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.  

Ruddy Hell: Another view from the electorate of Griffith

I’ve been inhabiting that stream of the Twitterverse which has been closely following /tweeting the whole Rudd vs Gillard tussle. I found myself rather furiously tweeting (in both senses of the word) some comments which may have some of you wondering why one of Mr Rudd’s constituents isn’t keen on his return to the prime ministership. This post is, therefore, a ‘Psephy Extra’, (accidentally extra-long), a post in addition to the one I planned to write tomorrow.

This post is that awkward mix of professional and personal reasons why I despair at what Mr Rudd is pursuing and, by extension, what he is doing to diminish our political culture. He is not solely responsible; he is not doing it single-handedly. Rather, events this week are symptomatic of a bruised and battered social contract and it is our responsibility as alert and engaged citizens to rehabilitate it. The way to do it is not through the lame appropriation of ‘people power’ that Mr Rudd has sought to extol either. Government is not a popularity contest.

In 2007, I attracted admonition and whispered scorn of friends and colleagues as I failed to jump on the fabled Kevin07 bus. Yes, I was tired of the Howard Government like many others. I was disappointed with the way in which we had become a less generous society as a form of naked neo-liberalism began to establish itself like a pesky vine that resists cutting, spraying and downright cursing. But even then, for me, ‘Rudd for PM’ was not going to be the answer. Why?

Why indeed. My background and experience aligns closely with the Rudd story. I too am an Asianist, though I graduated from Griffith and Queensland Universities in Japanese studies (not Chinese at ANU); I’ve spent some time in DFAT (though not long enough to be posted somewhere where my university training would be irrelevant, in the first instance). I could spin a bit of a ‘hard-life-done-good’ narrative too if I wanted to, but I won’t. He’s not actually that much older than me, so I suppose we are more or less of the same generation (though I distinctly prefer the Gen X label, given I sit right on the cusp). Why, I’ve even ‘met’ him a couple of times at book launches and the like as our divergent paths have managed to occasionally intersect.

But in 2007, to my sceptical friends and colleagues I argued he wasn’t made of the ‘right stuff’ to be PM, and that his run was, if anything, premature but actually quite foolhardy. A PM, I suggested, should have some ministerial experience under his or her belt before taking on the top job. The opposition benches don't quite cut it. I have three instances, as an Asianist, a constituent and a political staffer, where the seeds of doubt about the Rudd juggernaut were sown. Sadly, nothing about the events of the last week have demonstrated to me he has paused and reflected on his failings and sought to make the world (not his world) a better place.

In the early to mid-1990s, I was one of the bunnies tasked with implementing elements of what became known as the Rudd Report, a paper for encouraging the study of Asian languages in schools. For all intents and purposes, a great initiative with terrific promise, a way to encourage students to explore the joy of learning an Asian language in the way I had been able to at high school. Of course I was an early advocate. But on the ground, poor planning and implementation, lack of funding, the overwrought expectations of converting dedicated and committed teachers of European languages to Asian language teachers over a summer break ultimately overwhelmed us. The resulting ‘compulsion’ of ‘Asian language learning for economic benefit’ instead of instilling a love of learning for the sake of it, simply fostered pockets of resentment towards our Asian neighbours. For all the time and energy expended, we still haven’t managed to ‘get Asia’ satisfactorily (the intended subject, as it happens, of my regular post; more on that tomorrow).

So I was a little surprised, a couple of years later, to find that the author of that report was campaigning for election in my federal electorate. Suddenly the face of a once ‘faceless’ Qld bureaucrat was beaming to us everywhere on corflutes and in letterbox drops, street corners and ads in the local paper. I was also a little taken aback that his primary campaign platform seemed to have something to do with the airport—over on the northside and not exactly the first issue that came to mind in the electorate (I surveyed the neighbours and the shopkeepers in support of my assertions). I was intrigued but perplexed. Coincidentally, I had read a book by Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint, (Oxford UP, 1993), his examination of the growing culture of complaint, litigation and failure to take responsibility in the US at the time. I was somewhat uncomfortable that a wannabe public figure was in fact whipping up a ‘culture of complaint’ over a non-issue, really—let’s face it, we live in a city, we need an airport, we need to learn to live with it—it seemed somewhat disingenuous to me. He didn’t win the first time, but kept beating the drum until elected in 1998, and he’s been constructing the ‘local member, happy little vegemate’ persona of the popular, ever since.

As life’s wheels turn, by 1998 after a period ‘between jobs’, I found myself working for a senator and doing the regular shuttle between Brisbane and Canberra for a couple of years. I beat my new local member to parliament by a few months (ha-ha). As a first-term member, I recall Mr Rudd then being ambitious beyond all expectation. He demonstrated a certain haughtiness I suppose and a hubris in decrying my senator publicly as he felt he could (since my senator had just previously resigned from the Labor Party and become an independent, sharing the balance of power—sorry, no prizes for guessing). Very early on, Kevin Rudd, member for Griffith, courted the local media and one particular fiery statement about the senator that he made in our local suburban newspaper could not be counterbalanced despite our requests to the editor. Clearly, Mr Rudd had ambition. There were other exchanges along the way, suffice to say, the videos and tales of PM&C survivors don’t surprise me.

I am, however, grateful to Mr Rudd for his contribution to steering my career, as an academic, in the direction it has taken. You see, working in parliament for one of the less-liked politicians when you cross paths with one of the most nakedly ambitious, (and I apologise for that image) teaches one much about the rawness of human nature. I’ve seen what people, who can seem gracious and amenable, on the one hand, are prepared to do to get what they want. Sometimes our bearpit of a parliament plays it quite dirty. I eventually left wanting to believe we can do better.

So, I turned to political philosophy to find some answers. I’ve been studying for a while, and I think we can do better. I actually think that transformation of our political culture, and what it has become, is in our hands. We need to insist on more policy integrity from our local members, not fall to the cult of celebrity. We, the people, cultivate our political culture—are the machinations of the last week or so really what we want? Out with vacuity, in with substance, please.

So no, Mr Rudd, you don’t have my vote, but you do have my thanks. You’ve made me seek a better polity, far away from the one you would proffer an ‘adoring’ mob. And, for the record, Ms Gillard, another ‘almost’ contemporary: you’re not doing a whole lot better for the politics for the people over the politics of naked ambition. I put the challenge to you all to contain the politics of personal ambition and foster a public politics of which we can be proud and engaged. The integrity of our political system depends on it. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why politics?

I'm often asked the question, 'Why politics?' and my short response is why not? But on the eve of the commencement of a new academic year I thought I might put some thoughts down for students to consider as we embark on another semester of study. It has also been the sort of weekend, politically, that really has those who don't follow politics, shaking their heads at me wondering why I do what I do. 

Over the next three months, I will encounter first year students who must do a required course in politics (and find it unbearable, at first). I will meet those who came to uni in order to study politics. Some of them will be curious, some will be committed party members, some will be idealists who seek to make the world a better place (I will introduce them to Kant, in time). I will teach a course 'About Japan' through a socio-political lens, when a number of students probably would prefer manga and anime. I will also be convening a fourth year honours group and we will consider some of the political philosophy canon--Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, de Tocqueville and others--as we engage in discussion which has antecedents in centuries past. These are the 'big' questions we keep pondering...why do we keep at it? 

I will, however, start classes this week in a week that kicked off with the now infamous Rudd video outtakes of a speech he made some time ago. The vid came out in the context of leadership tensions between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, caused a bit of a storm on Twitter on Saturday night (disclosure: I participated in that), turned into Sunday morning TV programs (as the twitterati predicted the night before) and news of the video has reached Japan...Oh, and did I mention the Queensland Premier went to see the Governor, and so began the Queensland state election campaign, officially. 

In the week teaching commences...and the students wonder, 'Why politics?'

It is hard to explain sometimes, after a weekend like that. Most people tend not to care. A fair bit is governed by self-interest--if I'm right, then everything's aawriiight, maaate. People tend not to like the way Mr Rudd was removed from his position as PM but really, does it matter who leads the country? A weekend like that presents challenges for me in the classroom, certainly, but that's why I teach politics.

I enjoy the challenge of taking that self-interest and channelling it towards the greater good. I tell students that they may not get the point of their politics classes until three, five or ten years after they leave university. Studying politics is about learning to navigate life and that goes on beyond the university gates. Fifteen years ago, I joined the office of a Queensland senator, initially for six weeks but stayed for two and a half years, until his retirement. I often convey to students that those years in Parliament House taught me more about human nature that perhaps it is healthy to know. I returned to the academy after that stint, determined more than ever to really get to the bottom of what makes people do what they do. Can we understand human nature? I think if we take a step back and take time to reflect on the 'big questions', we might just eventually put the weekend machinations in perspective. You might begin to understand why I teach, live and ponder politics. 

To those of you I will have the pleasure and challenge to teach, welcome to Politics 2012. We have so much to learn.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Psephy's ~ologies begins

After some months in the twittersphere I have decided to take the leap and start a blog. I've drawn inspiration from others before me (thanks especially to toddocracy) and aim to make this blog a place to develop the tweets, comment on links, and, as the '~ologies' tag suggests, occasionally write about the ideas and philosophies that matter to me. Please bear with me for a little while as I learn to drive. 

I am, by day (and occasionally by night), a lecturer in Japanese Studies and International Relations at a university in SE Queensland, Australia. My professional commentary focuses on relations between Japan and Australia, international security in NE Asia, politics and society in Japan and politics more generally. I am particularly interested in the concept of security communities in the region and the concept is underpinned by Kantian notions of making the world a better place. 

I am a political scientist by training and a bilingual psephologist by inclination. The tag 'psephy' is short for psephology (silent 'p'), the study and analysis of elections and all that relates to that. My Politics and Media class voted for that name when I joined Twitter... :~/    I occasionally tweet in Japanese. 

In 2012, I plan to use the blog as a part of my teaching and research. A number of the posts will be 'About Japan', one of my undergraduate classes which examines modern Japan, mostly for students of Japanese language but also for those interested in the place in general. I anticipate the blog posts will present supplementary comments and reflections on our classes each week. However, since this is a public space, the blogs will also be written with a general readership in mind. This is a work-in-progress as we are wont to call our experiments. 

Psephy's ~ologies will not be just about work though. As those in the twittersphere will know, I can be seriously distracted by books and reading, music, photography, test cricket, MWSE (that's a football team based on Sydney's northern beaches) and I am an ABC Radio tragic. The radio is a substitute for my TV-free life. Occasionally the blog posts will range over these topics too...

So, I'm about to set post number one free. I hope I gain as much from this venture as I have in recent times with twitter, and as always, I draw inspiration from the students I've had the pleasure to teach and the ones I'm yet to encounter.