Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.

Though the Coalition was supportive of the project, it played up the “selling out australia” populist fears to attack Keating and when it gained government it ignored the reports calls and slashed funding for a number of important related projects. A sign of how important this issue was to our Prime Minister can be found in a 2003 speech to parliament where Rudd’s anger leaps off the page to the reader:

“The Howard Government ha[s] unravelled much of the fabric of our engagement with the region over not just the last quarter-century but the last half-century. Here I speak of the demise of Radio Australia. Nothing could have been more retrograde in terms of this country’s standing in Asia and South-East Asia than the wilful decision of this government to emasculate Radio Australia’s capacity to broadcast its message to South-East Asia and beyond…We had the capacity to send an Australian message about what kind of nation Australia is in the 21st century and about what kind of nation we see ourselves as being…

I cannot possibly explain to the House how deeply I feel about this act of wanton vandalism. But it is bettered by one other: the wanton vandalism we have seen.. in the recent decision not to fund the National Asian languages and Studies Strategy for Australian schools….Sixteen reports had been commissioned by the governments from Gorton to Keating on the importance of achieving the creation, through our school system, of a generation of Australians comfortable in the languages of our region…a solid and emerging cohort of young Australian’s comfortable in the principle languages of our neighbourhood: Mandarin, Japanese, bahasa Indonesia, bahasa Malay and Korean…. I cannot express my outrage more deeply at the fact that …Brendan Nelson has not continued the funding for this program.”
Rudd, K. March 19, 2003, Appropriation Bill (no.3) 2002-2003

Labor at the time thought that there was clear evidence that Howard’s approach to the region was damaging trade and overall relations. Though as Michael Wesley in his excellent book The Howard Paradox has shown, the bilateral relations were much stronger than supposed and through some canny diplomatic footwork, political level spats between the leaders (such as over asylum seekers or terrorism) were isolated from day to day contact and interactions that helped keep the ships steaming between. Howard’s disregard (if not contempt) for the Higher Education sector also produced an unanticipated bonus in sending our universities into the immediate region to look for full fee paying international students in order to cover their budget shortfalls. That said, the actions of the Howard government have had some longer term effects. A 2007 Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee on Australia’s Public Diplomacy found that the Howard government had not invested in developing the image and links between Australia and the region to the detriment of our national interest. Cuts such as to education and radio national were highlighted.

Having made it into the top policy making office in the country, Rudd has followed through with some of his earlier views. 2009 saw the start of the National Asian Language and Studies in Schools program, with $62.4 million in funding to develop Asian language classes and Asia studies programs, with $112m given to fund languages in general including Asian languages, along with around $8m for scholarships for teachers and promotion of studies of Asian languages.

Yet as the recent visit by SBY showed, significantly more needs to be done. The media was obsessed with talking about boat people, treating our relationship with Indonesia as a purely utilitarian burden to be somehow locked off from Australia. The opposition used the chance to take potshots at the government over travel warnings, bilateralism and of course boat people, and even Rudd’s statement and speeches related to the visit seemed more a celebration of SBY and the democracy of Indonesia and an attempt to portray the government as solving the problems Indonesia’s existence seems to present to the public.

In all of this, there was no real hint of the possibilities and potential from engagement. The chance to address fundamental problems long term (not least security) by having an Australia which understands and more importantly is understood by the region. The chance to shift Australia’s economy to a more export orientated base (developing the design & advertising of low tech products, & these plus development for higher tech ones), the chance to move on completely from the fear of those up north that has resided in the Australian psyche since we were but a colonial rump in the 18th century.

Yet, despite the lack of a “Hanson factor” post-GFC, and that the opposition leader plainly is not a racist and is not seeking to appeal to that xenophobic element, the Prime Minister has not yet made his case as he did so clearly in the early 1990’s. At best he has returned some of the cut funding. But much more needs to be done and quickly. Most Labor PM’s last about 4-5 years. Rudd may hope to be like Hawke and clock up at least 8, but if he want’s to leave his mark then he needs to begin speaking and talking about those things that are important to him now. Maybe he will open up more once he has a second election victory under his belt, but likely a part of the public disatisfaction with Rudd right now is that the public is taking him as he is presenting himself: a problem solver “I’m kevin and I’m here to help”. And when problems emerge (as they always do) there’s no one else to blame.

This approach is how technocrats always identify themselves, rational managers who will do a better job than the next politician, but in doing so they tie themselves to the currents of fortune and the competencies of their colleagues (hello Peter Garrett). History changing leaders of course must demonstrate above and beyond this basic competency, but they also focus on larger themes that sketch where the nation is going and what it will look like when they are long gone as a way of keeping the public invested in them when circumstances inevitably turn against them. Even Howard, a nerdy economic rationalist figured this out by 1998, and turned his almost one term failure of a government into the second longest and one of the most dominant.

Rudd is not a man without passions or vision as his critics claim. But in the name of presenting an image as a competent administrator he has laid those beliefs to the side. To make his time in office worthy of the name, he needs to return to them. SBY’s historic visit and address ought to become in Rudd-folk-lore the starting point of a new period of Australian engagement and understanding of the Asia-Pacific region, and nobody could better champion such an important cause better than the Prime Minister himself. Time to being talking Mr Rudd.

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