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There’s Something Very Disturbing About Australia’s Very Normal 2022 Elections

Editor’s note: This article first appeared as a guest column in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land, a twice-weekly dispatch about politics and media. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out.

As an Australian living in the US, I’ve realized that nothing makes me pine for home more than our relatively snoozy elections. Seriously.

The comparisons are stark: While American elections never end, Australia preserves the fantasy that a “campaign,” including the one happening right now, comprises a few weeks of awkward photo-ops, flagrant pork-barreling, and media hyperventilation over minor gaffes. So far, so comforting.

America’s democratic system, attacked on every level from within, is backsliding. Federal elections are enacted through a vulnerable patchwork of state laws; the way things have been going, a willing coup participant could be sitting on your election board. By contrast, behold the Australian Electoral Commission, a trusted, nonpartisan body that quietly administers every election to exacting standards. American elections hinge on turnout, sometimes down to the street level, amid relatively poor national engagement. Australian elections enjoy vast participation, among the highest in the world. The AEC recently announced record enrollment—hailed by its boss as nothing short of a “democratic miracle.” But it is compulsory to vote in Australia, enforceable by fines, so that’s not much of a surprise, and anyway, is a miracle really a miracle if it barely makes the news? Insert shruggy emoji: It all just works.

In Australia, voting is a national celebration. On a Saturday. An entire country throws a “democracy sausage” cookout.

And then there are the candidates. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is battling to hold on to a one-seat majority and therefore his job. “ScoMo,” as he is known without much affection, leads the governing conservative coalition. Because this is Australia, ScoMo is up against a guy whose nickname also ends in “o”—a bit of humanizing marketing that Aussie politicians enjoy as the equivalent of eating a corndog at the Iowa State Fair. Anthony “Albo” Albanese is the opposition leader and head of the center-left Labor party. Despite being a fixture of Australian politics for decades as a footy-loving bloke, he is mainly drawing attention for his recent “glow-up” weight loss and new suits.

ScoMo, right, and Albo meet for a televised prime-ministerial debate on Murdoch’s Sky News in April.

Jason Edwards / AP

Of course, the leaders have significant policy differences and backgrounds. ScoMo is a pious evangelical who once, as the nation’s treasurer, extolled the virtues of coal by clowning around with a lump of it on the floor of parliament. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you,” he said. “It’s coal!” He rose to the prime ministership not through an election, but as an internal candidate of last resort after his bitterly divided party, while in power, threw out its leader amid a factional dispute.

Albo, on the other hand, is a backroom powerbroker and member of the party’s progressive wing, perhaps even a shade more Bernie than Biden. “I like fighting Tories,” he once said. “That’s what I do.” After a humiliating defeat for his predecessor three years ago, the uninspiring rationale for Albo, at least to casual observers like me, appeared to be “It’s his turn.”

The campaign has flattened these characters, extruding them of color and history: ScoMo vs. Albo, two familiar white men in their 50s, veteran politicians, performing the norms and rituals of campaigning with the flair of community theater. Just how we like it.

There is one important similarity between our democracies that American readers will immediately recognize: the powerful media influence of Rupert Murdoch. It’s true there is no TV equivalent to Tucker Carlson in Australia. Murdoch’s Sky News remains boutique in comparison to Fox News. Sky’s lineup is a life raft for washed-up culture warriors and other News Corp hardliners who eye America’s divisions with envy. However, Murdoch’s formidable press outfit is far more dominant per square inch of newsprint in Australia and is currently amplifying attacks on Albo as a boring inner-city big spender who is dangerously soft on China. Sound familiar? Murdoch is, after all, Australian, and perfected this sort of mendacious attack long ago, back home. The virus that is Murdoch’s News Corp was lab-leaked from an Adelaide tabloid in the ’50s.

“I’ve never met Rupert Murdoch in my life,” Albo insisted in an extensive February profile in The Monthly, the Australian political magazine. But he can’t avoid pandering to the mogul’s dailies. He recently sat for an interview with Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph to position himself as a “friend to business and aspirational Australians,” squarely in the mainstream. “Albo vows to swerve away from the left,” the front page blared. Then, in case we missed the point, in all-caps: “I AM NOT WOKE.”

Amid all this predictability, here’s the disturbing part. The “campaign”—the breathless horse-race coverage, the basic block-and-tackle of it all—is obscuring what could be a pivotal moment for the future of the nation, and in some respects, for the world.

I’ve written before of climate change as the killing fields of Australian politics, to borrow a phrase from Guardian Australia‘s Lenore Taylor. Dubbed the “climate wars,” disagreements, in part over climate policy, have killed off four sitting prime ministers and contributed to an extraordinary run of leadership chaos over the past decade. The most extreme effects of global warming are already happening in Australia. Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem “My Country,” first published in the early 1900s and taught to Australian children everywhere, romanticizes the “sunburned country…Of drought and flooding rains.” Her quaint vision of a nation held together against the elements has morphed into a biblical horror cycle of extreme fires, record-setting floods, and actual plagues. As long-term costs to Australia’s roads and infrastructure become fixtures of national budgets, the conservatives in power are still low-balling climate commitments while winking at the far-right flank: It’s not really that bad.

“The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought,” the PM said during Australia’s 2019–2020 bushfire season, the worst on record. “We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome.”

Don’t mind the flaming koalas.

Australians know what it’s like to live on these frontiers, and that’s reflected in national sentiment. A growing majority of Australians say climate change is a pressing concern, according to a 2021 poll. In an eight-point jump since 2019, the same survey reported that 55 percent of Australians now say the government’s top priority for energy policy should be “reducing carbon emissions.” Six out of 10 eligible voters think ScoMo’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 won’t be enough, according to a recent YouGov poll. So, one theory goes, there must be conservative voters who are on the hunt for alternatives to the climate hardliners. Can they be picked off?

Deadly, record-setting floods hit Australia’s east in February and March, devastating towns like Lawrence, in rural New South Wales.

A massive injection of cash (by Australian standards) from the group Climate 200, reportedly around $10 million, is helping to test that theory, backing a slate of so-called “teal independents” contesting wealthy blue-ribbon seats. The idea is to direct voters to business-minded, climate-friendly candidates with the goal of putting whomever ends up running parliament on notice. This could fracture the conservative vote—an “existential threat,” warned one freaked-out Murdoch columnist last week. (A Climate 200–backed Melbourne independent, Zoe Daniel, has opened up a whopping 24-point lead over a conservative incumbent, according to one poll.) The Labor party may possess more aggressive climate pledges, but Albo, cautious of alienating anyone, is wary of making climate the centerpiece campaign issue. If his party doesn’t win a majority, it too will be beholden to these independents.

Meanwhile, the smaller, climate-first Greens party is enjoying a recent bump in popularity, which, given Australia’s ranked-choice voting system, could make the final picture even more complex.

The election is two weeks away. Unlike in America, there are no fancy FiveThirtyEight-style modelers tinkering with projections and fueling Election Day nightmares. The most prominent weekly poll has remained pretty consistent, showing Albo’s Labor poised to win. (Other polls show the same.) Of course, the last election also predicted a Labor win, and ScoMo, the conservative, eked out a victory. But his lackluster response to Australia’s drumbeat of apocalypse appears to have had a lasting impact, and, like Ted “Cancun” Cruz, he’ll be remembered for skipping town for Hawaii during the country’s worst bushfire crisis. He was lucky that the state governments controlled the basic mechanics of the coronavirus pandemic, sparing Australians the worst outcomes—but voters remember ScoMo’s bumbling excuses for what he could control, the country’s painfully slow vaccine rollout. His reaction to the pandemic can be seen as a scaled study of his government’s response to the bigger and more relentless assault of climate change across the continent.

If nothing else, Australians love to turf out a mob that has overstayed its welcome.

Right now, everything may seem typical, boring almost, but there are fractures in what former conservative PM John Howard once described as his ideal citizenry: a “relaxed and comfortable” electorate. Zoom out from the campaign, and Australia is a nation facing a signal moment. Will its people vote against the rising waters and the darkening skies? As Australians feast on their democracy sausages, will indelible memories of barbecued koalas be enough?

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“Shocking, Horrendous, Disgraceful”: Foreign Leaders Are Lining Up to Condemn American Violence

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On Wednesday, images of shocking violence and chaos perpetrated by President Donald Trump’s supporters—and instigated by the president himself—that interrupted the joint session of Congress meeting to certify the Electoral College vote, traveled the world. As crowds of insurrectionists invaded the United States Capitol forcing members of Congress to be evacuated, a number of foreign leaders and politicians expressed reactions ranging from disbelief to concern and condemnation.

One of the first public responses came from Turkey, which invited “all parties in the US to use moderation, common sense to overcome this domestic political crisis,” according to the state-run news agency Anadolu. Turkey’s Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop also went on Twitter to say: “We follow the events in the USA with concern and invite the parties to calmness. We believe that problems will always be solved within law and democracy. As Turkey, we have always been in favor of the law and democracy and we recommend it to everyone.” (This is a characterization that some human rights’ activists familiar with repression under Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan may dispute.)

In a statement shared by Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, the Venezuelan government didn’t miss the opportunity to point out that “with this pitiful episode, the US is suffering exactly what it has caused in other countries with its aggressive policies,” and to wish that “the US people will finally be able to find a new path towards stability and social justice.” 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the scenes in the US Congress disgraceful and described a “peaceful and orderly transfer of power” as “vital.” His counterpart in the Netherlands took it a step further and asked “Dear” Donald Trump to recognize Joe Biden as the next president today. Jeremy Hunt, a member of the British Parliament, criticized Trump for shaming American democracy and causing “its friends anguish.”

The former Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, called the events a coup d’état, adding that the rest of the world should treat it as such. In Ireland, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney called what happened “a deliberate assault on Democracy by a sitting President & his supporters” to overturn a fair election. “The world is watching,” he tweeted. 

From Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who in November said, “America is more than a one-man show,” tweeted that the enemies of democracy would be delighted with the images and that “the disdain for democratic institutions is devastating.” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said he was following with concern the events in Washington, but expressed confidence that President-elect Biden “will overcome this time of tension, uniting the American people.” 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the acts of violence, and said he looked forward to “a peaceful transfer of Government to the newly elected administration in the great American democratic tradition.”

And from Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz tweeted: 

Other influential international figures to comment on the state of domestic affairs in the US include the European Union High Representative Josep Borrell, who stated that this is an “unseen assault on US democracy” and called for the election results to be respected, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who described the scenes as “shocking.” 

Also on Twitter, Denmark’s Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod described the events as “highly disturbing” and “unpleasant,” while France’s Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the violence against American institutions as an attack against democracy. “The will and the vote of the American people must be respected,” he tweeted.  

Meanwhile, some of Trump’s closest allies abroad like far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have remained silent. And on the front page of the Times in the UK on Thursday:

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Biden’s Pentagon Pick Has Deep Defense Industry Ties. Now It Could Complicate His Nomination.

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Joe Biden, in defending his decision to nominate retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as his Defense secretary pick on Tuesday, cited Austin’s “intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government,” adding that those qualities make him “uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face.” Outside of government, those qualities were also uniquely matched to a post-military career spent cultivating ties between people in power and the defense industry. 

After retiring from the Army in 2016, Austin joined the board of a defense industry giant, set up his own consulting firm, and became a partner at a private equity firm that invests in defense and aerospace companies. He quickly cashed in, earning at least $1.4 million since he joined the board of United Technologies Corp. in 2016. Earlier this year, UTC merged with Raytheon, giving Austin a seat on the board of one of the country’s most powerful defense contractors. Last year, Raytheon received more than $16 billion in federal government contracts, the fourth-most of any company.

The progressive flank of the Democratic Party, which has debated how to oppose Biden’s Defense secretary pick even before the announcement, expressed concern with Austin in a barrage of statements on Tuesday. Common Defense, a veterans group, called his nomination “a grave, democracy-threatening mistake.” Win Without War Executive Director Stephen Miles said the “historic nature of this nomination is indeed laudable,” but called on Austin to “address the ethics concerns raised by his connection with Raytheon” and “at minimum, commit to recusing himself from any decision relating to Raytheon.”

The Massachusetts based contractor has made off particularly well by selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies as part of the controversial Saudi intervention into Yemen’s civil war, an ongoing catastrophe that has spiraled into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. “Since the Yemen war began, Raytheon has booked at least a dozen major sales to the kingdom and its partners worth more than $5 billion,” the New York Times reported in May. Congress has repeatedly passed resolutions that oppose further sales to Saudi Arabia and its Middle East allies, but firms like Raytheon have relentlessly lobbied the Trump administration to keep the spigot flowing, despite American weapons being connected to massive civilian casualty events in Yemen. President Trump has vetoed bills to block arms sales in the past and is expected to do so again, pending how Congress votes on similar legislation this week.

If Austin’s gets a seat in Biden’s Cabinet, it raises questions of how sincerely he believes in Raytheon’s activities and whether he would advocate for a continued transfer of weapons. Last year, Biden called for the United States to stop providing financial and military support for the Saudi war in Yemen, reversing a policy that originated under the Obama administration. He also said he would make Saudi Arabia, which has come up for increasing criticism in Congress since its state-sanctioned murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, into “a pariah.” 

Under Trump, who appointed former Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper as Defense secretary, Raytheon has been able to secure influence at the highest levels of government. “They have exploited these connections to keep the bombs flowing. How well equipped will General Austin be to resist these pressures? Will he tip the scales in favor of his former company?” says William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the progressive Center for International Policy. “These are questions that should not need to be asked—these kinds of potential conflicts should not be present in an independent secretary of Defense able to make the right decisions on arms to Saudi Arabia and other key security issues.”

In recent years, the boardrooms of major US defense contractors have become something of a feeder school for senior Pentagon leaders. Trump’s three Defense secretaries who served for any extended time—James Mattis, Patrick Shanahan, and Esper—had roles at General Dynamics, Boeing, and Raytheon before joining his administration. 

“If President-elect Biden is serious about enacting reform upon taking office, he would be better served by a Defense secretary without ties to one of the top five contractors. We need defense leaders who are ready to make decisions that are right for the American people, not former industry officials who stand to be influenced by their ties to contractors,” said Mandy Smithberger of the Project On Government Oversight, which tracks the industry ties of current and former government officials. “The revolving door between the Defense Department and industry has contributed to far too many decisions that benefit defense contractors at the expense of the American public, and I’m disappointed to see that Biden isn’t committed to mitigating industry influence on the government.”

Austin’s nomination was applauded by the Congressional Black Caucus, who pushed for Biden to nominate a Black Defense secretary, but many other Democrats in Congress have already voiced opposition to his nomination—a point that especially matters for this Cabinet position, since Austin would require a congressional waiver to serve as Defense secretary. He only retired from the Army four years ago and federal law requires a seven-year cooling off period before a military leader can serve as secretary of Defense, a civilian role. (The cooling off period initially extended for 10 years, but Congress reduced it in 2007.) Mattis, who was in a similar situation as a retired Marine Corps general, ultimately received a waiver from Congress, but some prominent Democrats who opposed a waiver for Mattis, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have said they will similarly not support one for Austin. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who worked at the Pentagon while Austin was leading US troops in the Middle East, said she has “deep respect” for his work, but “choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off.” She didn’t rule out voting for his waiver, but her reluctance speaks to some of the frustration among Democrats that Biden would pick a retired general after the outsize influence military leaders had at the Defense Department over civilian officials during Mattis’ tenure.

Austin’s 41 years in uniform evidently didn’t disqualify him in Biden’s eyes. Industry connections haven’t appeared to hurt Biden’s national security appointees either, many of whom served outside of government in similar consulting jobs. Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee for director of national intelligence, was a principal at WestExec Advisers, a consulting firm co-founded by Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken and Michèle Flournoy, an ex-Obama Defense official who was among Biden’s finalists for the Defense secretary job. Austin, Flournoy, and Blinken are all partners at Pine Island Capital Partners, a private equity firm founded by former executives at Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, and Goldman Sachs, though Blinken is currently on leave. A spokesperson for the firm did not immediately respond to a request about Austin’s status; he joined the firm in late July, according to a press release on its website. Austin also sits on the board of Nucor, an American steel producer, and Tenet, a health care firm. 

“Joe Biden has pledged the most ethically rigorous administration in American history, and every cabinet member will abide by all disclosure requirements and strict ethics rules—including recusals when appropriate,” Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesperson, said in a statement, adding that Austin, if confirmed, would “divest of his interest in Pine Island and in Raytheon.”

Pine Island’s holdings include two defense contractors: InVeris Training Solutions, which produces “advanced technology-enabled virtual and live-fire training systems,” and Precinmac Precision Machining, which makes parts for rocket launchers and other weapons. InVeris, under its former name Meggitt, signed multiple contracts to produce parts for the F-35, the troubled aircraft that has been plagued by years-long problems. Congress has held multiple hearings related to production problems with the F-35, the most expensive weapons program in US history, and pressured Lockheed Martin—the contractor who gave work to InVeris—to pay back the US government for the cost of defective spare parts. Congress will have another opportunity to ask questions about the F-35 at Austin’s confirmation hearing, which is shaping up to be one of the more unpredictable ones of the early Biden administration.

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After Trump Loosened the Rules of Engagement, Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan Rose by 95 Percent

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More than three years ago, President Donald Trump announced that he would “lift restrictions and expand authorities” for United States troops in Afghanistan—giving the military a freer hand to order airstrikes. Now the cost of that lax approach is becoming clear. 

Since 2017, the United States, its international allies, and the Afghan government have killed an average of 1,134 civilians per year, a nearly 95 percent increase from the average between 2007 and 2016, according to report released Monday from Brown University and Boston University’s Costs of War Project. The bulk of that increase has come from an aggressive escalation of the Defense Department’s air war and a greater handoff of responsibilities to the Afghan Air Force. 

Even as US airstrikes briefly declined earlier this year following the February announcement of a peace agreement between the Taliban and United States, the US-backed Afghan Air Force has bombed at a more frequent clip—with more devastating consequences. Through September, Afghan Air Force strikes have killed 156 civilians, a 38 percent increase from all of last year, though that number could dip now that the Taliban and Afghan government have reached their own, preliminary peace deal. (The February agreement didn’t include the Afghan government.)

After Trump took office, the Pentagon escalated its air war against the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, leading to a historic increase in civilian casualties. In 2017, the United States bombed Afghanistan at its highest rate since 2011, the height of the Obama-era troop surge. That April, Trump approved the use of a weapon nicknamed the “mother of all bombs” on an Islamic State hideout in Afghanistan. In comments to the press after the attack, Trump congratulated himself for loosening the military’s rules of engagement. “What I do is I authorize my military,” Trump said. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”

A few months later, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear what that “total authorization” entailed. A US airstrike originally needed to satisfy a “proximity requirement” under which US troops or an allied group must be close to enemy forces in order to reduce the likelihood of civilians being harmed. “That is no longer the case,” Mattis told lawmakers, meaning the restrictions “that did not allow us to employ the air power fully have been removed.” Fewer restrictions on airstrikes generally portends more civilian casualties. That certainly proved to be the case in Afghanistan. After killing 154 civilians from airstrikes in 2017, the United States and its allies killed 393 in 2018 and 546 in 2019. (In 2019, Trump told reporters, “We could win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted, but I’m not looking to kill 10 million people.”)

In fact, under Trump, the US military was pursuing a strategy that tolerated a higher risk of bloodshed as the cost of putting more pressure on Taliban negotiators. Neta Crawford, a Boston University political science professor who wrote the Costs of War Project study, described the military’s approach to Mother Jones as “when you put the thumbscrews on people, they’ll capitulate.” That’s why the number of Afghan civilians killed by international airstrikes increased by 330 percent from 2016 to 2019, the most recent year for which complete data is available. “Civilians have paid the price for this doctrine, this theory of victory,” Crawford said, comparing it to the similar, failed strategies employed by the United States military in Vietnam and Korea. “It doesn’t accomplish much more than increasing the will to resist.”

The depth of the US military’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan is not entirely clear. After signing the peace deal with the Taliban in February, which included conditions for withdrawing US troops, the Pentagon stopped releasing certain figures crucial to understanding the war effort, including monthly summaries of airstrikes and information about Taliban attacks against the Afghan government. 

The exact number of US troops in the country is also murky. In February 2020, Crawford reports, there were “about 12,000 US military personnel in Afghanistan.” Trump has said he intends to reduce that number to about 1,500 people by the end of his term. Even as the US military presence has decreased in Afghanistan—from 100,000 at the Obama-era peak to possibly fewer than 2,000 when Joe Biden is inaugurated—US airpower poses a continued threat to Afghan civilians. Between August and October, months after the peace deal with the Taliban was completed, US airstrikes increased again to help the Afghan government ward off rising levels of Taliban violence, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction concluded in a quarterly report.

The result has been a grisly stain on Trump’s record—and a retread of the same policies US generals were warning against in the early days of the Obama administration. Shortly after General Stanley McChrystal took control of US forces in Afghanistan in June 2009, he ordered that the rules of engagement for airstrikes be tightened. “Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” he told a group of his senior officers, according to a New York Times story that month. “We can lose this fight.” In his memoir, which Crawford quotes in her report, McChrystal was even more blunt about the cost of civilian casualties in imprecise airstrikes. “We’re going to lose this fucking war if we don’t stop killing civilians,” he recalls telling his staff. Ten years later, the United States is still fighting the same war.