Monday, December 21, 2015

Australia's soft power: Speak softly, and carry a fluffy koala

Kelsey Munro,

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci

As Joe Hockey packs his bags for Washington, some of our cuddlier ambassadors are coming home. With respect to outgoing US ambassador Kim Beazley, I'm not talking about him.

Chan, Idalia, Paddle, and Pellita are koalas from a zoo in Brisbane that have been living at Singapore Zoo since May, dozing in a climate-controlled enclosure in the Australia Zone. (They have their own blog: for koalas, they type pretty well and are adept at product placement.) An impressive 680,000 visitors have seen these "icons of endemic Australian wildlife", or about 100,000 a month, the zoo's Natt Haniff​ told me, which far exceeded expectations. 
It matters to Australia and other smaller countries, because if you can't bully or buy your way in the world, your best shot at getting your way is if people like you.  
Koala diplomacy is modelled on China's panda diplomacy –​ everyone remembers Xiao Xiao​ and Fei Fei at Taronga in 1988, right? –​ and it's easy to be snooty about it.
Barack Obama holds a koala while Tony Abbott looks on at the G20 summit in Brisbane, November 2014.
Barack Obama holds a koala while Tony Abbott looks on at the G20 summit in Brisbane, November 2014. Photo: Andrew Taylor

In historical efforts at cultivating soft power –​ Australia's public image overseas –​ we've leaned pretty heavily on the wildlife (DFAT has reportedly produced a 600-page koala diplomacy manual). It's hard not to see the koalas as another outing in the line of dumbed-down Paul Hogan-inspired Australiana kitsch we've been flogging to the world for decades: g'arn maaate, c'mon down unda!

Left mostly to the tourism authority, the minds who brought us shrimps, barbies, Lara Bingle, and the new federal Treasurer –​ and occasionally outsourced to the grimmer svengalis of the Immigration department (whose video of General Angus Campbell declaring "There is NO WAY you will ever make Australia home" won hearts and minds across Asia last year) –​ Australia's outward facing has been haphazard.

It's not just about marketing. Tourism, education, attracting global talent, even our ability to sway the argument in international forums –​ these would all benefit from a considered approach to soft power.
Joe Hockey hugs April, the G20 koala.
Joe Hockey hugs April, the G20 koala. Photo: Andrew Meares
Hard power is simple to quantify, and –​ if you can afford it –​ easy to buy: guns, subs, tanks, planes. But soft power, the ability to exert influence without using guns or money, is more nebulous: pull rather than push, a sort of notional national charisma that is equal parts image and behaviour, smarts and marketing, culture and landscape. And it matters to Australia and other smaller countries, because if you can't bully or buy your way in the world, your best shot at getting your way is if people like you. 

"Australia is underperforming in its soft power capabilities," says former AusAid worker and ANU researcher Danielle Cave. "How can we get beyond the stereotypes of koalas and beautiful beaches and tell a more sophisticated and comprehensive story about what modern Australia looks like?"

She's right. Koalas. Beaches. Barbecues. Where's the messaging that Australia is a successful, multicultural, safe, educated, vibrant democracy; the 12th biggest economy in the world; the home of the world's oldest living culture; of Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman but also Atlassian and Canva; of the inventors of WiFi, the black box and Gardasil?

"Everything we have at the moment is accidental, not strategic, and usually there's a whole lot of countervailing stuff happening at once," says Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer, a public diplomacy expert from ANU. "You've got this great tourism thing that no one has thought about in relation to the immigration policies. They counteract each other." Sure, we might lock up boat arrivals on Pacific atolls, but basically we're pretty laid back.

The education sector has been a top export earner for Australia, and luring top students from Asia is a huge benefit. But flare-ups of Hansonite politics and asylum seeker policies don't help. The murders of Indian students in 2009 fed into that worst possible storyline about Australia as a racist nation, and visa applications by Indian students halved in late 2009. John Denton, former diplomat and CEO of law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, with vast experience in second-track or non-government diplomacy, comments that Indonesian elites prefer to educate their children in the US now, because they prefer the brands of Stanford, Columbia and Harvard. "A generation ago those same Indonesians would go to ANU and Monash."

On the other hand, a key part of soft power, defined by the man who coined it, Joseph Nye, is a country's ability to sway arguments on the international stage through advocacy and ideas. On that measure we've done pretty well, says Fergus Hanson from the Brookings Institution. He cites Australia's contributions to the settlement of the Cambodian conflict, a global ban on chemical weapons, the creation of APEC, the G20 and more recently in pushing the US for a more robust response to Islamic State.

No one is suggesting we ditch the submarine fleet to deploy a team of crack debaters. But it's a no-brainer that boosting resources for DFAT would make a big difference to Australia's soft power. Even the outgoing head of DFAT Peter Varghese has acknowledged that Australia has an image problem in its own region: "a soft power deficit," as he put it. We have not one permanent cultural mission overseas, our foreign aid has been slashed, and the department has borne the brunt of budget cuts. In October, Beazley issued a plea for better resourcing: "We do foreign affairs on the cheap," he said.

That's another reason soft power is key: "The reality is with limited hard power tools, boots on the ground, using collaborative mechanisms and different relationships is a way of achieving similar impact with a different cost base," says Denton.

But there are encouraging signs: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull present a formidable front to the world: charm, smarts, complete sentences –​ leaders who move us beyond Crocodile Dundee and the long shadow of White Australia. They also seem to grasp the potential of digital diplomacy better than their predecessors –​ the foreign minister is of course the only person over 14 to be fluent in emoji.

Cave points to the New Colombo plan, a new sports diplomacy policy and a fashion diplomacy program as signs the government is taking soft power seriously. Initiatives that tell a story of creativity, fair play and cosmopolitanism that is so different to the beer, barbies and beaches stuff –​ crucial in a world where Australia is competing for talent with everyone else. 

But as Harris-Rimmer points out, spruiking the koalas doesn't hurt. They're rare, cute, and popular in Asia, and keeping them in fresh gum leaves is a complex task which builds trust between Australia and the host nation. And maybe, one day, some of the kids who saw Paddle and co in Singapore will be tempted to come and build the next Atlassian here.

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