Lowy: Our commitment to open debate

Australia’s Lowy Institute has been accused of denying debate on the issue of exporting uranium to India.

lowy institute
Australia’s decision to export uranium to India has created a heated debate [AFP]

The Lowy Institute takes seriously its commitment to open debate, so when our reputation is challenged, it warrants a response. On Monday, December 5, Australian blogger NAJ Taylor claimed the following in an article about the Australian Labor Party’s recent decision to allow uranium exports to India. A version of the article was also featured on Al Jazeera’s online opinion page.

The power of lobbyists:

There are numerous lessons to be learned from the US experience, particularly since the similarities in the way the matter was debated there.

There as in here, well-funded and resourced lobby groups successfully denied Australians of a debate, and a complacent and shameful standard of media proliferated falsehoods and empty rhetoric as if reasoned evidence such that even Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd – who as recently as last month strongly opposed any deal with India – begrudgingly toed the line of the party leader given the announcement was made whilst he was in Delhi.

For instance, following the vote, Nitin Pai, editor of PragatiThe Indian National Interest Review, and Fellow at The Takshashila Institution tweeted that:

@Rory_Medcalf And let me say that the consistent policy advocacy by a certain Sydney based think tank surely played an important role.

Expectedly, Rory tweeted back to the effect that Lowy staff have all reached independent views on the matter – but given the hive of activity from the Institute in favour of relaxed uranium controls, Pai’s assertion was a reasonable one to make.

The term “lobby group” is in no way a fitting description of the Lowy Institute, which is a non-partisan think tank whose research staff and fellows are free to take any position they wish on a given policy issue. We’re funded by a range of philanthropic foundations, corporate and government donors, who give the Lowy Institute complete editorial freedom.

The Lowy Institute’s research staff and fellows argue energetically for all sorts of policy positions. If that counts as “lobbying” then every pundit in Australia with strong opinions on policy, including NAJ Taylor, is a lobbyist.

Open and vigorous debate?

Taylor also implies that the Lowy Institute “successfully denied Australians of a debate”. In fact, the Lowy Institute has hosted an open and vigorous debate on the India uranium issue, as I will show below. But even if the Institute had chosen not to initiate such a debate and had instead pushed a consistent line in favour of exporting uranium to India, how could that amount to “denying” Australians a debate? We’re proud of our media savvy here at the Lowy Institute, but our skills do not extend to silencing the Australian public, media, universities, political parties and commentariat.

So what of that open and vigorous debate I mentioned? It occurred mainly on the Lowy Institute’s blog, with a dozen-or-so posts appearing over the past few weeks, some by experts invited to contribute, and others by readers who emailed me their thoughts (this was never an invitee-only discussion).

The debate included three contributions by strong critics of the policy shift (Broinowski, Ramana, Walker), one that was broadly critical (Dobell, who also wrote this and this on The Interpreter in opposition to India uranium exports), one analysing India’s perspective (Brewster), two in favour of more stringent conditions (Letts, Letts), and three putting a case for uranium exports to India (Carr, Jaishankar and Medcalf).

Rory Medcalf has clearly been the most prominent Lowy Institute voice on this issue, and this year he has openly favoured a policy change. Yet it was Rory who invited many of the participants in the blog debate, including some of the opponents of the policy shift.

In 2007 he also edited and published Ron Walker’s critique of this very policy, and last week he hosted a series of public lectures in Australia by leading US nuclear expert Scott Sagan. These events included open question-and-answer sessions in which members of the public could ask about any nuclear issue – on each occasion, India uranium questions were prominent.

Then there’s our Deputy Director Martine Letts, who in 2008 arranged for Henry Sokolski to contribute a series of blog posts which criticised the US-India nuclear deal and called on the Rudd Government to maintain its opposition to uranium sales to India. Both Martine and Rory provided substantial advisory support to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, whose report Taylor quotes in criticism of nuclear dealings with India.

That’s a pretty clear and consistent record of the Lowy Institute initiating, hosting and contributing to open debate on this issue. Claims of lobbying and denial of debate have no substance.

Sam Roggeveen is the Editor of the Lowy Institute blog: The Interpreter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.