Gillard's Asia Strategy Is Pure Spin

By Greg Sheridan

The Gillard government white paper on Asia is a fraud. On every level, it is a con job. The government is having a lend of us. Its only admirable quality is its chutzpah.

No Australian government since that of Billy McMahon has done less to increase the level of Asian engagement it inherited when coming to office than the Gillard government.

Some of the white paper is conceptually confused and silly. Is there another nation in the world that so frequently tries to make out lists of the nations most important to it?

This pathetic and obsessive list making is a sign of a deep intellectual insecurity. It's also a sign of government failure.

Much of the paper itself, and many of Julia Gillard's statements regarding it, are banal recitations of the obvious. By golly, Asia will have a big middle class by 2025 and that middle class will have a lot of money to spend. We hope they spend it in Australia.

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But beyond these windy cliches and vague generalisations, we are entitled to ask of this government: where's the beef, Jack? The answer is, there is no beef.

Much more important than what it says, is what the government does.

The white paper, and the Prime Minister herself, make much of the need for Asian education, and specifically for Asian languages.

Yet the Gillard government has overseen a catastrophic decline in Indonesian language study at school and university, to take one example. There are in absolute numbers fewer Year 12 students studying Indonesian today than there were in the last years of the White Australia policy.

Altogether a truly dismal 6 per cent of Year 12 students study an Asian language in Australia, and a vast number of these are ethnic Asian students studying their homeland tongue.

The Rudd and Gillard governments have progressively cut funding for Asian languages. And what is the white paper solution? The magic fool's gold of the National Broadband Network, for God's sake.

When Gillard was asked at her press conference why there was no funding for Asian language studies in the paper, she replied that there wouldn't need to be actual teachers at actual schools. Australian kids will get access to Asian languages through the NBN. If that is the case, why should we bother to have English, history or maths teachers at schools either?

The white paper is full of such meaningless promises and measureless metrics. One-third of corporate board members and senior public service leaders will have deep experience of Asia by 2025, it tells us. This will presumably mean introductory Chinese in infants' school, NBN chats with a high school in Tokyo and a holiday in Bali. It's as good a measure as any offered in the white paper.

The paper airily talks of new embassies in Mongolia and diplomatic missions in Thailand and eastern Indonesia. Any funding for that? Nope.

And what is the actual record? The last budget cut between 100 and 150 positions from the Foreign Affairs Department. We have the smallest diplomatic service of any G20 nation and one of the smallest, per capita, in the developed world.

Gillard and most of her ministers have a very poor pattern of travel throughout Southeast Asia. Our diplomatic resources are in shocking decline. Our consular workload has ballooned. We will now have to provide two dozen odd new positions to staff our meaningless presence on the UN Security Council, but with no serious new resources for DFAT. Our aid budget has exploded beyond $5 billion while our diplomatic network is strained beyond reason.

Why? Because every aid announcement gives the government a positive effect in the 24-hour news cycle. The hard slog of diplomacy gets no such dividend. So the hard slog is ignored. The fairy floss is everything.

The lame, bowdlerised section on regional security misses one vital reality. In 2009, the government, in a solemn commitment in a much more serious white paper, pledged to resource the Australian Defence Force, based on a deep understanding of the regional security outlook. It pledged a hard funding commitment to match that. What happened? This year's budget cut defence by 10 per cent, producing the lowest defence spend as a proportion of national wealth since 1938. You think the region didn't notice that?

This white paper is pure spin. It is an emperor whose nakedness is epic.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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