DUNCAN GRAHAM How not to engage with Asia

Oct 14, 2019

Every decade or so a Western Australian politician on the cast-iron balconies of the State’s Parliament glances outwards. Looking away from the Darling Range rippling in the heat rising from the Swan Coastal Plain, the watcher wonders: What opportunities lie North West?

Maybe adolescent markets hungry for the abundance of minerals and foods coming from the State’s hinterland? Just seeing neighbours as consumers is a bit crass, so policies need to be packaged with ribbons labelled ‘relationships’ and ‘friendship’. The latest is ‘engagement’. Unwrapping reveals a mostly empty box.

In 1990 Education Minister Dr Geoff Gallop (later Labor Premier and now director of Sydney University’s Graduate School of Government) pushed the State towards Southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular.

After the government changed so did priorities. Liberal Premier Colin Barnett (2008 – 17) tossed aside suggestions of promoting Asian language studies.

‘There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren’t conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters,’ he told AAP when visiting Jakarta.

This was wrist-slashing news for Australian academics and educators campaigning to boost Indonesian in schools as enrolments had tumbled by a third following the 2002 Bali bombings. They reckoned monolingualism threatens security, defence, trade and personal relationships.

Murdoch Uni Professor David Hill was commissioned to report by the Federal government; he stressed the ‘need to act decisively and urgently to rebuild Indonesian skills in Australia’.

Barnett didn’t see needs. No votes here. But when Labor went to the polls in March 2017 it promised another try at sending cheerios towards the people next door who are not like us. A policy to ‘engage’ would be devised.

In proper administrations details precede policies. Here it’s the reverse. Premier Mark McGowan’s pledge has become a case study in implementation stuff ups.

It took almost 30 months to produce the 56-page Asian Engagement Strategy 2019-2030 Our Future with Asia, with acres of splendid pictures and dazzling charts.

The public launch at the end of August carried a price tag – $320; this is steep for a coffee and choc muffin even in Perth. When a politician’s speech tops the menu only the truly famished on corporate expense accounts would have bothered.

Indonesian Institute president Ross Taylor, a long-standing and vigorous advocate for closer personal and business ties, took the surprising step of warning his NGO members to stay away from the “exclusive and price-prohibitive function …The Strategy is a public document and should be made widely available, and not be held captive to those who can afford this price.”

Attendees were addressed by Peter Tinley. In January he won the Asian Engagement portfolio off Bill Johnston whose claim to the job was based on some language skills garnered as an exchange student in Bandung, West Java. Tinley, a former major in the SAS, spent time in Iraq but has no known connections with Asia. He highlighted WA’s closeness to the expanding Asian markets and the State’s importance as a producer of minerals, grains, beef and other foods.

Such stale statements are distasteful to anyone who has ever read a map and a newspaper, which presumably includes corporates. Curiously Tinley didn’t startle by letting slip that Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere and not betwixt the UK and the US. My God! Why hadn’t we been told before? His speech was thinner on details than the serviettes, so we inquired.

It took Tinley’s office three weeks to produce these Yes Minister jewels: ‘The six priorities match global economic trends with the State’s unique strengths and resources, with an overall aim to strengthen and diversify the State economy, and create future-proofed jobs for Western Australians.’ Translation app couldn’t cope.

‘The Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation has commenced work on the next phase of the Asian Engagement Strategy, which involves scheduling activities that deliver on the ‘Government actions’ outlined in the Strategy. An implementation plan is in development and will include annual analysis and reporting of progress and outcomes.

‘The Minister … has been undertaking work to activate businesses and communities around the actions of the Strategy.’ Translation: Dithering in progress.

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of a Sister State Agreement with the province of East Java, signed during the despotic regime of President Soeharto. In the early days it started well with several exchange programmes.

One of the most lasting was bringing Indonesians to visit dairy and potato farms resulting in the Republic importing pregnant Friesian heifers and seed spuds, significantly boosting yields. Tinley’s office said ‘a number of projects to mark the 30th anniversary are under discussion including cultural/arts exchange, bilateral visits involving senior officials and a possible visit by East Java youth delegation.’ Translation: Head scratching continues.

Small positives from the strategy and in place are Access Asia Business Grants. These should help small-to-medium size shows explore opportunities. Grants to $10,000, but the pool has only $1.2 million available till June 2021.

Otherwise the ‘engagement’ lacks the essentials for moving into a successful marriage: Determination on all sides to make it work, and commitment of ample resources. Translation: Political will.

(Disclosure: The author received two research grants from the Sister State Agreement in the 1990s.)

Australian journalist Duncan Graham writes from Indonesia.

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