Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:09 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:09 | SYDNEY

Asia White Paper: Process and politics


Graeme Dobell

This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

29 October 2012 14:57

This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Taste the Asian Century White Paper from the perspectives of process and politics.

The machinery stuff (the process) is always interesting in Canberra, and usually revealing. If this had been the Henry Review instead of a White Paper it would have been bigger, bolder, broader, and almost certainly more adventurous. A lot of what Henry and his team originally drafted got cut because this was not to be Dr Ken's take on the future but a Gillard Government statement of P-O-L-I-C-Y approved by Cabinet.

A White Paper is a government nailing itself to P-O-L-I-C-Y, or vice versa. That is why the established process has long been to do the review or Green Paper first, to shoot for the high spots before retreating to the safer realms of the formal White Paper which eventually follows. The old process reflected an understanding that good policy takes time and argument and even a bit of trial and error. New politics disdains such stuff — the Government must always know the answers and be uniformly on-message.

The 273 submissions to the inquiry will be of continuing use as a snapshot of Australia having a discussion with itself about Asia. The ambition and sense of adventure in those submissions hint at how much wider a Henry review could have roamed if not constrained by the need to be P-O-L-I-C-Y. The White Paper walks some of its own talk by offering up translations of its Foreword in Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. The Executive Summary is already in Chinese with the other five translations pending.

One other point where process has changed is that parliament has dropped away. White Papers used to be important documents that were presented first to parliament. No more. Kevin Rudd released his Defence White Paper on a Navy ship in Sydney Harbour because it made for great pictures.

In the continual football match between Minders United and Westminster City, the Minders just scored another win. Releasing the document in Sydney was a considerable coup for the Lowy Institute, but not so good for the standing of parliament.

With this observation, we shift from process to the politics of the White Paper.
The White Paper gives Julia Gillard a big bit of Asia policy that does not have Kevin Rudd's name on it, nor does it reflect his considerable foreign policy intellect. That, bluntly, was always part of its political purpose. 

One reason the Asian Century process had to be run by the Prime Minister's Department was that it could never have been given to a Foreign Affairs Department headed by K Rudd. Minders United saw one benefit of releasing the White Paper at the weekend as the chance to mount a sizeable counter attack to the raid by a Rudd stalwart, Maxine McKew, who was releasing her book on the regicide. Peter Hartcher captures exactly one element of the politics of the White Paper launch:

Knowing the publication date for McKew's book weeks in advance, the government has decided to deliver its long-delayed Asian Century white paper on Sunday. This is transparently an effort to drown McKew's accusatory voice, to stop the story rolling into the new parliamentary sitting week. Gillard plans simply to roll over McKew.

Not all political considerations are so dastardly. In the good-policy-can-be-good-politics category it is noteworthy how the White Paper places education at the centre of much of its discussion. Remember that when Julia Gillard made her famous comment that she had no feel for foreign policy it was to make the contrasting point that her real passion was for education.

Framing the Asian Century as one that will be won in the classrooms is to shift the game onto Gillard's ground. The political drumbeat from Gillard is that she is getting on with governing and some of that drumming is getting through. 

The Australian newspaper had three headline dot points across the top of its front page today. Two of them were from the White Paper ('Language option for all children' and 'Hawke-Keating legacy invoked'). The third point was what truly mattered for Minders United: 'Newspoll: Labor draws level'; the latest opinion poll has the government tied 50-50 with the Opposition in the two-party preferred vote. One year out from the election, this Government thinks it is now in with a chance.

The political drumbeat sets the rhythm for policy. So building on these elements of process and policy, the next column will consider how the Asian Century White Paper stacks up as policy. Or, to use the politico-speak common at Minders United: What's the vision? Give us the narrative!

Photo courtesy of Lowy Institute/Sydney Heads.