The gun emplacements at Fort Lytton at the mouth of the Brisbane River tell the story of Australia's engagement with Asia. They were originally installed in the late 19th century at a time when the colonial authorities feared an invasion from Russia. Yes Czarist Russia. Illustrative, is this not, of the sorts of crazy misconceptions we can have about our place in the world.
The French, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Indonesians have all featured in the “fear of the north” meme: a meme which has been given resonance in Australian popular culture by the unidentified ethnicity of the invaders in John Marsden's wonderful Tomorrow When The War Began widely studied as a high school English text. Two things need to be said about the Asian Century White Paper.
First, while much of the focus has been on China, the real focus needs to be on Indonesia. China’s essential sinocentrism means that a South Pacific minnow with a population that one fifth of the size of the province of Guangdong, has little interest beyond that of being a quarry.
Indonesia on the other hand is the world's largest Islamic country, and has the inherent capacity to engage a broader range of the Australian population, and in particular the cashed up bogans for whom Bali is a holiday mecca. Cashed up bogans is are a critical fulcrum in Australian politics because they tend to be swinging voters. The support of such a voting bloc is essential to maintaining the momentum of the Asian century policy. While China holds an attraction for those who wish to make money and those of finer aesthetic sensibilities, Indonesia's attractiveness to Australia is potentially greater than that of China, the occasional pickup over East Timor and West Papua notwithstanding. The bonding experience of the Bali bombings should not be underestimated.
Secondly, the aspirations of the White Paper are to be applauded. However the capacity of the Australian public sector to execute the reforms makes it almost impossible for them to be achieved. Let me take two examples: education and defence:
Part of our engagement with Asia rests with our defence posture. In strategic terms, the obsession of the iron colonels with big-ticket items that don't work: run over budget, and are never delivered on time, calls into question the capacity of our Defence Department to position Australia properly for the Asian century.
Quite clearly, the most important pieces of military hardware for the future are submarines. The most poorly manned area of our defence force is the submarine service, and the Collins class submarines are one of the biggest stuff ups in defence materiel in recent years.
With respect to education, it is almost inconceivable that our state and federal authorities will be able to agree on the policy and funding paradigms necessary in schools education. Universities have repeatedly failed to take the necessary steps to improve the quality of teachers, and universities, their own internal bureaucracies apart, are hamstrung by increasing regulation from Canberra.
In order to deliver the sorts of outcomes the government is seeking, coherence and consistency are essential in programs and policy. The recent delays and cutbacks to research funding as part of a confected “bringing the budget back to surplus” mantra are just stupid short term-ism.
That we need to engage with Asia is unquestioned. We have been part of Asia ever since Gondwanaland. The capacity of our key institutions to deliver the necessary changes in policy and program will imperil our future.
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