Ross Gittins: Beyond the mining boom
Julia Gillard's white paper on the Asian Century answers the question people ask most about the boom: What will we do when it's over? Ross Gittins explains.PT0M0S 620 349
When governments make grand policy unveilings, as Julia Gillard has with her white paper on the Asian Century, it's terribly tempting for people in jobs like mine to sit back and criticise. After all, unlike you and me, governments tend to be less than perfect.
If you're disposed to criticise, there's never a shortage of material - particularly if you're prepared to offer mutually inconsistent criticisms, or shift your angle of attack from one week to the next.
This is a decision to give our relations with Asia top priority. It's a long-term project and it didn't start yesterday.
Sometimes the media are so eager to fan controversy they hardly pause to summarise the content of a 300-page document before launching into their own and other people's criticisms. And no matter how weighty the subject matter, you can bet it'll be done and dusted within a week.
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
I prefer to be a little more considered, even more co-operative with our elected leaders (and nor do I regard a diet of unrelieved negativity as a smart way to sell news). So, though I have some major criticisms of my own, I'll leave them for another day.
Throughout the life of the Rudd-Gillard government people have criticised its failure to articulate an ''overarching narrative'' - an encompassing story of what Labor stands for and what it's on about. A vision of the future; something that gives meaning and direction to our national life.
Well, it may have taken five years, but here's Gillard's best shot. It's not, as some have imagined, the report of another committee headed by Dr Ken Henry; it's a white paper, a firm statement of government policy intention.
So what do the critics say? It's just more talk. Where are the new decisions? When will we be getting them? What about my pet project?
You may say this is a narrative with an arch that stretches from the economic to the commercial via the financial (and I may agree), but that makes it an accurate depiction of the breadth of this government's priorities.
Some are suspicious that the white paper includes a mention of just about every project Labor is working on: the carbon price, the national broadband network, education reform, etc. Sure. That's what overarching narratives do.
It's a vision of increasing our material prosperity by ensuring we fully exploit the opportunities presented by our proximity to Asia, which is transforming itself from poor to rich within the short space of our lifetimes.
Within that limited purview, it's on the right track. It's hard to imagine our equally materialist opposition disagreeing - though you can be sure it will find plenty to criticise.
The white paper says, to succeed in this objective, Australians need to act in five key areas. First, we need to build on our own economic strengths. In particular, we'll need ''reform and investment'' across ''the five pillars of productivity - skills and education, innovation, infrastructure, tax reform and regulatory reform''.
Second, we must do more to develop the necessary capabilities. ''Our greatest responsibility is to invest in our people through skills and education to drive Australia's productivity performance and ensure that all Australians can participate and contribute.''
Third, we need businesses that are highly innovative and competitive'': ''Australian firms need new business models and new mindsets to operate and connect with Asian markets.''
Fourth, we need stable defence security within the region. And finally, we need to strengthen our relationships across the region at every level. ''These links are social and cultural as much as they are political and economic.''
It's easy to say there's nothing new in the white paper. We already knew about the rise of Asia. And prime ministers have been banging on about our need to get closer to Asia since Malcolm Fraser.
It's all true. But it misses the point. The experts may be full bottle, but the public doesn't know as much about Asia as it should; this is an attempt to lift our ''Asia literacy'' as well as getting more study of Asia and its languages into curriculums.
And governments bang on about a lot of things; this is a decision to give our relations with Asia top priority. It's a long-term project and it didn't start yesterday. It doesn't hurt to have a grand renewal of our commitment. It may be old to us oldies, but to our kids it's new and sparkling.
The white paper seeks to dispel a lot of misperceptions among Australians. For one thing, it's not just about China. It's also about India, South Korea and developing Asia in general - and hugely populous Indonesia in particular.
For another, it's not just about mining. Though the mining boom has further to run, it's also about selling a lot more food and fibre to Asia at much higher prices, and supplying Asia's burgeoning middle class with education, tourism, sophisticated niche manufactures and many services.
But deepening our economic (and, inevitably, social and cultural) relations with Asia is two-way street. Exporting more to Asia will mean importing more from it (giving the lie to criticism this is about exploiting the poor people to our north). And increasing our business investment in Asia will mean accepting more Asian investment in our businesses.
And, as we've already seen with the mining boom, maximising our benefit from the rise of Asia will inevitably mean accepting change and upheaval in our economy. The more we try to preserve the world as it was, the more we pass up the opportunities Asia presents.
The other bad news is that full benefit from Asia isn't something this government or any other can deliver us on a plate. It needs to be a national effort, with most of the heavy lifting done by business, schools, universities, unions and individuals.