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Vision not worth paper it's written on

By Gary Johns - posted Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Gillard government has run out of puff. Aspiration has outstripped ability. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the premature release of the white paper Australia in the Asian Century.

A white paper is meant to announce government policy; the Asian Century paper did not do so. Scheduled for release in the middle of this year, it was delayed for the simple reason that the government could not make a single decision sufficiently powerful to give the paper substance. There was not a single new policy announcement: just bilious aspiration.

The timing of the release was designed to get the government to the comparatively safe political haven of the Christmas break, thereafter to plan its strategy for next year. One of a dozen university departments or think tanks could have produced the white paper. All would have provided substantial suggestions for policy change. But only government can select from the vast menu on offer and make aspiration happen.


Australian governments have been making substantial Asia policy changes, with or without a white paper, for generations. To be sure, these were mostly ideas whose time had come or were part of broader policy shifts arrived at for domestic purposes. Nevertheless, these were policy announcements, not just aspirations. They were designed to change reality.

Almost all governments since the mid-20th century have made at least one significant Asia policy change. The first Robert Menzies government opened Australia's first independent diplomatic missions in 1940-41. Two of the first four were in Asia: Japan and China. Ben Chifley helped many former Asian colonies achieve independence through the UN. Menzies' long reign, post Labor, was instrumental in developing the Colombo Plan in 1950-51 to fund students to study in Australia, and the Australia-Japan trade agreement. Harold Holt allowed "well qualified" Asian immigrants access to family reunion and to reduce the qualifying period for non-Europeans to gain residency and citizenship, effectively ending the White Australia policy.

Gough Whitlam cut tariffs by 25 per cent in 1972, which allowed Asian manufactures to enter Australia more readily, and he secured the official recognition of the People's Republic of China. Malcolm Fraser, with Japanese prime minister Masayoshi Ohira, founded the predecessor of the Australia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council. Bob Hawke further reduced tariffs and opened the economy stimulating Australia's economic integration with Asia. Paul Keating secured support for his proposal to develop the role of APEC. John Howard helped secure East Timorese independence in 2001.

In the past five years the record on Asia is lame. The one standout is finally agreeing to sell uranium to India. A government that actually had a strategic vision for Australia in Asia would have made sure that something of substance, close to fruition, would be the centrepiece of the white paper.

Instead, we had aspirations to remain a "high-wage, high-skill Australia". What else would we want, low-wage, low-skill? And how are we to stay on top? Apparently by more aspiration. Julia Gillard tells us that "by 2025, Australia will be ranked as a top five country in the world for the performance of our students in reading, science and mathematics literacy" and that "by 2025, 10 of Australia's universities will be in the world's top 100". Yes, but how?

Instead of being the world's best at bullshit we might have finalised just one free trade agreement. Australia has six FTAs: with New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, US, Chile and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But Australia is engaged in eight negotiations, five bilateral: China, Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia (Australia concluded negotiations with Malaysia in May). One should have been rolled into the white paper, or at least some tough policy shift in favour of Asia against Europe in regards to market entry.


Instead we had the risible Asian language aspiration; no child will live without a National Broadband Network connection to an Asian language lecturer.

Australia has had a "direct language education policy towards Asia" since 1970. A national policy on languages was adopted in 1987 and a 1991 policy set a target of 25 per cent of Year 12 students to be engaged in language learning by 2000. Guess we never made it.

If the government really meant to do something it would pull the entire foreign aid budget, $5 billion a year, and do something useful with it. All official aid programs would be directed to Asia and all would have a significant educational component, including at an Australian institution. The policy would be morally defensible and probably a lot more effective than the present plethora of pet projects. Charitable aid agencies would be free to pursue their own interests in other programs and other parts of the world (for which they receive taxpayer support).

The Asia aspiration was a trivial pursuit. It proves that the government is just filling in time.

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This article was first published in The Australian on November 6, 2012

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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