RAMESH THAKUR. Australia’s engagement with Asia should start at home with engagement with Asian-Australians.

Oct 3, 2017

Do we want to defend ourselves from Asia-sourced threats, be smarter in doing business with Asia, or be part of Asia? The Coalition seems to be pursuing the first, Labor is promising the second, but neither seems interested in the third. 

On Sunday, Canada’s New Democratic Party chose Jagmeet Singh as its new federal leader with a solid win in the first round of voting. There are two respects in which this shows how much farther ahead Canada is than Australia. First, members chose party leaders, not the caucus, factional powerbrokers or union leaders. Otherwise Justin Trudeau would not have become Liberal Party leader to lead his party to victory and become a popular PM. Democratic participation means something in Canada.

Second, look at the striking photo of Singh – the telegenic 38-year old is often compared to Trudeau – in this report of his victory. He is a turbaned Sikh whose parents immigrated from India. We like to boast of Australia as the most multicultural country in the world. Can you imagine an ethnic Indian as the state or federal leader of any of Labor, Liberal, National or Green party in the foreseeable future?

Thought not. That is the single most telling comment on the journey yet to travel in Australia’s excruciatingly slow pivot to Asia. Yet our geographic destiny is tied far more closely and intimately to Asia than is Canada’s.

Inevitably, doubts were raised about Singh’s suitability, electability and winnability. As Martin Regg Cohn, the Ontario politics columnist of The Toronto Star and one-time foreign correspondent in India, noted on the eve of the party vote, Singh turned the whispering campaign into talking points that played to his advantage. His video encounter during the leadership campaign last month with a ranting-and-raging racist, who assumed a brown man in a turban is Muslim, went viral with millions of views. The martial arts fighter won over the crowd and the nation with a calm message of love, killing his would-be antagonist with kindness. His colourful turbans – vibrant yellow in that video – are matched by bespoke suits. He also wears his heart on his sleeve.

Another Indo-Canadian, Herb Dhaliwal, was elected to Parliament in 1993 and appointed a minister in 1997 – the first Asian-Canadian federal cabinet minister. Twenty years on, the number of Asians in Australia’s cabinet is exactly zero. In telling contrast, on 11 March last year, fielding questions from students at the American University in Washington, Trudeau boasted he had more Sikhs in cabinet than India’s PM Narendra Modi (from 17 Sikh MPs in Ottawa!), including the Defence Minister.

Asians are just as poorly visible in our university leadership. Over the past decade, Asia has climbed the fastest of any continent in university rankings. Its university leaders must be doing something right. In an ABC radio interview a couple of years ago, I noted that in 2011, when I returned to Australia, Canada had three Asian university vice chancellors but not one Australian VC was Asian. Since then there is one – recruited last year from Canada.

Asia has always been central to the definition of Australian identity. For most of Australia’s history as a European settler society, Asia as the ‘other’ was the point of reference for defining Australia as the ‘self’. Its historical memories, cultural antecedents and the ideas on which its society was constructed were European. But Australia was not part of Europe, and its distinctive identity could only be interpreted with reference to the geographical dislocation from Europe on the edge of Asia.

John Howard’s dominant mantra was that Australia did not have to choose between Europe and Asia. Julia Gillard’s White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, affirmed that Australia’s destiny is tied to its geography.

There were major problems with that paper. First, the shocking composition of the task force that prepared the White Paper: not a single Asian. For a country still struggling to overcome the legacy of a White Australia policy in the region, this was unfortunate. Imagine a white paper on women written by a task force without one woman. As an Asian-Australian, I would not have bothered to read its report. I did so mainly for professional reasons.

The paper’s embrace of Asia was transactional, not familial. Asia is set to grow economically; this will create a large consumer class; we want the growing middle class to spend its money in Australia and on Australian products. One of the major flaws of many Western countries in recent decades is how they tipped over from market economies into market societies and lost sight of sustaining community values and identities. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is in part a reaction to that conflation to which most Asians would be instinctively resistant.

As with the Asian Century paper, the core question addressed by Chris Bowen in his speech to the Asia Society in New York is not: Australia is no longer a European transplant, but an inalienable member of the Asian family. How do we give deeper meaning to this in our daily lives? Rather, the core question is: Asia is increasingly prosperous. How can we exploit that to ensure Australia remains a wealthy economy? His basic thesis, stated clearly ‘and upfront from the outset’  is: ‘Australia needs a step change in our economic relationship with Asia’. This was repeated in his conclusion: ‘If you care about jobs and growth, you care about our relations with Asia’.

Bowen’s chief complaint against the Turnbull Government is that ‘Asian economies are changing’ but ‘Australia isn’t keeping up’ in exploiting the economic opportunities of the rapidly growing and hungry Asian middle class. In this sense it is entirely fitting that a Shorten Government’s ‘Future Asia’ policy should be announced by the Shadow Treasurer in the home city of global capitalism. If Asia reciprocates transactionally, Australia will continue to be alienated from its own region.

Self-evidently, Australians are not Asians in the racial sense. It is equally self-evident, however, that Australia is Asian in the geopolitical sense. While Australia’s sentimental attachments and emotional pulls are to the Euro-Atlantic community, its geographical identity and gravitational pulls are to the Indo-Pacific. In 1998 the distinguished Asian public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore famously posed the question as the title of his book, Can Asians Think? Just as importantly, we need to learn how Asians think. To that end, welcome as Bowen’s commitment to a more Asia-oriented future Labor Government is, I will give him two but not the full three cheers for it. Penny Wong needs company in Labor and counterparts in other parties as prominent public faces of Australasians.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is Co-Convenor of the Asia–Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

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