The Asian Century – another smoko? John Menadue

Chaired by Ken Henry, the White Paper, ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ was released five months ago, in October 2012. We have heard precious little about it since. Prime Minister Gillard appointed Craig Emerson, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy. I have not seen or heard anything from him that gives me confidence that an implementation plan has been drawn up and is being implemented.

Will we go on ‘smoko’ again as we did after the Garnaut Report of 1989 on the challenge and opportunities we faced in North Asia and particularly Japan and Korea. (See ‘The Asian Century and the Australian Smoko’ which Greg Dodds and I wrote in April 2012 on my website

A key issue from the Asian Century White Paper is to ensure that the key institutions are keeping up with the modest bench marks that were set. The Henry Review of Taxation showed that policy and ideas are the easy part. The hard slog is implementation. We have not heard from Craig Emerson how the modest objectives spelt out are to be achieved. What are the bench marks along the way to 2025? Where are the champions of our engagement in Asia? Those champions will have to come from within our existing institutions, particularly in business, media and education. We have not heard from them.

Commenting on PM Gillard’s pending visit to China, Minister Emerson said that in the White Paper ‘content is important, but even more important is the very existence of the White Paper’. I am not sure I understand what he means and I don’t feel the least bit reassured.

The response of Minister Emerson was almost as unhelpful and ill-informed as the comment by PM Gillard when referring to the “Asian Century”, she said ‘we have not been here before’. That may be true for her, but she showed little knowledge of our history and what was set out for Australia in 1989 by Professor Garnaut. We have “been here before” but the Prime Minister obviously missed it.

The barriers to our involvement in Asia are obvious. The first is our large companies with their Anglo-Celtic culture and clubbish directors who are failing to equip either themselves or their companies for Asia. The second is our media whose structure and coverage was laid down over a century ago. It is overwhelmingly focussed on the UK and the US. There is only token interest in our region.

A central issue beyond these two institutional failures is our fear of Asia. The White Paper did not adequately address this issue. This fear of Asia has been with us since European settlement – a small white, fearful English-speaking enclave surrounded by large numbers of Asians. That fear of Asia is regularly exploited. The Liberal Party with its ‘stop the boats’ one-liners incites exaggerated fear of Asia. The National Party runs the same campaign against Chinese investment that Pauline Hanson ran in the past against Japanese investment.  The Greens bash Malaysia over its human rights. The Government gives lip-service to our relations with the region, but the effort is not there.

So far the follow-up to the Asian Century White Paper is not encouraging. The Garnaut Report was influential for a number of years and then we largely forgot. Asian language learning in Australia today is worse than it was 20 years ago!

Is anyone really driving the implementation of “Australia and the Asian Century”?

John Menadue


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2 Responses to The Asian Century – another smoko? John Menadue

  1. Stephen FitzGerald says:

    Smoko’s right! When you look at the recently announced Asian Century Strategic Advisory Board (, you have to wonder if they even understand what they are talking about.
    Why is there no one from Asia on the Board? Peter Varghese’s ancestry is Asian, and we should be pleased he’s there because he’s very bright and also independent-minded, but he’s there because he’s ex officio as the Australian head of DFAT. There are dozens of people in Asia who know Australia and would like to see it truly engage with the region, who are prepared to cast a critical eye over our endeavours and to be very frank in close quarters discussion. Kishore Mahbubani or George Yeo in Singapore for example. Or Dewi Fortuna Anwar in indonesia. The composition of the Board reflects a sadly insular thinking. Its discussion and advice can only be like listening to your own voice. I don’t see how you can be dinkum about engaging with Asia if you don’t include people from Asia in the strategic body that’s supposed to guide the way you do the engagement. Did it simply not occur to them? And if that was beyond their ken, surely there ought to have been some Australian Asians, to reflect the contemporary Australian demographic and show genuineness in their intent.

    What about the Board Members who are there? Apart from Peter Drysdale, where are the other seasoned Asianists who have studied and have deep knowledge and experience of the region? Where are the intellectuals (if that’s not too dirty a word) who’ve spent years thinking about these issues? Where are the people who’ve been working on the frontline of education and understand why so many attempts to put Asian languages and studies into the mainstream of schools and universities have failed? Why not some of the people from Asialink who did studies on the state of Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese studies a few years ago? Or someone like Colin Mackerras, who’s been round this track so many times he could save them fifty meetings on the subject and as many information papers? I know it’s not all about languages and studies, but just as an engineer can’t design a bridge without basic training and all the knowledge that’s gone into that training, so also you can’t design a total strategy for Asia without the equivalent in training, skills and knowledge on the part of the designers. Or what about Hugh White, strategic and defence expert yet one who in 2011 came up with the most innovative proposal for Australia’s Asian language learning challenge we’ve seen in a generation? Why not a couple of our high-ranking recently retired diplomats, who know so much more about Asia and what the engagement demands of us than just how to count the money? And what about young people? For example from among young Asian specialists in academia, or one of those who has studied an Asian language and done all the right things and can’t get a job that uses their skills, or one of the young Asian Australians who see this all from a different perspective? These are the ones who will live through the Asian century and have to live with whatever we make of it now, or don’t.

    Smoko anyone? Let’s just roll our own.

    • John Menadue says:

      Language is not everything, but as Steve FitzGerald says, it must be a major factor in developing our relations with our own region. Unfortunately, Asian language learning in Australia has gone backwards in the last two decades. As far as I can ascertain, there is not one member of the Asian century Strategic Advisory Board who can speak a major Asian language fluently. Would someone please correct me if I am wrong. John Menadue

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