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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.

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.

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41 comments

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41 thoughts on “Here’s one we prepared earlier: Labor goes back to Asia

  1. Jimmy

    Another day another aritcle where BK strives to find the negatives in an otherwise positive policy (or vision) from the govt.
    That siad it is becoming increasingly clear that Abbott is no longer playing in the main game but he has failed to realise it. He is out there still swinging at the Carbon tax and MRRT while the electorate and govt has moved on to things like Gonski, NDIS and exploiting the foothold Australia has gained in Asia.
    If the libs don’t wake up soon they will find out they have lost the unlosable election.

    Oh and if Geewizz is out there strange that the one true poll (newspoll) has the govt level peggin wth the libs (not 44-56) which is much better than that union biased Essential had them last time out at 47-53 – isn’t abouttime to admit you have no idea what you are talking about?

  2. s.applin

    I wholeheartedly agree with objective of the National Languages Policy to have all students; however I feel very strongly that it needs to be one language continuously; “preferably continuously” is nowhere near good enough.

    I studied languages at primary school from years 3 – 7 (1990 – 1994) and in that time had the misfortune to cover 4 languages – a disgraceful waste of resources that resulted in a near net zero benefit to my education and a determination not to specialise in a language when I had the opportunity to do so in high school.

    If, as I think we should, students are to learn a language, it needs to be one language done continuously from whatever age is considered suitable to the end of high school. Learning a language is difficult enough when you are dedicated to it for years. Further, young children and teenagers difficult enough to motivate without them being disillusioned by the knowledge that the effort they’ve put into a language this year will be for nothing and they’ll have to start again on another language.

    Somebody needs to make a decision as to which language will be taught and then see it through.

  3. Damien

    The study of languages in schools is a joke. Not only the waste of resources that defines language teaching in primary school, but in secondary school as well. Most HSC type end of school credentials actually punish language students in the ways results are scaled, or manipulated, to reflect the relative abilities of various subject cohorts. Languages are difficult subjects and it is simply too easy to miss university entry if languages are chosen – unless the student absolutely blitzes the exam. Fixing the problem entails a bit of fundamental reform, associated with the traditional curriculum, elite schools and competitive, high stakes final year credentialling. I don’t see any discussion of those issues from the powers that be.

  4. Jimmy

    Damien – The grading of subjects in year 12 for what used to be an ENTER score does result in some weird things as people are encouraged to maths & science and get c’s than do what they are actually good at (and plan to study at uni) and get A’s.
    In most courses this imbalance is rectified to some degree by the lowering of the required ENTER score for the uni course however Language is a tricky one, being a bi-lingual Engineer could be very handy in the not so distant future but doing a language under the current system may make it difficult get into the engineering degree – this is where Uni’s need to look beyond the score and give bonuses for having a second language.

  5. Frank Campbell

    Everything Bernard Keane says about the reheated leftovers of the “Asian Century” (cringe…) is correct. Only thing different this time round is Gillard’s inimitable banality.

    “Asian century”-it’s all so…provincial, innit?

  6. Clytie

    In the early 70s, the Whitlam government was talking up engagement with Asia. I remember, because I was at school, and one of my prize books was about engaging with Asia, because it was a hot topic at the time.

    However, starting the pattern shown in the article above, we got one term of Indonesian, then it was cancelled. Pity: it’s a very easy language to learn.

    Since then, we have watched the Asian language/culture programs come and go at the whim of government. As with much education/training policy, it’s been an egregious waste of opportunity.

  7. Geoffrey Walker

    Deja vu all over again. After spending 45 years in Asia and now living back in Australia, I can say with some conviction that ‘Asia, your chicken is ready’.

  8. Clytie

    S.applin has a good point. My generation didn’t get any second-language teaching until high school, and then precious little of it. My youngest studied Turkish in kindy, Greek in junior primary school, Spanish in upper primary school and French at high school, all the while speaking English and Vietnamese at home and teaching herself Japanese. She has excellent cultural awareness, but little coherent capacity in non-English languages. As a linguist, I know she would pick up any of these languages quickly once immersed in them (due to her earlier exposure), but effective bilingualism would have been more useful to her, and to prospective employers.

  9. Damien

    Jimmy – agreed.Unfortunately, the culture of school education, and the rewards that accrue to education ministers, bureaucrats, private school administrators and the socio-economically advantaged from current arrangewments all mitigate against change. It’s the elephant in the room that no-one wants to address and which dooms announcements like this one just like all the previous announcements like this one.

  10. Geoffrey Walker

    I did Latin and French at high school and if nothing else it improved my knowledge and usage of English. I picked up some Cantonese as a child in HK and also studied Japanese intensively at university for 2 years in OZ and a year in Japan. I think to effectively use a second language you have to be immersed in it for some time. I have lived in Japan for more than 30 years and whilst considered fluent, I know that I am not there yet.There are freakish exceptions of course but in my experience different types of people learn languages in different ways. Some via musical instincts and talents and some by rote learning. Half baked teaching systems and lack of immersion opportunities tend to turn out people who are simply illiterate in more than one language .

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