Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 11:38 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 11:38 | SYDNEY

Asian Century: Marker, map and menu


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.

2 November 2012 10:44

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.

Australia has shifted a long way beyond the comforting promise that it could engage with Asia without having to change itself. 

The Asian Century White Paper enshrines the understanding that much in Australia must be transformed. The White Paper is a map identifying 25 important roads with some routes only lightly sketched. Or, if you like, see it as a menu that doesn't give the price of the meals. The problems of process and politics explain some of those shortcomings, but a policy that doesn't account for the pesos is deeply problematic.

The White Paper does not proclaim a new era so much as mark another important moment in The Great Asia Project that Australia has been consciously and consistently pursing for 40 years. John Howard identified the start date for The Great Asia Project as 1972: 'For more than 40 years, every serious political leader in Australia has been committed to the belief that close engagement and collaboration with our Asian neighbours was critical to Australia's future.'

The point about 'every serious political leader' is a notable one which I'll come back to. On 'engagement and collaboration', the White Paper offers plenty of data on what has been achieved in the first four decades of The Great Asia Project; the journey from now is as much about what must happen inside Australia as it is about dealing with Asia.

To summarise the argument in a few words: for Australia, Asia is near, not far. We must be in, not out. Australia must be more than engaged, it must be committed (drawing on the old joke that, in the production of bacon and eggs, the hen is engaged but the pig is committed!).

The White Paper is the biggest possible policy statement of the 'all change for Asia' position. This is a shift beyond the old political orthodoxy or implicit common ground in the arguments between Howard and Keating, who both thought Asia would mostly love us as we are. Howard famously saw no need to choose between our history and geography. Keating embraced geography over history but, apart from the need to ditch the monarchy, his mantra was about Australia integrating, not transforming.

Now the discussion is about what Australia must do within itself to adjust to Asia, as well as what Asia is doing to Australia; no longer is it merely a matter of what Australia can do for Asia.

The White Paper starts with the words, 'Asia's rise is changing the world', and then goes on to talk about all the ways Australia is going to have to shift to deal with the 'staggering scale and pace' of these 'profound' developments. That is a profoundly domestic document (well suited to Julia Gillard) as it ranges over the Asian impact on Australia's public service and executive suites and schools. Thus, domestic policies will have to supply the real details of many of the 25 national objectives on the White Paper's map or menu. The forthcoming education funding model, for instance, is going to carry quite an Asian Century load.

One interesting element in the responses to the White Paper is in all the ways the dogs didn't bark. The barking we have heard has been mostly about the lack of dollars, not about the direction.

Malcolm Cook remarks on the limited coverage by the tabloids. The tabloids are, indeed, important attack dogs because of their finely tuned populist noses. The idea of teaching Asian languages to every Australian kid did not, apparently, look like red meat to the redtops. Nothing to bark at there; back to rising electricity prices.

Malcolm's worry is that the tabloid lack of interest indicates Australians just don't want to think about Asia. Perhaps, but maybe many Australians, like the tabloids, didn't see much to get excited about: Asia is important? Yeah, got that memo a while ago. Asia is paying the national bills? Knew that. Just hope we don't have to get our heads around Mandarin to help the kids with the homework. Asia is our future? Tick! Get back to us when you've worked out the details. The people expect the polity to do the policy particulars.

In all the various reactions to the White Paper, there have been a lot of 'Yes, but...' responses (Yes, but where are the dollars?) and even been a bit of 'Yes, of course'. But there haven't been any vehement NO responses.

The Great Asia Project is the agreed position of every significant Australia political party. There is no anti-Asia element on the left, right or middle of Oz politics. Compare and contrast the Oz position with Britain, where Euro-scepticism amounting to Europhobia is a throbbing element of mainstream politics. In the geography-history stakes, many Poms would like to veto geography and escape back into history; that is not an option that has had much of a run in Oz politics for decades.

To use John Howard's phrase, 'every serious political leader in Australia' for four decades has been pushing The Great Asia Project and the effort has already changed the nation. From immigration policy to tariff levels, this country has been getting ready for the Asian Century for quite a while.

Julia Gillard's challenge is not just a matter of delivering the dollars to do what the White Paper promises. She also has to find ways to persuade and inspire to match the ambitions. The gap between vision and strategy is well captured by Paul Kelly:

In 40 years covering national governments I cannot recollect a previous vision statement that has been so ambitious nor a statement where the gulf between present outcomes and future benchmarks is so substantial.

In deciding to have the Asia Century inquiry in the first place, Gillard took close advice from Paul Keating. It was classic Keating conjuring that he could compress the essence of the White Paper into one vivid image. China and India, Keating said, are on track to becoming the largest economies in the world, and this is like switching the world's magnetic field: 'The intensity of this polarity shift is of such magnitude, all the filings of Australian foreign, trade, investment and cultural policy should find themselves going in the direction of that magnetic field.'

Gillard should sit down with Keating again to discuss the ups, downs and magnetic effects of trying to turn an Asian vision into Australian votes, much less a working policy.

Photo by Flickr user avlxyz.