RICHARD WOOLCOTT. A declining Australia.

 With dropping levels in education and a fading economy Australia is in a decline. What we need is a clear focus on our own area, Asia and the South West Pacific. 

A Declining Australia.

With dropping levels in education and a fading economy Australia is in a decline.

During my recent trip to Asia, which included Yangon in Myanmar, Phuket in Southern Thailand, Penang, Langkawi and Malacca in coastal Malaysia, Singapore and Java, Indonesia.

I was continuously struck by the activity and rapidity of development, which underlined for me the danger of Australia finding itself lagging behind now and in the years ahead.

I attended the Boao Forum in Melbourne on 8 December.  Mention was made of President Xi Jingping’s statement at the recent APEC Forum in Lima that China would invest $750 billion, mostly in the region, but also in Europe and the former Soviet Union.  I found many attendees at the Forum were very impressed by the Chinese representatives and the forward-looking positions they mostly adopted.

In Singapore new high-rise buildings of spectacular architecture rise from reclaimed land.  Singapore’s airport has three terminals.  A fourth has begun and a fifth is planned.  In Jakarta a very large third terminal is well underway.  After moving to the runway to fly to Sydney we had to wait for 45 minutes while seven aircraft in front of us took off and five landed.  By contrast Sydney is still planning a new terminal at Badgerys Creek, but is not yet building. Nor, at present, are there decided plans for a necessary rail link from the CBD to the terminal.

Australia is a multi-ethnic, multicultural country and having represented it for so many years I am saddened to see us falling behind our neighbours and some other countries in Europe and of the former Soviet Union.  Our GDP contracted 0.5% in the three months to last September for the first time in 5 years.

On the trip I read Les Carlyon’s book “The Great War” of some 860 pages outlining the horrendous waste of young Australian lives.  At Pozieres, Passchendale in Europe and at Gallipoli Australia lost 179,000 dead and wounded.  This figure includes those who on a cold, late winter morning at 3 am were ordered to attack the Hindenburg Line.

I am always surprised that Australia has fought in every conflict in support of Britain or the United States since the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902).  Why on earth did we agree with the British to join them in the Boer War?  Do we habitually overlook, suppress or forget the great loss of mostly young Australian lives in such conflicts.

I am certainly not a pacificist.  I would fight for my country if it was under attack, as it was by Japan in World War II.  Indeed I did enlist in the Navy in early September 1945 during a school holiday, but was not called up as the war came to an end.

Two years ago I visited Shanghai.  Greater Shanghai has a population of some 24 million, about the same population as the whole of Australia.  Multil-lane highways to and from the airport were built rapidly.  A very fast train travels from the central station to the airport in 16 minutes.

In Australia Politicians have been talking about a very fast train from Brisbane to Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra for some 40 years.  But talk is cheap and does not necessarily lead to action.

In Indonesia President Jokowi is determined to improve Jakarta and I noticed number of new roads and overpasses underway in the city.

In education, too, we are falling behind Japan, South Korea, China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) and even countries like Kazakhstan.

Australia’s 15 year olds in maths, science and reading are in absolute decline.  Our Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, has rightly said that it is simply “not acceptable to see Australia falling behind more and more countries in maths, reading and science.”  Fifteen year old students from Singapore are currently 2 years ahead of Australian students!

The way forward for Australia is less talk and prompt decision making and action.  On the edge of 2017 we seem excessively complacent.

What we need is a clear focus on our own area, Asia and the South West Pacific.  We need to acknowledge that in this rapidly changing world, China, India, Indonesia and Russia are moving ahead more quickly than we are.  I recall that Prime Minister Curtin said in 1972 that Australia would in future look to the United States for assistance instead of Britain, as we had done in the past.

I consider that Australia should now at the earliest opportunity withdraw our forces from conflicts distant from Australia, especially in the Middle East, which have unintended consequences for us and do not serve Australia’s true national interests.  Future Australian governments should refrain from any such commitments without prior Parliamentary approval.

Richard Woolcott, Permanent Representative at the United Nations (1982-1988), Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1988-1992)

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One Response to RICHARD WOOLCOTT. A declining Australia.

  1. While I might prefer to analyse the educational issues raised, the broad sweep of this post is correct. Singapores’s T4 at Changi was completed this week, the VF Train contract for a Singapore to KL service was finalised yesterday. Jakarta, as Dick observes, is displaying some noteworthy infrastructural progress, Vietnam astounds me with its progress, as do several other neighbouring countries. While Australia continues to join US adventures in various parts of the world and loses focus on the immediate region, the obvious regional links are not being adequately developed. We stand to benefit from a closer association with region from the sub-continent to the Pacific.

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