The incredible shrinking ASPI

Apr 13, 2023
China, vector flag.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but has ASPI’s China-like propaganda model run its course?

There he was last week, ASPI’s pro-U.S. executive director with a penchant for wearing CIA cufflinks, Justin Bassi, speaking at his first big event since taking the helm a year ago. Younger and, some might argue, a great deal more dashing than his predecessor Peter Jennings, has Bassi given ASPI a new face or, as the Chinese would say, is he causing it to lose face?

Assuming the Commonwealth-owned think tank doesn’t get torpedoed—a virtual impossibility under the current government— financially, it is set for life. That’s almost entirely due to the work of Jennings. When he took over in 2011, he quietly put ASPI’s Charter through the shredder and commercialised it in such a way that the Howard Government neither intended nor permitted.

Under its founding executive director, Professor Hugh White, ASPI did not collect money from weapons makers, other commercial sponsors or lucrative government contracts. When Jennings departed, annual sponsorship and other income totalled $8.46 million, a quarter of which came from foreign governments.

Then Defence Minister, Peter Reith’s Charter Letter explicitly stated, “[ASPI] should take steps to avoid becoming identified with narrowly defined lines of thought on specific issues”.

A search of its website reveals 788 reports referencing China—Australia’s biggest ever trading partner, which it promotes as the certain protagonist in a certain war.

As for the two actual wars Australia has been dragged into, collectively there are less than half the number of references to Iraq and Afghanistan, all but two completely ignoring numerous reports of British, American and Australian war crimes.

The muted dialogue

The Sydney Dialogue, of which the latest edition was staged last week, is ASPI’s biannual talkfest. Unbelievably, save for the fact it was staged in Sydney, there is not a single reference on ASPI’s website, its social media accounts or elsewhere as to where this conference was actually held.

A Commonwealth-owned entity, using public funds, courtesy of major sponsors the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Home Affairs, refusing to disclose the location of this event. That is a sham and a complete affront to Australian taxpayers.

There was none of the bravado which accompanied the 2019 conference where ASPI boasted in its literature that “closed-door discussions with government departments and agencies” were facilitated for attendees.

Two years ago, ASPI fired off numerous social media posts promoting the Sydney Dialogue, including videos of speaker presentations. As for last week’s event, there were ASPI Twitter posts all with two things in common: no video of presenters or transcripts of speeches, and not a single image showing the faces of audience members.

As for the audience itself, it was an invitation only event; effectively this was the “Sydney Monologue”.

Though it would be required to tender this information through Senate Estimates, there is zero requirement for ASPI to ever disclose what its commercial sponsors (Optus and Meta) paid and whether speakers were paid and/or offered (effectively taxpayer-funded) benefits such as flights and accommodation.

Also no disclosure as to who attended and what they paid, though tickets for ASPI’s 2019 two-day event were, according to its website, openly available and sold for $1,540.00.

The only possible blip on this year’s radar was the fact that speakers, Defence Minister Richard Marles, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and her department’s secretary Mike Pezzullo, were obliged to publish transcripts of their remarks online.

One of the precious few nuggets to slip out was former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who, on the topic of China, said, “They are a partner in the sense that we can rely on them for some things, but they’re a competitor in others. Notice I didn’t say enemy.”

Quite the inconvenient truth for ASPI, one wonders if Schmidt will be invited back?

Speaking out the wrong end of the megaphone

Unlike Jennings, who has no social media accounts, Bassi is a very enthusiastic peddler of his own views, sending out almost 50 Tweets and Retweets promoting the two-day event. He willingly launches himself into narratives and endorsements of shaky pronouncements of others for which he can be pinned down.

On the other hand, Jennings is a master tactician. By carefully managing the circles in which he moves, he’s made himself a small target for personal criticism. As much a hawk as he is on China, it’s almost completely escaped notice that he rarely (if ever) publicly endorsed the authors of ASPI’s many China volumes, for which major slabs of research were apparently conducted by undergraduates, interns and even university dropouts.

A search of ASPI’s website database, reveals Jennings’s name does not appear in any of the detailed “Policy Brief” volumes produced on China. Still, he managed to mobilise his lieutenants who fired off the anti-China narrative. They were incredibly adept at staying on message and never had their commentary challenged by mainstream journalists (aka “stenographers”).

He ran apparatchiks who knew when and how to keep their mouths shut but it’s a damning indictment of Australia’s media that they ignored the legal disclaimer on page one of every ASPI report, “No person should rely on the contents of this publication”, plausible deniability safe in the knowledge it would never be required.

Under Bassi, deniability does not appear to be as easy. After the Sydney Morning Herald/Age “Red Alert” series, ASPI took flak from ABC’s Media Watch and Nine Television for indirect involvement in the narrative, based mainly on Jennings participation. As reported in this journal, Jennings remains an ASPI senior fellow and, as ASPI did not disclose, its paid board member Lavina Lee was a direct contributor to “Red Alert”.

Former foreign minister Bob Carr tweeted a link to that story, writing: “ASPI is a pro-war Austral-American think tank headed by a political appointment out of the Morrison government receiving funds from armaments companies. These facts should be alluded to when it is quoted in the media.”

Bassi fired back with a ‘Yes Minister-like nonresponse’ ignoring the substance of Carr’s comments with a wishy-washy reference to ASPI’s support of Ukraine. It was a needless public argument with a political figure who’s achieved immensely greater heights than Bassi—an argument Jennings would simply have never waded into.

In March, Crikey published a series under the headline of “China’s Queer Purge”, alleging gross human rights violations against China’s LGBTQI+ community, stating its primary source was ASPI analyst Daria Impiombato. A critique of this story was published by Pearls and Irritations, debunking most of the assertions of the ASPI-based series. Twelve days later it was gone from the Crikey website with an explanation to its readers, “our confidence in the series has been undermined and we’ve taken the unusual step of unpublishing it”.

Three days before the story was removed, Bassi was on Twitter endorsing Impiombato’s qualities as a China researcher. Once again, Jennings would never have placed himself in that position.

The think tank continues to enjoy the patronage of powerful benefactors with deep pockets, and it is going nowhere; but, in some respects, the game is up for ASPI. Its current leadership is being pushed into the model of the communist state it so reviles. Shameless propaganda when it can get away with it, and secretly meeting behind closed doors when it can’t.

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