JOHN MENADUE. Is the Australian ‘cruise control’ in Asia going to end?

Last week, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen gave a very encouraging speech outlining ‘a new comprehensive and holistic policy approach to Asian engagement which will be called “FutureAsia”’.    After many false starts about our engagement with Asia, could this be the beginning of something important? Could it be as Gareth Evans has said in his memoir, Australia needs to be ‘more self reliant, more Asia, less US’.  

Perhaps surprisingly, this important speech by Chris Bowen to the Asia Society on 29 September 2017, was made by him and not by Bill Shorten or Penny Wong. But in his speech, Chris Bowen tells us that they and other important shadow ministers will be making major speeches in future about our engagement in Asia.

In his speech, Chris Bowen outlines ‘a new comprehensive and holistic policy approach to Asian engagement which will be called “FutureAsia”’.

This will include

  • Regional collaboration
  • Asian language learning support through the reinstatement of the Asian Education Foundation which was defunded in the 2015 budget.
  • Funding for the Australian Institute of Company Directors to help promote more Australians with Asian experience into senior executive positions on the boards of major companies.
  • An Australian Asian diaspora program will be established to explore ways in which the 17% of the Australian population who are of Asian origin can play a more effective role in public and particularly corporate life in Australia.
  • Annual meetings between Australia and Indonesian finance and trade ministers.
  • Cooperation with the Chinese on the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.
  • Cooperation with Indonesia for an expanded G20 role in our region.
  • Establish an Australian-Asian Studies Centre.
  • Establish an Australian republic.
  • Annual reports to parliament on implementation of the new engagement with Asia.

Chris Bowen has set out a very encouraging agenda, but as he acknowledges, we have a lot of ground to make up. In his speech, he told us that we have been on ‘cruise control’ in Asia for too long and that we give ‘lip service’ to our role in Asia.

We all need to acknowledge the opportunities that we have lost over three decades since the Garnaut Report in 1989 on ‘Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy’.

We have made some short-term improvements in Asian language learning and skills but we have been going backwards for years.

Our media is appallingly dominated by news from the North Atlantic with scant interest or resources committed to Asia.

Few people of Asian background or skill are in senior positions or on the boards of our major companies. I have been involved with major companies in Australia for over fifty years. I have yet to meet one senior executive or board member who can fluently speak the language of any of our neighbours. Our boards are overwhelmingly ‘male, pale and stale’.

The excellent Henry White Paper on Australia and the Asian Century disappeared almost without trace. It was expunged by the Abbott Government from the government web site. What vandalism!

How can we expect to be taken seriously in our region when we have a Head of State from the other side of the world?

We have a big gap to make up with our engagement with Asia. We have been on cruise control for too long.

Chris Bowen’s speech is the most encouraging news I have read on this subject for many years. In P & I we will be supporting and encouraging this initiative of Chris Bowen and his colleagues.

For earlier articles on this subject, see the following links.

John Menadue and Greg Dodds.

John Menadue.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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