Federal Politics

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Does Labor really think it started our engagement with Asia?

Julia Gillard has missed the issues with this grab for economic power.

POLICY makers and leaders in Asia must have caused a run on packing tape in recent days as they sought to stop their sides splitting with laughter at the prospect of the Australian government thinking the Asian Century was something new to which we ought now respond.

They might think it equally strange that the Gillard government appears almost unaware of the long journey Australia has been taking, both economically and socially, towards Asia under successive governments of both persuasions.

Talking to some Labor people, one might think our engagement with Asia started when Gough Whitlam famously and rightly visited China.

Labor has a selective memory on this and many other issues. Does anyone know that it was Bob Menzies (whom Labor loves to portray as a forelock-tugging Anglophile) who gave us our own representation in Tokyo, and, incidentally, Washington? The Menzies government's involvement with the Colombo Plan was a very positive pro-Asia policy.

The old National Party warhorse ''Black Jack'' McEwen was promoting trade with Japan just six years after the peace treaty was signed. Countless fathers, brothers and lovers had either died or been treated extremely harshly at the hands of the Japanese. Feelings were running hot and deep. McEwen was both visionary and courageous.


For me, Julia Gillard's approach has been a little too much grabbing on to the coat-tails of economic expansion and not enough about changing our attitude and understanding our region. For her, the white paper has conveniently been wrapped around some existing policies to pretend, after the fact, that they have always been about our place in Asia.

It has given her a story to tell about Asia (a space former prime minister Kevin Rudd might otherwise have occupied) over what is often referred to as the killing season. That is, the end of the year, when leaders who look dispensable are vulnerable to attack from within. The white paper is very much about domestic politics, and Gillard moving in Rudd's space.

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to check that you are not dreaming when you compare Labor's spin to what they actually do. The Asian white paper is no exception.

Take just a few examples. One of the objectives outlined to help us navigate the Asian Century is to improve skills and education. How do we explain the billions of dollars taken from education in the mid-year budget? Another objective is to support innovation and research. Is that why grants in medical and university research were frozen and funding slashed? Oh, let's not forget the objective of having a tax system that would continue to support business. That seems at odds with the recent decision to hurt business cash flows by making business pay their tax sooner.

In a world where so much is changing so fast, we need to recognise that not only do our policies need to change to reflect the new reality but so do some of our attitudes and understandings. Perhaps we need to reflect on who we are and how we are seen by others, in this case our Asian friends.

As individuals, we grow up when we realise who we really are and we are happy in that skin. Even more so if, having understood how we see ourselves, we bother to understand something about how others see us. In our relationships, if we understand not only who our friends are but how they see themselves, we can be closer and all sorts of misunderstandings can be avoided.

So it is with governments and nations. Dr John Blaxland from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University argues that we need to understand ourselves better and our neighbours' cultures better so as to see where the ''rub'' points might be.

Our understanding of our neighbours' cultures is somewhat limited. As to their understanding of us, perhaps our directness is seen as arrogance, our informality as a lack of respect and our mateship as cronyism.

One former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Richard Woolcott, believes the fact the Queen of England is our head of state ''limits the understanding overseas of Australia's place in the world''. And why wouldn't it? Why wasn't this aspect of how we are seen in Asia given a decent airing in the white paper?

Countries that have successfully fought off the burden of colonialism might understandably be perplexed at us choosing to keep any trappings associated with our former colonial status. In an informal and friendly way, this was often remarked on when I was in Asia as an Australian minister. It doesn't stop them working with us, but equally it doesn't help their image of us.

I am a great admirer of our Queen. But, for reasons entirely unrelated to personalities, I have wanted an Australian head of state since I was a teenager. For all his faults, Paul Keating was a true believer who was prepared to lead and build the case about things he believed in. I know Tony Abbott is a monarchist, so I don't expect him to take up the cause. But what is Julia Gillard's excuse?

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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