While kudos must definitely be given to the government for bringing this to the public’s attention, one cannot help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu in the goals outlined in the paper. As the AFR pointed out on Monday morning, Ross Garnaut pursued many of the themes of the white paper in his 1989 study “Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy”, to name but one study released in the past 23 years that addresses the growth of Asian prosperity and how Australia might profit from it. Yet if the answer has been staring Australia so clearly in the face for so long, one is tempted to ask why previous governments didn’t take the initiative and actually implement the changes now deemed so necessary for Australia’s future? Is it complacency, ignorance, or arrogance that accounts for the (presumed) lack of expertise regarding Asia within the business and broader community? I suspect that it is none of these things, and that both the business and broader community have, slowly but surely, been developing the ties that government now recognises as fundamental to the nation and its future.
Of course, if these issues had been seriously addressed 15 years ago we might now be profiting more from the growth of the middle classes in Asia, but as an old adage goes…”better late than never.” The real challenge before the Australian government, indeed for Australian society as a whole, will be educational reform centred on the Asian region. The absence of a federal plan to introduce Asian languages to schools in a comprehensive manner, a shortage of qualified language teachers, a lack of resources to promote language learning (how many Japanese or Chinese programs are regularly broadcast on Australian television in their native languages? Virtually none, apart from the news on SBS television), and the lack of cultural diversity, specifically at the executive levels of Australian society, doesn’t bode well for a plan to fundamentally re-configure Australia’s cultural identity. The absence of a fiscal plan for making the targets outlined in the white paper a reality is also problematic, for at present the Gillard government is determined the maintain budget surpluses and any broad reaching educational program will require significant investment in human and material resources, possibly for the first time in modern Australian history. If the current government has the foresight to make investments necessary for the future, then Australia will benefit, but even the best intentions can be quickly side-tracked by economic arguments and no government wants to be thought of as profligate.
As such, perhaps it behoves Australia’s business community to make the investments needed to provide it with the human resources required for growth. If ASX 200 companies began creating educational institutions promoting Asian literacy and business competency, they would be following upon the examples set by companies in the US and Europe in the past, and within Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in more recent memory. This would go against decades of ingrained corporate behaviour in Australia, however, where investment was in materials and technology, and it was up to the individual to acquire the skills (and make the investment) necessary to thrive in business, not the company. If the white paper gives the incentive to companies to make investments for the long term, then it will certainly have proven its worth and be fitting testament to the Gillard government’s vision, but past performance suggests that self (or should that be state) interest will stifle reform and lead to ineffective, watered-down versions of the paper’s goals. Ever the pessimist, if in the next two years we begin to see the types of investment needed to make the paper a reality then the nation will be better for it, but ambition needs finances to work, and we’re yet to see the money.