The Issues for Australia in the Asian Century Begin at Home

ImagePRESIDENT’S COLUMN: Publication of the prime minister’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century can’t come soon enough. Dr Ken Henry and his team have been putting the finishing touches to it, and it will now be September at the earliest before it appears, and that assumes Julia Gillard will push it out quickly.

There is a real danger that some of its content will be overtaken by events. It’s not clear to what extent it will deal with defence concerns such as the stand-offs in the South China Sea(the subject of our AIIA meeting today(Aug 8) and the potential use of the Cocos Islands as a base for American drones. Possibly not at all, since a new White Paper on defence is also in preparation.

The events that may have overtaken Dr Henry’s thorough examination are all now at the heart of Australia’s domestic politics. They all derive from economic issues, and they are all directly relevant to Australia’s role in the Asian Century.

They are foreign ownership, agricultural development, the environment and immigration.

And while foreign minister Bob Carr has had a solid start in his portfolio, with some achievements, there is no evidence that either he or the prime minister have grasped the importance of these core issues that all directly affect our foreign relations, but which are under the custody of other ministers.

First, foreign ownership. Here Tony Abbott has opened a Pandora’s box with his speech in Beijing, followed up by an interview with his favorite shock jock, Alan Jones. He told Jones – never one to play down a story – that a Coalition government would introduce much tougher scrutiny of attempts by foreigners to buy agricultural land, and added the perfect sound-bite, “it’s virtually open slather on agricultural land at the moment”.

No Tony, it isn’t. I think I’m correct in saying only 6 per cent of farmland is in foreign hands – despite the fact that many Australian landowners are selling up.

Australian agricultural production could – with sensible joint ventures and investment, particularly in the North – be more than doubled, providing food to meet the increasingly sophisticated needs of the rising Asian middle class. The Federal government lacks the vision to do this, probably because there are no votes for Labor in the wet north of the country. It prefers to use billions of dollars to prop up an uncompetitive auto industry in the far South.

If Australia will not invest in agribusiness in the Kimberley region and in northern Queensland, it is only reasonable to allow foreigners to do so. China, and other Asian nations with large populations, inevitably will turn to other, more hospitable governments, such as Canada.

There is a related issue here, and that is water. Australia, the so called ‘dry continent, is in the top ten list of wettest countries. Most of the rain falls in the North, and most of that runs out to sea, just like the rain that falls in my part of Sydney, a city that statistically is wetter than Manchester.

Our forefathers built the wonderful Snowy River scheme – one which, if it had been mooted today, would be opposed by the Greens and the unions – but in the 21st century present day leadership seems incapable of engineering a scheme that would put this wasted water in the North to good use. It is good to read today that West Australian premier Colin Barnett is putting an aquifier from the Kimberley back on the agenda, and he will need foreign investment to make it happen.

The second issue concerns the environment, and the most important aspect of this is Australia’s bid to become the world’s second or third largest gas exporter. Here a largely Australian-owned industry is being stymied by a myriad of diverse regulations and bureaucracy that makes no sense.

It is essential that we protect World heritage areas such as the Great Barrier Reef and the quality of water supplies from the Great Artesian Basin. But both state and federal governments have created a complex set of regulations that will handicap a fledgling industry that is creating thousands of jobs, and providing essential energy for Australia’s customers in China, India and elsewhere in Asia.

Add to this the nonsensical suggestion of Australian Workers’ Union secretary Paul Howes that gas exports should be restricted – in order to create an over supply to get the price down for Australians – and you realize why international investors are starting to think twice about risking their billions in Australian resources. Whatever else Mr Howes may be doing, he is not acting in the interest of an Australia in the Asian century.

David Byers, the chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association- who will shortly be a guest speaker at the AIIA – estimates that in eastern Australia alone there is enough coal seam gas to power a city of one million people for 5000 years. According to Geoscience Australia that is nearly 240 trillion cubic feet of gas, to which can be added nearly 400 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, as yet unexploited.

Then, immigration. This is a subject which could and should be debated at great length. Suffice it to say, Australia’s immigration policies are not working. The level of debate on asylum seekers, as former DFAT chief Phillip Flood observed recently at the Glover Cottages, is abysmal, and seems unlikely to improve any time soon.

But the wider immigration issue is a bigger problem also, and Mr Howes and his friends must share of the blame for this with their rhetoric that caused the government to rethink work visas for industries where there are serious skills shortages, so that vacant jobs could be offered to Australians.

But where, in this country, are the 50,000 trained engineers that are needed by the gas industry? It is sensible to train more engineers – and for the government to create the mans for this to happen – but until these and other highly skilled jobs can be filled, it surely should be a policy priority to bring them here from Asia, a move which would help to further integrate us into the region.

Finally, I was interested to note today that an impressive list of Australia’s business leaders are so dismayed by our official handling of our relationships with China that they have taken matters in their own hands and formed the Sino-Australian Business Leaders’ Partnership.

Not before time, you may say. But the fact remains that our political leaders from both sides of politics have not been impressive when they have set foot in China, and they have not spent much time in the other Asian capitals.

We can only look forward to what Dr Henry sees as the issues for Australia in the Asian century. Let’s hope his report starts with economics, and features the essential problems of adjustment closer to home. And let’s hope it does not suffer the same fate as his report on taxation, now pigeon-holed in Canberra.

Australia in the Asian Century will be the focus of an all day
symposium of the Australian Institute of International Affairs at
Parliament House, Macquarie St, Sydney on Friday August 24. Admission
is Free. The forum will feature participants from China, Japan and
other Asian countries as well as influential Australians.

Colin Chapman is the AIIA NSW President.

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