It was John Howard’s baby – a centre of academic excellence set up to promote “appreciation and understanding” of the United States.
To kick it off, Howard gave the United States Studies Centre a $25 million “one-off” gift from the public purse and board of politically connected luminaries to guide its objectives of “balance and objectivity”.
Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull was appointed chair. Former premiers Kristina Keneally and John Olsen also eventually joined the table. Later, Malcolm Turnbull’s son-in-law, James Brown, won a full time job as an adjunct associate professor.
Now, as the centre comes back again to ask government for what is understood to be $15 million more, it is riven by personality clashes, sudden resignations and the complaint that academic freedom has been crimped.
On one side of the argument is Brown, a former army captain and international affairs specialist who is married to the Turnbulls’ daughter, Daisy.
On the other is conservative commentator, Radio National host and Fairfax Media columnist Tom Switzer. Switzer this week resigned as a senior fellow at the centre in a blaze of acrimony.
The disagreement flared after Brown published a Quarterly Essay, called “Firing Line”, last June.
The essay, published just prior to the federal election, reported that staff in former prime minister Tony Abbott’s office had considered deploying a brigade comprising up to 3000 Australian and Dutch soldiers to Ukraine after the shooting down of MH17.
Switzer, a one-time adviser to former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson, called the story “crap”.
“For the record, the James brown [sic] scoop is no such thing,” he wrote in emails to a group of former diplomats in January.
“The story is crap and is widely debunked by the people in the know, and not just Abbott and his former [chief of staff]. The reality is that Abbott never committed troops. Even if he harboured such ambitions, he never did it. That shows the system worked.”
Switzer’s most damaging claim, though, was the last: “The consensus was brown [sic] was doing his father in law’s bidding,” Switzer wrote.
“James is not a historian or journalist; he’s a former army captain who I believe is carrying a brief for the prime minister.”
Switzer declined to discuss the claim made in the emails, other than to say he “disagreed profoundly” with Brown’s thesis.
According to others at the centre who declined to be named, Switzer has also complained he was told to tone down his regular critical comments about the Turnbull government in the Fairfax press.
Brown declined to comment, and said the centre’s management would respond on his behalf. Chief executive Simon Jackman did not comment on Switzer’s email.
In a written statement, he said the centre had no role in the commissioning and review process for Quarterly Essay.
“I am aware that James Brown’s [Quarterly Essay] did attract criticism and comment from scholars [and] practitioners, much of which appeared in the subsequent issue of QE, along with a response from [James Brown].”
In that subsequent issue, Brown wrote it was “a ticklish matter for me to assess the national security leadership of Tony Abbott, who was replaced as prime minister by my father-in-law. But I think the Abbott example is an important one and worth examining in detail”.
Malcolm Turnbull’s office declined to comment.
It’s not the only controversy involving the centre. After its supposedly “one-off” funding from government, it was supposed to attract enough corporate sponsorship to keep it going. It has failed to do so, despite being given charitable status and winning tax-deductible donations from News Corp, building material company Boral and aerospace corporation Northrop Grumman. The global financial crisis is blamed for corporate parsimony.
The centre has returned to government repeatedly with the begging bowl, securing first $4.2 million, then another grant of $7 million which helped set up a second operation in Perth, then $1.5 million, with a $2.5 million “funding boost” from the NSW state government.
Now it is back in front of the federal government, asking for $15 million more in the current budget round to support the Sydney and Perth operations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Education Department are yet to commit and are believed to be wary about handing over the money.
The centre’s operation was recently reviewed by former foreign affairs boss Peter Varghese and another senior former diplomat, David Ritchie, whose unreleased report, completed in January, is understood to have seen government funding as the only viable source of income to support the centre.
Mark Baillie, the chairman of the centre’s board, told Fairfax Media he would not comment on requests “we may or may not have” with government.
But he provided conclusions of the Varghese report, which found the centre was involved in “well-argued advocacy”, which was not to be confused with “cheerleading or barracking”.
Varghese found the centre “deserves to be supported”, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, which meant “the need for a United States Studies Centre has never been greater”.
However, former Labor leader Mark Latham and conservative commentator Gerard Henderson have recently strongly criticised the centre for failing to anticipate the success of Mr Trump.
Sheryn Lee, an up-and-coming academic in the security studies field, has also criticised the centre for lacking independence.
She was commissioned to examine the Taiwan Strait and the potential for a war involving China and the US, and what this might mean for the ANZUS alliance. Part of the report referred to the crucial role played by top-secret US intelligence collection bases Pine Gap and Nurrungar.
But the report was not published by the centre, after Lee felt her conclusions were being unreasonably skewed by Brown so as not to ruffle feathers in the Foreign Affairs Department.
“He wanted me to write something that was not my standard line. When I pushed back, he came across that he was vetting my work for someone at DFAT,” Lee said.
However, Jackman said “sponsors of our research do not have editorial control”.
Jackman said a draft of the article had been received and was deemed to be of insufficient quality. “I have been advised that DFAT was not shown the draft. A determination was made that it was not worth requesting a rewrite.”
Lee was paid a portion of the original contract and allowed to retain rights to the work. The report was subsequently published by another think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald