John Menadue. Our lack of business and political skills in Asia.

Jan 28, 2014

The Business Council of Australia and business executives keep reminding us of the need to increase our productivity by up-skilling and better use of our labour resources. Unfortunately the business sector is spectacularly lagging in equipping itself for opportunities in Asia.

Last week The Australian Financial Review surveyed the schools and educational backgrounds of the CEOs of our top ASX100 firms. It found that one third of these CEOs went to secondary schools outside Australia. But not one of them had spent their formative schooling years in Asia.

This confirms the dismal record of Australian business in Asia.

  • I have yet to learn of a single chairperson or CEO of any of our major companies who can fluently speak any of the key Asian languages.
  • A recent survey by the Business Alliance for Asian Literacy, which represents 400,000 businesses in Australia, found that ‘More than half of Australian businesses operating in Asia had little board and senior management experience of Asia and/or Asian skills or languages’.
  • Because of the lack of integration of human resources and business strategy in Australian firms, many executives who are posted to Asia leave within a few years of their return.  They find the culture in the Australian head office quite unsympathetic to Asia and the experience that they have gained.
  • Australian firms do recruit Australian-born citizens of Asian descent, but they are more likely to be recruited for their good grades and work ethic than future leadership potential. It is hard to break into the Anglo clubs that dominate so many of our large companies.

Equipping ourselves for Asia has been on and off our agenda for many years. In 1989 the Garnaut Report pointed the way that Australia should respond to the North East Asian Ascendancy.  Through the Hawke/Keating Government periods we responded. We opened up our economy. More skilled people began working in the region. The media became more interested in Asia and exchange programs were established.

And then in the Howard years we went on smoko. We were encouraged to be relaxed and comfortable and not get too excited about equipping ourselves for Asia.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments slowly tried to get us back on track. Ken Henry reported in 2012 on Australia and the Asian Century, and how we should respond. A few targets were suggested, but little was really done before the September 2013 elections. The Rudd/Gillard Governments were distracted by other issues.

The Abbott Government shows signs of pushing us off track again with its clumsy handling of our relations with China and Indonesia. Tony Abbott talks about his belief in the “Anglosphere”. It is not clear what he really means but most observers would conclude that it excludes Asia

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop is now telling us that ‘our single most important economic partner is in fact the United States’. The blinding and obvious fact is that the two-way trade between Australia and China is $130 billion p.a. compared with $60 billion p.a. between Australia and the US. To bolster her amazing assertion, Julie Bishop adds in US investment in Australia. Where is she getting this US-centric nonsense from?  It is trade flows that traditionally determine economic relationships, not investment. To top it off Julie Bishop then added that the US is our ‘best friend in economic terms’ when clearly it isn’t.  For the second time in three weeks we have gone out of our way to offend China.

At least the Gillard/Rudd Governments pointed to the direction we had to head – Asia. Now the Abbott Government seems to be suggesting that Asia could be the wrong direction.

Our business sector seems to be in agreement with the Abbott Government that Asia is not as important to our future as we all thought

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