The ‘independent’ think tank that writes its own history!

Oct 28, 2021
Australian forces in Afghanistan during the 20-year occupation. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s claims of fearless independence ring hollow as foreign governments and corporate entities shower it with money.

Winston Churchill, whose once mighty British empire still casts a significant shadow across Australia, reportedly once said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

Twenty years since its establishment by the Howard government in 2001, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has produced a 254-page volume to commemorate its history — and, yes, they have been very kind.

The foreword is a rather indulgent eight pages penned by outgoing executive director Peter Jennings, PSM and Knight in the National Order of Légion d’Honneur de France. The second title was bestowed upon him by the French government, coincidentally, at the time of the signing of the ill-fated French submarine contract, awarded to an ASPI sponsor.

ASPI will annoy you, sometimes?

Jennings’ lengthy prelude to ASPI’s celebratory narrative is entitled “Sometimes we will annoy you”. By some measure Jennings’ statement could be regarded as an honest appraisal of the work of the think tank.

ASPI has produced some very solid research and made important contributions to the strategic and defence policy debate in Australia. In my opinion, such important contributions were limited to the institute’s first three years of existence under the stewardship of Professor Hugh White.

A snapshot of the ASPI website in 2003 showed it to be an institute focused on research. Fast forward to today and its website looks suspiciously like a billboard for foreign weapons makers and corporate interests.

ASPI might occasionally contest defence and foreign policy ideas but there is scant evidence that it ever bites the hand that feeds it. Perhaps a less disingenuous appraisal might be: If we disagree with you, we will always annoy you. If you’re a sponsor we will never annoy you.

In the last reported year ASPI collected nearly $7 million in sponsorship and commercial revenue — this represents a 1400 per cent increase in less than 10 years.

ASPI’s annual reports show that at least 60 different corporate entities have tipped money into its coffers. Department of Finance figures show that since ASPI’s establishment its sponsors have collected more than $80 billion in Defence Department contracts.

In its 2018–19 annual report, ASPI disclosed that participants at that conference were given the opportunity to have “closed-door discussions with government departments and agencies”.

This is hardly a sign of independence.

Foreign governments are now funnelling huge amounts of money to it, but ASPI has yet to disclose foreign government payments from the last financial year. However, every day in the previous financial year it collected $34,000 — not bad for a modestly sized think tank which relies on undergraduates, interns and the odd university dropout to produce a significant proportion of its reports.

Maintain perceptions of independence’

Whilst ASPI continually proclaims its fearless independence, the think tank was birthed at the very heart of government, with its establishment overseen and ratified by Cabinet on August 1, 2000.

The Cabinet minute directed that the ASPI board should be constituted in such a way as to “maintain perceptions of independence”.

Point 3 of the Cabinet minute lays down ASPI’s remit through six fairly unambiguous paragraphs (a) through (f). It is debatable how closely it has followed those directions over the past two decades.

At paragraph (b) it was envisaged ASPI would be a forum to publish the views of others but “hold no view of its own.” It is patently ridiculous to suggest, as ASPI often does, that it has even come close to following that directive.

Nowhere in its remit — nor its subsequent charter — is there any mention that ASPI could seek millions of dollars in direct funding from foreign governments in order to produce reports on the domestic politics and labour practices of other nations.

Yet Jennings’ lengthy prelude to ASPI’s self-authored history repeats in consecutive paragraphs that ASPI is “an informed and independent voice”. ASPI seemingly goes to extraordinary lengths to inform itself of its own independence.

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
Mark Twain

Glossing over Iraq and Afghanistan  

ASPI’s historical recounting of the Iraq War immediately invokes thoughts of Wilfred Owen’s tragic and poignant World War I poem Dulce et decorum est. Owen was a young British officer who was cut down in the killing fields of northern France just one week before the November 1918 armistice.

The 25 year old’s most famous verse ended “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori”, Latin for “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.”

In ASPI’s indulgent reflection on its contribution to the Iraq War debate, there is not a whisper of the blatant “WMD (weapon of mass destruction) lie” used as the pretext to send Australian, British and American coalition forces into a nation of no direct threat to Australia. An invasion in which some estimates put the total number of direct and indirect civilian deaths as high as one million.

The ASPI history notes the findings of the Brereton Report into the alleged unlawful killings of civilians by members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) (just six paragraphs in a 254-page volume) during the two-decade war in Afghanistan. But then it tidies up that episode with extensive quotes from ASPI’s Brendan Nicholson, who partially explained the alleged murders in terms that “This became a true corporal’s war in which junior NCOs had the authority of kings.”

So it was the corporals and the junior NCOs? Says Nicholson: “Under the pressure of 20 intense rotations.” Not even a suggestion of responsibility directed at the Defence chiefs and politicians who sent young Australians off to war and last year poured $11.1 million into ASPI’s coffers.

ASPI ended its Afghanistan review: “On the positive side, the war taught the army a lot about the necessity for the war fighter and intelligence to be tightly integrated.”

Quick, let’s start another war

ASPI is now devoting most of its resources to the China threat. It makes commercial sense as that’s where the money is. Last month, Defence Minister Peter Dutton handed ASPI another $5 million to open an office in Washington DC. It’s hard to imagine China won’t be on the menu as they wine and dine Washington elites on the Australian tax dollar.

For the past two years Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his ministers have invoked the threat of an “unnamed state actor”. Often within minutes an ASPI mouthpiece fronts up on the ABC filling in the blanks — “It’s China” — usually followed up by a half-page opinion piece by Peter Jennings or Michael Shoebridge in The Australian.

Perhaps trying to be smart about it, Jennings’ foreword avoided the name, writing: “The Canberra embassy of a large and assertive Leninist authoritarian regime can’t conceive that ASPI could possibly be independent in its judgments because, well, no such intellectual independence survives back home. ASPI must therefore be the catspaw of Australian government policy thinking.”

Of course, the Chinese government relies on censorship and shameless propaganda — just because Jennings and ASPI are so vitriolically opposed to China does not mean they are not shameless propagandists themselves.

ASPI is using propaganda, fuelled by cash from the military industrial complex and the US State Department, to drive Australia further and further into a Cold War, and closer and closer to an actual conflict with China.

In a pivotal scene in David Lean’s 1962 cinematic epic Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, tells Auda Abu-Tayeh, played by Anthony Quinn: “It is the servant who takes the money.”

Editor’s Note: Update on ASPI Wikipedia page
As previously reported at Michael West MediaAPAC News and John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations, references to criticism of ASPI by Michael West, commentator and former diplomat Bruce Haigh and Marcus Reubenstein have been published on and then deleted from ASPI’s Wikipedia page numerous times. As at time of writing they have once again been deleted. How petty!

This article was first published by APAC News and is reproduced with permission.

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