Ideas man … Trade Minister Craig Emerson.So tomorrow, here at last and in Sydney, too, is the new white paper on Australia in the Asian Century prepared by some of our top brains in government, academia and business, and launched by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
It’s run a bit over schedule, as the original target for publication was the middle of the year, but at 13 months from the commissioning date, it promises to be a huge study produced in a relatively short period.
So huge the head of the Office of National Assessments (Canberra’s top intelligence body), Alan Gyngell, and other senior foreign policy experts have been diverted from regular duties for weeks to concentrate on and shape its findings.
The question now is: how partisan will be the reception?
In the poisonous atmosphere of Canberra, it’s not inconceivable that even a ”motherhood” proposition such as advocating closer engagement with fast-prospering Asia can become intensely political.
And that’s not only anticipating Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey or Scott Morrison saying: ”Yes, but what does it say about stopping the boats?” It’s about internal Labor Party politics too.
The idea for the study came from Gillard’s top foreign policy confidant, the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson. It was a very good idea in itself, but had the advantage of stealing some of Kevin Rudd’s thunder about being the great Asian expert who Labor pushed aside.
This will be a double wedge then, challenging Abbott’s Coalition to move decisively beyond the ”Anglosphere” and ”geography no longer matters” thinking that periodically pops out of its mouth and asserting that interest in Asia isn’t confined to Rudd.
On the sidelines, it may be pointed out that, while he undoubtedly knows a lot, Rudd did a pretty good job as prime minister and foreign minister of offending three big Asian powers – China, Japan and India – with some undiplomatic remarks and travel priorities.
In the Coalition, there are several figures already working hard on understanding the region, including the spokeswoman for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, and backbencher Josh Frydenberg, who will look beyond immediate politics to longer term national interests.
A white paper is government policy, Gillard staffers insist, not a consultant’s report. So what will it contain?
Those looking for hard policy announcements will be disappointed. Those familiar with the draft say it does not include new spending programs, say on Asian studies in schools, that will enter the federal budget anytime soon.
But the white paper is very much about how Australia and Australians ”step up to the mark” in terms of knowledge and infrastructure to make the best of Asian opportunities. With the former Treasury secretary Ken Henry chairing the panel in charge of it, it can be certain that some ideas about making the tax system more competitive – and encouraging competitiveness – will figure strongly.
On the other side of the picture, it does look at the emerging Asia, including its economic prospects, strategic relationships and regional architecture. But as a public document, it is not going to be critical of developments in other countries – though it won’t be ”Pollyanna-ish” either, say insiders.
It will be a fascinating, possibly seminal document that challenges all of us to inform ourselves more about Asia and attune our behaviour to make the most of its opportunities.
Unfortunately, I won’t be reporting on it tomorrow for the Herald. By an unfortunate accident of timing, yesterday was my last day at the newspaper. As with many senior colleagues, the current transformation at Fairfax Media has presented a moment to move on and hand over to younger journalists.
My three stints on the newspaper – the first started as a cadet fresh out of university – and freelancing in between, have given me plenty of opportunities to explore Asia, from Japan across to the Middle East, as well as the south-west Pacific, and meet its characters high and low.
Back in Sydney, Asia and the Pacific are here to be discovered too.
I’ve written about a pub in Marrickville owned by a Maori tribe, attended a Tamil Tiger memorial service in Parramatta Town Hall, drunk kava at a Tongan ceremony in Mount Druitt, heard Turkish sufi music in Auburn, and met business people, academics, diplomats, spooks and dissidents from all over.
My job as Asia-Pacific Editor continued a Herald tradition of close interest in the immediate circle of neighbours – going back through names such as David Jenkins, Louise Williams and Peter Hastings – that was driven by curiosity about the deeper trends in these nations.
It is this inner ring of neighbours – Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the other Melanesian states, and just behind them the other south-east Asian countries – where Australia’s security lies.
As enthralling and important for trade as these bigger and more advanced Asian economies may be, the Australia media must continue to bring news and analysis of these closer nations to its audiences, and not just when an Australian is arrested, blown up or killed in a plane crash.
Unless it does, it can hardly lecture Australian business for not bothering to investigate Asian markets, for assuming Asia’s consumers want the same things as our’s, for not learning to listen to what Asian counterparts are trying to get across. It can hardly lament the decline of Asian language study in our schools and universities. The white paper on Australia in the Asian Century speaks to the media too.
So sayonara from me, and thanks to all the many readers who’ve sent comments and information over the years. I am not retiring, and hope to be part of the Australia in the Asian century for a few more years yet.
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