Sunday, February 26, 2012

Australia in Asia's Future: We've been here before...

A new and insignificant blogger probably shouldn't be posting twice in 24 hours but events of the week (Rudd/Gillard) have captured much attention. And I guess I just had to have a say too. It was always my intention to blog this week on the Prime Minister’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century, a topic close to my heart. Public submissions are due this week. 

Oddly enough, given the events of the week, both Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd also feature as part of the unfolding narrative of the White Paper and our place in Asia.

My main considerations for this post however, centre on the presentation I made at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane. The meeting was part of a series of consultations with Dr Ken Henry, the former Treasury secretary, now charged with leading the Task Force to draft the White Paper (WP). It is easy to be cynical about these opportunities. Much is made of the failure of the academic community to suitably convey policy advice and, equally, the resistance of the public service to want to listen. However, the engaging and insightful exchanges made between academics and bureaucrats on the day were positive, polite and professional. I didn’t expect anything less, having stood on either side of the policy divide over my career. (I’m also trying to be less cynical about…everything, as I grow older.)

My concern over the initial announcement by Prime Minister Gillard last year was more to do with the ‘oh no, here we go again’ aspect, the need to announce yet another paper to talk about how we might place ourselves in the Asian Century. I was also intrigued that the WP was coming out of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (that is, Ms Gillard), and not the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mr Rudd). As a sometime stickler for protocol, this seemingly minor act was already sending signals that Gillard and Rudd were playing out a greater strategic game. I was also concerned that Ms Gillard, and her advisors, were exposing themselves to aspersions about naivety and failure to grasp the sense of history of our engagement in the region. 

As Prime Minister, Mr Rudd had proclaimed an Asia-Pacific Community for the region which sought to capitalise on his diplomatic background and China skills. Coincidentally, around the same time the newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Hatoyama also made pronouncements on an East Asia Community. It is my ongoing consternation that both PMs failed to make the most of the relationship between the two countries and move together to realise the community in the region (but that is a chapter in my forthcoming book).

I would hate to see this WP ultimately lie fallow. But I am of the view that we should be much further down the track with our relations in the region. In fact, our policymakers and educators should be imbued with a natural sense of region, perhaps akin to what those in Europe live each day without anguishing (quite so much) about place.

When introducing students to the study of the region I like to offer a couple of anecdotes. The first is that 30 years ago, as an undergraduate, we debated the proposition that ‘Australia is a part of Asia’. Naturally, as a group of Asian studies students, we figured the answer, in the affirmative, was a ‘no-brainer’. Thirty years seems a long time to keep revisiting a debate however.

The second anecdote is a little more personal. I tell students that I was one of 300 or so Year 8 students introduced to Japanese language in Queensland in the mid 1970s. There were about ten schools across Queensland at the time doing the same, so roughly 3000 new students to the language started their journey. Using my school as an example, by Year 12 we had a class of six. Of those six only one went on to university to study the language, gain a few qualifications and become reasonably fluent. Once we multiply that across Queensland and the rest of the country, and add to that the fact that Japanese and other Asian languages have become a well-established element of school curricula in the intervening 35 years, we end up with quite a mind-boggling number of potential ‘Asia-literate’ people.  Our reality of course is that the pro-rata equivalent of that 1/300 go on to make a career of it. Part of the discussion about the White Paper really ought to be about why we need another white paper at all.

Our brief for the roundtable was clear: we were to a) propose one thing Australia could be doing differently in Asia, and b) note one key fact about Asia (or a specific country) that people may not be aware. For someone with 30 years in and around the profession, it was a challenge to settle on just two points. 

For me, in this scenario, I thought it important to argue for a (re-) engagement with Asia which doesn’t focus purely on economies and markets of the region. The 1994 Rudd Report came to mind--the drive to introduce Asian languages to improve our economic position. Simply, our more recent emphasis on markets limits our possibilities. We need to remember we are engaging with societies, not economies.  

For my second point, I wanted to argue for a deeper, more strategic engagement, to let a little imagination into our thinking. For this point I suggested that Australia can have a role in facilitating the six party talks—the talks which convene occasionally to try and bring about peace on the Korean Peninsula. We can, perhaps with Japan, undertake a moderator’s position between the players. We also have a particular responsibility with regard to uranium exports, our diplomatic relations with North Korea and thus our unique position to facilitate some action on the Peninsula—if we dare think imaginatively.

In a closing comment, I also made the remark that the subject of my research at present is Japanese views of Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many leaders then proclaimed great things for the future of the relationship —120 years ago. We need to be careful to not keep reinventing the wheel.

The White Paper is tied up with the Labor Party leadership tensions. I wish it could be separated. The Rudd/Gillard contest has played out in the Japanese press at least, on a daily basis this week. Should Mr Rudd ever find himself back in the driver’s seat, he will not want to use the recommendations of a WP he didn’t commission. Ms Gillard, in the short term, will probably not be particularly focussed on its outcomes either. Good luck Dr Henry.