EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Why Gillard's Asia White Paper will fail
, November 10, 2012
With great fanfare, the Prime Minister released her White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, not to the nation’s leaders in federal parliament but to the nation’s media at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
The White Paper was authored by a committee headed by Dr Ken Henry, the former secretary of the Treasury whose tax review, released by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, has been almost completely ignored and forgotten.
The 320-page report is, not surprisingly, a document heavily weighted towards economic determinism, focusing on China’s massive growth since 1978 which it assumes will continue into the future. Predictions about the future are notoriously difficult; but to virtually ignore Australia’s existing economic and political ties to the United States and Europe is foolhardy, to say the least, in light of their depth and duration.
It is of interest to remember that in 1989 the Hawke government released a paper, written by Ross Garnaut, entitled Australia and the North-East Asian Ascendency, which suggested that Australia’s future development would be on the coat-tails of the Asian “tigers”, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, then Australia’s major trading partners.
That plan was wounded by the Japanese financial collapse of 1990, then buried after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8, in which China was almost unaffected because its economy was geared far more to the US and Western Europe.
Australia in the Asian Century proposes that Australia surf the wave of middle-class growth in China and the growing economies in Indo-China and South-East Asia, becoming the provider of educational services, manufacturing excellence and agricultural products to the region. How realistic is this?
In relation to the provision of educational services, schools and universities have been recruiting students for years from these countries, because government cutbacks have forced them to enrol fee-paying private students from abroad.
According to a study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, released five years ago, “In 2004, Australia was the fifth largest destination globally for overseas students. The number of overseas visitors arriving in Australia to study in 2005 was 375,000, more than ten times the number (30,000) that arrived in 1985.” The numbers are certainly far higher today.
The White Paper acknowledges, but does not contribute to this process.
Another of the White Paper’s aspirational targets is that all Australian students will study Asian languages. As Deakin University’s Dr Scott Burchell has pointed out, the plan fails because there is no money committed to employing teachers to give these courses, and, in any case, there is a critical shortage of qualified lecturers and tutors in Asian languages at universities today, let alone schools.
A further problem is that there are already hundreds of thousands of native-speakers in languages such as Indonesian, Vietnamese and Mandarin in schools across Australia today. Students from non-Asian backgrounds cannot compete with them, and so many of the best and brightest will not study Asian languages, regardless of the White Paper’s aspirations.
In relation to Australian manufacturing, successive governments have repeatedly told us that manufacturing is unimportant, and that the future is in the mining and service sectors. The inevitable consequence is that manufacturing in Australia is steadily diminishing, and is now at levels equivalent to those in Greece and Turkey.
The White Paper’s view of agriculture is positively euphoric. It says, “To feed a larger, richer population, the region will need to increase productivity and use its resources more efficiently.… Australia is well placed to work with the region to bolster agricultural productivity. Australians have expertise in agricultural technology, economics and policy — supported by strong educational and research institutions — and can provide technical assistance to improve agricultural capacity.”
Yet, as science writer Julian Cribb points out on page 9 of this issue, “Federal and state governments have … methodically demolished Australia’s irrigation science efforts: the irrigation futures and e-water cooperative research centres, the national program for sustainable irrigation, the CSIRO irrigation division, and Land & Water Australia have all been wound up, while state irrigation research and extension have been decimated.”
A country which has abandoned the objective of food self-reliance, and which imports 30 per cent of its fruit, 20 per cent of its vegetables and three-quarters of its fish, is hardly in a position to play a major role in meeting the growing demand for quality food in Asia.
Australia in the Asian Century could have realistically examined the weaknesses in Australia’s economy, and set the agenda for building Australia’s technological expertise in a variety of fields, to meet the challenges of the future. Unfortunately, its aspirations are not based on reality.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.