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 johnmenadue.com.)

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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John Laurence 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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