The inaugural ASPI Sydney Dialogue is a national embarrassment

Nov 22, 2021
Narendra Modi ASPI Sydney Dialogue
Secular values under strain: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Image: ASPI)

The ‘summit’ was compromised by complicity between DFAT,ASPI , the presence of Narendra Modi, and Meta’s sponsorship.But our anti-China media lap it up.

In chaos theory the term “strange attractor” is used to describe an entity to which points are “pulled” as the result of certain processes. In matters concerning political-strategic analysis, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) qualifies as one. Its hosting of the first Sydney Dialogue in the past week is not only proof of this but also an act of self-incrimination which any self-respecting and self-critical parliament would determine required a royal commission into operations contrary to the national interest.

The ASPI self-importantly described its inaugural Sydney Dialogue as a much anticipated world-first summit for emerging, critical and cyber technologies. Its promotional material announced that the “virtual summit” would begin with a keynote address by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and would be followed by other virtual events including addresses by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. The prospect was for “world-changing conversations between some our most influential leaders and thinkers”. (Those sensitive to presumptions of shared identities might note the use of the pronoun “our” in this context.)

The promotional material also advised that the dialogue was supported by the Australian government (through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)), described as a premier sponsor, and Meta (formerly Facebook), accorded the status of gold sponsor.

An examination of the sessions and those authoring papers in them, and what was referred to as the Sydney Dialogue playbook, indicated that there could be worthwhile contributions on complex issues of technology, many of them qualifying for the descriptor “disruptive”.

Four points need to be made, however: first, the context was compromised because of the centring of Modi; second, the prominence given to Abe; third, the involvement of Meta; and fourth, the complicity of a government department (DFAT) and an organisation significantly in receipt of government funds — ASPI itself — in an act of national embarrassment. No thought was apparently given to the prospect that ethically and politically sensitive observers would reasonably conclude that Australia’s national self-respect was of little or no concern.

It’s one thing to enter in to arrangements with parties whose politics are despicable because common interests determine such an accommodation; it is quite another, however, to celebrate the proponents of such politics as though critical distance is an unheard-of concept.

The grounds for objecting to Modi’s virtual presence are as deep as they are broad and they can be gauged by the recent “Dismantling Global Hindutava” conference sponsored by Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley, Chicago, Pennsylvania and Rutgers universities.

The concerns are connected to the extremes of the party Modi leads, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its policies which link citizenship to the Hindu religion, encapsulate anti-Muslim discrimination, promote violence against other religious and ethnic minorities and allow for detention without trial. Prima facie, they indicate Hindu supremacism with underlying — and frequently explicit — fascist tendencies, a conclusion only affirmed by the BJP’s close ideological ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, perhaps the world’s oldest existing fascist militia with a record of instigating sectarian violence.

If such policies weren’t considered sufficient cause for Modi’s disqualification from the dialogue, then an article by the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, on the BJP government’s crackdown on dissent in India makes a compelling case because the BJP campaign uses the very technologies that Modi wanted to emphasise as India’s prowess at the dialogue.

Abe, through the same lens, is equally problematic. Gavan McCormack’s analysis on this site a year ago noted that, before leaving office, Abe focused on  a range of prerogatives which included “circumscribing citizen rights, reinforcing national security, and re-centring the state around the imperial institution and its sustaining Shinto myths of uniqueness and superiority”. Of significance is the fact that prominent public intellectuals see Japan as an “extreme rightist” country embedded in a “fascism of indifference” and on a trajectory towards “a dark society and a fascist state” bearing a close resemblance to the politics of pre-war Japan.

As for Meta, gold sponsor and provider of former British politician Sir Nick Clegg as contributor to the dialogue, nothing positive can be said in defence of its presence. But the following question is certainly in order: why are ASPI and DFAT in a relationship with an organisation which has contempt for its clients and against which numerous and serious criminal charges should be brought?

Meta, of course, is Facebook with the name change announced by founder Mark Zuckerberg amid a crisis arising out of disclosures made by former executive Frances Haugen and backed by documentary evidence. The name change was in train, anyway, but with Haugen’s whistle-blowing it became tactically necessary — and so the world was advised of Zuckerberg’s ambition to provide Meta’s users with an expanded, virtual world to live in.

By any calculation, and long before Haugen, Zuckerberg personally and Facebook as a  corporation were scandal-ridden. They had systematically and deliberately flouted laws and regulations in an unceasing and ruthless quest for greater market share and increased share value. It was well-documented public knowledge. As author Matt Stoller has detailed, Facebook’s success is the result of lax antitrust law enforcement, the failure to regulate privacy and the widespread refusal to use criminal law against against powerful individuals.

Stoller’s account is particularly strong when it establishes a basis for regarding Facebook/Meta as an enterprise which is marked by deceit and wrongdoing to the point where a reasonable person would find six bases for criminal prosecution: two relating to wire fraud (video, and advertising reach metrics), securities fraud, violations of the False Claims Act, insider trading and price fixing.

DFAT’s enabling role, via ASPI as consigliere, therefore demands a response which inquires into just how and why public discourse on national security has come to this pass.  Since the current Coalition government cannot be expected to order it,  the public, via Parliament, one way or another, should demand that a commission with plenipotentiary powers be convened to investigate the above scandals.

Unless that happens Australia will be only an imaginary country — a place where democratic ideas are no longer current, where principles widely and loudly acclaimed are routinely mocked and where citizens are held in contempt alongside the need to establish close contact and profitable relationships with those who manipulate, intrigue and conspire while the great majority are relegated to the role of  audience.

READ MORE: “Modi graces Sydney Dialogue, as human rights are quickly forgotten” — Crikey

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