It was spruiked as a road map to guide Australia to be a more prosperous and resilient nation, with high wages and a dynamic economy, but it fell short of that. It was a bit like using satellite-navigation on a new housing estate, you realized you were going in the right direction but lacked precise directions.
The document bore many traces of the intellectual rigor of Dr Ken Henry, the former Treasury boss who led the drafting process. However, the final version has been subjected to the modern equivalent of the blue pencil, with some rewrites to remind us – if we’d forgotten – that the United States wants a big place in the Asian Century. There were also quite a few barely disguised exhortations to business leaders to get their act together – as if all the heavy lifting had been done by politicians, which we know not to be the case.
The hand of Penny Wong can also be detected, because, unsurprisingly, there were very few recommendations that might have a short-term impact on the Federal budget. Additional consulates in China, India and Indonesia are proposed, but this would only bring us up to the level of countries like Britain or Italy, which have even less money to spare than us. And, under questioning, the prime minister reminded us that such additions were subject to fiscal discipline, which clearly remains a key element of government policy.
The white paper is vague as to how further engagement in Asia is going to make us a high wage economy, while also regaining competitiveness. Surging costs in the mining, energy, airline and tourism sectors have done as much damage to Australian competitiveness as the high dollar, and I suspect the next World Competitiveness Report will show we have declined.
Still, let’s not carp. Julia Gillard’s speech, at the Sydney launch of the 312-page white paper, was one of the best I’ve heard, not least because she very clearly has taken on board the need for further attitudinal and policy changes if Australia is to achieve the goal becoming a a more prosperous and resilient nation by 2025 with wealth more evenly shared.
The Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove jokingly noted that this Gillard speech might not get the two million hits on YouTube attained by that earlier one on misogyny, but you have to hope that it will be downloaded across the land for the sensible messages it contained.
Of all the chapters in the white paper the one on building Australia’s capabilities is probably the most prescient. Noting that Australia’s education standards have slipped in recent years, especially when compared with China, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, the white paper wants Australia’s school systems to be in the world top five by 2025. PM Gillard announced every child will be taught an Asian language, while another recommendation is for every student to undertake Asian studies, and for all schools to “engage” with at least one school in Asia.
But while the government still has not found the money to implement the Gonsky Report recommendations, this looks problematical. The teachers have to be found, for a start.
It is also not clear how the recommendation that decision makers in Australian businesses, parliaments, universities, national organisations and the public services will gain “deeper knowledge and expertise of countries in the region” – including the goal of one third of the board members of Australia’s publicly-listed companies, authorities, agencies and commissions”. It sounds like good business for Qantas.
There is also a question of attitudinal change. The prime minister said she hoped that economics correspondents on the nightly TV news shows would report more about Asian economies, and less about Europe or North America. As I mused to ABC managing director Mark Scott, does this mean that the ABC or the Australia Network will be financed to provide an Asian economic correspondent, because it’s not a bad idea. But even if such an individual were appointed would they run her reports on the 7 o’clock news, and if they did, would people watch?
Then there is the question of regional development, especially in Australia’s north, and what the report calls “Darwin’s evolution”. This is very sensible – and the AIIA has been advocating the development of the northern half of Australia, particularly in agriculture for some time.
But, as trade minister Craig Emerson pointed out, Asian investment is fiercely opposed by people like Barnaby Joyce, who has aspirations to be leader of the National Party, and therefore deputy prime minister, in a Coalition government.
And if PM Gillard and the ALP are re-elected, there will be an increase in immigration from Asian countries, to meet the ongoing skills shortage. Seven of the top ten countries sourcing migrants are now in Asia, with the Indian sub-continent the largest source at 23 per cent. That may well improve our competitiveness, but it shows, as do all the examples I have given, that the white paper is as much about changing domestic policies and attitudes as it is about foreign diplomacy.
PM Gillard’s speech is available in text here.
Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA NSW.