Is Foreign Affairs marching to ASPI’s beat?

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s government-mandated constitution states that ASPI’s powers are limited to “strategic and defence issues” but ASPI now appears to be advising the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

16 June 2021 | Marcus Reubenstein (Image: Rafael Ishkhanyan/APAC News)

Australia’s most vociferous think tank, globally recognized for its highly critical position on China, appears to have now been officially given a hand in Australia’s foreign relations. 

Department of Finance figures reveal that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has been awarded a $1.5 million Management Advisory Services contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

This is in addition to another DFAT contract, worth $148,500, that ASPI was awarded earlier this month. It has been a record year financially for the think tank.

ASPI has won more than $7 million in Commonwealth contracts, over and above its guaranteed $4 million annual government grant.

ASPI is a commonwealth company and Section 3 of its company constitution states:

3.1 The company’s object is to function as a strategic policy research centre, independent of Government, providing policy-relevant research and analysis to better inform Government decisions and public understanding of strategic and defence issues.”

It seems incongruous that a government-owned policy institute, which falls directly under the responsibilities of the Department of Defence, should be providing ‘advisory services’ to the nation’s foreign policymakers. Moreover, it seems to conflict with ASPI’s own constitution.

No remit for engagement in foreign policy to be found in ASPI’s constitution

ASPI is not what it once was

An initiative of the Howard government, ASPI was launched with great fanfare in 2001. At its launch function it was announced that “ASPI’s objective is to become the Government’s major source of information, analysis and proposals on strategic policy issues outside the ADF and the Public Service, and as such, a major influence on Government decision making”,

The Department Defence Secretary who oversaw its establishment was Paul Barratt. Like many involved in ASPI’s early days, he has become deeply concerned with its current direction.

In April last year Barratt Tweeted, “When [former Defence Forces Chief] Chris Barrie and I set aside funds to establish it ASPI was to be funded entirely from the Defence budget to provide publicly contestable policy advice and thus enhance the abysmal quality of defence debate in this country.”

He subsequently added that ASPI was “instructed by us to operate at arm’s length from Defence. It was never meant to be funded by foreign arms companies.”

Earlier this year, APAC News revealed, since ASPI’s formation, a dozen arms manufacturers have paid ASPI significant sponsorship dollars. Since ASPI was established, these weapons makers have received more than $51 billion in Defence Department contracts.  

Shift from a research model to a business model

ASPI’s founding executive director, Professor Hugh White, who was at the helm for three years, seemingly adhered closely to the institute’s original charter, as espoused by Barratt.

In White’s final year, ASPI accepted just $13,000 in sponsor contributions, relying on core funding from the Defence Department to underpin research. In the 2019-20 financial year that figure had ballooned to $6.9 million.

ASPI is not required to report its total current financial year receipts until October. However, if contributions from weapons makers, foreign governments and others maintain their current level, ASPI is on track to post total revenue of $14.9 million this financial year.

While White has not been openly critical of ASPI since his departure, he wrote on the 15th anniversary of its foundation that: “The quality of defence policy slumped … [and] ASPI’s focus inevitably swung round to contributing to public debates not government policy-making.”

Former senior bureaucrat and defence adviser Mike Scrafton has written extensively for ASPI’s periodical The Strategist. He has not held back on his assessments.

Last year he wrote an opinion piece under the headline The dogs of war cry wolf: The post-pandemic China threat, where he argued ASPI had become a pro-US/anti-China agenda driven group which is pursuing “matters of interest to ASPI’s sponsors”.

A mouthpiece for government

According to former senior diplomat Bruce Haigh, ASPI has become overtly political. Rather than challenging government policy, as it once did, it is now at the centre of policy.

When it comes to China, ASPI both contributes to the formulation of government policy and is then instrumental in promoting the very policies it helped shape.   

In a recent opinion piece, Haigh wrote, “There is scant acknowledgement of where Australia is at after 25 years of being corralled and dumbed down by a combination of government, media and now academia. ASPI is part of that. It both leads and responds.”

In a scathing assessment under the title DFAT Done and Dusted, he wrote, “DFAT has sold out. It has been a long time coming but the point has been reached where Australian diplomats are merely ceremonial cyphers.

“DFAT and their Minister, Marise Payne, mouth the words agreed between ASPI and [the Department of] Prime Minister and Cabinet. And both are getting it wrong.”

Drumming up Defence business

This financial year, ending June 30, will see ASPI break a significant record because the tally of its virtually hidden Department of Defence contracts has now exceeded what the think tanks calls “core defence funding”.

Each year ASPI is guaranteed a $4 million grant from Defence, a grant that has always been the biggest single source of its funding. In the past 12 months, ASPI has been given additional Defence funding of $5,149,93.80, a massive increase from the then record allotment of $1.91 million in the previous year.

It appears that ASPI, which devotes considerable resources to media promotion and cultivating relationships with journalists, has not promoted the fact that its “non-core” payments from the Defence Department have shot up by 270%.

ASPI maintains that it is independent and that its research is not influenced by sponsorship and commercial agreements.

Dangerous drums of war

Judging by its research reports, media interviews and social media posts of its junior staff members, there is much to support the argument that ASPI is beating the “drums of war” with China harder than anybody. Certainly harder than any other group that is notionally “independent” of government.

As Bruce Haigh argues, it is an organ that serves a political narrative, far removed from the obligations of its Constitution to challenge strategic and defence policy thinking.    

Given the total amount of Australian government funding—and the exponential rate it is growing annually—it is hard not argue that it has become an organ of the Australian government.

ASPI’s critics argue that its narrative is accepted without question at the highest level of Australia’s political leadership.

In a stark assessment from a former ASPI boss, Hugh White wrote last month in the Saturday Paper: “Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton appear to be quite prepared to go to war with China rather than abandon their desire to perpetuate American primacy in Asia. That raises one of the gravest policy questions Australia has faced.

“Plainly we want to live under American rather than Chinese regional leadership, but do we want that enough to go to war? The danger of war is very real, so this is no longer a hypothetical question.

“The answer depends a lot on what kind of war it would be. There is no sign Morrison or Dutton have given this much thought, so let’s be clear. It would probably be the biggest war the world has seen since 1945.”