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Agents of influence — what about the Australian Strategic Policy Institute?

by John Menadue | Dec 6, 2017 | Government

Agents of influence, presumably Chinese, are in the news. But the really important agents of influence are organisations linked “hip to hip” to the US and its military/industrial complex. One of these is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute which is an enthusiastic supporter of  almost all things American. It pretends it is an independent think tank.  John Menadue updates his post on this subject from September 6, 2016.

Yesterday, Bob Carr commented that ASPI and the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney both express “consistently pro American positions” while receiving funding from “US corporations including armaments companies”.

In an earlier blog, (Military/Security takeover of Australia’s foreign policy) I described the pervasive influence of the “Australia/US Defence and Intelligence Complex” (AUSDIC).

ASPI, based in Canberra, is dependent on Department of Defence and defence supplier funding. It is an enthusiastic member of that “complex”.

On the 15th anniversary of ASPI, Hugh White, formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Defence, and the Inaugural Executive Director of ASPI, wrote:

“ASPI’s primary purpose wasn’t to contribute to public debate about defence policy, but to provide an alternative source of policy ideas for government.”

He went on to say that this purpose, to contribute to policy debate has now changed. He added

“the quality of defence policy [has] slumped and demand from government for independent policy advice largely evaporated. ASPI’s focus inevitably swung around to contribute to public debate not good policy making.”

We have seen several recent and unfortunate forays of ASPI into the public debate. Its Executive Director, Peter Jennings, recently told us incorrectly, that China was responsible for bringing down the Bureau of Statistics website at the time of the recent census; that Chilcot was extremely naïve about the way countries e.g. UK go to war and that the Australian Parliament should not hinder the prerogative of the prime minister and the cabinet to take Australia to war e.g. Iraq. Only last weekend in the Sun Herald an ASPI “expert on Chinese military modernisation” warned us that the H-6K Chinese bombers based in the Spratly Islands could threaten Australia and we had to consider stepping up our missile defence, with the help of  US Patriot missiles. With a viewpoint and mind set like that he is incapable of considering whether the way we have locked ourselves into the US alliance so fully is in in our best interests. His response was that we had to work even more closely with the US. That would entrap us even further.

ASPI’s pro-American and anti-Chinese views reflects the attitude of the “Australia/US defence intelligence complex” (AUSDIC). Its views on China have been reflected in the sloppy 2016 Defence White Paper and the debacle over the French submarine involving the purchase of a large conventional submarine at a huge and exorbitant cost and naively supposed to operate in the South China Sea to deter China. With its large fleet of nuclear submarines the Chinese must be smiling at our ineptitude and waste!

Peter Jennings led the External Expert Panel appointed by the government in 2014 to advise ministers and the Department of Defence on the 2016 Defence White Paper. This would have included advice on the submarine purchase. It never challenged why Australia needed a bigger conventional submarine than any other country and why we should undertake offensive operations in the South China Sea. ASPI never questioned the decision to buy French submarines for $50b rather than German ones for $20b with much larger industry benefits. Indeed, shortly after publishing an article passionately justifying the French acquisition. Peter Jennings wrote another article saying that what we really needed were nuclear submarines with a hint that the French acquisition supported that aspiration.

ASPI has clearly strayed from its original purpose to provide policy advice to the government. It has become an active participant in the political debate. It’s claim to be “independent and non-partisan” has a hollow ring.

Consider how “independent” ASPI really is.


  • Its 2014-15 annual report, tabled in October 2015, reveals that 56 per cent of its $5.9 million funding came from the Department of Defence.
  • 22 per cent of its funding was from sponsors which include corporations heavily involved in supplying military hardware or services across the world — Airbus Group, BAE Systems, Boeing, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, MBDA, Raytheon, SAAB and Thales.
  • 17 per cent of funds were received in “partnerships and projects” which included the Australian Army, Australian Defence College, Defence Materiel, Department of Defence, Department of Immigration and Border Protection.


The board includes:

  • Stephen Loosley, who is also on the Advisory Board of Thales, which describes itself as “part of a leading international electronics and systems group which services the defence, aerospace, security and transport markets in Australia and throughout the world”.
  • Kevin Gillespie, former Chief of the Australian Army.
  • Margaret Staib, who served for over three decades in the RAAF.

Senior Staff

The executive group comprises:

  • Peter Jennings, Executive Director and formerly Deputy Secretary of Defence; In 2016 he was awarded the French decoration of Knight in the National Order of Legion d’Honneur;,
  • Anthony Bergin, Deputy Director and formerly Associate Professor of Politics at ADFA (UNSW);
  • Andrew Davies, Senior Analyst and Director, Research, who spent 12 years in the Department of Defence in capability analysis and intelligence.

The funding, governance and senior staffing of ASPI is heavily dependent on the Defence department, its associates and military suppliers. In governance and funding it is hardly ‘independent and non-partisan’.

As taxpayers we have a right to expect that a body like ASPI to be VERY independent, irrespective of the source of funds.

In 1961, President Eisenhower warned Americans about the power of the military and industrial complex. Later, that term was extended to include the “Congressional complex”. A large number of members of congress in the US are heavily dependent on defence manufacturers and military bases in their states or electorates. That incestuous complex including “think tanks” has enormous influence in the US but also around the world. The US is scarcely ever at peace. In part that is due to the responsibilities that US Presidents feel have been imposed upon them but it is also driven by the power of vested defence /military interests throughout the US. War is in the American DNA.

We have the same problem, although on a smaller scale with the same close relationships between “think tanks” like ASPI, the Department of Defence in Australia, the intelligence community and our defence industry. What makes that all the more concerning is that our defence policy is being increasingly contracted out to the US, a “dangerous ally” as Malcolm Fraser warned us.

ASPI provides good analysis, but it is very unlikely to come to conclusions and recommendations that would embarrass or annoy the Department of Defence. defence suppliers, the Australian Government  or the US government. Culturally, it is conditioned to a view of the world dominated by the US. Its mindset makes it difficult for it to adjust to the seismic shift in world power with the rise of China.

Our relationship with the US and China are critical issues. How do we get the balance right between the risks and benefits in this dramatic change in our region and indeed the world?

By its performance, it is difficult to see how ASPI is equipped to help us develop a new architecture to advance and manage our relations with China and the US.

More importantly ASPI is not in the habit in recent years of speaking truth to power. It has seriously departed from the original charter that Hugh White explained.

It acts  like a foreign entity.

John Laurence Menadue AO is an Australian businessman and public commentator, and formerly a senior public servant and diplomat. He is the founding chair and board member of the Centre for Policy Development.

You can follow John Menadue on Twitter @JohnMenadueThis article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations and is republished with permission.

John Menadue: Parliamentary reform and democratic renewal

John Laurence Menadue AO is an Australian businessman and public commentator, and formerly a senior public servant and diplomat. He is the founding chair and board member of the Centre for Policy Development.

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