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Leading article Australia

Asian engagement (part 11)

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

Utterly unoriginal, the Gillard government’s Asian Century White Paper contains few new insights. It is built largely on work done by most, if not all, of her ten predecessors dating back to Robert Menzies. Worse, her wishlist of lofty aspirations — worthy and self-evidently beneficial though most of them are — are presented with few ideas on how they are to be achieved, no implementation program, and no recognition of the huge costs involved, which put most of the paper’s suggestions firmly in the realm of fantasy.

Serious Australian engagement with Asia, as the distinguished academic David Martin Jones has documented in peer-reviewed journals here and abroad, began under the Colombo Plan devised by Percy Spender in 1950. It not only acknowledged the need for ‘a regional organisation that embodies the concept of collective inter-governmental effort to strengthen economic and social development’, but set out the ways in which to achieve it. Under Coalition and Labor governments of prime ministers Harold Holt to Kevin Rudd, our relationships with Asia strengthened considerably.

Paul Keating arguably distinguished himself from the rest. After all, who could interpret his calls for ‘enmeshment’ with Asia as anything other than an attack on what he brazenly called years of ‘anglophilia and torpor’? As Harvard professor Samuel Huntington recognised, Mr Keating’s passion for Australia to adopt a new Asian identity due to our geographical proximity ignored our historical roots, public opinion and, more importantly, the fact that most Asian leaders weren’t remotely interested in allowing us into their club. The Thais regarded our obsession with ‘being Asian’ with ‘bemused tolerance’. Malaysia’s President Mahathir was less amused, explaining in 1994: ‘[Asian] are less prone to making outright criticism of other countries or passing judgment on them. But Australia, being European culturally, feels that it has a right to tell others what to do, what not to do, what is right, what is wrong. And then, of course, it is not compatible with the group.’

Mr Keating, who liked to mock his opponents as ‘scumbags’, ‘perfumed gigolos’ and ‘brain-damaged loony crims’, never understood that his very behaviour reminded Asia’s leaders of how culturally different we are. No doubt Ms Gillard’s cries of ‘misogyny’ will be viewed with equal disdain by Asian leaders.

Mr Keating often said Asia would not deal with ‘Little Johnny’. Yet it was John Howard who signed Australia’s record trade deal with China in 2002 and then led one of only two nations to support all three financial bailouts of Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia during the 1997 meltdown. Two years later he led Asian democracies to protect helpless East Timorese from brutal attack by Jakarta. As one regional editorial said at the time: ‘While Mr Keating never stopped spouting slogans about Australia being part of Asia, only with the intervention in East Timor has Australia met and passed a real test of being
a great Asian neighbour.’

Great neighbours are what we will continue to be with Asia, with private enterprise as the main driver and profit being the main focus of our mutual engagement. Ms Gillard’s paper adds nothing to the achievements of her

A big fat zero

The mining tax will be remembered as the only tax in history to raise no money whatsoever. A big fat zero. But now we learn this is not the only ‘achievement’ of this government that amounts to naught. Or rather, nought. Two years ago, Tourism Australia spent three million dollars of taxpayers’ money bringing Oprah Winfrey to Australia in order to boost US tourism figures. The result of the The Big O’s lavish paycheck? An equally big fat zero. We also learn that the success of Wayne Swan’s and Kevin Rudd’s much vaunted stimulus package in terms of, er, stimulating the economy can be measured as the statistical equivalent of nothing whatsoever. The likelihood was that most recipients of the government’s $900 freebie would simply splash it out on the pokies or pay off their mortgage.

Which is exactly what happened. According to a recent ANU study: ‘The household consumption response to the bonus payment is insignificant. It is also quantitatively small.’ At the time, much was made of the fact that the government was so incompetent it was sending the stimulus payments to dead people. As it turns out, dead or alive made not a jot of difference to the effectiveness of the multi-billion dollar package. Which was zero.

As an aside, we are pleased to announce that the negative impact that the vicious anti-Alan Jones campaign has had on his ratings is also — yes, you guessed it — zero.

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