COLUMN: International Women’s Week – a tale of two speeches

PM GillardNOTES ON THE NEWS: Sunday was International Women’s Day, and I was out early, combing the markets for fresh vegetables. But then I tend to do the household shopping anyway. Still, it’s worth remembering that even in the 21st century, in many parts of the world, including much of Europe, this is seen as a predominantly female activity.

Julie BishopAnd as United States and our troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, the war abandoned, we leave many of that nation’s women to face a future that us at best uncertain and at worst fraught with danger and lack of fulfilment.

Here in Australia it is different. We have a women prime minister, and other women in Cabinet. If the Coalition wins the election we will have a female foreign minister, a first for Australia. Women are now well established in the professions, the media, and the trades unions; it’s only in boardrooms where there presence is inadequate, a position partially fostered by ludicrous rules at so-called gentlemen’s clubs, which are losing patronage. It’s a far cry from the day, shortly after my first arrival in Australia 40 or so years ago when I was instructed by an odious Canberra publican to “take my sheila to the ladies lounge”.

By coincidence, the last few days have also allowed us to watch our two leading political women – Julia and Julie – make speeches and appear on television.
Julia Gillard – campaigning in Western Sydney just days after insisting that her announcement of a September 14 election date was not the precursor to such a campaign – shocked business leaders and Asian embassies by crackdown on the 457 temporary work visas.

These visas have been one reason the country has remained prosperous in recent years, bringing to Australia professional and technically qualified people to fill jobs that have been vacant because of an acute skills shortage. As any economist will tell you, these 457 immigrants have spent money in Australia that has created work for semi-skilled and unskilled Australians.

Seasoned commentator Paul Kelly, writing in The Australian, called it a “shallow electoral stunt that defies reality”. The Australian Financial Review described it as “Gillard narrowcasting to her tribal base”.

What is perhaps more relevant for foreign affairs aficionados and the AIIA is that it is less than six months since the Gillard government was spruiking the benefits of skilled immigration in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. Chris Bowen, the relevant minister at the time, actually put out a press release I re-read today which said:

“Australia is set to capitalise on Asia’s highly-skilled population to create an educated, productive workforce to bolster our economy. Even with the government’s unprecedented investment in tertiary education and up-skilling Australians, we need migrant who bring their specialist skills to Australia”

Bowen pointed out that seven out of the ten top sources in last year’s migration program were from countries in the Asian region. His replacement as immigration minister, Brendan O’Connor – brother of the national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union – has been quick to echo the Gillard message that somehow or other the growth of the 457 visas is the fault of the Howard government that created them. “We inherited from the former government a 457 temporary foreign worker visa program that was out of control”, he said, on message.

This is a political quote for the ABC new fact-checking team – if it has been appointed – to look at. I think they will find that the numbers actually peaked under Gillard’s watch to 125,070 in the 2011-12 financial year. I don’t have the figures, but you can assume that these migrants contributed substantially more to the Federal budget than the mining tax.

And so to Julie Bishop. Her speech was to the Australia-Indonesia Dialogue, the second such meeting between civic, business, academic and media leaders in Sydney that I described last week. The Dialogue was also addressed by Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr.

Bishop has clearly mastered her brief in the hope of succeeding Carr in September. She believes there is no more important relationship for Australia than the one with Indonesia, which is heading towards having a bigger economy than that of either Germany or Britain within 30 years.

She sees foreign policy as being based on economic diplomacy, with a renewed emphasis on concluding free trade agreements with China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia – echoing Tony Abbott’s description of “more Jakarta, less Geneva”. “That should not give anybody cause to question our commitment to our international obligations nor our desire to serve with distinction in multilateral fora’ including the UNSC, but our priority will be unmistakably regional”.

Bishop used her speech to announce some Coalition policies too. There would be a ‘no surprises’ policy towards Indonesia. “We will discuss, consult, engage with Indonesia…to ensure that it would be unthinkable for an Australian government to make a decision that would impact on Indonesia, without even bothering to pickup the phone”.

She said she would reactivate Australia’s interest in the 20-nation Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, whose agenda had been “underdone”. Certainly this seems an understatement, judging by the organisation’s website.

A more productive proposal from Bishop is for DFAT to make more use of the social media to encourage people-to-people contact. DFAT’s media relations are still locked into old media, its posting of ministerial speeches is slow, and its press releases often lack any useful information. It is as bad on the trade side as in the foreign policy area. This is an area you would have expected the media conscious Carr to make improvements, but we have yet to see it.

To return to Bishop. She reserved her “signature” policy until last, what she called “the new Colombo Plan”. In fact it is a reverse of the old Colombo Plan, established in 1951, which brought 40,000 bright young people to Australian universities over a period of 30 years. The plan will be supported by business, which will provide internships for students for a semester.

The new Colombo Plan will make it possible for young Australians to live and study at universities in the region, so that it “becomes the norm rather than the exception to do so”. “From a public policy point of view, I can’t think of a better way to increase our two-way engagement than to have a body of young Australians who have lived and worked in the region”, said Bishop.

The Coalition’s plan is to be discussed at a roundtable in Canberra on March 22, to which the higher education sector, the business sector and NGOs have been invited.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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