President’s diary

Friday 23 Nov.

With impeccable timing the University of Sydney launched its Southeast Asia Centre the week of an important ASEAN meeting attended by President Barack Obama – the first US president to visit Myanmar. It reminded us all that the countries of South East Asia have been – and are likely to remain – our most important friends in the so-called Asian century.

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It also came just days after former Prime Minister Paul Keating reminded us of the importance of our nearest neighbor, Indonesia.

It is important to note that this is not a Southeast Asian studies centre, designed to teach students about the many varied countries in ASEAN; it is Australia’s leading centre of excellence bringing together academics, scholars and researchers from more than a dozen faculties to focus on issues like health, transport, economics etc – or, as the director, Nichelle Ford put it, “there is not an area of life that we do not engage in”.

Michelle rightly claimed it as a very big day for the University of Sydney, and Vice Chancellor Michael Spence disclosed that Britain’s Oxford University had tried to establish a similar unit, but had found so many of the best people were already in Australia.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who launched the centre with a gracious speech, reminded us that it was Australia that first supported Indonesia’s first moves towards independence – in defiance of the British colonial power, and that his recent trip to Burma had convinced him there was no going back on reforms.

Saturday Nov 24.

Those who feel that the promises by China’s new leader Xi Jinping to tackle widespread corruption in his country’s bureaucracies had their worst fears confirmed with a brilliant lead story in the Sydney Morning Herald by Beijing correspondent John Garnaut.

John reported that Du Zuying, an Australian cardiac surgeon whose lawyers and family say has been stripped of a two-thirds share of a $300 million business, had spent nearly two years in jail without public knowledge.

Typically, having got a scoop,  Fairfax Media gave the story little prominence on its inadequate web site, apart from a follow up suggesting the pressure was mounting on Bob Carr to intervene. Read more

As part of a group from the Foreign Correspondents Association I shall be meeting with Senator Carr in Canberra on Tuesday, and will certainly want to ask questions as to why our ambassador in Beijing has kept silent about this matter for so long.

I also read that Tony Hall has been appointed Director-General of the BBC, following the sacking of the unfortunate George Entwistle, whose 54 days in the job were an unmitigated disaster. I will not go into the details because they have been reported in detail in the Australian press, and on the ABC – except to point out that the BBC’s bloated, complicated and ineffective management structure has meant that no one has really been in charge, in the way one might expect of an editor-in chief.

Hall – known in Britain as Lord Hall of Birkenhead – rose from being a trainee to editor in charge of news and current affairs, until he left the Beeb to become managing director of the Royal Opera House in London several years ago. His appointment by BBC chairman, Chris Patten – without a normal search and selection process – has been greeted with relief by BBC insiders who had feared that the appointment of a true outsider would have led to a major overhaul of a top heavy system of management. “The good news is that Tony is one of us”, a former colleague told me.

“A consummate apparatchik of whom Machiavelli would have been proud” was the verdict of the London Daily Telegraph.

The BBC has suffered from a dismal sequence of chiefs in recent years, including John Birt, who surrounded himself by “experts from McKinsey and Co, and Mark Thomson, who mysteriously has been able to convince the New York Times he should be their CEO.

The one exception was Greg Dyke, who was unceremoniously dumped when he stuck by a reporter who claimed that the Blair government had “sexed up” the document suggesting Sadam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Greg, for whom I worked for many happy years, achieved much in his time at the BBC, including unwinding the mess left by Birt. He boasted that he had saved £30 million for program making, by ridding the Beeb of all those who had the word ‘strategy’ in their title.

“I know when people say they are doing something for ‘strategic reasons’, they are going to waste money”, he once told me.

The ABC’s Mark Scott would have been a better choice than Hall for the BBC job, but thankfully for thinking Australians, he is staying put.

Not that the ABC is without its problems. It allows some of its presenters far too much leeway in expressing their own opinions. Whereas PM’s Mark Colvin is a model of excellence and rarely, if ever, breaks the rules. Breakfast’s Fran Kelly makes little secret of her opinions, especially when appearing on shows like Insiders. Mr Scott could give ABC’s credibility a lift by discouraging presenters from appearing as commentators.

Monday Nov 26.

It’s going to be a busy week. After an overnight trip to Canberra, I shall be hosting South Korea’s lively and interesting ambassador, Taeyong Cho, to the Glover Cottages on Tuesday night.

He will be the first Asian ambassador to visit us since the launch of the Asian Century white paper, and his visit is timely for another reasons: his country is approaching critical elections.

We are in luck at the AIIA (NSW) to have no fewer than three former Australian ambassadors to Seoul among our membership, as well as quite a few business people who have regular dealings with one of Australia’s most important Asian trading partners, so there will be much to discuss.

The following day I have a television commitment with CNBC Asia, a network that covers geopolitics as well as business, understanding the two are inextricably interlinked.

On Thursday evening, I will be hosting a rare visit by the remarkable Sidney Jones, who heads up the Indonesian analysis group of the International Crisis Group. She will be talking about Extremism and democracy in Indonesia. Please come and join us if you can. Details at http://www.aiia.asn.au/nsw-events/event/615-extremism-and-democracy-in-indonesia

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