find you have a puncture. Or the feeling that if you can just cow the buggers, they mightn’t be so “biased” – ignoring that the perception of “bias” mostly varies according to where you’re coming from, and in journalism the notion of giving diverse viewpoints a fair go can be a more manageable one.
It’s noteworthy that for all their carrying on, ministers still seem anxious to appear on the ABC. If it were so bad, so unresponsive to the “mainstream”, you’d think some might be calling for a boycott now and then.
One reason why they line up is they actually know the public regards it as a trusted and credible media outlet.
The Australia Institute at the weekend released an ABC question taken from its earlier ReachTEL poll in Mayo that showed crossbencher Rebecca Sharkie leading Liberal Georgina Downer 58-42% in two-party terms. The June 5 poll asked: “In the budget the government cut the ABC’s funding by A$83.7 million. Do you think funding for the ABC should be reduced, increased, or stay the same?” Nearly three quarters said funding should be increased (40.5%) or stay the same (33.5%), with only 23% saying it should be decreased.
Last week Shorten promised a Labor government would restore that funding. The Liberal council motion has played into his hands.
In Mayo, the council motion has handed Sharkie a small gift. There will be interest in what Downer, who comes from the IPA, has to say about how she would like to see the future of the ABC.
Not quite as interesting, however, as hearing members of the Turnbull team protest they really are committed to the ABC, however badly they behave towards it. That they have to do so is a sort of perverse justice – the price of overreach.
Moments after President Donald Trump shook North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s hand for the first time, Trump pronounced: “We will have a terrific relationship.”
Trump’s snap judgment fulfilled his prediction before the June 12 summit that he would be able to evaluate Kim’s intentions “within the first minute” of meeting him.
High-level politicians often think that they are experts at reading and influencing other leaders. They quickly come to believe that they are the world’s leading authority on any counterpart they meet in person. For example, President George W. Bush was so enamored with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that senior advisers launched a concerted campaign to curb his enthusiasm.
“You’re my man,” Bush would say to Maliki. When advisers told the president he was undercutting U.S. efforts to pressure Maliki, Bush responded with incredulity: “Are you saying I’m the problem?”
If Trump follows this pattern I’ve found when studying the personal side of foreign policy, he may believe that he now has special insight into Kim. And that means the dynamics of U.S. policymaking toward North Korea have changed. Having met Kim, the president will be even less likely to listen to experts in the intelligence and diplomatic communities.
From first impressions to agreement
Hours after Trump and Kim first met, the two leaders emerged from their talks to sign a joint document. The U.S. is prepared to guarantee the regime’s security, and North Korea is willing to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” according to the statement. Trump called it a “very comprehensive agreement.”
Critics are charging that the letter was closer to North Korea’s preferences than the “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible de-nuclearization” sought by the United States.
Perhaps the document is underwhelming, repeating North Korean promises of the past without any clear road map to making them reality. But something significant changed in Singapore: President Trump has met Kim face to face.
On the eve of the summit, details emerged of a profile of Kim’s personality, provided to the president by allied intelligence agencies.
This is standard practice prior to meetings with foreign leaders. But once the leaders have met in person, intelligence analysis takes second place to first-hand impressions.
In the future, expert counsel on Kim’s intentions may clash with Trump’s positive perception of the North Korean leader. In the post-summit press conference Trump called Kim “very talented.” He told journalist Greta van Susteren that Kim has “a great personality, he’s a funny guy, he’s very smart. He loves his people.”
From now on, analyses from the diplomatic and intelligence communities that fit Trump’s view of Kim will be favored, those at odds with his view may be dismissed.
This dynamic is common in policymaking, and there are reasons to think it could be extremely consequential in this case.
Relying on ‘touch, feel’
First, Trump’s tendency to trust his instincts is already pronounced. Asked by a reporter before the summit how he would know if Kim was serious about de-nuclearization, Trump said he would rely upon “my touch, my feel. It’s what I do.”
Second, the intricate series of steps toward disarmament of a nuclear arsenal require expert verification. Ostensibly cooperative actions – like destroying nuclear test tunnels – might turn out to be empty gestures once analysts have pored over the surveillance footage. The North Korean regime has a history of making public agreements, then advancing their nuclear arsenal in secret.
This summit process began with a snap decision by Trump to accept an offer to meet with Kim. The most significant result may be Trump’s new confidence that he uniquely understands the North Korean leader. This will further reinforce the defining dynamic of Trump’s presidency so far: Ignore the experts, trust your gut.
Meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
I spent many years working on nuclear nonproliferation at the Department of Defense, the State Department and nongovernmental organizations. Between 2009 and 2010, I worked with the special representative for nonproliferation at the State Department.
As the world focuses on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, this seems like a good time to ask: Is the U.S. doing anything to limit the size of its own nuclear arsenal?
Commitment to disarming
The United States is one of five recognized nuclear weapons states – including Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – under the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty permits these states to possess nuclear weapons. Other countries signed on as non-nuclear weapons states, pledging not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful civilian nuclear technology like power reactors.
This was not meant to be permanent a state of affairs. An article of the treaty calls on all nuclear weapons states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
To this end, President Barack Obama pledged to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, committing to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Obama was the first president to talk about steps to disarmament this way.
By contrast, in December 2016, President-elect Trump tweeted that the U.S. need to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
In 2018, the Department of Defense released a review of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review. It recommends the U.S. add to its arsenal a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.
The recommendation struck many observers as a pivot from the Obama administration’s policies toward an increased role for nuclear weapons. They view it as the beginning of a new arms race. Others see it as necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent and consistent with past administrations’ nuclear policies.
The Obama administration had also come to the conclusion that even if disarmament was an ultimate if distant goal, many of the components U.S. nuclear arsenal still needed to be maintained and updated. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that modernizing current U.S. nuclear forces would cost US$1.2 trillion over the next 20 years.
US arsenal over time
The New START Treaty, signed between the U.S. and Russia in 2010, was another bilateral agreement to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons and cap the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550. That may sound like a lot, but at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. arsenal contained more than 30,000 nuclear weapons.
The New START Treaty only places a cap on deployed nuclear warheads, meaning weapons that are on delivery vehicles like ICBMs and ready to use, versus, say, warheads in storage. The stockpile, which is the total number of nuclear weapons both deployed and non-deployed, is much larger. The Obama administration first declassified the number in 2010. The number then was 5,113.
In 2017, the total number of weapons in the U.S. stockpile was reported as 3,822.
The New START Treaty also places limits on the number of vehicles used to deliver nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy. The United States maintains a so-called nuclear triad: nuclear weapons deployed on ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers like the B-2 aircraft. Since it would be difficult for an adversary to knock out all three methods of delivery, this strategy allows at least one leg of the triad to respond in the event of a devastating nuclear attack.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal today is the smallest it has been since the early days of the Cold War. Whether this makes the world safer is still a subject of intense debate.
Optimists see any reduction in the size of arsenals as a positive. Pessimists see the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence, whatever the size of states’ arsenals, as inherently dangerous. While most nuclear armed states agree that nuclear weapons are only for deterrence and thus likely never to be used in war, their devastating power will always provoke fierce debate on their utility.
Jeffrey Fields, Associate Professor of the Practice of International Relations, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
It has been a huge week for defamation law.
Last Thursday, the NSW Government announced a push to reform Australia’s uniform defamation laws. It is calling for a “cyber-age reboot”. That proposal was backed by a “statutory review” of the NSW Defamation Act. At a meeting of the Council of Attorneys-General, the states and territories agreed to reconvene a working party to consider reform of equivalent statutes around Australia.
The following Wednesday, the High Court delivered its most important defamation judgment in years. In a case that fits perfectly with the theme of the NSW proposals, Milorad “Michael” Trkulja succeeded in his appeal against Google. The Court found that Trkulja could sue the American company for defamation in respect of search results which potentially indicated that he had ties to Melbourne’s criminal underworld.
The next morning, the Victoria Court of Appeal allowed Bauer Media’s appeal from the judgment that awarded Rebel Wilson A$4.5 million in damages. The Court held that Wilson was entitled to A$600,000, and not to millions extra for lost opportunity to earn from roles that she may have been offered had the defendant not defamed her in its gossip magazines. The previous assessment of damages depended on the spread of the defamatory allegations on the internet via the “grapevine effect”.
The record for Australia’s largest defamation judgment is now barrister Lloyd Rayney’s A$2.6 million defamation win against the State of Western Australia, litigated by Perth firm Bennett + Co. If Rayney’s current appeal is successful, that figure may increase even further.
There’s a lot to think about.
But the issue that the NSW government chose to highlight from its statutory review was that defamation law is ill-equipped for the digital era. I agree that the way we communicate has completely changed in the 13 years since our Uniform Defamation Acts were introduced.
Trkulja v Google shows it is time for reform
Trkulja was shot in the back in a Melbourne restaurant in 2004. As you’d expect, people wrote about it on the internet. Google provided access to that content through its search engine: web crawlers discovered web pages relevant to Trkulja, indexed them, and ranked them via its Google Search algorithms.
The result of those processes was that Trkulja was associated with some shady figures through Google search. A Google image search for his name would display Trkulja’s picture with those of Melbourne criminals. The results pages contained keywords like “melbourne criminals” and “melbourne underworld photos”.
Google’s autocomplete results would also cast him in a poor light, returning terms like “michael trkulja criminal” or “michael trkulja underworld”. The results page linked to content which described Trkulja as a “former hitman”.
Trkulja sued, claiming that this computer-generated material defamed him. Google argued that the claim was so weak that it should come to an end even before a trial. Victoria’s Supreme Court rejected Google’s argument.
But the Victorian Court of Appeal allowed Google’s appeal, agreeing that the claim had no prospect of success. It found that the ordinary, reasonable person would not understand that the search results conveyed “imputations” which damaged Trkulja’s reputation. In their view, ordinary people would understand that there may be a disconnect between the words you type into Google and the results that follow.
On further appeal, the High Court unanimously decided that the Court of Appeal was wrong. At least some of the search results complained of had the capacity to convey the idea that Trkulja was associated with dodgy characters. Trkulja was given “the green light to sue” Google. Trkulja’s claim can now proceed.
Even before this case, you could sue Google for defamation
Like other foreign companies, Google is not immune to litigation because it is based overseas. On old principles, Google can be responsible for third party content which it “published” by sharing. It might have a defence of “innocent dissemination”, but perhaps not if the defamed person drew the problem to the company’s attention.
People have won against Google before. A few years ago, Janice Duffy succeeded in her claim that Google should be responsible for linking to defamatory websites. So in a sense, yesterday’s judgment is nothing really new.
It does provide some clarity on whether something like search results has the “capacity” to convey defamatory meaning. It is likely that Google will continue to be sued by all sorts of people who are aggrieved by search results that cast them in a poor light.
The case also demonstrates that our old laws are perhaps ill-suited to the digital era.
We should stop shooting the messenger
Reflecting on this case, it is worth considering whether we should cut internet intermediaries some slack when it comes to defamation law.
We could do so by giving effect to the “safe harbour” proposal flagged in the NSW statutory review. It would provide internet intermediaries with a shield from liability for third parties content. Telcos already enjoy something like this in Australia, which protects them from liability for copyright infringement.
Faced with cases like Trkulja, you would understand if Google simply acceded to every request to remove content from its search results. But what if Google did that for complaints by paedophiles, murderers or dictators?
Google provides a free public service which is indispensable to our way of life. Without Google’s assistance, many of us would be lost online. When access to the functionality of Google and other intermediaries is limited, our substantive access to information is limited.
Extending safe harbour to internet platforms is worth seriously considering – other countries, like the United States, are already doing this.
The NSW statutory review does not go into these difficult issues in enough depth. In light of the rapid developments in media and technology, the best way forward is for the Australian Law Reform Commission to consider this in detail. We need to make sure that we get the right balance between freedom of speech, free access to information, and protection of reputation.
In the conversation around Australia’s space agency, the brand leaders – the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) – have had relatively little airplay.
Yet Australia is a critical host to both, and neither would be able to operate its fleet of deep space missions without ground-based support from Australian soil: Tidbinbilla (near Canberra) for NASA, and New Norcia (north of Perth) for ESA.
The launch of Australia’s space agency on July 1, 2018, provides the perfect opportunity for Australia to partner with ESA and NASA. We’re vital for the success of global space operations, and we can and should leverage this to Australia’s advantage.
The Earth rotates, and Australia occupies a strategic geographic niche in the centre of the sparsely populated Indo-Pacific-Antarctic region. At any one time, Australia has domain over one third of the sky, and projecting outwards, one-third of space and one-third of the Universe. Ground-station support at Australian longitudes and latitudes is required for any remote mission, space station or colony wanting continuous communications.
Given our strategic importance, and NASA and ESA‘s collective investments in space assets, supported by A$1 billion in Australian-based ground-stations, it’s surprising that they have featured minimally in discussions thus far. The reason may stem from misconceptions that Australia cannot economically compete with NASA and/or ESA, or that deep space missions aren’t really relevant to Australia’s economy. There’s also the feeling that working with other nations in space may compromise Australia’s sovereignty.
I think these fears are misplaced, and we can easily address them to create advantages for Australia.
Collaboration not competition
Almost every major space mission developed over the past few years by NASA and ESA has been collaborative, with multiple countries and agencies contributing components and subsystems.
Most famously, the Canadian Space Agency built the NASA shuttle’s robotic arm. UK and European companies have also provided instruments, sensors, and components to many NASA missions.
This mode of operation, based on collaboration not competition, is familiar to academia but less so to industry. It allows affordable engagement in massive projects, with the benefits that such engagement entails.
While it is true that Australia could never expect to build its own billion-dollar facility, there is every expectation that Australian industries can develop critical subsystems and become an active, collaborative participant in humanity’s expansion into space.
Space activities create spin-offs
Almost every deep space mission is in essence a technology demonstrator, leading to multiple and diverse returns.
ESA now operates 12 business incubation centres across Europe, geared at redistributing the intellectual property generated within ESA into the market via small-to-medium startups. Through this model ESA has helped to establish more than 500 new European companies, developing products from health to manufacturing and sport to agriculture.
Both NASA and ESA routinely claim a 5:1 return on investment – these claims are difficult to verify, but are echoed in OECD reports.
A partnership with ESA in particular could lead to the establishment of an ESA-sponsored business incubation centre in Australia, and similarly engagement with NASA spin-offs.
There’s no getting away from the fact that space is tied to defence, with Australia already spending around A$1 billion per year on space-related defence activities.
With space being famously just an hour’s drive away, monitoring our skies and what drifts overhead is important. However, with this comes a culture that fosters a sovereign “inward” outlook that is not necessarily conducive to open international collaboration. Can both a defence and an engaging mindset flourish within the same environment?
This last point highlights one of the key issues confronting the new space agency: it has multiple conflicting roles. It needs to stimulate grassroots industry in a globally competitive, fast-moving commercial environment; it needs to connect collaboratively with brand leaders like NASA and ESA; and it needs to help secure the overhead border and participate in international legislation and governance that protects the national interest.
An inevitable solution may be to accept that these functions are disparate, and best served by multiple nodes, distributed as best befits the capabilities that each state or territory has to offer.
The case for Western Australia
Perth is one of the only places on the planet where both NASA and ESA are actively engaged.
For example, NASA works with the the Intelligence and Autonomous division of Perth-based Australian oil and gas company Woodside.
ESA operates one of its three deep-space tracking stations and its primary launch tracking facility at New Norcia, WA. ESA has made it clear that it hopes to significantly expand its operations at New Norcia through the construction of a second 35-metre dish. During these discussions ESA has highlighted a desire to shift its relationship with Australia from a fairly minimal engagement model to a more formal partnership, starting with the opportunity to co-build the new antenna (a A$60 million investment into WA).
This collaborative engagement would be a clear win-win. For ESA – as it looks to expand its space-fleet and establish colonies on the Moon – it secures and cements its ground-operations into a nationally binding codependence, aligning ESA and Australia’s interests to ensure smooth operations into the indefinite future. On the Australian side, it opens the door to the creation of an Australian mission and operations control capacity, building on our strength in radio astronomy, and where we can start to realise the collaborative and commercial potential of our unique longitudinal monopoly. More shrewdly, any investment remains onshore, developing Australian-based infrastructure and creating real jobs and growth on the ground in rural WA.
In an ironic twist, the first customer wanting to use the new dish may be NASA, who, hitting capacity at Tidbinbilla, has reached out to Australia and ESA to support their next flagship mission (WFIRST). WFIRST is a deep wide-field near-infrared survey telescope, that will advance our understanding of dark energy, dark matter, and the search for habitable planets. It also has tremendous science synergy with the Square Kilometer Array, combing these data will massively amplify the science return from each alone.
It’s my belief that Australia should aim to create an off-the-bat tri-agency agreement between the newly formed Australian space agency, NASA, and ESA.
Currently around 3000 people are employed in NASA or ESA in ground-operations in the US or Europe. In due course – as the children born today populate not just the world but also potential colonies on the Moon, Mars and beyond – the international global community will be best served through comprehensive ground-station networks in North America, Europe, and Australasia leading to a comparable employment opportunity for Australians in Australia.
Australia, it would seem, has an important role to play. We have an opportunity to move from service provision to active partnership, and at the same time lean a little on the established leaders adept at industry engagement to kick-start our own aspirations and business start-ups. Engaging with NASA and ESA in a meaningful way has much to offer.
For the past 20 years, Australia has attempted to stake its claim in the lucrative commercial space industry.
In some aspects we have done quite well. There is no doubt that we have some of the most advanced ground systems in the world, and our open, relatively unpopulated geography makes the Australian continent ideal for operations such as the Square Kilometre Array.
But despite our accomplishments on the ground, there has been very limited success for Australians wanting to get to space from our continent.
Early launch plans
The enactment of the Space Activities Act 1998 (Cth), one of the first examples of a domestic commercially focused space law, was prompted by the plans by Kistler Aerospace to establish a spaceport at Woomera.
That Act was focused on the operations that were taking place at the time. Australia was seeing significant interest from overseas entities who wanted to capitalise on our geography for launching rockets.
Fast forward to 2018, and no commercial launch operator has yet established themselves in Australia.
Rather, we have a burgeoning commercial interest in low-cost, high-volume cube sats for Internet of Things applications.
In 2015, the federal government announced a review of the Space Activities Act, recognising that regulation is just as significant a barrier for the space industry as the cost involved.
In early 2017, after a significant consultative period, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS) recognised the need for reform, recommending that the Space Activities Act be replaced.
Rise of the space agency
In the intervening time, the government also announced the Space Capability Review and accepted its recommendation of the introduction of an Australian Space Agency.
That agency, to be headed by former CSIRO boss Megan Clark AC, will come into being on July 1, 2018. Many people consider the move to be a reaffirmation of Australia’s interest in the space domain.
More than a year after the legislative proposal paper was released by the DIIS, the Space Activities Amendment (Launches and Returns) Bill 2018 received its second reading in the House of Representatives on May 30, 2018, with little fanfare or coverage.
Despite the lengthy period of consultation and the initial statements that an entirely new Act would be drafted, this is a revision of the already existing legislation. It does little to inspire confidence in the government’s approach to an Australia commercial space industry.
Limited changes in legislation
This Bill purports to broaden regulatory frameworks, expand the scope of the Act, reduce costs to operators, and reduce barriers to entry.
In some ways, it will achieve these goals. There is a reduction of the insurance requirements for operators, from a world-leading A$750 million to a far more competitive A$100 million.
The bill facilitates the launch of space objects from aircraft, will recognise the prevalence of overseas markets for launch operations, and introduce the ability to launch rockets reaching an altitude less than 100km – Australia’s regulatory demarcation of outer space.
As noted above, the changes to the Act are dwarfed by the content that is merely left in place. Operators previously complained of an Act that is vague, difficult to navigate, and with prohibitive compliance costs.
Most of the changes embodied within the bill are merely in name only. A “Space Licence” becomes a “Facility Licence” with the only substantive reduction in pre-licence compliance being that the licence is no longer restricted to corporations.
The “Overseas Launch Licence” is renamed the “Overseas Payload Permit”, but is not matched with any substantive changes. This would see an Australian who wishes to launch a rocket overseas need a payload permit to launch their rocket.
Further, and of significant concern to commercial operators considering whether they should base their operations in Australia or move offshore, is the requirement for all permits to “include a strategy for debris mitigation”.
It is not clear what form this should take or how stringently this must comply, for example, with standards such as Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
If we look overseas there has been an abundance of new domestic laws that focus on promoting commercial activity while more actively aiming to protect the domain that is so important to everyday life.
Recent domestic enactments such as the British Space Industry Act 2018, the New Zealand Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017, and a plethora of US statutes recognise the need for on-orbit regulation.
Under the United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty, a country is required to authorise and continually supervise non-government activities in outer space.
Australia’s existing Act, and this new Bill, fail to do this. Regulating activities while in space is the hallmark of modern domestic space law.
Finally, there is no reference to the new Australian Space Agency. It is anticipated that the agency will be the relevant regulatory body for the purposes of the Act and its role will be articulated in the yet to be developed rules.
A slight element of unease creeps into the space industry in the face of this disconnect. It is hoped that this does not reflect any ambivalence to the future role of such an Agency nor reflect a lack of commitment to Australia becoming a driving force in the space industry.
Joel Lisk contributed to the research for this article.
Bill Shorten has moved to make the ABC an election issue, promising to reverse the Turnbull government’s $83.7 million budget cut and to guarantee funding certainty over the broadcaster’s next budget cycle.
Ahead of appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program, Shorten and frontbench colleagues declared the Coalition had “launched the biggest attack on the ABC in a generation”.
In recent months Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has sent a stream of complaints to the ABC about stories, both online and on air, contesting facts and interpretations. The Prime Minister’s Office has also complained. Government frontbenchers and backbenchers frequently make cracks at or about the ABC, echoing a theme of many conservative commentators.
The ABC is also under constant attack from News Corp, driven by both ideology and commercial interests. The government has an inquiry underway into the ABC’s competitive neutrality, which was part of a deal with Pauline Hanson but also important in the context of News Corp’s argument about the government-funded ABC encroaching on financially strapped commercial media.
When the government made the $84 million budget cut – which took the form of a freeze to indexation – Treasurer Scott Morrison said “everyone has to live within their means”. Managing director Michelle Guthrie said that “the decision will make it very difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements and audience expectations.”
In a statement Shorten, communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland and regional communications spokesman Stephen Jones said Labor’s commitment would ensure the ABC could meet its charter requirements, safeguard jobs, adapt to the digital environment “and maintain content and services that Australians trust and rely on”.
They said the Coalition since 2014 had “overseen $282 million in cuts to the ABC that has seen 800 jobs lost and a drop in Australian content and services”.
“Labor will stand up for the ABC and fight against the conservatives’ ideological war against our public broadcaster,” the statement said.
The promised investment “demonstrates Labor’s commitment to the ABC’s independence and to maintain the ABC as our comprehensive national broadcaster.
“Now, more than ever, Australians need the ABC – our strong, trusted and independent public broadcaster.
“At a time when too many Australians feel disengaged from their democracy and distrustful of their representatives, Labor wants to restore trust and faith in our institutions. Part of restoring trust is is supporting a healthy public interest media sector, and protecting that trusted institution – the ABC”.