The Lowy Institute for International Policy, an Australian think tank based in Sydney, have distributed a series of rebuttals (on Al Jazeera, their blog and their various social media accounts) to my series of essays criticising the Australian Government’s decision earlier this month to open the doors to uranium sales with India. Previously, the ruling party had maintained that India’s undertakings and status in regards to nuclear weapons would prohibit the export of uranium – a position I openly advocated.

Rather than focus on the substance of my essays, the Institute chose to criticise me for quoting a tweet directed to a Lowy staffer from a third party:

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

This is truly bizarre.

The tweet was not written by me, it was the work of Nitin Pai, editor of the Indian National Interest Review, and fellow of India’s Takshashila Institution.

Moreover, in addition to quoting Pai, I detailed the Lowy staffer’s reply to Pai, where he insisted that the Institute comprised several “independent voices”.

The Lowy Institute criticise me for suggesting they publicly lobbied for a policy outcome on the uranium issue. However, Lowy don’t care to precisely identify what they mean by a “lobby group”. I spoke of such groupings in general terms, before turning to remarks about the Institute in social media. If I understand the Institute correctly, they – like I, and the Indian diaspora (according to one Lowy staffer) – lobbied for a result, but they consider themselves to be a group of “individuals”, which they see as being different from a “lobby group”.

If they interpret the word “lobby” to mean that there was a direct, commercial incentive to advocate particular policies, then this is their inference only. I am not in a position to make such claims, without evidence.

Most importantly still, the overriding argument throughout my 5000-word essay was clear: in part 1 I identified a “moral syncretism” in the arguments of uranium export advocates, and argued that uranium sales – particularly to India – must give primacy to arms control risks. In part 2, I critiqued a number of contributions to Lowy’s ‘uranium debate’ in some detail given that they do feature prominently, before lamenting in the postscript what I saw as an absence of any meaningful consideration of the arms control and international security implications of the government’s decision (part 3). Conveniently, Lowy’s rebuttal only acknowledges the postscript as “an article”, as if a single piece of work.

This is troubling since the passage on which Lowy’s rebuttal largely focuses – “well-funded and resourced lobby groups successfully denied Australians of a debate” – is only given true meaning when read in the context of the overall essay. Put another way, the subheading of the two-part essay for which this postscript was written could leave the reader with no question as to my line of argument: “proponents have hijacked what is primarily an arms control debate”. The postscript’s subheading reiterated this by stating, “NAJ Taylor follows up on his two-part essay…” It is nefarious therefore for the Institute to claim that, “Taylor implies that the Lowy Institute ‘successfully denied Australians of a debate’” or that I suggested the Institute’s “skills […] extend to silencing the Australian public, media, universities, political parties and commentariat”.

Their rebuttal, therefore, is premised solely on a falsehood.

Even still, the Lowy Institute’s ‘rebuttal’ contains nothing of substance that addresses the chief concern with which I concluded my essay:

“Such debates are part of Australian, and indeed political, culture. Yet it’s not the strength or frequency of criticism of the existing policy that is troubling to me, but the flawed arms control logic within, and moral grandstanding of, their arguments.”

Specific issues with the Lowy Institute’s rebuttal

There are, however, two troublesome assertions to which I must respond in some detail.

First, when the Institute’s rebuttal first appeared (it has been revised at least twice) there was a suggestion that “anti-nuclear campaigner Tim Wright” never submitted an article. This was quite untrue – as Lowy have since been asked to note on its website.

I do, however, have a question: why reject Tim’s submission on the basis that its arguments already had received “wide press coverage” (on 29 November), and then proceed to publish a critique the following day (30 November) that dismissed its evidence as mere “legal fiction”? Tim was then asked to submit a response to the critique – but understandably Tim did not do so.

Second, there are some inaccuracies in the claim that Lowy published eighteen web materials “on the India uranium issue”. Yet in fact there are only nine substantial items published in the relevant time period (ten if you count a piece that was posted in two parts). In my view, only two of those nine pieces advocate that arms control considerations must take precedence over only deal with India. (Ron Walker and MV Ramana). The remaining seven pieces were either eagerly in favour of sales, or in favour of sales, but with strict conditions.

It is grossly misrepresentative to include several 100-word emails by your readers as constituting an “open and vigorous debate”. Indeed, some posts on my blog network routinely attract over 2000-4000 reader comments on a single post – all moderated by a single blogger.

Given the Institute’s predilection for judging a debate based on the numbers, why did your tally not include all the luncheons, media interviews, op-eds, and policy briefs by Lowy staffers over the said period? By my count, the “most prominent Lowy Institute voice on this issue” wrote for, or spoke to, media an average of once a day in the two-and-a-half week period in addition to what was listed – consistently, as you say, “openly favour[ing] a policy change”. By your measure, that is not balanced.

At any rate, I fail to see how a laundry list of blog posts, reader emails, and visiting lectures over the past four years contributes anything to the specific argument presented in my original three-part essay – that is, after all, what I must only be criticised for.

To repeat: in my opinion, the dismissal of arms control arguments by uranium sales advocates was eerily similar to the denigration of those who opposed the 2008 US-India nuclear deal. They too were called “non-proliferation ayatollahs” by Indian pundits eager to secure the US’s nuclear help as Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, recently lamented on the widely-respected Arms Control Wonk blog.

Where to from here?

I therefore stand by my remarks on 6 December.

I add to them this: that if the Lowy Institute is sincerely wanting to “generate new ideas and dialogue” in Australia on Australian and international policy, then it could do well to consider the following:

1.  It should have a peer-reviewed journal, where a formal and refereed kind of conversation between authors – from both inside and outside the Institute – can take place. Opting for a blog that does not permit “open comments” on posts simply results in the Lowy Institute holding a largely one-way conversation. Any reactions, discussion and critique must occur in other fora, making dialogue difficult and less meaningful. The “media savvy” deployed by Lowy is quite unlike counterparts in the UK and the US, which both have peer-reviewed journals as well as less formal publications. I believe that the negative consequences of Lowy’s communication management are especially acute since there are no other ‘think-tanks’ in Australia that specialise on international policy besides the Lowy Institute, and in part, it is the Australian public which is funding it.

2.  The use of the media and especially social media such as Twitter by the Lowy Institute is to be congratulated (as I have publicly done before) but at what point do an organisation’s combined actions, through their quantity, tone and repetition, begin to harangue its audience? Intended or otherwise, this is certainly what many have communicated to the Institute staffers in recent times. For instance, when a sense of triumphalism was displayed incessantly by a Lowy staffer (as in here, here, and here) when the vote was announced, Paul Barratt, former Secretary of Australian Departments of Defence and Primary Industries & Energy felt compelled to chime in, both on his blog and on Twitter:

“Rory: you may disagree with the arguments against exporting uranium to India but they are not irrational.” [original].

3.  I’m unsure why, but the Institute’s rebuttal makes reference to its “members, benefactors, and supporters circle”. However, among this list are miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton – two of the entities set to profit most from any Australian uranium sales. Yet the Institute provides no disclaimer or point of clarification as to the precise nature of this relationship, on its website or alongside its publications. In many industries – from academia to finance – this would not be satisfactory. Regardless of the legal obligation on Lowy, negative perceptions of its activities and funding sources would arguably be better served if the Institute disclosed all potential conflicts proactively.

Postscript: In May 2012, Senator Scott Ryan inadvertently uncovered in a Senate’s Estimate hearing that the Prime Minster and Cabinet had paid the Lowy Institute $53,000 to blog between March 19 to June 30 2012. At the time, no disclaimer was provided on the Lowy Institute’s website. No such disclosures were made following Senator Scott Ludlam’s similar inquiry into the nature of  governmental funding of the Lowy Institute in April 2012.