Since our settlement as a small, remote, “white” English-speaking community, we have been afraid of Asia and its large populations. We have clung to remote global powers for protection — Britain and now the United States.

We have broken the back of White Australia, but it keeps coming back, particularly since the time of John Howard and Pauline Hanson. Tony Abbott’s and Scott Morrison’s campaign to demonise asylum seekers is really a proxy for a campaign on race. And the campaign against Chinese investment is really a replay of the hostility to Japanese investment 30 years ago.

It seems counter-intuitive when one considers the Asian presence — students, visitors and trade. But we are probably less Asia-ready than we were 20 years ago.

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In the 1980s and early 1990s, at the time of the Garnaut Report, we were making progress in such areas as Asian language learning, media interest in Asia and cultural exchanges, but we have been “on smoko” for the past 20 years. Consider:

  • The national policy on Asian languages adopted by the Hawke government and COAG has run into the sand.
  • The first working holiday program was with Japan in 1980. We didn’t have another one in Asia until 1996 with the ROK. We still don’t have one with China, India or Vietnam.
  • The Australia media is still embedded in our historical relationships with the UK, and the US.

Why did we go on smoko? Change is always painful and the end of White Australia — particularly with the Indochinese program during the Fraser period, followed by the Hawke government’s economic restructuring — was unsettling and painful for many. And Paul Keating was no slouch either.  He became a true believer in Asia almost overnight. It was full throttle, a defence treaty with Indonesia and an Australian republic. In retrospect, we didn’t manage the rapid change well enough.

Meanwhile, an unsettled community provided an opportunity for John Howard to reassure us that under his guidance we could be “relaxed and comfortable” again. Fear of Asia was engendered with dog whistling about Asian numbers and then boat arrivals. Howard was the big interruption in the process of Asian involvement and Asian literacy.

The biggest failure has been in our business sector. Its failure to skill itself for Asia has been a major barrier to developing Australia’s potential in the region. I don’t think there is a chair, director or CEO of any of our top 150 companies who can fluently speak any of the languages of Asia.

This lack of knowledge and understanding of Asia in corporations has meant that university graduates with Asian skills have not found the employment opportunities they hoped for.

Only four Australian companies in the top 150 bothered to put in a submission to the Henry Review.

A recent survey by the Business Alliance for Asian Literacy representing more than 400,000 businesses in Australia found that “more than half of Australian businesses operating in Australia had little board and senior management experience of Asia and/or Asian skills or languages”.

It is obviously too late for chairs, directors and CEOs to acquire Asian language skills, but it is not at all clear that they are recruiting executives for the future with the necessary skills for Asia. It is hard to break into the cosy directors’ club. Success in Asia requires long-term commitment but the remuneration packages and the demands of shareholders are linked to short-term returns.

Our mining industry is in the front line in our commercial relations with Asia but can we really imagine our new mining conquistadors building long-term relations with Asia? The Australian conquistadors spent $22 million on an advertising campaign and got rid of a prime minister and saved $66 billion in taxes. It would be even easier in future if they owned a newspaper.

I am confident the report on Australia and the Asian Century will have some excellent policy proposals. But the hard part is implementation.

In a different context on climate change, Ross Garnaut referred to the influence of vested interests as a “diabolical problem”. In implementation we particularly need a group of eminent “champions” drawn from all sectors of the community to keep the Asian Century continually at the top of public discussion. And we need periodic reports on implementation mile posts.

The key is for Australia to be open — open to new people, new investment, new trade new languages and new ideas. We are both enriched and trapped by our Anglo-Celtic culture.

*John Menadue is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, a former Qantas CEO, a secretary to Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Trade and Immigration, and a former ambassador to Japan. This is an extract of a speech delivered on Friday to the Asian Studies Association of Australia at the University of Western Sydney.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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