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Friday, Nov. 2, 2012

Australia still struggling to come to terms with Asia

CANBERRA — Australia's fortunes are shaped and determined by the broader political, economic and social forces at work beyond its shores. It has successfully navigated the gravitational pull of a resurgent Asia with the civilizational pull of European cultural and political heritage. During the Howard years (1996-2007), the dominant mantra was that Australia did not have to choose between its history and geography; that is, between Europe and Asia. Now Prime Minister Julia Gillard has affirmed emphatically that Australia's destiny is tied to its geography. In a 312-page white paper titled "Australia in the Asian Century" and released on Oct. 28, the government sets out 25 objectives to be met by 2025, with targets ranging from improving trade links to teaching priority Asian languages.

The magnitude of change across Asia with global ramifications is mapped very powerfully in the white paper. The engagement with Asia is notably part of domestic policy reforms to enhance productivity and competitiveness; strengthen education, skills and innovation; improve infrastructure; and maintain tax and regulatory reforms as well as broaden and deepen Asia literacy in order to lift average national income from $62,000 today to $73,000 in 2025.

In drawing a road map for Australia, the white paper points out that Australia too has much to offer to Asia: strong world-class institutions, a skilled and multicultural workforce, an open, productive, robust and resilient economy, a cohesive society and a growing population.

Promise and rhetoric aside, I have five sets of problems with the white paper.

First, there is a real risk of serious slippage between ambition and delivery. Thus it is disconcerting to read of plans to expand the diplomatic footprint to parts of Asia against the backdrop of a significant drawdown of resources to the foreign ministry in recent years that began under Howard and continued under Kevin Rudd and Gillard. In the midst of a constrained fiscal environment, the white paper's goals are likely to remain aspirations rather than constitute policy prescriptions.

Second, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Australia's embrace of Asia is transactional, not familial: "The Asian century is an Australian opportunity." 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. The intellectual roots of this lie in the Hawke government's "enmeshment" with Northeast Asia and neglect of India burdened with its Hindu rate of growth at the time. 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. Most Asians would be instinctively resistant to this conflation.

The core question addressed 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? If Asia reciprocates transactionally, Australia will continue to be alienated from its own region.

Third, this impression is reinforced by the fact that the chair of the task force that prepared the white paper, Ken Henry, is the former head of Treasury. This is not quite the signal of the motivations underpinning Australia's search for deeper engagement with their region that Asians would have welcomed most warmly. Australian leaders are yet to grasp that the criteria of validity and authority that facilitate the creation of deep and lasting bonds are culturally constructed.

Fourth, the dominance of trade and economics in structuring the Australia — Asia relationship is reinforced by the language of business-school metrics (top 10 per capita income by 2025 compared to 13th today, school system in the world's top five, the same on ease of doing business, etc.). There are time-tabled and measurable performance indicators across the board. To say that we will have 10 universities on the world's top 100 is to say that we will be eager contestants in the global rat race.

Fifth, it is hard to read into the white paper a sense that any effort will be invested to highlight the presence and role of Asians as integral parts of modern Australian society. Indeed goals like ensuring that one-third of corporate board and senior federal public service members alike will have "deep experience and knowledge of Asia" has the unwitting effect of reinforcing the sense of otherness. The vibrancy of contemporary Australia owes something to the presence of Asians in the demographic mix; it would be nice to see that reflected in public life.

I have returned to Australia after four years in Canada. The contrast between the prominent role of Asians in Canadian public life — for example, in federal and provincial politics as powerful and influential Cabinet ministers or state premiers — and their invisibility in the Australian public scene is astonishing. (The choice of Peter Varghese as the next foreign secretary is a welcome exception to the generalization.) Similarly, I know of at least two Asian presidents in Canadian universities, but not one Asian vice chancellor in Australia. Indo-Americans are very prominent also in the U.S. in high-profile positions both in politics and in the corporate sector. Their absence in Australia is even more striking when we recall that Asians tend to be over-achievers.

The validity of this observation can be seen in the composition of the task force that prepared the white paper: shockingly, not a single Asian. For a country still struggling to overcome the legacy of a White Australia policy in the region, this is unfortunate.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and an adjunct professor at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University

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