PM embraces Asian future

For a Prime Minister who once admitted that she felt more at home in the classroom than on the international stage, Julia Gillard has come a long way in a short time.

Her commitment to the Asian century is a watershed in Australian foreign policy, ranking with Black Jack McEwen's post war trade pact with Japan, or even with John Curtin's 1942 declaration that tied Australia's future to the United States.

John Howard famously insisted that Australia did not have to make a choice between our history and our geography; but Gillard has made that choice and made it in spades: geography rules. She has taken us into Asia far more unequivocally than any of her predecessors. On the 40th anniversary of Australia's recognition of China, Gillard has made the last decisive leap.

Bob Hawke, for all his interest in Asia, remained an unashamed devotee of the USA, firmly in the Western camp. Paul Keating made considerable progress from the early days when he described Asia as somewhere you flew over on the way to Europe, but his vision of Asia Pacific economic co-operation always included America as a cornerstone. Even Kevin Rudd, for all his passion for Asia in general and China in particular, saw Australia's predominant role with the west rather than the east.

But now Gillard has not only accepted the geographic and economic reality, but embraced it. Asia already accounts for nearly half of all our imports - far more than America and Europe combined - and a staggering 71 percent of exports, compared to 8% to Europe and a mere 6% to America. And in global terms, China and India will both eclipse the United States economic power in the near future, with South Korea and Indonesia set to become major players. Japan, of course, is already there.

This undeniable and irreversible trend has been obvious for some time, but it has taken Ken Henry and his fellow authors in the White Paper to document it as an urgent call to arms, and Gillard to take the political plunge. And she has taken it in the starkest terms: her statement at the weekend made only a passing, ritual reference to the stabilising presence of our great American ally, reducing the United States almost to an irrelevancy. There will no doubt be an effort to redress the balance in the Defence White paper due out next year, but Gillard's vision for the future is clearly and unashamedly to our north.

It is a vision that demands a generational change, so the starting point, appropriately, is to be in the nation's classrooms. Gillard has nominated Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and Indonesian as priority languages for the curriculum, and schools which do not include at least one of them will risk missing out on their share of the funding to be made available when the government announces its detailed response to the Gonski Report. This is something that can be done immediately; some other government initiatives will have to wait for more money to become available.

This shortfall has allowed the usual critics to raise their usual complaints about it being all spin and no substance: the aspirations are all very fine, but where's the money coming from? These are the same people who insist that the government should concentrate on getting the budget back to surplus at any cost and generally oppose any spending which is not aimed at satisfying their own short term interests. The idea of looking twelve years ahead is simply not on their agenda; many of them seem to have trouble managing twelve hours.

And the Australian talent for parochialism can never be over-estimated: Julie Bishop, our alternative Foreign Minister, greeted Gillard's announcement with the knee jerk reaction that the government should be devoting all its resources to stopping the boats. Fortunately later comments from her and other opposition front benchers have been more measured, and Tony Abbott has even tried to claim ownership of the idea for teaching Asian languages in schools and increasing student exchanges at the tertiary level.

The business organisations' initial response was similarly predictable: Gillard's ideas were worthwhile, but could only be realised through reforms to the Fair Work Act and the tax system. Demands which, coming from a sector which cannot even agree to give up a few of its current perks in exchange for a reduction in the business tax rate, could be dismissed as rhetoric. But the more considered response was more positive and those who have already started dipping their toes into the vast, if still unsettled, commercial seas of Asia were quite enthusiastic.

And this is the good news: much of the ground has already been broken, and many of the tools to get on with the job, such as the National Broadband Network, are well into the development stage. Gillard is right in calling the realignment a massive challenge, but it is by no means an unrealisable one, given time, commitment and belief.

It is this last point which may be the hardest to mobilise. When last weekend was set as the date for the White paper's release, there were cynics who opined that the timing was purely to distract attention from Maxine McKew's book and its revelations about Gillard's 2010 coup. In fact, there was nothing really new in McKew's story; it was a useful first-hand account that dotted a few 'i's and crossed a few 't's, but the key accusation - that Gillard was involved in the preparations for the coup from an early stage - has been made and denied many times before. And given the length of time that has elapsed since the events described and the steady resurgence in the polls of both Gillard and the ALP, perhaps it is McKew's timing that is astray. She might perhaps ponder Sir John Harrington's famous epigram:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?

For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In laid back, democratic Australia, McKew can call it what she likes. But Gillard has prospered and moved on - into Asia and into history.

Topics:  opinion

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