Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2020

‘The End of Orthodoxy: Australia in a post-pandemic world’ in Australian Foreign Affairs #9 (2020): Spy vs Spy , edited by Jonathan Pearlman

As usual, I am really behind with my reading of the journals I subscribe to, but I was prompted to tackle just one essay in this edition of Australian Foreign Affairs because of the recent evacuation of Australian journalists from China, and Penny Wong’s conversation with Laura Tingle at the Wheeler Centre last night.  (Which you can listen to, here.  The presentation is just under 40 minutes).

Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister and her essay is entitled ‘The End of orthodoxy: Australia in a post-pandemic world’.  I’ve been keeping an eye on this topic, listening to various presentations from our former PM Kevin Rudd (president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, amongst other roles) and also to Stan Grant,  arguably the best foreign policy specialist in Australian journalism.  So much of Wong’s essay confirms for me that Australia needs to get cracking on dealing with the challenges that face us, and that implies a foreign policy shift that accommodates a fast-changing Asia-Pacific.

There are three massive challenges to confront:

  • the destructive rivalry between the US and China, and Australia’s need to have good relationships with both*;
  • the decay of multi-lateral organisations that are going to need reform in order to manage the post-pandemic world; and
  • the task of recovery from COVID-19.

The essay begins with an acknowledgement that the world was already experiencing heightened disruption: Brexit, Trump, China, rising nationalism all adding to the destabilisation of a world order that had served us well since WW2.  And then along came COVID-19.  We can see Penny Wong’s humanity from this second paragraph:

There has been a shocking loss of life, with more to come.  Statistics and graphs go some way to capturing the devastation, but the images of overwhelmed hospitals, mass graves and fearful communities speak universally and powerfully.  It is a shared experience of grief.  (p.100)

And we need to remember that the second waves in Europe have only just begun, there will be more to follow, and the economic cost will be beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes.

The breadth of economic harm is almost unprecedented.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the worst global recession since the Great Depression.  The IMF has made an extraordinary shift from its pre-COVID expectations of positive per-capita income growth in 160 nations to predict negative growth in 170.  A surge of financial crises across the globe has already begun.

We do not yet have a sense of the full extent of the damage the pandemic may wreak in the developing world.  But the vulnerability of the world’s poorest people is patent — they will suffer more fatalities, increased poverty and greater instability.  The United Nations World Food Programme is warning of an unprecedented hunger emergency, with ‘multiple famines of biblical proportions’.  Over 265 million people will face acute hunger by the end of this year.

Our capacity to respond is affected not only by the weaker economic positions of the G20 nations and shakier balance sheets among corporates, banks and households going into the crisis, but also by a lack of global coordination.

This is the stark truth that we must confront. (p.100-101)

She goes on to note that this dramatic crisis hasn’t led to cooperation among the international community.  She puts this down to mistrust, competition, disinformation, a macho strain of nationalism, and confrontation instead of cooperation.

Wong first discusses the intensifying great-power competition — economic, military, diplomatic and ideological — between the US and China.  Our region is the focal point for these tensions.  Nationalism — along with its occasional companions xenophobia, nativism and isolationism — are exacerbating the unravelling of the global rules-based order. Wong’s tone is measured, but her listing of the institutions from which the US has withdrawn its influence and its money, is telling: most recently the WHO (World Health Organisation) but prior to that UNESCO; the UN Human Rights Council; the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, plus a war of attrition with the World Trade Organisation. She acknowledges that all these bodies need reform but says that vacating the space is rarely a successful reform strategy.  

Collective responses to common threats benefit all nations, great and small.  We saw this most recently in the cooperation that enabled our recovery from the GFC.  Yet today, facing greater economic devastation, as well as loss of life and global health risks, the pandemic is leading to increased fragmentation.  The UN Security Council could not agree that COVID-19 was a threat to international peace and security, while the G20, the engine room of our response to the GFC, has been unable to rally a coordinated economic response. (p. 107)

Australia’s interests are not the same as those of the US and China.

We need the multilateral system to set the rules by which we trade, invest, travel, enforce international boundaries, mediate conflicts, uphold human rights, deliver vital services — including health care — to those most in need, and address climate change.  Effective multilateralism ameliorates the raw power politics of the bigger players and enables us to have a say in building collective solutions to global problems.  (p.108)

Wong’s analysis of the impact on our immediate region and how our foreign policy needs to be guided by the kind of region we want: a region in which outcomes are not determined only by power, and in which there is shared support for international rules and norms, shows why Australia needs a prompt reassessment of existing policies, [not the least of which IMO is the stupidity of reducing foreign aid in successive budgets.  There needs to be bi-partisan support for a constructive foreign aid program.  Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to economic shock, and it’s central to containing financial contagion in the region. 

Wong’s expertise in foreign policy development is ably demonstrated in this essay, but her concluding remarks have a broader scope:

Navigating this [changed] world will require not only sound judgement and creativity — it will also demand a new foreign policy ambition.  It will require us to accept and fully exercise our agency.  IT will require consistency and discipline.

Most of all, it will require leadership. (p.118)

*The essay was written and published before the Australian journalists sought refuge in our embassy and were evacuated from China.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include examining how Australian agencies can defend against attempts to steal secrets and disrupt the workings of government and society.  This summary comes from the AFF website:

  • Andrew Davies sweeps Australian intelligence history to show how technology has transformed state-on-state espionage.
  • Danielle Cave probes how data and technology have shaped espionage in a time of crisis and beyond.
  • Kim McGrath reveals Australia’s intelligence failures in Timor and asks whether we owe more to our neighbours.
  • Anne-Marie Brady uncovers the covert influence and activities of China’s network of spy agencies.
  • Susan Harris Rimmer challenges Australia to shape the agenda of multilateral institutions.

Update 14/9/20 I’ve now finished reading the journal and found it very creepy indeed.  I lead a lo-tech life of no interest to spy agencies at all, but I still find it chilling that so much spying is going on and that a lot of what is used to collect data is made freely available by we the citizenry through our smartphones, and our tele-conferencing health and lifestyle apps.

In Australia, the intelligence community comprises not just those in the field but also those conducing analytical, technical, signals, operational and geospatial functions.

Today, all of those work is being transformed by exponential changes in cyberspace and technology.  Relatively cheap, everyday devices can be far more valuable sources of intelligence than a wiretap or a big installed in a light fitting.  A fridge that alerts someone when they need butter, cheese of ice-cream, and relays that information over the internet to them and their grocery store, provides not just an insight into their diet and the condition of their arteries, but also the potential ability to listen, watch and learn about that person all from a safe distance.  Apps on a smartphone are opportunities to learn about a person’s  habits, to listen in on their conversations, to steal their data and to understand what makes them tick — and what may make them vulnerable.  Researchers in the United States, Japan and China have demonstrated that they can secretly activate artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistants (such as Siri) by shining laser pointers at their microphones and sending them commands undetectable to the human ear.  Few people completely separate their work and home lives, and in a work-from-home environment it’s almost impossible, making the exploitation of these devices more valuable for intelligence agencies.  (p.33)

Brave new world indeed.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Spy vs Spy, The New Age of Espionage
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 9, July 2020
ISBN: 9781760642020
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library





  1. I like Penny Wong but she doesn’t have much support. I think it’s pretty clear that neither Liberal nor Labor have the intellectual capacity in their ranks to deal with even half of this. The system’s no longer designed to produce leaders, not in parliament and not in the public service.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, smart people never have any support, the political track record is littered with examples of it.
      Which is why Penny Wong is so well-suited to Foreign Affairs, ambitious types and morons alike aren’t interested in it because it’s difficult, and so she is able to get on with things without interference.
      But I do think she has enough authority in the party to be able to get discipline in the ranks so that backbenchers don’t say stupid inflammatory things the way that the Libs do.


  2. I have a standing reservation for this journal at my library. I’m looking forward to reading this. I nodded my head in agreement with Bill’s comment about producing leaders. There are still a couple of good senior leaders in the Australian Public Service, but the whole system is far too political and has lost much useful corporate knowledge.


  3. I agree with you about Penny Wong Lisa, I was listening to her being interviewed about this topic on the ABC last night – she’s a formidable, smart woman who would be immensely capable in the role of Foreign Minister – if only! We came so near…


    • It’s interesting to speculate about how things might be different if Shorten had won…
      On second thoughts… ’tis that way madness lies…


  4. I have a lot of respect for Penny Wong. I am terrified Trump will win the November election and with people like Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson what hope do we have. The pendulum needs to start swinging back.


  5. Alarming indeed. Thanks for posting this review which prodded me to look up Penny Wong on Wikipedia. Sorry, as I’m from a land far, far away. :) Surely, it’s a shifted paradigm and a new world order we’re in now, have been for the past few years, Covid just expedites the change. Wong’s observations are sound and astute.


    • Hi Arti, it’s good to see you here, and I’m interested to see that you find this relevant from a Canadian perspective. (The late Kevin from Canada always used to say we had a lot in common!)
      I’m guessing that, political considerations aside, there would be anxiety about the possibility of C-19 infected Americans crossing your long border with the US?


      • Definitely a real threat. That’s why our land borders have been closed since May! Closed to non-essential travellers. Still not opened yet. We’re seeing a rise in cases in recent weeks here. I’m afraid Covid is going to be with us for a while longer. :(


        • Yes, and you would have the same problem that Western Australia has here, with its very long border, but because there are few roads from the outback into WA it’s comparatively easy to police, I suspect.


          • With the US Canada border closed, it brings the economy to a deep low. Many businesses depend on US consumers. Very unfortunate that they don’t do a better job in controlling Covid.


            • Yes… though I’ve just been reading a Guardian article which links better control of C19 with a better economy, so potentially, Canada like Australia has a better chance of bouncing back even if C-19 spreads because it has better health care (not to mention better leadership and a less polarised population) , see

              Liked by 1 person

              • Good to engage in these conversations with you, Lisa. I’m always looking for intelligent exchanges. :) BTW, are u interested in films? I’ve just finished watching a film online from the (virtual) Toronto Int. FF and it just won the Golden Lion at Venice FF a few hours ago. “Nomadland”.


                • Oh Arti, I’m terrible at films! I go to the French, Italian and (sometimes) the British Film Festival, and I borrow foreign film from Quickflix, but they never stay in my head like books do.

                  I’ve searched QF for “Nomadland” but they don’t have it, and all our theatres are closed at the moment. It might be one I have to look out for at the bookshop…


                • Yes it’s based on the non-fiction book Nomadland by Jessica Bruber. You won’t find it in any streaming services yet since it just premiered in FF. Since you read The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw gave it 5/5 stars yesterday.


  6. it will be interesting to see how long it takes to get to cinemas, I keep getting trailers for new releases that aren’t being released yet…


  7. […] Spy vs Spy (Australian Foreign Affairs #9) (2020) edited by Jonathan Pearlman […]


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