The Asian Century and the Need for Political Vision

PRESIDENT’S COLUMN: When I first came to Australia in the early 1980s as a £10 Pom, Barry Jones wrote a telling book Sleepers, Wake!

He argued that science and technology had changed the quality, length, and direction of life in the 20th century far more than politics, education, ideology, or religion. Henry Ford had shaped human life more broadly than Lenin.

Barry, later to become science minister in the Hawke government, went on to predict that the informational technology revolution would have an even greater impact on society than politics.

Not everyone was convinced. When I later returned to a management job in a prestigious London newspaper, and said I needed a fax machine I was told, “Colin, you don’t need that, we have messengers”.

But Jones was right, and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the other icons of Silicon Valley have made more impact on our lives than the dreary politicians of the present generation.

And so we come to the so-called Asian Century, and Australia’s role within it. Since the white paper being drafted by the former secretary to the Treasury, Ken Henry, is shortly to be made public, hardly a week goes by without a conference taking place in one of the swankier hotels in our capital cities. Many of these are money-grabbing, self-serving events, riddled with clichés and platitudes, bereft of real content.

The forum in Sydney’s Parliament House on August 24 was an exception to this, in that it challenged much of the orthodoxy of the Asian Century debate. That orthodoxy includes the notion – peddled by not a few pre-eminent Australian academics – that the Americans and Chinese are headed for confrontation, and that we may have to make a choice between our strategic partner and our economic partner. The other orthodoxy, pushed by the Gillard government and the Coalition, is that the American alliance and ANZUS are paramount.

Seasoned diplomats, including Dick Woolcott, former head of DFAT, Ric Smith, a former ambassador to Beijing, and Indonesia, and John McCarthy, former envoy to Japan, Indonesia, India and the United States– in their own ways – all seemed to want a change in these orthodoxies.

I don’t propose to go into detail here, because it is worth hearing the whole debate and you can watch it on the AIIA’s web site:

Ric Smith was particularly noteworthy, because, as a former secretary of the Department of Defence, he suggested that too much weight had been given to the views of defence chiefs and intelligence agencies, rather than realpolitik.

This prompted the Sydney Morning Herald to remind us that Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian, had specifically said that Washington rejected the idea of Australia making a “them or us” choice, and that the US wished to build “Productive relations” with China. In talks I had with the vice president of China’s Institute of International Studies, a think-tank that works closely with China’s foreign ministry, he made it clear that China has benefited from a strong bi-lateral relationship with the United States.

If much of this gets reflected in the Henry white paper that will be good news. But the forum left aside many, if not most, of the compelling issues that confront Australia if it is to play a role in the Asian Century.

This is not surprising because these require political vision, a quality in short supply in today’s political class in Canberra, where Sleepers, Wake is as valid a description as it was when Barry Jones wrote his book.

I don’t think I heard science and technology mentioned once in last week’s forum, and I’m not over-optimistic it will feature in the white paper. There was also little mention of geography, which is central to geopolitics, and only a passing reference to energy. Food security was also ignored.

Yet all of these subjects are at least as relevant as Australia’s position between the US and China, even if you take a worst-case scenario that relations between Beijing and Washington will go bad, which I don’t.

A first priority for Australia in the Asian Century must surely be to rethink the development of Australia’s North. Should we not be planning now for Darwin to become a major Asian-Australian city, capital of its own state, rather than a neglected semi-colonial outpost? There is room for the Top End to accommodate at least two more cities, each of them thriving on an economy based on food production and new enterprise.

It will not be possible to populate the North from the South East. We are too comfortable, sleepy and suburban in Sydney and Melbourne. So skilled migrants will need to come from elsewhere.

People have long memories of the Ord River White Elephant scheme of the last century. It was supposed to be a land of milk and honey (or cotton), but it was trashed by the White Australia policy. That particular area still has great potential, as Bob Hawke has proposed, but there is still opposition under the successor to the WAP, the Keep it Australian policy.

The Top End of Australia is among the wettest regions on earth, but almost all of the rain that falls runs away to the ocean.(As it does in Sydney which is statistically wetter than Manchester, England). Those that wish to bring technology to bear in creating engineering schemes to move some of this water south into the Murray-Darling basin are either derided or ignored. Where is the vision for a major public scheme of this kind?

The Snowy Mountain hydro-electric scheme was the last truly visionary project. It took 25 years to build and involved immigrant labor from 30 countries – it was a national building exercise.

It is worth reflecting that in today’s politics such a scheme would not be undertaken – the Greens would oppose it. But opening up Asia’s North to the Asian Century should be a pre-requisite for discussion.

The same is true of energy development. While the United States is becoming – in a short space of time – a major gas exporter – Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne are strangling our fledgling gas industry with conflicting regulation and bureaucracy. It goes without saying that billion dollar investors need to be stopped from cutting corners in developments – but the political system that ensured the Snowy Scheme wads built on budget and on time has failed an industry that was set to become a world leader.

The same could be said about solar energy – an industry now taken over by the US and China – and food production, in an age where food security is a core issue.

There is an explanation for this – there are no votes in it. There are no votes in the North, and no votes in development. Are we sure there are votes in Australia in the Asian Century?

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA NSW.


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