Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 01:00 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 01:00 | SYDNEY

2020 Summit: Asian tongues and Pacific labour


Graeme Dobell

21 April 2008 10:12

The recommendations from the foreign policy/security stream of the 2020 summit chime quite closely with policy inclinations of the Rudd Government. And most of them don’t even come with much of a price tag. The call to become Asia literate and lift language education will add an extra $100 million to the budget over time. But letting in workers from the South Pacific (and even East Timor) will be a cost to Australia’s farmers, not the government. And as for the first stated ambition ('foster a reputation as an effective global citizen'); as the advertisement puts it – that’s priceless. 

As on the second day of most conferences, there were one or two sore heads and a bit of grumpiness.  Tempers were not improved by having to spend the first hour of the morning sitting in the Great Hall serving as the background extras for a love-in with a few delegates, hosted by Sky TV. The hour seemed like a lot of passive time that could have been spent arguing.  The policy recommendations had to be finished by noon, so they could be rushed to the Prime Minister’s office to be loaded into the 40 page Interim Summit Report Kevin Rudd would issue by mid-afternoon. Was this timetable evidence that the policy outcomes the delegates were striving for were actually pre-cooked?  

In the 'Australia's Future in the Region and the World' stream of the Summit, the dozen or so topic headings of Saturday had boiled down to five headings by Sunday: (i) regional literacy – languages and culture; (ii) broaden security concepts – new challenges; (iii) new approaches to the Pacific; (iv) human rights – international law and institutions; and (v) engagement with major powers — China, India, Japan and the US. By mid-afternoon, this is what it had turned into:

  • To foster a reputation as an effective global citizen, including through making an active and innovative contribution to the resolution of global challenges
  • To reinvigorate and deepen our engagement with Asia and the Pacific.
  • To ensure that the major languages and cultures of our region are no longer foreign to Australians but are familiar and mainstreamed into Australian society.

The Asia language aspiration is Kevinism of the purest kind. As the Prime Minister summed up at the end of the day, the vision is 'to make Australia the most Asia-literate country in the collective West.' The recommendation was put in the most general terms. There was no reference to a second language being a compulsory part of education. But the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, was certainly getting with the spirit with his endorsement of the idea on Channel 10’s 'Meet the Press' on Sunday morning, even before the recommendations were finalised.

The discussion of special labour access for the South Pacific is one more step in the labour mobility policy process. If all goes to schedule, in the next three months Cabinet will consider the details of a pilot scheme to give temporary visas to Islanders to do seasonal work such as fruit picking. The Prime Minister aims to have that deal done in time for the Pacific Islands Forum in August.

The ACTU’s President, Sharon Burrows, was one of the delegates in the foreign policy sessions. The tacit union endorsement explains the unwieldy wording of the recommendation: 'Labour mobility: A rights-based labour mobility program for the Pacific.' 'Rights-based' means the Islander seasonal labour must have exactly the same pay and conditions as other Australian workers. The recommendation that went up from the policy session was that the special working visas should be offered to both the South Pacific and East Timor. In the final document, however, East Timor went missing.

The debate on engaging the major regional powers – the US, Japan, China and India – was a quick skate through myriad minefields. The discussion tended to concentrate at the soft or non-traditional end. The hard-power warriors on hand – ADF chief Angus Houston, ex-chief Peter Cosgrove and the Defence Department Secretary, Nick Warner – didn’t have too many gallops around the policy paddock.

The recommendation to establish 'a regional energy security forum' is another element in what shapes as the great foreign policy narrative being created by the Rudd Government. The connections run from global warming to food security to energy security to the energy market incentives Australia can offer China to get a free trade deal. And talking to China and India about energy security is a non-threatening way of getting that word 'security' discussed.

It’s early days for this narrative, though, and some of the details are little shaky. The full recommendation reads: 'Establish a regional energy security forum including all four majors (US, Japan, China, India) and Australia in the ASEAN-6 context.'  Dandy, except for the point that the US does not attend the East Asian Summit (the formal title for ASEAN-6).

Take your pick about who would have the strongest objection to the formulation for an energy forum as produced by the 2020 summit: ASEAN (which formally runs the show) China (which sees the show running to its wishes) South Korea (not mentioned) or the US (which in theory would have to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation before it could attend). Myriad minefields, indeed, and after all the recommendation had to be with the PM’s office by noon.

Most unusually for Canberra, the Summit was open to journalists from start to finish. Perhaps the Rudd Government really does intend to live up to its promise of openness. Almost until the moment the Summit kicked off on Saturday, the planning was that much of the discussion would take place in private, with the reporters shut out. Perhaps the media won the day with the argument that reporters should have at least the same access as the scribes enjoyed in the 1890s at the constitutional conventions to create the Commonwealth. For this reporter, it was a welcome change to Canberra’s 'official secrets mindset'. This holds that if you if you’re an official, you better make it secret or you won’t be an official for long. The 2020 summit conducted its arguments in the open. Not a bad habit for the 21st century.