The view from Australia: Five questions with Melissa Conley Tyler

The Australian Institute of International Affairs’ National Executive Director reflects on the role of think tanks, the importance of addressing inequality in society, and what lessons other countries should take from the Canadian and Australian responses to the refugee crisis.  

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October 4, 2016
Melissa Conley Tyler speaks at a panel during the Global Think Tank Summit. Credit: Centre for International Governance Innovation.

An expert on conflict resolution and Australian foreign policy, Melissa Conley Tyler heads the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), which has branches in seven Australian states and territories, headquartered in Canberra.

Last week, Conley Tyler was in Montreal lending her expertise to a panel at the Global Think Tank Summit, looking at how think tanks around the world can innovate and continue to produce quality research in a rapidly-changing operating environment. The summit was presented by Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation and the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, and brought together representatives of 85 think tanks from 42 countries. 

OpenCanada caught up with Conley Tyler on the fringes of the summit to get her thoughts on the successes of multiculturalism in Australia and Canada, the long road to reconciliation with Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and how to guard against divisions brought on by inequality.

You’re in Canada for the Global Think Tank Summit – from your vantage point at the AIIA, what should the role of think tanks be and what are some of the challenges to achieving that?

It has been a fascinating discussion here in Montreal. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the think tank community around the world to get together to discuss whether we have similar problems, different problems, and learn from each other.

"It’s not enough just to talk to policymakers; you need to have an engaged, supportive public that will assist in sending your message."

From the perspective of the AIIA, we’re one of the older think tanks, similar to the Canadian International Council. We were established as a branch of Chatham House 92 years ago, and for a long time I have to say we have felt a bit old fashioned. Our mission has always been to promote public debate and interest in international affairs in Australia, so we’re very focused on engaging the public in the conversation. For many years, when I’ve been coming to these think tank events I’ve felt that that was a bit of a fringe pursuit, that the key thing that many think tanks say is their mission is to focus on influencing a small number of policymakers. And so we always used to feel that we weren’t a “proper” think tank in the way that some others were, in that we put the public debate at the heart of what we do.

What I found interesting in this discussion has been the way that has shifted, so now the “insider” think tanks who’ve been very successful in engaging with elite policymakers are now realizing that they have to extend their reach. They have to stand outside and engage the public. It’s not enough just to talk to policymakers; you need to have an engaged, supportive public that will assist in sending your message and help give those policymakers the space to take on the policies that you’re advocating. 

Australia had a federal election in July – what do you want Canadians to know about the outcome of that election? What does it mean for the direction Australia will take with regards to foreign policy?

I think the answer is that it’s pretty much business as usual. The government was returned, but with a very slim majority, so that means it’s actually going to be very difficult for the government to take dramatic action on a whole number of areas, because it will have to work with a more complex Senate makeup. It’s going to be difficult to get legislation through without a lot of work.

That said, of course, in foreign policy we rarely see dramatic developments, full stop. There’s a great bipartisan consensus in Australian foreign policy, and what you usually see is a slight shift more in emphasis or degree, rather than any major shifts. The party currently in government, the Coalition, is seen to have a bit more of a predilection for bilateralism and focus on key relationships, whereas the Labor Party in opposition is seen as having a bit more of a focus on multilateralism, but really in government both do both, because you can’t run foreign affairs without doing both. So I think the answer is: don’t expect major changes of any sort. The next election may be different but right now, it's pretty stable. 

You recently had a piece in The Guardian about what Europe can learn from Australia’s controversial border policy – are there lessons for Canada here?

I think Canada and Australia have enormous similarities in how we’ve dealt with migration. I would actually say the question is more what some of the countries that are currently experiencing issues, such as in Europe, can learn from Canada and Australia’s immigration experience. I’ve been focusing on trying to make sure that Europeans take the right lessons out of that experience. I think the wrong lesson that some have taken is that you can somehow magically close borders and stop the boats just by talking tough.

In fact, Australia’s experience shows that it is prohibitively expensive to try to essentially close down the flow. Australia has managed it and it is absolutely possible to disrupt the business model of people smugglers, but it is so expensive that it is just essentially not an option for Europe. We’re dealing with very small numbers, on an island continent that’s very difficult to get to. 

But I think the other thing I would like Europeans to take from both Australia's and Canada’s experience is around the possibility of a successful multiculturalism integration that really works. I think both countries have shown this so well. Australia’s now at a point where essentially half our population, 48 percent, are either overseas-born or a child of [someone] overseas-born. A society that used to be essentially a white settler society at the end of the Second World War has completely transformed itself, and very successfully, [though] obviously with some tensions. For every new immigrant group there’s an adjustment process, there’s a ‘Will they fit in?’ question, and then they do fit it, and then we move on to the next group and ask ourselves, ‘Will they fit in?’ I’m not saying that’s good, but that’s part of the process.

But if you look now at some of the earlier groups, whether it was the Italians, the Greeks, the Maltese, the Turks, or whether it was the Vietnamese in the 70s, or the big Chinese and Indian immigration, even the newest communities which are mainly African communities coming for the first time to Australia – the stories are good stories. They take a while, but you can see real positives. I think those are the lessons Europe should be drawing. When [countries] are very concerned about whether they can achieve anything like those integration outcomes, to know that it is not impossible may help them in their task.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it a priority to “reset” relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples during his time in government. Are there any lessons from Australia’s experience with its Indigenous communities that he should keep in mind?

It’s an area where I would be very loath to try to lecture any other country. I think it’s been a very difficult process in Australia and I don’t think we could hold ourselves up as an example, honestly. I used to work with Reconciliation Australia, an organization that followed on from the Council on Aboriginal Reconciliation, and I have a sense of just how far we have to go. On many issues, for example Indigenous governance, I think Canada is way ahead of Australia .

Maybe I could mention one example though where I think Australia is being very successful at the moment – a very niche example, but important – which is building diversity in our diplomatic serviceThe Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an Indigenous recruitment and career development program, which has been very successful in making sure that our diplomats represent our Indigenous peoples. We now have our first Indigenous ambassador, Damien Miller, our ambassador to Denmark, and you can see over the course of this program just how well it has done in building up the diversity in our diplomatic service. If you think of diplomats as your literal face abroad, the way you represent your country, making sure that you build up sufficient diversity is vital. 

Indigenous people bring massive cultural competencies to the table. If you’re thinking of, say, an Indigenous Australian who’s acting as a diplomat in the South Pacific, they have access to a whole different set of cultural knowledge and relationships. They add dramatically to the success of our diplomatic service. So this is an area where I actually do think we have something to offer.

There’s been a lot of talk about “angry populism” here at the conference – the big examples being Brexit and the rise of Trump – do you see that manifesting itself in Australia? What can the world do to address this discontent?

In terms of Australia I’d have to say it’s less pronounced than what you’re seeing in Europe or in America. I think there’s probably two broad reasons for that. One is our electoral system. We have a system that pushes towards the middle, rather than towards extremes, which is the opposite of what happens in the U.S. We have compulsory voting, we have preferential voting, and public funding of major political parties, which tends to push towards a mild centre-right and mild centre-left party, because to win in Australia you have to get the middle voter. In that sense, I cannot see the forces of populism taking hold in the same way.  

"If you’re going to have disruption, if you’re going to open your societies in a range of ways, people have to feel...that this disruption in some way benefits their lives."

That said, we do see it a little bit in our Senate, which is done on proportional voting, and so there is a percentage of the population who is indeed voting for something you might see as a more populist party. At the moment that’s One Nation, led by Pauline Hanson, who reinvented herself from her earlier branding around Asian immigration to now be about Muslims in Australia. I think that’s a difficult and divisive discussion that is happening, but it’s not likely to lead to any major changes in policy (maybe to some soul-searching). 

The second factor is very much the social support network in Australia. To answer the question of why this is happening, certainly one of the reasons I think is that there’s a push against globalization, in the sense that globalization has been seen as enriching a very small proportion of the population in, say, the U.S. or in Europe. That, I think, has not been the case in Australia. We have consciously focused on inequality and making sure that the benefits of globalization are broadly shared by society. That’s absolutely crucial to building support – if you’re going to have disruption, if you’re going to open your societies in a range of ways, people have to feel that they are beneficiaries of this, that this disruption in some way benefits their lives. If they feel that all the benefits are captured by a tiny percentage, of course they quite reasonably will be angry and ask for a change in the system. So I think that’s been part of it as well; we’ve had 25 years of uninterrupted growth, which is extraordinary, and we have shared the benefits of that to a great extent.

My argument would be that we still need to do more – that if we’re going to keep social support for an open society, for an open trade system, we need to keep constantly thinking about social inequality and if we are doing enough. But in terms of the moment I think we’ve managed that well.

I think these discussions also show there are all sorts of other factors, though, in terms of how politics is being played, the role of individuals, the role of social media. I think if we’re looking for an answer to populism those are all places we should be looking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.