Gray Connolly on COVID-19, Geopolitics and Australia, and Reflections on Faith, Love, and Grief
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com/bloom/grayconnolly
Full transcript below ^_^
In this interview, Nick and Gray discuss:
- Gray’s life and career in the law, including his military service in the Royal Australian Navy
- The geopolitical lessons of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic
- The Dragon-Bear strategic alliance between China and Russia
- The 2020 US presidential election, and reflections on Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump
- How the pandemic has brought out the Australian ethos of looking after our most vulnerable, including a reflection on Simpson and his donkey
- How the pandemic has upended the Australian political landscape and forced the conservative Liberal-National Coalition — and governments around the world — to abandon ideology in the face of crisis
- Longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on Australian society, including changes to Federation and federal-state relations
- Observations on modern Australian politics and the quality of our politicians and polity
- Reflections on love, faith, grief, and the meaning of Australia
Gray Connolly is a Sydney-based barrister, writer and Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Naval Reserves. He writes about geopolitics, faith, history and war on his Strategy Counsel website. Gray’s writing has also appeared in an interesting range of Australian periodicals, including Meanjin and The Daily Telegraph. He regularly features on The Drum as a commentator.
Gray Connolly interview
Friday 29 May 2020
00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a conversations podcast about anything and everything. I was lucky to speak recently with Gray Connolly, a Sydney based barrister, writer and officer in the Royal Australian Naval Reserves.
00:13 In this wide ranging episode, Gray and I chat about his life and career, the geopolitical impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sharpening of the alliance between Russia and China, and the upcoming US presidential election.
00:25 We also cover the impacts of the pandemic on Australian society, including the shifting political landscape and departure from party line ideologies, as well as significant changes to Federation and federal state relations.
00:38 The interview concludes with Gray reflecting on his faith, the meaning of Australia, as well as his love for his late parents. Just to note, that the audio was recorded virtually on Zoom, and while the quality is high overall, in some places, it can sound a bit like a vinyl record skipping, which has the effect of eliding words. I’ve smoothed most of these out, but I just wanted to give you the heads up and also note that the quality of Gray’s reflections are definitely worth persisting for. So, without further ado, Gray, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.
01:07 Gray: Thank you very much for having me. I’m very honoured to be here.
01:11 Nick: So, you’ve lived quite a varied life in the law as a barrister, serving in the Royal Australian Navy as a Lieutenant Commander, and more recently as a writer. For our listeners not as familiar with you or your life story, can you please provide an overview of your story to date?
01:24 Gray: So I’m from Sydney and I grew up as the — I’ll give you the abbreviated version. I grew up as the much youngest of four children of my parents. My parents were both immigrants. My father, obviously being British, and so I grew up in Sydney. I grew up originally in Castlecrag and then in the eastern suburbs of Sydney.
01:44 I went to St. Ignatius College Riverview, which is a Jesuit school. I then went to Sydney University where I did arts honours majoring in history, history being very much obviously from anyone who follows me on my Twitter account, my great love. I also did law at which I was better at, though perhaps I enjoyed just as much as I enjoyed history.
02:04 In my other lives, there’s a long tradition of military service my family, so I mean, I’m still in the Royal Australian Navy. I still serve as a reservist even now, though, of course, anything I say on this podcast is purely my opinion, not the opinion of any government or government agency or military service that I’ve ever been in.
02:20 So, I went to law school at UNSW. I finished there. I was a judge’s associate in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and in the High Court of Australia. I was then admitted.
02:33 I took some time out of law to serve in the navy and I served in the East Timor operation. I served obviously at sea. I served in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan and around the Middle East. So, I then, when that was over, I went back to law and went to the bar where I am now, so I’m a barrister.
02:57 The writing side, I got into — well, I’ve always actually been very interested in writing because I’ve always been a big reader. I’ve always been a great reader also because when I was a child, I was actually like a lot of children who are sick, particularly for prolonged periods, you end up finding other arrows in your quiver that you perhaps didn’t know were there and so I started to read a lot. So, I really just start to read a lot of history and biography. I’ve always been very, very interested in how we got here. I’ve always been very interested in paths that were not taken. So I got very, very interested when I was in my teens and 20s in reading and trying to learn as much as I possibly could.
03:34 So I very much got into that but I’ve been practising law now for almost 20 years. I’ve very much enjoyed it and I would certainly not want to dissuade anyone from doing it, but I always had to have something else aside from law to be interested in.
03:50 I always wanted to do my part and serve the country and so very much the Navy, I’m always going to be very grateful to for giving me that opportunity and I’ve always really enjoyed that.
04:06 I’ve just always enjoyed writing. I enjoy writing and expressing an opinion. I enjoy also reading other people’s opinions and I’m influenced by what else I read.
04:13 Nick: On the question of writing and being interested in other people’s opinions, I first came across you and your basset hound avatar on Twitter. So, you’ve built up quite a following with over 21,000 followers and even once featuring in one of Donald Trump’s retweets. So, can you reflect on some of the virtues and vices of that medium?
04:33 Gray: Okay, there are many vices. I think one of the biggest problems with Twitter and social media — people say things online that they would never say to people if they met them. So, there’s a great degree of incivility on there.
04:45 I have a practice which people follow me on social media generally, I try and tweet as if my late parents are reading my Twitter feed and I try to always be polite. Even when I vehemently disagree with someone, I try to be in good faith and be polite.
05:01 I try not to say anything that I would regret later. Now, we’re all human. We’re all fallible. We will all say things we actually do regret later, but I try to do it as little as possible.
05:12 I do not think I’ve ever done it but I dislike people who swear. Perhaps call it a certain prudishness that I have, but there’s no point that you make that you need to swear or abuse people. If you’ve got a strong point, it’s a strong point. You do not need to lose your mind. Particularly, as you’re actually not in the heat of an argument. You’re sitting behind a keyboard or whatever. You have no excuse to that. So, that’s one thing I do not like.
05:33 I actually got into Twitter — and this is going to sound like a very strange, roundabout way. After I lost my parents and another, and so on, I really wasn’t into Twitter at all or social media at all, but losing my parents — it’s been a while now — and then suddenly, things in the news became interesting. So, I got a Twitter account.
05:54 What came to me was when the Edward Snowden defection came about, I became very interested in Twitter. I know that sounds like a strange reason to get into it, but there were so many lies and so many obvious problems with the Snowden story that as someone with my background, I sort of wanted to correct some things to the degree that I could in a I guess unclassified way.
06:13 There were just so many problems with Snowden. So, that’s actually how I got into it and because there were so few people online who had any kind of experience really, and the ability to explain things clearly, I guess people started following me and for some reason, people just kept following me.
06:26 I have absolutely no idea how I ended up hitting 21,000 followers. The reason why Donald Trump included me in one of his retweets was simply because I was having a discussion with a very, very pleasant American interlocutor, Mike Duran who worked for Bush. Somehow this got wrapped up into a Donald Trump retweet about Turkey. So, that’s how that happened.
06:46 The basset hound avatar is very, I’ve had basset hounds and spaniels and so on, and the dog is I think a much better representation in respects of everything than just my head. So, the basset hound in a white service cap with a pipe I think neatly sums up a lot about me without having to go into too much detail. How’s that?
07:11 Nick: That’s very good. You mentioned your intelligence background and Twitter. So, you’ve obviously had a background in the Royal Australian Navy, as you mentioned. Could you sort of elaborate on your military service as an intelligence officer?
07:23 Gray: Sure. So, my specialisation in the Navy was Naval Intelligence. So, that is I served for instance in East Timor on General Cosgrove’s J2 staff. I served in the Gulf in role, I was into for a ship.
07:38 I’ve been — it’s obviously very interesting. The most extreme things you obviously cannot talk about but it’s a very interesting world. It’s a very fast pitched world. It’s a very kinetic world. It’s a world that is so vital and so interesting and attracts very interesting people and very, very dedicated people as well.
07:59 I often say to people when I’m asked for careers advice and so on, I think if people want to go into the intelligence security services, I think we need as many good people as we possibly can in them to protect the country and to protect our secrets and to service the country. I think one of the aspects of the Australian Government and the Australian Government generally but particularly say, Department of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs and the like, we have some very, very, very good people who work in them who are very, very able. I think they often do not get the attention they deserve. I think there’s a lot — and I think the Coronavirus has brought this out. There are a lot of just excellent structures and excellent people we have to meet crises that I’m not sure people are aware of until they see them and they see them in action. We have a lot of very, very good people.
08:44 So, I very much enjoyed it. I’ve just recently got my defence long service — one of my defence long service medals, and I’m very proud of that.
08:52 Nick: Congrats.
08:52 Gray: Oh, it’s funny. People often say that. I actually agree. It’s the one medal that you’re most proud of because it just means you stuck around. So, it’s always been a big thing for me. I’m very proud to serve in the Navy. The Navy’s been very, very good to me. I’ve just had great opportunities doing it. You know, you learn a lot about yourself. I’ve very much appreciated the opportunity.
09:15 Nick: I think it makes you a bit more of a unique sort of commentator in the media landscape, you know, having candid service background, too, right?
09:22 Gray: I’m sure it does. I mean, my one thing is I get very frustrated with people at two ends. One is the sort of what I call the Woke Vets demographic. There’s this kind of sort of edgy, you know, “I served” kind of end and then at the end, there’s the sort of people who sort of can’t — almost make no effort to try and explain what they do to what I would call the normals.
09:47 I think, if anything, what I try to do is try to make it as comprehensive as possible to people who are interested and who are curious. A lot of people do not have that kind of service connection.
09:56 I mean, because my father is British, a lot of the sort of I guess British Empire militaries tended to be at times a family business that was handed down from father to son and so on. Very often, you had the same families joining. In the UK, I’ve got two uncles and I was actually going through some of my parents effects the other day and I found like the photos from when they were in Sandhurst and Mons or whatever. I just found it very, very interesting just — you know, in our family, that was a big thing.
10:27 So, that was something I really want to carry on. My father was always very, very proud of that. So, that’s something was very, very important to me. In the same way, anything you do — I think police emergency services — anything where you’re actually not the object, but you’re actually trying to serve some greater good, I think it is a very, very worthwhile thing. I think it’s something — it’s an ethos we should try and encourage in everyone. I think we’re a healthier society to the degree that we encourage and we praise that and we note that.
10:54 Nick: Absolutely. So, coming to your writing, I got the idea for this interview actually after you published a piece called, “The Geopolitical Lessons of 2020”, in which you write about some of the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the world order and Australian society. Can you expand on that piece, particularly what you termed the Davos Man, and why you assert that the Davos Man is dead?
11:16 Gray: I wrote that piece as my attempt at trying to deal with the fact that we face the pandemic. There was an obvious requirement for governments to step in and look after their societies.
11:30 I have a perhaps more paternalistic view of the state than many people do. I think the role of the state, fundamentally, is to literally conserve the nation that constitutes it. I think the state’s job is to very much step in and help protect the society from harms. That includes not just war and famine and the like, but it includes a pestilence and a pandemic.
11:49 So, I took the view that insofar as the nation state would be having to re-establish itself and make its presence known, I saw it as — particularly in circumstances where say, we found out the hard way in some areas what manufacturing we did not do anymore and what we didn’t do. So, we found out the hard way about medicines we could not make for ourselves anymore, protective equipment we could not make for ourselves, all that sort of thing because we’d adopted this ethos of what I call the Davos Man.
12:19 It’s a derivative of the Davos consensus. This idea, and it was very much in vogue in the 90s. So, when I was at university in the 1990s, globalisation was the big thing. We were going to all be the sovereign individuals. We were all going to be free traders. We were all going to be free marketeers, and we were all going to live or die by our wits and that’s great, because that’s freedom.
12:39 That was what it was all about. As stupid as it sounds now, if you lived then, that was a very mainstream idea. I mean, I was one of the antediluvian — I was an antediluvian young man. Look, in some respects, I was as a teenager as well, but you could see the obvious problems with that. I mean, there are just obvious problems with that but there was a view that was very widely held that we would be able to buy off the shelf or — I used the joking aphorism that Amazon would deliver and you would not need to do anything yourself.
13:10 Insofar as that was Davos man’s principle idea that we’re in this globalised world, this globalised economy, and we could get our widgets or whatever from anywhere. That was just really — I mean, I always thought was ridiculous but I think that’s been brought into stark relief by this crisis. So, that’s why I said the death of the Davos Man.
13:25 The reason why I wrote that piece was it wasn’t just about the death of Davos man. It was also about the fact that for many people who would say — some people would say more hawkish on China, I would simply say more realistic — the pandemic has really brought into account that all the delusions about the PRC — I always want to distinguish this from the Chinese people about the regime. All those delusions were obvious 20 years ago but people pretended they didn’t exist and now I think those delusions have certainly been brought into a very stark relief.
13:56 Nick: Especially under Xi Jinping from 2014 onwards.
14:00 Gray: Yes. I mean, it was very, very clear. I mean, when Obama first took power, I can remember at the time, the Chinese were sort of challenging American survey ships in the South China Sea. I mean, this was obvious that there was going to be a problem with China.
14:14 I’m not saying that somehow you have a ridiculously hawkish posture, but you have to be aware that was the view very much they were taking. From our perspective in Australia — Australia, as far as I’m concerned, will struggle to survive in a world in which say the South China Sea particularly down to where Singapore and the Malacca Straight — if that’s an area that’s denied or at least is one that has a degree of Chinese sea command, we’re going to have a real problem because things are going to change.
14:49 So, I think one of the interests that Australia has apart from seeing China clearly, is also seeing the fact that so much merchant traffic travels still even in 2020 by sea and the seas are a global commons. One of the things we have great interest in as a responsible power in concert with our allies such as the Americans, the Japanese, the Koreans and others and Singaporeans, is we want freedom of navigation. We want freedom of the sea. So, we want everyone to go to use the seas. The seas are a sort of global highway for lack of a better word.
15:18 So, I tried to work that into the piece. The other thing I tried to work in is that it’s going to be a big problem if we ignore geopolitics because of the fact that the — however sort of Western liberalism conceives of the world, it’s not binding on anyone else. It doesn’t bind anyone else. No one in Beijing or no one in Moscow or no one in Tehran is forced to think the way that we tend to try and force ourselves to think. They simply do not think that way.
15:45 It’s just one of those things that I find intensely frustrating. It’s one of the reasons why I started the blog and just started writing because I found it intensely frustrating that no one was sort of seeing the obvious.
15:56 I mean, my classic example from brutal personal experience is in Iraq. The idea — I mean, the ridiculous sort of neoconservative idea as well. We’ll take out Saddam. We’ll invade his country. We’ll ruin the lives of the Iraqis, who as much they hate Saddam, under Saddam could turn on the light switch and the power would come on and, you know, you turn on the tap and largely potable water would come flowing out.
16:19 Well, we destroyed all that. The idea that somehow they would thank us for that and more to the point, that you would park a very large allied army next to Iran and that Iran would not take the opportunity to attack you is just ridiculous. I mean, the Iranians fuelled the insurgency and they did everything they could in their power to take advantage and to weaken us which is we might see as terrible Iranians. It’s logical. It’s what any great power in history would do.
16:45 Similarly, in Afghanistan — I mean, the military decision to park a very large expeditionary army in Afghanistan — you think about the climatic extremes in Afghanistan. You park it there which is adjacent to abutting Iran, Russia and China and think that somehow they are not going to notice that and they’re not going to push back against that.
17:06 Now your argument would be they’re only on their mission and what about the Afghan women and we’re all trying to do these things. That may all be true, but that’s not incumbent on them. They do not need to see it that way. So, you know, they can do what they want to do because they see their near abroad and policing that is much more important than whatever you want to do.
17:22 So, the upshot of the piece I was trying to get across was the geopolitics never sleeps and the pandemic has really I think broadened a stark relief through medical supplies and preparedness, one aspect, but I think we need to look beyond that and that is supply chains and how for lack of a better word…
17:36 Nick: Food security and things like that…
17:37 Gray: Yeah, food security, fuel security, and also how the Western Alliance works together. Now, it may be that there are things for instance in Australia that however much money we throw at it, we can never do ourselves, but we can certainly work with the Japanese and other allied nations, the Indians and so on and we can perhaps piece together some sort of solution. I think we need to treat this as the crisis it has been. I think the pandemic has been a very serious crisis. I just do not see a back to normal approach working.
18:01 Nick: Yeah, and you know, with reference to the Western Alliance, you often write about Dragon-Bear and I suppose the China-Russia Alliance. Is that sort of parlance and that kind of paradigm of thinking something that needs to become common use now?
18:14 Gray: Yes, it is. I mean, I’m not the only one who uses Dragon-Bear. Other people use it but apart from the fact that I think it’s by far the best foreign policy catchphrase I think, certainly of my lifetime, the Dragon-Bear, just the imagery of it.
18:31 The Dragon-Bear I think is crucial because China and Russia working together as two revisionist powers, dominating the Eurasian landmass is an enormous problem. Particularly when if you go back and you look, say at the Shanghai Organisation, which — there’s a Shanghai agreement between Russia, China, and Iran and other powers, and it’s not yet — it’s not any sort of NATO or anything but as I always say to people, NATO was not always NATO. I mean, everything begins as a scrap of paper. I mean, you know, the phrase of the Kaisers from the First World War. Well, the problem with scraps of paper is that like the actual original scrap of paper, the British guarantee of Belgian security, that can lead to war.
19:10 I always say about the Dragon-Bear that the Chinese and the Russians are working very closely together. Once you get Iran into that, you’re starting to have three historic large powers all have revisionist claims against the current order, and you’re starting to have really, really big problems and…
19:27 Nick: Dangerous mix, isn’t it?
19:27 Gray: It’s a very dangerous mix. Can I just — I always talk about Dragon-Bear but take a step back. In the case of the Russians and the Iranians, they may actually have some legitimate grievances that you can address. Now, Iran is the principal state sponsor of terrorism. It is not run well, but its people — they are literally victims of the regime every bit as much as Chinese people are.
19:50 Among the Iranians, there are many people who can remember the life of the Shah and who aspire to Iran being a great country under different leadership and a different regime. In many respects, a wise policy would be to engage that and try to engage the civil society which I think is a good thing.
20:06 In Russia’s case, the biggest problem with Russia is that — and this is just my personal view — is that yes, it’s a revisionist power like China but after the end of the Cold War, and I was a teenager when the Cold War ended, and I remember the Cold War, and then just the way the Russians were treated into the 90s and so on. It could not have been any worse than it was.
20:28 People like Robert Gates and James Baker, who I have great admiration for — they’re two men I have a great admiration for — they warned at the time, “Why are you expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders? We always talk Russians we would not do this, but we are” and you’re sort of almost poking the bear.
20:43 So for the Russians particularly, they feel there’s nothing they can — you know, there’s a lack of trust there. So that’s a really big problem because I think of the three, perhaps in the Dragon-Bear-Iran alliance, the Russians have probably been the least difficult in some respects to try and deal with.
21:01 The problem with Russia is always at the end of the day, I think Putin in some respects would much rather be the leader of a revisionist country that pushes back than almost share power in a normalised Russia that was a large neighbour of other people. I think it’s very hard for the Russians to give up many of their demands.
21:20 I think one of the biggest problems that again, no one talks about as part of Dragon-Bear, is just how many countries bordering Russia have large Russian speaking and Russian ethnic populations?
21:31 Nick: Yes, like Crimea.
21:32 Gray: Yes, it’s just a major problem. You know, I said to someone when the more hairy chested people about Ukraine is, well, what do you really do? A lot of Russians are married to Ukrainians. There are a lot of Ukrainians living in Russia. It’s a really big problem. What do you do to the Russians who say, “Well, it’s all very well and good for you in Australia, which is a very young country, to tell us about this when Russia begins in Kievan Rus in the ninth century — who are you to tell us, you know what we do about our country?”
22:01 So, you have these deep problems. It’s a bit like Iran. I mean, at the end of the day you can say what you will about Iran. Iran is one of the great countries of the world. I mean, someone of my ancestry — when my ancestors were covered in paint — you know, the Persians were sending the Jews back to Jerusalem under Cyrus to rebuild the walls and so on. You know, Ezra-Nehemiah.
22:21 I mean, you have to be slightly realistic about how you approach countries. You have to talk to them in a language that doesn’t belittle them. It may be your point where your red lines are, but does not unnecessarily treat them in a hostile way. I think that needs a language for that.
22:36 Nick: What does the modern states, which you’ve already been at pains to separate from the peoples and perhaps even the cultural, you know, heritage — what do the modern states want in terms of, you know, their objectives in global affairs?
22:49 Gray: I think in the case of China, the CCP has to have a governing vision. It’s obviously not communism. I mean, one of the — I was speaking to a very, very interesting person the other day who said to me one of the strange things, for instance, that she’s doing in Hong Kong — because a lot of the money in Hong Kong that’s invested from China is actually PLA hierarchy money, in the sense the question that no one talks about is when Xi is really taking on Hong Kong and really reducing the attractiveness of Hong Kong as a future, is he actually not attacking one of the things with the PLA’s leadership has got its money?
23:20 Now put that to one side — that’s an issue for another day. I think in China’s case, it’s simply the fact that there just isn’t a communist vision anymore. I mean — no, I mean, it’s hard to believe but boomers in the 60s, who were really left wing, would hold up Mao’s — the thoughts of Chairman Mao. I mean, we laugh about it now but they were serious about it. They actually believed that China was a serious communist country. None of them believed that China was a much more serious communist country than say the Soviet Union was and so they took the Beijing line. They had Mao and they took the thoughts of Chairman Mao very seriously.
23:50 I mean, it’s ridiculous to us, but a lot of the sort of boomers, including the ones that went to universities that I went to, like took it really seriously. They read into that. I think the fact that in China, no one believes in the communist ethic anymore.
24:01 In Russia’s case, I take a slightly different view. I always say this to people. If Vladimir Putin disappeared tomorrow, his replacement would have almost the same policies that Putin has. I actually said this to — I actually said this — I think I got in trouble for actually saying this, but I said none the less.
24:18 I mean, if you took the tsars back and you restored the tsars, they would have almost the same — actually, they would have the same policies that Putin has. I mean, whoever runs Russia, the view from the Kremlin is going to be pretty much the same.
24:30 I think it’s just an interesting thing because the Russians have a weaker hand than the Chinese but in my view, they play it much better. They just do. I mean, for the Chinese to do hacking and things like that, you know, obviously they’re veracious hackers and stealers of other people’s IP but generally speaking, they really as yet are not really into the military confrontation side.
24:53 The Russians are very, very good at it. I mean, the Russians are just very good and they’re very willing to unleash their power. So, in Syria, for example, when it came to bolstering Assad — now, I’ve always said in Syria, the West will never admit it but the West was very comfortable with what the Russians did. When Putin came in 2015/16 to bolster Assad and to bolster the regime and to basically finish the war as best the Russians could without the Americans. Most of the West was quite happy with this. No one will ever say this, but the facts are, the Russians took care in their own uniquely Russian kinetic way of a problem that the West was very, very anxious about, which was restoring the Syrian state.
25:36 The second point was there was never any chance in Syria, for instance, that the West was ever going to get its way. Assad was never going to go and more importantly than Assad, the Russians were never going to give up their bases in Syria. They’ve had them for 50 years. They give the Russians an outlet onto the Mediterranean. The idea the Russians were ever giving up those bases was absolutely ridiculous.
25:53 So insofar as the Russians have that view of the world of themselves, even though they do not have the financial resources of the Chinese, the Russians have a slightly more dangerous side to them at the moment than the Chinese do.
26:06 I was asked the other night about whether China would invade Taiwan. I find the idea the Chinese would invade Taiwan, which I think would be a very difficult thing for China to do in circumstances of an American election year, where Donald Trump is the president. I could not believe — I could not think of a more stupid thing for the Chinese to do.
26:24 Nick: Right. I mean, you mentioned Trump, but how does him as a sort of a strange historical Republican figure change the equation and what would Dragon-Bear be hoping for out of the US election in November?
26:37 Gray: Okay, very good question. My view is the Russian and Chinese candidate in any US election is chaos. I think that would be the one thing that they would be desperately hoping to get out of it.
26:47 I’ve always taken the view that I honestly think that Trump hysteria is way over done. I think whoever is the US president at a certain time will be forced into various things that they do not want to do.
27:02 The saying that always comes — I always come back to — regarding the American presidency, whoever is in it, is the office changes the man far more than the man changes the office. Just the responsibilities of the office just weigh on you.
27:12 I think in Trump’s case, if he is re-elected, I think he’ll be much harder line on China, much harder line. I think the one thing with Biden, given that he’s got obvious problems with his family’s ties to China, particularly his son, it may actually force Biden to overreact and to be much more hawkish himself just to prove…
27:31 You know, in many respects, Trump has been much tougher on Russia than Obama was. It was almost like as a way of proving that you know, “I can be just as tough.” My fear is Biden might do that, because my one thing I counsel with China is I think we should be very — obviously we want to be firm and be prepared, but I’m just not sure backing anyone into a corner, particularly the Chinese, is a smart thing to do. I would be almost giving Xi, as much as I possibly could, an exit ramp for some of this because I think…
27:58 Nick: To save face…
27:58 Gray: Well, I just think the one big problem is that no one actually really knows and no one believes Chinese government’s statistics. You’re mad if you believe them. No one really knows the state of Chinese finances. I always come back to this. I often mention this on Twitter. I mentioned it in my piece. China has to feed itself and power itself in a world where it has to buy its food and buy its energy largely in US dollars. That just hangs over them.
28:20 When people say ridiculous things like, “Oh, the end of the American hegemony, the end of the American Empire.” I mean, the Americans will most — just because the way America is, it will most probably be the superpower long after I’ve gone for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible for the United States not to be a superpower. It’s so blessed with natural resources. It has such good universities. It has such a — it has so many natural advantages that it could have like a succession of quite mediocre presidents and the country just keeps on chugging along.
28:46 Australia is very much like that. I mean, we have a massive island. We have every resource in the world. We actually have a very good constitution. We have very good sort of — I think very good institutions that keep the machines of state running along.
28:58 Really to some degree, it insulates the body politic from how bad our parliament is. I know that sounds — like it really does. You often see that in just how the country just sort of chugs along. So, I teach constitutional law. I often use the joke the Australian constitution was designed by geniuses so the country could be run by fools, which it often has been.
29:18 America is very much the same. There’s a certain just innate strength that you have. The other thing is, I think in history, habit has a huge role in societies. Countries that have habits that last through generations and centuries, they just keep on chugging along.
29:34 So for instance, I’m always interested when people try and talk about, say, the Second World War and the period for instance when Britain was alone I always say, well actually the British Empire was in much better shape for World War Two than in many respects than for World War One. The whole empire was involved. It wasn’t just a small island. Yes, they had Dunkirk.
29:51 Nick: Churchill’s line about “the empire beyond the seas”.
29:53 Gray: The empire beyond the seas. The country was geared for war and just the British habit of just muddling through and just keeping going because they’d been through the Napoleonic Wars. They’d been through a whole lot as an old country. You just keep on chugging along.
30:06 America — I always say this to Americans and Australians. We’re actually not young countries in many respects. We’re actually quite old countries. We’re continuous constitutional states. That’s really rare in history. Most — a lot of countries — a lot of peoples have had to rethink their national and constitutional arrangements two or three times in the last century.
30:24 You know, if you speak English, you’ve never had to do it. If you speak English as a native speaker, you’ve never had to do it. You’ve survived every war. You know, you may not have done as brilliantly from it as you would have hoped. I mean, the British came out of the second world war broken and bankrupt and, you know, people like my parents, families and so on. They all had to — even if you were rich or poor, you had to go through austerity, but they all survived.
30:44 Countries have that habit of just surviving through just perseverance and muddling through. I think there’s a lot of that in how say, the sort of Anglo countries survive and how — you know, you just asked me about Trump…
31:00 I take the view with Trump for his Twitter feed. Put that to one side. I mean, seriously, put that to one side. Trump will be running for re-election with his biggest problem will be the pandemic but unlike Bush in 2004, he doesn’t have a disastrous war in the Middle East to apologise for. Trump can turn around and say to conservatives who reluctantly backed him — he can say things like, “I’ve delivered better judges. I’ve delivered — up to the virus — better economic growth. I’ve delivered on things you care about. I’ve kept us out of more stupid wars that say the neo cons wanted to get us into.” Trump can easily make a case for his re-election that a lot of people buy.
31:30 Very few Americans are actually on Twitter. They don’t really care. I mean, it’s a sort of battlefield for a sort of journalistic class that doesn’t want to grapple with reality. So I just don’t think Trump’s Twitter or whatever is going to matter one way or the other. He’ll either make his case or he won’t.
31:49 My counter view of Trump if I was the Democrats, I would have run with a much stronger contrary candidate. So, say like I would have voted — I would either go with Amy Klobuchar who I think is a very normal Democrat who would be very appealing to a lot of say, you know, normal sort of Republicans. I think she’s a very nice lady. She’s very well spoken. She’s across every issue. Seriously, if you were trying to get other people to come across and vote for you, she’s great. Or I would have gone with Bernie Sanders. You may laugh. Why would I say that?
32:19 Nick: Well, you said he would have won the 2016 election.
32:22 Gray: I’ve always said to people Bernie Sanders — you can laugh. People can laugh when I say this. They can laugh at me of all people saying this. Bernie Sanders is something and he’s been something for decades. He is what he is. In some respects, he and Trump have two things in common. Both are 100% known. Everyone knows who they are. Everyone has an opinion on them, and they’ve always been what they are, in many respects.
32:41 There’s a certain authenticity with Bernie that even his worst critic might — will have to wonder. I mean, Bernie Sanders was arrested as a young man protesting for civil rights. Now, I don’t care what else Bernie says. I’m not going to really go in hard on him because I really respect that. I respect a guy who, you know, went in and protested against an injustice and put his own sort of body in harm’s way for that. I really respect that. I think there are a lot of people, for instance, who probably voted for Trump, etc. who actually look at Bernie and say, “Actually he’s a good guy.”
33:10 So I think the democrats picking Biden staggered me because as I said at the time, you’re picking a guy who’s been in politics since before I was born and running against Trump. You allowing the incumbent president of the United States — you know, the man at the head of the American government — to literally run as the outsider again because he’s against this guy who has been around forever.
33:29 Nick: 30-year establishment figure.
33:30 Gray: Yeah, it’s just incredible. You know, with the corruption problems, it just makes no sense to me. I would have voted — gone through the Klub or Bernie, but that’s me. What do I know? I’m just an outsider.
33:40 Nick: Coming back to Australia and the idea of muddling through as a society and, you know, sort of going through a range of different, you know, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as it were. Your writing in the piece about geopolitical lessons was explicit about the need for all states but particularly conservative governments and conservative governments in Australia to protect the body politic and to conserve its people’s very existence.
34:04 So there’s a great line, which was “the narrowing of budget deficits in the Coronavirus era is not worth the bones of anyone, especially of our own Grenadiers in scrubs, the paramedics, the nurses, doctors, teachers and cleaners.” So, can you reflect on how the emergency landscape that we find ourselves in in Australia has brought out that Australian ethic of not leaving behind our most vulnerable?
34:24 Gray: That’s a great question. I return to this theme quite a lot, not just in this piece on the pandemic, but quite generally. I guess if I had to sort of try and pigeon myself politically — and like every person, I’m a mixture of very contradictory views at times — but I come out of I guess a more sort of older sort of paternalistic Tory sort of tendency.
34:49 I mean, often my response to anything is generally I want everyone looked after. I know that sounds — but I want people looked after. I see when you’re conserving — what conservatism is about, is you’re using the power of the state to literally conserve the society. You’re trying to protect society and society — and it’s not just about the individual and his freedom. You’re actually about the family because that’s the building block of society. You’re about, you know, the husband and wife. You’re about preserving marriage. You’re about preserving a whole lot of other things. You’re not just about economic person, economic man for lack of a better word.
35:22 The one thing that I think in the pandemic is — I would take this whether it was a pandemic or a depression, I would take this view — but I think the pandemic is going to have tremendous effects for Australia. I think the idea that it’s going to end in September is just absurd. I think the idea that — I think when you have the Reserve Bank basically trolling the government saying, “You’re going to have to keep spending money because the economy is going to collapse.” I think that’s a message the government should heed.
35:47 In respect of that idea of the Australian ethic, I always come back to this and perhaps it’s because my parents were both immigrants and I’m always conscious of the fact that, you know — I was born here and I live here. I love Australia. I think of everything as Australian…
36:05 I think one of the distinguishing parts of Australia is I do think we have this ethos of we do look after each other and we want people to be looked after. I always make this comment. It’s almost — I do not want it to sound like a cliché, but one of the reasons why, sort of like every young Australian grows up learning about Simpson’s donkey from the first world war, it’s not because it’s a cute story but because even though we’re still not really sure what we know about Simpson, there’s something about this guy going back with his donkey for the wounded and recovering them and bringing them out of harm’s way. There’s something about that represents something about Australia that we all know and love, that we actually do care about each other and we do sort of share a common Australian life together and that matters.
36:48 You know, there are only 26 million of us and, you know, we have to sort of look out for each other and this — we’re too small a population and too big a country to do everything else. We all sort of need each other.
37:02 I guess for me, the one thing that I think this has brought out and you see this particularly in countries like Italy and so on, you have just these heroic people who — you know, the nurses and doctors — who work with people. It’s not just treating the patient, but you’re often there in like their final moments of life. It just breaks your heart, what they have to go through and they’ve had to go back into this every day.
37:26 They’re just absolutely heroes. Frankly, I’m honest about it. I don’t care about the — I literally don’t care about some sort of econometric mutant, trying to persuade me that these are the people — you know, somehow these are extravagant expenditures. They’re not.
37:42 More to the realistic point, the Commonwealth of Australia is one of the great countries of the world. The idea that if Australia runs a big budget deficit, we’re actually not going to be able to borrow money is actually ridiculous. We’ve currently got people desperate for return on money. There’s nothing safer than a sovereign. The idea that if the Australian government went out to borrow money at this time, it would not be able to raise money is absolutely ridiculous. It’s just unreal to me.
38:01 So, I often joke with people that the ridiculous nature of Australian politics is — and I have said this. You know, you’re Trump basically putting the Pickelhaube on. He’s basically providing Bismarckian war socialism. I mean, Trump is sending out cheques to people. We have in Canberra these sort of dweebs for lack of a better word, who are arguing over dollars and cents for people who are who’ve had their lives ruined. I find it just frankly — the smallness of it I find embarrassing.
38:27 So, I’m for a large response to the pandemic. I’m for looking after everyone. I’ve just found a lot of the responses just small and pathetic. This sort of — I’m all for ending lockdowns and so on, but the idea that somehow the economy and the society that it supported is going to come back is ridiculous.
38:45 Nick: You mentioned you were writing an extended piece on grief and I suppose love for family members and so on. Do you think that kind of emotional perspective has provided you with a way of dealing maybe with the sacrifices, you know, economically and in terms of our way of life, that the response has kind of entitled?
39:04 Gray: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been writing — I actually found the whole — I found a lot of the I guess coverage and the personal stories of the most — I found them very hard going. I mean, I lost my parents a while ago, but insofar as I was younger and it was premature.
39:22 For the first time my life actually felt, I just thanked God I was spared this experience. I mean, you have people saying farewell to their loved ones through an iPad and things like that because they can’t visit them in hospital. I find that just absolutely horrible.
39:36 The strange thing about suffering and grieving is that it’s terrible, but you actually become much more empathetic through it. I mean, I know the image of anyone who’s sort of like conservative, etc is — you know, you’re heartless and things like that. It’s not the case. Everyone, regardless of their politics, has hearts and they have families and they have loved ones. It’s also why we should all be kinder to each other, is because whatever our political differences, we’re all people and we’re all made in the image and likeness of God.
40:06 So, you know, we should all be much nicer to people but when you see and read about people losing family members in just the most horrific way, I just think you’d have to — I find it profoundly not just moving, but you just to have realise that this will break a lot of people for years.
40:28 It’s very, very hard because we’re a society — and I’ve touched on this in my piece which I’m still refining because it’s very, very hard and it’s very, very personal in my case. We’re a society I think doesn’t like to talk about hardship. We’re a society that doesn’t like to talk about imperfection. I mean, the facts are you’re not always going to be living your best life. You’re not always going to be wellness. You’re not always going to be happy. You know, a lot of life is unfortunately hard and it’s going to be hard going.
40:57 You’re going to need people through that and you’ll need people to understand that. Having been in circumstances where particularly with grief, it’s very, very hard and it’s particularly hard when you have no one to sort of help you through it and no one really understands it. It is very hard. I think we’re going to have to as a society realise there are going to be a lot of people who are very, very scarred by this experience.
41:20 I mean, I often tell people this story. When I first got back from the Middle East, I had real trouble with my hearing. I found it very, very hard. My late parents were very good about it and were quite understanding but I found it very, very hard. I found it just hard to hear people. So, I would go to things and I would just struggle to hear. I just started to — you know, this sounds kind of strange. I just developed I guess a greater degree of empathy than I think I’d had before but just a lot of people’s lives are hard. Not everyone has what you have. Not everyone can survive the way you do.
42:01 So, I guess one of the things that comes out of me at times is this assumption — going back to what I said about the death of Davos Man. Not everyone is a sovereign individual. Not everyone is going to be an award winner. A lot of people’s lives are going to be what you think of as plodding. You know, they just are. They matter. Those people matter too. They have their rights to life and we’ve sort of all got to — it’s the cliché about we’re all in this together. We actually are all in this together. We have to have a country in which everyone feels that they, not just matter, but if they fall on hard times, they will be looked after.
42:33 The one thing that just frustrates me — to come back to my line about the sort of econometric mutants and the sort of bow-tied dweebs and the like — is that I almost think you need to suffer more because it’s clear to me that you must have had an incredible life free of pain and suffering for you to feel this way because there are — the one thing that’s scarred in my mind — I don’t know about you but the one thing that’s scarred in my mind from this experience is that sight the day after there were mass layoffs and people lining up outside Centrelink. Quite apart from the public health violation — talk about a super spreading event. You had people lined up in short proximity to get into register for unemployment.
43:10 The worst thing I hate about it — these are all people who lost their — it was not their fault. It was not their fault. They all lost their jobs and they were made to line up outside like they were the guilty people. It absolutely — and talk about diversity. There were someone from every background there. I think for a lot of people, you would have known people in that circumstance, who had lost their job. They’d lost that security that comes from having a job and they lost most importantly the dignity of work, like the fact that — it doesn’t matter what you do but if you’re doing something, you’re contributing, you have dignity.
43:41 Nick: I suppose it’s unintelligible to a degree, you know, why all this is happening. That incomprehension too. You know, virology in itself but also the public health response is something that’s completely unchartered and, you know, unintelligible for a lot of people.
43:54 Gray: That’s absolutely true but just the sense — I was looking at more — less that. You’re absolutely right. Your point is absolutely right but it was less than the political sense of actually millions of Australians are hurting right now. They’re hurting badly. They need to know that they’re going to be looked after and they need to know that in this country, we do not throw people to the wolves. I come back again to Simpson and his donkey. We all look after each other and we look after people. We don’t throw people to the wolves. We all look after people.
44:16 I keep coming back to this. If people think the financial cost of whatever program the government is running at the moment is large, the cost of a prolonged and deep recession, not just financially but on families, on breadwinners losing jobs, on marriages that will break up, children that will lose schooling and the like, the societal consequences will go for decades.
44:36 I’m fortunate insofar as being the youngest child of older parents. I got to speak to grandparents who went through the depression. I’m not going to try and — I have no cloth cap story. My grandparents on either side were very, very well off so I’m not pretending — but even very, very well off people during the depression noticed how bad it was and very, very well off people in the depression said, “Actually, this is terrible. We can never let this happen again. This almost broke our society. We can never have this happen again.
45:03 I think about this virus, just that side of so many Australians that had done nothing wrong. All they had been and really their greatest problem was that they were in casual or at will contracts of employment and they were all just cut away. The government for days had nothing to say to them. I thought that was just absolutely appalling.
45:19 Nick: I think a really interesting point on that is that, you know, this has been driven by Liberal-National Party and conservative government in Australia. So, I think Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg in their responses have really upended a lot of kind of, you know, norms in terms of right of centre political movements. So, could you sort of reflect on that given you’ve, you know, written obviously a lot about conservatism in Australia?
45:44 Gray: Yeah. Morrison I think has. Josh I think is a work in progress. I’m not sure. Josh — I can actually see virtues in everyone in politics for the most part on either side. Josh though, I really like as a person. I’ve met him once but he seems like a nice person.
46:02 The one thing Josh will always have against him is he’s kind of the ex-political staffer. I have a great dislike of the ex-political as a class of people. Look, a lot of ex-political staffers are some of my best friends. As individuals, they’re wonderful, but as a class, I find them just a bit tone deaf and I think just a bit addicted to say spin and the issue of the day and that kind of thing.
46:22 Josh is nice but Morrison I think has got that. I think Morrison has realised the economic dimensions. I think it’s less something about being a treasurer, like a former treasurer or whatever. I think it’s less to do with that than it is to do with — just I think Morrison himself would be even aware — he’s an MP for a very, very normal part of Sydney. You know, he and his wife I think have a very solid group of friends and the like. I think perhaps he gets it in that respect.
46:49 I think there is an element in which for anyone, you know, a crisis means that the usual rules go out the door and you have to sort of adapt. Even if you’re completely opposed to deficit spending or whatever, it’s just something you have to wear.
47:02 I think the bigger — where the real debate will come will be later in the year when there will be pressure say from more smaller liberal wing of the party to wind back support and there will be an obvious pushback by people, particularly say from rural or regional areas where things have really suffered and there needs to be support.
47:22 So, I think the battle on the right at least is to come. On the Labour side, I’m not sure what would happen there but — you know, one of the reasons why I sort of tend to write I guess on sort of conservative things is that in the Australian political firmament, there are millions of voices on the left. On all variations of the left, there’s millions of voices. You know, they speak.
47:46 On the right, it’s a really big problem in Australia because you have just a few very loud voices who I’m not sure represent really where most sort of conservative (with a small c) people are. So, most people who are on the right I guess politically, they’re not IPA people. They’re not rabid free marketeers. They’re not against anything on climate change. I mean, the biggest problem I think most people on the right have with climate change, particularly the push about renewables, is the obvious governance problems with governments funding subsidised electricity projects. I think there’s an enormous problem with that.
48:19 I’ve always said to Greens — I said if you wanted to get 90% of say conservative type people on board, I said — and you want a carbon tax, use it to fund the transition to nuclear energy. If you say, “I don’t like nuclear energy,” well then your issue is not climate change because I mean, to me, the case makes itself. I’ve been to France. I mean, the French state runs on nuclear power. I think there’s a lot of very good reasons why a country like Australia should want nuclear power. It’s zero emissions and the like but that’s by the by.
48:47 I’m saying there are a lot of things on the right where people are not as dogmatic as you would think. I mean, one of the great regrets for many of us of the sort of — who are on the right generally, the broad right, is just the push into like fringe issues. I mean, the whole issue about the racial discrimination act. I mean, can you imagine exhausting your political capital which is always scarce on amending the Racial Discrimination act?
49:09 Nick: 18C…
49:10 Gray: I was staggered with that. I’ve got a lot of very conservative friends. Not one in a hundred would ever have mentioned that to me. The strange thing in the sort of conservative side of Australia is I know that there are loud voices but the actual conservative peoples come out of like, you know, surf lifesaving clubs, RSL clubs, the football clubs…
49:30 Nick: Church groups…
49:31 Gray: Church groups which is where I sort of — I’ve got a lot of friends and so on.
49:37 Nick: It is overtaken by, you know, I sort of call them political fetishists. You know, in the IPA groups, with hang ups on really specific issues.
49:46 Gray: That’s right, but it’s really, really strange.
49:47 Nick: With a Friedman textbook or whatever.
49:49 Gray: That’s right. It’s just strange. The strangest thing is most people who are sort of conservative — I mean in that small c sense — it’s kind of an instinct — for want of — you know, you grow up with your family. You think what you’ve done is good and, you know, you like the country and you want to sort of conserve it. You want to conserve that. You want to conserve the best parts of it. You want to change the things that are bad but you want to conserve that. It’s kind of a natural human instinct and you’re playing to that but when you’re saying like everything is about ‘my freedom’, I mean, there’s no such thing as, you know, ‘my freedom’ and it doesn’t have any limits. We all have limits in our freedom. I mean, you and I talking now have limits on what we can say. You know, you and I when we step out, we can’t drive on the wrong side of the road. There are limits on your freedom and they’re sensible for the protection of other people. That’s not because, you know, either of us is advocating for communism. It’s just the natural thing that we’ve found over time works. Our society works best when we’re all sort of considerate of each other and each other’s needs.
50:48 I guess it’s just one of those things I just do not get. It probably makes me a little bit of an outlier among people who commentate on politics but it certainly doesn’t make me an outlier I think among people who actually sort of share my political philosophy
51:02 Nick: In main street, yeah. So, you mentioned conservatism and, you know, conserving what is good in the body politic and our political and societal structures but obviously we’ve gone through quite a radical shift in the way in which politics operates in this country, not just internally in the Liberal-National coalition but also federal and state relations. I’m wondering what kind of longer-term changes to Federation there will be as a result of this crisis? So, for instance COAG being made redundant by the streamlined national cabinet or the enhanced authority and role of state governments, you know, to a degree which didn’t occur during the Black Summer bushfires recently.
51:38 Gray: Okay, that’s an interesting question. I think the national cabinet and the greater integration of federal and state leaders is a great thing. I find it strange we’re all surprised by that model working where even in America, the president and the governors of the very states will often have conferences. It could be that the President and Governors are warring in public but they’ll often meet in private to do things for their states.
52:02 I think in our system where we’ve got six state premiers and one prime minister, there’s no reason why the national cabinet just cannot continue. I think it’s a very, very good model. Can I be honest? I think it forces everyone to sit down. They’re behind closed doors. They’re on like a video conferencing or whatever. They can all be reasonable and they can all talk about things that are problems. I mean, there may be in say six months’ time a really big discussion between federal and state governments about revenue, about both of them having suffered a dramatic loss of revenues and how we go about raising money for spending that’s just going to have to happen.
52:34 So, these may be discussions and decisions they want to have offline or sorry, in the privacy of a conference format. Because they’re from contesting political parties, it may just be easier that you keep the national cabinet model going. I’m a big fan of it. I think most Australians like the idea of their prime minister of whatever party dealing with state premiers of whatever party like they are adults and also like adults who will be held responsible.
52:55 I think one of the biggest problems in Australia — and I think there would be almost no one who would disagree with this — is we’ve often had a poor quality of people, not just in parliaments but particularly state governments. I think this — by the prime minister sort of meeting with state premiers and almost holding them accountable, it’s a spur to states to take their governance much more seriously.
53:14 Nick: To lift their standards. But you have been critical of modern Australian politics and the political class in Christopher Pyne in particular since Howard left the scene in 07. Just to go back to your earlier point about suffering and how that makes you a better person and I guess being tested in crisis and so on, do you see this pandemic in a way as sort of maybe spurring on the Australian political class at federal and state levels to higher standards? I also would love it if you could reflect on the paucity of good politicians to date.
53:49 Gray: That’s a very good question. I think from my perspective, there’s been a — I think this has been I guess a certain sort of a shock test of the governing institutions and structures. I think it’s also been one of the political class. I think every Australian has been pleasantly surprised by the sight of the prime minister and the premiers all working together. I think most — pretty much all of us would hope that would continue.
54:17 In terms of my particular grievance, the one thing that I just cannot stand and this often comes out if I’m on The Drum or something — because it really does annoy me, is just the sight of former politicians cashing in on their office. I absolutely loathe it. I think if you held any sort of high government position, not just in say parliaments and cabinets and the like but also say in government departments, the military, whatever — I think there should be a restriction on what you can do after that. I think the idea that you should be able to trade off that office and you should basically become lobbyists and so on, I think it’s hideous. It sends a terrible message to the public. It also means that you as a class of people cannot turn around and ask people for sacrifice. It makes it that much harder. If you’ve not lived sacrificially, if you’ve sort of looked at going into parliament or the like as a meal ticket…
55:08 Nick: A ticket to riches…
55:09 Gray: … to a better job, then you’re going to be in no position to ask sacrifice of other people. So, I’m a strong believer in people going into politics from doing something. I actually genuinely do not care what they do except if they’re lobbyists or staffers. That’s what will raise my hackles but as long as they’ve done something, they can go into politics, do whatever they do in politics and then leave. Go back to a normal job.
55:29 I think I’m a great fan of the Roman model of Cincinnatus. You know, he was a farmer. He went to save Rome and as soon as Rome was saved, he went back to his farm. I think the Cinicinnatus model — people can laugh at the sort of romanticism of it. It actually is the model that enabled them to survive until the corruption of the first century BC and what did that lead to? The rise of Caesar.
55:52 My great fear is that if you have an entrenched political class that’s corrupt, the response is almost nine times out of ten, not reform, it’s the destruction of the system itself.
56:00 So, I always say to people who are in the political class — because some of them are my friends and they know that I take great pleasure in abusing them about it — because this is actually — anything to do with corruption, I think it’s perfectly fair to abuse people about it.
56:13 I don’t think they understand the cancer that they let loose, the toxicity of corruption of insiderism particularly is immense. I think anyone with a reasonable grasp of history realises that once institutions are corrupted, once they are viewed toxically by their people…
56:27 Nick: Rot sets in.
56:28 Gray: The rot sets in. I always say that. During 2016, I made the analogy repeatedly at the time about Trump’s appeal and the push on Rome. I always say this to people. It wasn’t any great merit of Caesar’s. It’s that Caesar was pushing at an open door. People were fed up with the establishment. They were fed up with the corruption and they took the view that anything could be better than the present.
56:48 So, Caesar was always pushing at an open door. In some respects, in 2016 Trump was pushing at an open door. I mean, you had massive insiderism. The fact you had multigenerational families in politics and the like, you just need to have some sort of commitment.
57:01 By the way, I’m speaking to you from New South Wales. New South Wales has an entrenched problem with political corruption on both sides. I mean, we just have a corrupt culture. It’s a really, really big problem. I mean, you know, we have ICAC in New South Wales for a reason. I mean, it’s never not busy, you know? I always say that to people. ICAC is never not busy in New South Wales because we’ve got this corruption problem. Corruption is insidious. It has a terrible effect on the population. It has a terrible effect on the rule of law and it stops people believing in institutions. It’s terrible.
57:27 So, insofar as this event has been a wakeup call that we need better and more honest and a thorough and people of more integrity, then I think it’s a good thing.
57:35 Nick: Yeah, cool. So, coming to your political views of the right of centre state of politics in Australia. It might seem like a bit of a throwback now and several lifetimes ago, but you’ve long been particularly critical of the government led by Tony Abbott. I’ve always been perplexed by this as a casual observer of your Twitter feed, given that you and he seem to share so many similar beliefs. So, in constitutional monarchy, a more compassionate form of conservatism as you’ve espoused to this interview, and a respect and love for the blue collar workforce as well as obviously a Catholic background. So, where did Abbott go so wrong?
58:10 Gray: Well, I mean, it’s not just that. Tony Abbott and I share a school. We both went to the same school. I mean, decades apart but we both went to the same school. I mean, I have great fondness for Tony. I have met Tony on a few occasions. He’s a very nice person. He’s a very civic minded person. I mean, a lot of the attacks he got was just ridiculous. He was a volunteer firefighter while prime minister and he did his surf patrol for his surf lifesaving club. He was a very giving person. That part of Tony, I really liked.
58:38 We both went to a Jesuit school. The idea of the Jesuits is a man for others and things like that and a faith that does justice. I mean, that’s a big part, it’s an ethos that you grow up with.
58:45 So, there was that part of Tony that I liked but what I just could not understand is there are very few people that ever get to be prime minister of the country. It’s a great honour and it carries with it great weight. What I could never understand with Abbott, particularly as he must have known about ‘conservative traditions’, is that when he was in office, he sort of borrowed all this sort of language from I guess what I call broadly the IPA types. That’s not your game.
59:12 So, the side of like Abbott going to, you know, talk about repealing 18C and all this stuff that just isn’t front of the conservative mind — I mean, it’s a small L liberal obsession. The idea that you have the right to be bigoted is actually a smaller liberal — the idea that you’re free to say what you want, freedom of speech, you know, defend — those are all small L liberal ideas. They’re not conservative ideas. Conservative ideas are actually the society comes first. The national family comes first and yes, to keep the national family together, there are some things you don’t say. There are some things you don’t talk about.
59:40 That really annoyed me. It annoyed me particularly because there were other things that Tony did that were good. I think Tony had very good instincts on reconciliation. Tony would go up and teach indigenous schools. No publicity, he would just go and do it. I have a lot of respect.
59:56 So, there was a lot with Tony. It was just he had a great opportunity which he just blew up by trusting in people that he should never have trusted in. He trusted in people like Christopher Pyne, you know, that he’s got nothing in common with. You need to pick better friends. I just think he got the worst advice. So, it’s tactical matter and a philosophical matter.
1:00:15 I also think — I’ve never been a prime minister but I think if I lost 39 votes to an empty chair in a party room ballot, I would probably change course. That’s just me. It was just hard going.
1:00:31 The thing that just annoyed me — it just annoyed me, the sort of prattling off of sort of zombie Howardism. It just made no sense to me at all because the one thing Abbott did get right — as I understand it, Abbott warned Howard that when you go down the work choices path, you’re going to lose, like you’re going to destroy your appeal to a huge swathe of people that put you in this office. Howard for whatever reason did that.
1:00:54 So, Abbott did things that were good but he just didn’t know when to actually be — I think he always felt almost like an imposter, that he had to sort of borrow a lot of the Peter Costello camp. He never realised there’s a reason why Peter Costello never made it to being prime minister, because he believes all that. I think Costello believed all that sort of classical liberal nonsense. I think Costello believed all that. I never really understood why Abbott felt the need to do it. It’s almost like he wasn’t confident in who he was.
1:01:18 So, I think, you know, if you get to the age he was at when he became prime minister, you should know who you are and what you really believe. I think it was the problem of that Abbott in some respects wasn’t the outsider. I always point out to people Abbott was a Remainer with Brexit. He wasn’t a Leaver, he was a Remainer. He was a Leaver afterwards. The derisive French phrase of, you know, resistance fight a post war came to mind. Everyone after the war claimed to be resistance fighters.
1:01:46 I mean, it’s just one of those things with Abbott that I just found very, very frustrating. Look, he’s a lovely person. He actually is a good person.
1:01:52 Julia Gillard is like that. Ironically, they’re both quite similar in some respects. Julia Gillard is a very nice person. I think one of the worst things Abbott did — and I think being untrue to himself — but he went very, very hard on her who he actually knew quite well. I think she’s a very nice person. I think she’s carried herself with immense dignity since leaving office.
1:02:08 Nick: She has.
1:02:09 Gray: I wish all our ex-prime ministers would follow Howard and Gillard’s model of ex-prime ministers conducting themselves with some propriety because it’s just embarrassing.
1:02:18 So, the point being is Abbott sort of wasn’t true to himself. If you grow up Catholic and conservative, you grow up in a certain tradition. It goes back to literally the original Tories, the ones who were around James the second and who fought for the Stewarts and tried to keep the sort of Scotch-Irish model of monarchy together which was clan based and family based.
1:02:34 When we — you know, our ancestral enemies were the Whigs, the small L liberals, the individualists and so on. They’re our mortal enemies. Abbott in a sense never really knew who he was and what he was about. I just found that so strange for someone who in some respects I share a background with. I just thought, gee, from a very young age, you learn this. From your mother’s knee learning about the martyrdom with Mary, Queen of Scots. You know, you learn about this.
1:02:59 Abbott always disappointed me in that regard. So, look, that’s all in the past but can I just say on the one side — because I want to say something positive. He does give a lot for his community and I think that’s great. I think more ex-prime ministers should do that. There are a lot of community organisations that need patronage and need help. Ex-prime ministers who are paid a pension, who have got time on their hands, get off Twitter and go and help people.
1:03:17 Nick: Absolutely. Would you ever run for office, I mean, given your background and interest in politics and history and things?
1:03:25 Gray: I would never shut the door on it. I’m not quite sure how I would go about it. I’m not a particular partisan person. I’m not a member of any political party. I struggle in political parties because I struggle to pretend to believe in things that I think are stupid and I struggle to respect people who I think are idiots. So, I’m not — I don’t know how well I would do.
1:03:43 To be honest with you, there was part of me that always liked one thing with Malcolm Turnbull and that was that just Malcolm never seemed to be interested in politics particularly well. He wasn’t interesting in campaigning. He wasn’t interested in all of that. Some people say, “Well, that’s why you’re not a good politician.” It is but it also meant I found him a very interesting person. He never seemed to be that interested in the political side. Part of me just really respects that. He was a guy who achieved all his life. He was a very interesting person. Malcolm in many respects is a very genuine person.
1:04:11 Malcolm just didn’t really care for it. Part of me kind of really respected that. You know, it was almost a 19th century quality, Malcolm, of just really, “Well, here I am. You can vote for me or not. I really don’t care.” Part of me kind of wishes we had more politicians who are like that because I think he was genuinely interested in public affairs. He was just not that interested in politics. I quite like that because a person like that, you can actually reason with. You can discuss things with.
1:04:34 I think Malcolm went about the climate change thing the wrong way. I think he needed to have much broader consensus and he needed to have something which would show a transition to some brighter future than just all of us paying subsidies. I think that was his problem but I think Malcolm himself was a very, very interesting guy. I would hate to see him going, meaning we would not have interesting people in politics because we have just so many people who are exactly the same on both sides. They’re all ex-staffers.
1:04:57 Nick: Carbon copy.
1:04:58 Gray: Yeah, they’re all ex-staffers. They’ve all done the numbers. They’ve all done this. None of them have an original thought in their brains and none of them are capable of leading at all.
1:05:08 Nick: They’re university student politicians, aren’t they?
1:05:09 Gray: That’s right. You cannot for 20 years just be on repeat of whatever you were told in student politics to believe and then suddenly become your own person. You know, in a sense the child is the father of the man. I mean, you know, the idea that somehow these people are going to break out and become, you know, sort of actual authentic people is hard to see. So, that’s just something from the sort of demise of Malcolm that I think is quite sad, is the prospect we might not have more interesting people come into politics and sort of give their time to the country.
1:05:41 Nick: You’ve mentioned it a few times throughout the interview, the question of faith and your Catholic background and I suppose Jesuit formation as a man, not as a member of an order or anything. Yeah, can you reflect on the importance of faith in your life?
1:05:57 Gray: It’s obviously very, very important to me in the sense of, you know, I believe in God. I believe in — you know, as all Christians do, I believe in Christ’s redeeming mission. I believe that we die and we go to our judgements and that we will be held to account for our lives. I believe that and I’ve always believed that.
1:06:17 It’s very important to me because I’ve found in life it has not always been an easy thing. I certainly found, particularly when I was in Iraq, my faith grew enormously. I mean, it was always there but it certainly developed. I mean, proximity to death and dying does do that to you. I think a lot of people — I think the joke was, you know — I think the RCIA which is the Catholic program for new Catholics to come on board — I think in Iraq, we had the world’s youngest and largest RCIA program in the world because in Iraq, you know, the prospect of death and dying was there.
1:06:57 For me, it’s very, very important. For me personally, I think if you go — you have to go through I think in some respects and it sort of refines you. I mean, the proverb of iron sharpens iron is one that I like but just the idea that you learn a lot about yourself through struggle and through suffering. It’s not the absence of God, it’s that there is something you are being taught through it and it allows you to put sufferings and tragedies into some perspective.
1:07:27 I was very fortunate. Both my parents were — both my late parents were people of great faith right up to the end. I was there when they were passing. You get a certain comfort from that I guess on a human level but also on a spiritual level that God cares.
1:07:45 So, I sort of — it’s hard to sort of explain to people in a way. I tire of people who say “I feel all my faith is a private matter”. Well, you’re a public person so it’s not a private matter. You’re actually a public person and it’s going to come out at some stage. Also, people are entitled to know what powers you.
1:08:00 For me, it’s very important. I would — whatever your faith is, whatever animates you — Jew, Christian, Muslim, whatever, Hindu — it’s something separate to you that drives you and also holds you to account in a way.
1:08:22 So, you know, one of the most painful things to me as a Catholic has been we’ve had 20 or 30 years of just the most horrific abuse stories. They’re the ultimate betrayals of trust. I have to be very careful about what I say here because I was a counsel in the Royal Commission but it was just terrible for Catholics, you know, what terrible sins and misdeeds were done in the name of the faith. That’s something every Catholic carries as a cross. It’s just terrible.
1:08:46 I went on the ABC and I just said that. I said I wish I could say something more than just, “It’s shameful.” It’s absolutely appalling. Every Catholic feels that shame all the time. At the same time, everyone, including a faith, should not be judged on its worse day or necessarily on its best. For me, it’s very, very important to me.
1:09:06 For me, I guess having been through a fair degree of grief and death, for me it’s just very, very important to me. It’s very interesting. I often get asked, you know, you’re one of the few public pro-life people, why is that, is that because you’re Catholic? I always say it’s not because I’m Catholic, it’s because I was the youngest child of four. I think in some respects, I was an accidental child of the parents and so when people use language like choice and convenience around birth, it’s very different if that could have been you that was aborted. So, I have a different view of that just based on humanity rather than anything else. I’m just against death. I’m against euthanasia.
1:09:42 I’ve been around a lot of death. I always say this to people. I’m sick to death of death. I mean, I like life. I think we need to have more people encouraged to think in a life giving way.
1:09:52 I think the arguments from the pandemic that I’ve just found incredible have been between the sort of libertarians whose view is well, you know, my wallet and my choice essentially. We’ve had this language of, you know, choice is everything and I should be able to choose what I subsidise, including other people’s lives. It’s just well this is where the liberal experiment goes, is that…
1:10:16 Nick: Whither liberalism or whatever you say…
1:10:16 Gray: It is! It’s whither liberalism — I find it amazing no one wants to have this argument because it’s ugly. No one wants to know where this goes. The idea that we commodify people and, you know, the idea that somehow people have ‘useful lives’ and somehow we have nothing to learn from people because they’re older, it’s nonsense. A lot of people who have lived and survived, they’ve actually got very useful things to teach you.
1:10:38 Something I very much admire about the Asian approach particularly, you know, the Buddhists and Dao and, you know, approaches to things is just that idea that with age comes experience and wisdom. I think the idea that we treat older people as burdens I think is terrible. I think it’s a real indictment of our ridiculously shallow society
1:10:59 Nick: Yeah. Finally, Gray, what comes across quite consistently in your work and writing is a love of Patria or Australia and how that unifying theme ought to override, you know, minor differences between us as citizens. So, I was hoping you could expand a bit on this and maybe speak about what Australia means to you and your family history, you know, in terms of the work you do in the law, your national service, but also your concern for the political sphere in Australia too and your fellow citizens.
1:11:27 Gray: Thank you. That’s a great question. I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this question for a while actually. No one ever has. Seriously, it’s a great question.
1:11:36 Well, I mean, I’m first generation Australian. I guess I obviously served Australia. I love Australia. I was prepared to give my life for Australia. So, you know, I love Australia and I love my home.
1:11:51 Home for me is the southern highlands of New South Wales. That’s where my parents are buried. You know, I’m a very sentimental person. So, I’m a strong believer in — perhaps too strong a believer in the idea that at the end of the day, we all sort of inhabit this country together and we’ll all sort of look after each other.
1:12:11 I think that’s much more important than our transient political differences. It means that sometimes we’re going to have to carve out areas where we disagree and just let each other live and none of us try to win over the other person, but we accept that actually that’s the way they do things and they have to be able to do their things in the same way I want to be able to do my things. So, we’d give a certain respect to each other’s differences.
1:12:30 I love the idea of Australia as a country which everyone comes to. There is no one archetypal Australian. Everyone can be any religion. You can be any, you know, background, ethnicity or whatever and you’re part of the team. So, I like that. I have a very big vision of Australia. I’ve always been a Big Australia supporter. I like the idea of people coming to Australia and almost starting their lives again. In the same way, I’m very, very grateful for those Australians in past generations who have built the country and defended the country and gave so much for the country. I would like everyone to sort of be very appreciative of them.
1:12:58 I also want people to realise that the greatest compliment anyone pays to you is to literally risk their life to come and join your country. It must be a pretty good country that people risk their lives to want to come here. It must be pretty amazing and you should be very proud of that. It’s a source of great pride.
1:13:12 So, I have this sort of great love of Australia and I would like the country to be a bigger country and I would like everyone to sort of feel part of that country. I really don’t care about the political side. I want everyone to feel part of this.
1:13:24 Nick: It’s not some sort of chest thumping nationalism or anything. I don’t know, it’s more a reflective kind of notion or idea of Australia, you know?
1:13:31 Gray: Yeah, it’s a chest thumping openness to the fact that a lot of people — we want everyone to be part of the team and to feel that they are being — that they are included and that they are part of the team.
1:13:43 I always tell people this. When I was in Iraq, I had in my little living area, I had a Muslim — I had a Muslim officer, a very good friend. I had a devout Anglican. I had one guy who was absolutely sure he didn’t believe in anything. I had a Latin Mass Catholic. I had a whole group of people and that’s just normal. That’s the norm in Australia. That’s not some sort of, you know, story script cliché. That’s Australia. Everyone — it’s why I think the military gets not enough praise. It’s actually a great little melting pot of people from all different backgrounds.
1:14:19 Nick: Yeah, it is.
1:14:20 Gray: I think it’s a great microcosm of Australia. Actually we are actually a remarkably harmonious society. The thing that annoys me is people harping on about differences. So, for instance, it absolutely infuriates me whenever, you know, anyone attacks Muslims. It annoys me. Not just because I’m a believer but it just infuriates me. It’s like you don’t understand, it’s one of the world’s great religions. It’s brought strength to a lot of people. It gives meaning to a lot of people. They respect — you know, everyone focuses on as if somehow every — there’s somehow some necessary connection between, you know, the Khomeneis or the ISIS or whatever and the — the greatest victims of extremist Muslims are actual Muslims. I mean, they are the greatest victims of them.
1:15:04 I often say this to people, particularly — I think Christians are very good on this but if there are any sort of distance — there are just tens of thousands of Christians in the Middle East who are only alive because the Muslim brothers and sisters took them in and looked after them. I mean, you know, this idea that somehow we have to have some sort of war of religions is just ridiculous. I mean, Australia is a remarkably successful constitutional state that is, you know, incredibly ethnically diverse, incredibly religiously pluralist. Why you would want to tamper with this or inflame tensions or upset people is just beyond me.
1:15:36 So, I guess in the sense if I say I have a generally conservatist view, I want to conserve that. I want to conserve that achievement. I want to keep that country together. You know, for me that’s just my own personal thing. I served that country. I protected that country. I was willing to give my life for that country. I want to hold that country together. I want us all to be part of the same team. I want us all to be looked after. I don’t want people — I want people to feel that they’re included and that they matter and that other people care about them. That’s what I want.
1:16:02 Nick: There’s an inherent dignity to each one of us.
1:16:04 Gray: There’s an inherent dignity to that. Very much you mentioned — I very much got that from my parents. My late mother was a great — a very conservative woman. My grandmother was an interesting sort of mixture of contradictions in some respects. I mean, my mother had gone through the sixties but I always make the point to people, you know, my mother liked Joan Baez. She was never into drugs, never into immorality. She was always very modest, etc. My mother kind of liked that.
1:16:31 You know, that sort of — I got that from my mother. My mother when she was in the 70s, I didn’t realise this but she was very, very strongly supportive of say Vietnamese boat people and the like and bringing them in. I got I guess — you’re all influenced by your parents but I was very heavily influenced by her.
1:16:46 My father who was a very conservative person — I mean, if you were doing this podcast with my late father, it would be very different answers in some respects. My father was a ridiculously soft touch. I can remember as a child, as you do as the youngest, going into my father’s study. There were forever envelopes on the floor that were to be mailed out to his office. Every charity known to man, my father gave to. He was a notoriously soft touch because my father at the end of the day — he had grown up with stories from his parents about the depression in Britain and just how terrible it was and how proud the family was and my father’s family business. They’d kept everyone on the payroll. Whatever they had to do, they kept everyone. Even if the family suffered a bit, they kept everyone on the payroll because it was a family, a bigger family.
1:17:26 I guess I sort of inherited that unconsciously. I didn’t realise until I started writing how much I’d inherited it. Just that idea that we have an amazing achievement here in Australia. I think Australians if anything are not proud enough of it. We’ve got an amazing achievement. A constitutional state, power transfers peacefully, the rule of law is observed. We have people of all different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, religions living harmoniously together. That’s amazing. By world terms, that is just amazing and we should want to hold onto that with every fibre of our being and to the degree that anyone tries to separate any of us, that person should be the enemy of all of us. That’s my belief. I think we should all be in it together.
1:18:00 Nick: That’s a wonderful note to end on. So, Gray Connolly, thank you so much for your time this afternoon. I really appreciate it. It’s been a wonderful time chatting to you, so yeah, have a lovely afternoon.
1:18:08 Gray: Pleasure. Any time. Always happy and thank you very much for having me on.
1:18:12 Nick: No worries. Thank you.
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com on June 2, 2020.