Grey issue, white paper - Jakarta Globe column


Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her government have initiated an extraordinary undertaking. The PM has set up a panel to develop a White Paper on the social, cultural and economic implications for Australia of what is increasingly known and accepted as the Asian Century.

This is not your standard fact-finding exercise or report with recommendations that might generate positive media when published - and then be shelved, not to be looked at again. The purpose of a White Paper like this is to help the government find its voice, with community support, to guide the direction of future policy in an area of vital importance.

There are two reasons why it's extraordinary. The first is its independence. It’s unusual that a government White Paper panel should include such a diverse membership - in this case the members of the panel are: Professor Peter Drysdale of the Australian National University; Catherine Livingstone, the chair of Telstra; and senior officials from the Treasury (Dr. David Gruen), the Prime Minister’s Department (Dr. Gordon de Brouwer) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dr Heather Smith); and lastly, myself.

We are all part of the multi-agency task force responsible for the preparation of the White Paper and are led in that task by the former Treasury Secretary, Dr. Ken Henry, in his role as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. I am proud to be included.

The second is the transparency of the process: the panel called for submissions in October last year and the response was impressive, with submissions from ordinary citizens, educational institutions, ethnic and religious groups, industry associations, business, both small and larger-scale, unions and NGOs, from all manner of people, in all walks of life, and anyone can read them because they're all on the website, with the exception of a very few who requested privacy.

Prominent position for Indonesia

It would not surprise you that Indonesia has featured strongly in these submissions, a country which has heightened significance given the strategic importance of a neighbor whose friendship and partnership we value and where developing closer links enjoys the highest priority, especially where on both sides there has perhaps been at times a lack of clarity or direction as to how best we can achieve shared imperatives.

It is true that Australia and Indonesia have taken great strides towards more meaningful links over the past 50 years, despite the problems that emerge from time to time. A recurring message is that as near-neighbors with different social and political systems, both sides know we must work together and make a success of it. We also know that the whole range of complimentarities we enjoy should be exploited to our mutual advantage.

Our relations across all the areas you'd expect reflect a growing maturity, yet there can be no room for complacency, as we can do a lot more together. From the Australian side, we'd like to see a further enhancement of ties, and we seek community input across the board to increase awareness and purpose to build an appropriate place for Australia in this great Asian Century.

As an example, Indonesians have long seen Australia as a desirable place to study. We welcome this and we also recognize the mutual benefit this brings. Yet, at the same time, we'd like to see more Australians studying in Indonesia and to understand why Asian languages are not particularly popular amongst young Australian students.

A recent survey revealed that Australia currently is more valued in Indonesia than previously thanks in part to the Australia-funded pesantren (religious school) development program, yet we also know that views about Australia are not always positive or even.

Breaking through comfort zones

How can we deepen understanding? This is a key challenge. The White Paper is a step forward but is not an answer in itself. We have to keep building and remain persistent.

The massive effort required to break through our comfort zones and traditional thinking will require steely resolve and commitment. Issues such as immigration and regional security also present complex challenges to the community that require consistent and sensitive policy responses.

And we should not be afraid as part of this process to look objectively at how we are mutually perceived in our respective countries. The White Paper should help galvanize us to move into the Asian Century as better prepared and more confident players.

These sentiments are all reflected in the submissions to the White Paper, but the process reaches much further than just calling for submissions. The panel has consulted widely and travelled to many of our Asian neighbors to consult on the ground, and to see first-hand the huge change the Asian Century is bringing, the speed at which that is happening, and the impacts on people, society, economies, business, governments, security and regional trade and economic relationships.

It is essential that this is effectively communicated in Australia too, as Australians must understand the wave of change that is yet to have its full impact in order to accept policies that will result.

These parts of the White Paper process are almost complete and we in the panel are now gathering as a group to digest the vast variety of information we have and, from that, distil policy directions.

Four themes are emerging:

  • The need for Australian to boost our “Asia-relevant capabilities” – the tools Australians will need to engage with Asia in the decades ahead. I’ll talk about that some more later.
  • People-to-people links, including in international education, cultural and artistic pursuits.
  • Asia’s Rise, which is a broad theme taking in issues like economic growth, resource and food security, energy and strategic power and bilateral relationships,
  • And finally, Australia’s competitiveness, in which issues like trade and investment policy, infrastructure, taxation, in short Australia’s domestic economic settings are raised.

The prospect of the Asian Century is a somewhat daunting challenge for Australia, despite the enormous opportunity it brings. Australia is large in geography, and Asian markets are our most important. Our closest Asian neighbor, Indonesia, is also large geographically, and much larger in population. China even more so. Whilst blessed with proximity to Asia and with solid cultural, trade and political links with Indonesia and the other great Asian neighbors, Australia must find an optimal place in the Asian Century, as we all must.

Australia and Indonesia are already the two most economically integrated nations in East Asia. Our mutual challenge is to capitalize on this opportunity.

Please click here to view the column on the Jakarta Globe website.

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