Don’t believe the Asian century hype

The Government’s Asian century white paper finally reveals the conceptual poverty of the Asian Century idea.

Certainly, Asia will continue to grow prosperous and come to dominate the global economy.

But Ken Henry’s white paper demonstrates that the concept of an “Asian century” offers almost nothing to guide Australian public policy in 2012.

Don’t believe the hype. The Asian century is not the stuff of wonky earnestness. It is a political story.

A simple reorganisation greatly diminishes the whole project. We can group the proposals – sorry, “pathways”, a horrible word that the Government uses to conflate policies with goals – of the white paper into two categories.

The first category is things that are true no matter which continent dominates the next 100 years. The white paper wants Australia to be one of the top ten richest countries by 2025. Fair enough. But this holds regardless of whether there will be an Asian century, or an American century, or a New Zealand century. Most of the white paper is like this.

One sentence reads: “A world-class school system is essential to Australia’s success in the Asian century.” What do the last four words contribute? The government will create “a long-term national infrastructure strategy”. It will establish a Tax Studies Institute. There will be a National Plan for School Improvement. We ought to expand our trade with the rest of the world. The Asian century conceit adds nothing to these ideas.

The white paper even plugs Closing the Gap. Ending Indigenous disadvantage is extremely important, but what on earth does it have to do with Asia?

In the second category are proposals specifically designed to deal with rising Asian economies. There aren’t many in this category. And they’re all pretty minor – even token.

Of these, increased Asian language teaching is the most significant. I’ve criticised this idea in the past, and Benjamin Herscovitch from the Centre of Independent Studies has done so recently at length. Yet even if more Asian language teaching was necessary, it’s an oddly trivial hook for this ambitious white paper. Is offering Chinese at more schools really the pivot on which our nation will turn?

The quality of proposals declines sharply from there. The white paper says that one-third of board members of Australia’s top companies should have deep knowledge of Asia. This is a pretty gimmicky idea. Anyway, why is intellectual composition of the boards of private firms any business of the Commonwealth government?

One welcome proposal is to boost the numbers of tourism and working visas from Asia (you could ask: why not boost visas from everywhere?). Yet in the mid-year budget just last week the government significantly raised the cost of visas for foreign workers.

Asian century boosters have always struggled to link their statement of the obvious (Asia is growing) to concrete proposals. This white paper is most ambitious attempt yet. If Ken Henry can’t make it work, nobody can. But it fails.

Apart from continuing to strive to be productive and educated and rich – good things whether our neighbours are rising or declining – it’s not obvious that Australia needs to do anything special about the rise of Asia.

Indeed, that may be the point.

The white paper mostly just reiterates existing Gillard government policies. Far from jolting us out of our complacency, the paper encourages it … well, as long as we stick with Labor and its NBN and its schools plan and its carbon tax.

The Asian century paper is a political document. It’s a theme for the Government now that most of the Rudd-era ambitions have been squared away; a fresh “Labor vision” for the party of Keating and Whitlam. It doesn’t have to be particularly coherent or convincing. It just has to be plausible.

And, to be fair, it is. The white paper exudes seriousness. It is ridiculously Big Picture. The Asian century is intellectually flattering: everybody feels smarter when they talk about it. In the last 48 hours almost every special interest in the country has claimed their pet issues are the key to surviving the new Eastern paradigm.

Given that the Asian century is above all a political idea, it seems significant that the Opposition has been caught off-foot. First the Coalition welcomed it, said it lacked detail, then said it lacked funding. By Monday Tony Abbott had described it as “laughable, frankly”. Then he moved on to Peter Slipper.

This is probably not wise.

The Asian century looks like Julia Gillard’s election strategy. It’s a lot better than Moving Forward. But like so many political visions, it’s seems more profound than it is. We should not confuse narrative for substance.