Interview with Susan Windybank, Editor of the Centre for Independent Studies’ quarterly journal and participant in the Leaders Programme
The Australian Leaders Programme 2017 included four representatives of prominent Australian think tanks. The Council Foundation, as part of its active communications policy, is publishing interviews with them.
Susan holds a BA in Communication and a Master’s degree in International Studies from Sydney University and is currently the Editor of the Centre for Independent Studies' quarterly journal, Policy. She taught at Sydney University and has worked as a freelance editor, among other positions.
What is your opinion of Spain after the Programme? Has your perception of the country changed at all?
Yes, my perception was rather superficial as a tourist. I had already been here once, and of course I loved all the clichés, all those romantic ideas linked to the country, flamenco, fiesta, architecture… When I saw the programme’s agenda I thought I’d finally get to know modern Spain and its economy, and that’s exactly what I got.
Firstly, I got to see a different side to the country from the typical places in the South: Galicia, which is far-removed from flamenco and fiesta. I think the Programme has totally changed the superficial image I had of Spain and has allowed me to understand important regional differences.
Secondly, I was hugely impressed by Spain’s efforts in the areas of business, government and other sectors of society; by how, since the 2012 drama and the threat of an EU bailout, the country has taken measures to ensure it does not happen again. It has internationalised and diversified to avoid having all its eggs in one basket, in a domestic economy. Internationalisation and diversification have been really important for Spain.
How do language and geographical distance impact relations between the two countries? In your opinion, how do Australians view Spain?
In general, I’d say their opinion of Spain is incredibly positive, even though many people have never been. I believe this was discussed during some of the meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Spain’s international image is an advantage for the country. Even if people have not visited, they have nothing against it: there is a positive image, or at least neutral. That is wonderful for Spain, I don’t think there are many countries that can start out at that positive level and build from there. This is really good for the country.
As a political analyst, what would you say are the main challenges for Spain and Australia right now?
During the meeting at Elcano Royal Institute, I was surprised to see how Spain and Australia have both gone from having two political parties taking turns to govern for a long time to having populist parties take Congress by storm.
The difference is that this could be a permanent change in Spain and the situation will soon stabilise. In Australia, unfortunately, there is more instability. We might be a bit behind in that aspect, those parties represent people’s concerns and those concerns should be put on the table.
As promised, populist, “outsider” parties are asking the right questions, even if they often give wrong answers. I think that’s where the biggest challenge lies. We must not undo all the good economic work done by Spain and Australia over the past few years. I believe this is a chance for political parties in both countries to find the right answers to the questions the new parties are asking.
Because of its origins, Australia belongs to a Western, European sphere. Even though its geographical location entails huge differences, in which areas would you say the European Union and Australia can be considered a common block?
As was made clear at the discussions we have attended, we do not pay enough attention to this issue. During the lunch with think tanks, someone mentioned that nobody is currently defending Western values which, in hindsight, have been positive as they are linked to freedom and prosperity. Thanks to those values, negative social aspects such as racism and sexism are slowly being eradicated. I think that, in terms of a common culture and civilization, Europe and Australia can do great things.
In the Asia-Pacific region we do not have a clearly anti-Western rhetoric as may be the case for Russia, which actually shares a border with the EU. At the same time, China categorically states that it will not lean towards democratisation. I think that, apart from sharing philosophical values, we should promote Western values through specific policies.
Actually, there will be an EU-Australia Leadership Forum aimed at strengthening relations between the two regions. What positive consequences do you think this may have?
A positive side of Brexit is that Australia has been a bit lazy until now, using the UK as a gateway to the European Union and leveraging the fact that we share a language and a common history.
As this might soon disappear, Australia will have to work harder on diplomacy. Even though they say that Asia-Pacific is the future, that this will be the century of Asia, Europe is still a very rich continent, it has not disappeared yet. It’s not as if power has transferred from the EU to Asia-Pacific, but rather, it is becoming more evenly distributed.
I think that in Australia, since Europe is more familiar and is also far away, we have not worked on those relations as much as we should have. Those relations could be with three or four different countries to access the EU rather than with the EU as a block.
In the current climate, what is the role of think tanks like CIS?
I think their most important role is to highlight the impact and the consequences of certain policies. In broader terms, what think tanks do is influence the ideas market. For instance, during the 90s, when CIS started working, it was part of a group of NGOs that promoted the benefits of the market economy. And it was useful. It is a way of preparing the ground in terms of public opinion so that politicians can make changes later on without it being too much of a shock, and making sure people understand why those changes are necessary. This is an important role of think tanks: influencing the country’s intellectual climate.
Do you think that initiatives like the Leaders Programme help strengthen relations between the two countries?
Yes, and I think that Australia should consider doing something similar. One of the things I’ve found most impressive about the Programme is the candour everyone has shown, and don’t I think it would have been as useful without this. Otherwise, I could always go online and obtain the same information.
I really appreciate the effort everyone made to speak candidly about the challenges faced and the successes achieved. In the digital era, this is more valuable than ever. A good analogy would be that people download music online, but that has actually boosted live performances, because they offer something that isn’t available online.
The fact that the group is small is also very important. If there had been 12 of us, part of the impact would be lost. Making it small and really intense is very positive.
What aspects of the Programme have you found most interesting?
I was really impressed by the trip to Galicia and by being able to see two sides of the modern Spanish manufacturing industry, the military and the fashion industry. I could see quite a few parallels between them, including the way they handle logistics to deliver to their clients.
Before this trip, I didn’t know that Spain was a supplier for the Australian Navy. That’s the first thing I’ll say when I go back home: “Did you know that the Navy’s ships are built by a Spanish company?”
If I were to highlight anything, it would be the visits to the shipyards in Ferrol and Inditex’s offices. They gave me a different, unexpected vision of Spain. When I saw this on the agenda I had no idea how much I’d learn. It has been truly impressive.