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Federal

Oct 29, 2012

Here's one we prepared earlier: Labor goes back to Asia

Labor's new Asian vision is a lot like its Keating-era big picture, only with more spin. Labor looks like the party with some vision of where it wants to go, even if that vision is mainly rear-vision.

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If you have distinct feeling of déjà vu from the Asian century white paper, it’s fine: we’ve been here before, a lot.

Take one of the 25 objectives (backed by more than 120 “pathways”) put forward in the paper, that students will have the opportunity to continuously study an Asian language.

The first politician to promise access to Asian languages was Susan Ryan in the Hawke government, when she unveiled the National Languages Policy. Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian were identified among the priority languages and students were supposed to have access to at least one language as part of their education, “preferably continuously”.

Ever since then, Australian politicians have been committing that our students will study Asian languages.

Commitments are one thing, of course; delivery is another. The Howard government axed the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools program a decade ago, making Tony Abbott’s call for more students to be studying Asian languages earlier this year somewhat ironic.

Peter Garrett said that funding for the latest commitment on Asian languages would be part of the Gonski funding package. Indeed, the Gonski goals form part of the white paper goals.

For that matter, most of the government’s policy agenda is in the white paper. The national disability insurance scheme (under the goal of ensuring “all Australians will be able to benefit from, and participate in, Australia’s growing prosperity and engagement in Asia”), the national broadband network, the carbon pricing scheme, food security, the Murray-Darling, budget surpluses.

Even sport is in there. I kid you not. “The Australia in the Asian Century white paper highlights the huge potential to use sport to strengthen Australia’s connections in Asia, Minister for Sport Senator Kate Lundy, said today,” ran one of the flurry of press releases sent out yesterday bearing the “Asian Century” title.

That’s because the Asian Century white paper is less about Australia’s future in the region than about both domestic policy and domestic politics. The Gillard government now has itself an overarching framework within which most of its domestic and international agenda now fits, one the Prime Minister even before yesterday’s launch at the (taxpayer-subsidised) Lowy Institute was using to frame the government’s policies. Get used to hearing “Asian century” a lot between now and the election.

For a government routinely accused of lacking vision, and for a Prime Minister who has always struggled to get across to voters what her overall agenda for her time in office is, it provides an opportunity to put together a coherent message about Labor’s priorities in the run-up to and beyond the next election, even if much of the contents of the strategy have only tangential relevance to Asia.

It’s thus a reheat of the Keating years; but whereas Keating, building on the achievements of Bob Hawke (APEC, relationships with China until 1989), had arrived at a complete world view that coherently linked an Asia-centric economic agenda with multiple strands of economic, constitutional, social and cultural policy over the course of decades, this government has produced a similar strategy (guided by one of Keating’s key advisers, Ken Henry) as a broad heading under which pretty much anything on its policy agenda can be shoehorned.

That’s not to deny the merit of the policy objectives in and of themselves. Henry has used the white paper process to continue to press the same sorts of issues that he long pushed as Treasury secretary — productivity and participation, tax reform. But there’s little of the organic politics of conviction that Keating brought to his Asia-focused agenda. History is repeating itself — the first time as passion and belief, the second as rote delivery and press releases about sports.

The other virtue of Keating’s agenda — until the very “big picture” essence of his approach to politics began to grate with voters, who preferred the domestic simplicity of John Howard — was the implied contrast with the visionless, backward-looking Coalition, particularly the Howard model, given Howard’s criticism of Asian immigration in the 1980s and his monarchism. “Asian leaders won’t deal with him,” Keating predicted of Howard before the 1996 election, a prediction that turned out to be more than a little askew, although deputy sheriff Howard never quite managed the feat of getting a birthday cake presented by the Singaporean PM as Keating did.

Undoubtedly Labor is working on the same approach this time around, and probably feels in Tony Abbott it can have more luck. Abbott looks even more of a foreign policy neophyte than Gillard, and his bizarre discussion of what passes for foreign policy in Battlelines will doubtless be read with hilarity and puzzlement across the region. Especially in Beijing, given Abbott not-so-subtly suggests China will give way in the longer-term to India because, well, they speak English in India. And then there’s the ongoing problem of the National Party’s deep xenophobia about foreign investment, which Abbott believes is either politically opportune or is simply too weak to combat in the way Joe Hockey is prepared to.

The other Abbott weak point on this issue is that he has failed to use his extended period of polling strength to articulate a positive agenda, while the government has busied itself putting out the NDIS, Gonski and continuing to roll out the NBN. At the moment Labor, unusually, looks like the party with some vision of where it wants to go. The only thing voters know about the Coalition is where they don’t want to go. However artificial, the Asian Century white paper won’t do anything to harm that.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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