Good Weekend's Who Mattered 2019: Foreign affairs
eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant: "There is a global rethink going on about how to civilise the internet, and Inman Grant is a worldwide pioneer.” Plus: Joe Hockey and Andrew Hastie.by Konrad Marshall
Julie Inman Grant
In the wake of the March Christchurch terror attacks in which 51 died, it became clearer than ever that keeping people safe has become not just a physical but a digital battle. The job not only involves protecting us from guns, bombs and other weapons, but from violent material such as that which was live-streamed from the carnage in New Zealand. Enter eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, the federal government official charged with navigating this challenging new space since the start of 2017.
“This is all frontier territory,” says The Sydney Morning Herald international and political editor Peter Hartcher. “No country has figured out how to manage the web, particularly how to handle the multinational buccaneers riding the high seas of the internet, raping and pillaging and going completely unchecked, with no publisher status. But there is a global rethink going on about how to challenge these companies and civilise the internet, and Julie Inman Grant is a worldwide pioneer in that area.”
Earlier this year, Inman Grant was given new powers to direct internet service providers to block websites hosting extremist material, including perpetrator-produced content showing violent acts leading to death, torture, rape and kidnapping. Since the legislation was enacted in April, her team has made regulatory investigations into almost 500 instances of “abhorrent violent material”, the overwhelming majority concerning the rape of children. Her office has had a 90 per cent success rate, too, in persuading companies to remove revenge porn from their websites, and she’s expanding that mission as she goes.
“She has an enormous amount of power, and the right brand of experience and expertise to wield it,” says Hartcher, pointing to Inman Grant’s background in senior public policy and safety roles for Microsoft, Twitter and Adobe. The appointment of someone with that kind of commercial background to such an important government role reminds Hartcher a little of the appointment of Chris Jordan as Australian Tax Office Commissioner. “Chris Jordan used to be a partner at KPMG, where his goal would have been to help clients avoid paying tax. Similarly, with Inman Grant, we’ve got a worker from the industry charged with taming the industry. She’s the poacher turned gamekeeper.”
Inman Grant has made it her mission to work co-operatively where she can, and coercively where she can’t but, like many government agencies, hers is also under-resourced. “That will be the challenge – ensuring her office doesn’t become a hollow entity, but remains one with grunt,” says Hartcher. “We can pass all the right laws, but it won’t matter if we’re strangling the agencies policing them.”
Joe Hockey might not always have been taken seriously by many in Australian politics, but he’s turned out to be an impressive courtier. “There is universal agreement,” says The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s United States correspondent Matthew Knott, “across people from all different political persuasions, both in Canberra and Washington, that Hockey has done an excellent job at forming relationships with the volatile and unstable Trump administration, and, as a result, got good outcomes for Australia.”
As Australia’s ambassador to the US, Hockey’s first year was under Barack Obama, a conventional policy-driven administration. Then came Donald Trump, who doesn’t like to read and believes in gut instinct. A small but smart move by Hockey was having the grass tennis court – a rarity in DC – put back into the Australian ambassador’s residence. While Trump has not been over for a hit, the court has proved a valuable weapon when it comes to the schmoozing side of the diplomatic arms race.
“Hockey saw pretty early on that he couldn’t play by the old political rules,” says Knott. “He knows that Trump doesn’t have traditional respect for allies, so he’s made himself this gregarious figure. They’ve played golf together several times, and they get along really well.”
It’s reaped benefits. Australia won a rare exemption from US aluminium and steel tariffs, and also retained an exclusive hold on a special working-visa program that the Irish were trying to gain access to. Trump agreed to go ahead with the refugee “people swap” deal with Australia that was signed by Obama, despite hating it. And he hosted a state dinner for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, only the second state dinner during the Trump administration, coming after one with French President Emmanuel Macron in early 2018.
Hockey finishes up in January, and in a move that surprised many, he stuck the boot in on the way out, making a speech in late October in which he criticised Trump’s isolationist tariff policies, warning that the US risks losing its economic dominance and provoking trade wars unless it again becomes a champion of free trade. Little offence appears to have been taken – which could be interpreted as a sign that Australia doesn’t matter, or alternatively, that friends can have different opinions on things.
“Australia has been spared the worst of what you can expect from Trump, and you can put a good part of that down to Joe Hockey, our face in Washington, the point man in a much more public way than you’d expect from a behind-the-scenes diplomat,” says Knott. “Hockey is famously affable, and that side of him has been a really good fit for this moment in history.”
Head of federal parliament’s powerful joint committee on intelligence and security, Andrew Hastie warned that Australia is facing an unprecedented economic and national security test because of China’s ambitions. His opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in August featured the strongest condemnation of Beijing by any member of the Morrison government. “Hastie has quickly developed a reputation as a foreign policy hawk, outspoken about China,” says The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age senior writer Jacqueline Maley.
Some felt the West Australian MP went too far in calling out specific Chinese nationals in Australia, and in likening the world’s approach to containing China to the “catastrophic failure” to prevent the rise of Nazi Germany. Former prime minister Paul Keating has certainly been critical of such anti-China talk, and the Chinese government has refused Hastie entry to travel there in December for a study tour. The tour had been organised by think tank China Matters to promote positive relations between the two countries. Others, though – such as another former PM, Tony Abbott – have added their own cautious voice on relations with China.
The release of a trove of Chinese Communist Party documents this month, which discussed the indoctrination of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in the western Xinjiang region who have been rounded up in internment camps, suggests Hastie was well ahead of the curve on the subject. The 37-year-old is a former SAS soldier who rose to the rank of captain and served in Afghanistan. “Hastie is seen as very intense, but also a person of integrity, who is answerable only to his own conscience,” says Maley. “His political positions are guided by a profound Christian morality and he sits very much within the conservative Christian-right of the Liberal party.”
There is no sign that the Liberal leadership is unhappy with Hastie over his China stance – to the contrary, the backbencher is considered by many to be a minister in waiting. “He is almost a sort of proto-Abbott, not afraid to break ranks and be controversial,” says Maley. “Tony Abbott used to call himself a ‘licensed dissident’ and Hastie seems to be granted similar licence by his elders in the parliamentary party, at least for now.”
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