Bowen’s landmark Asia pitch

James Riley
Editorial Director

It has been an awfully long time since any political party in Australia gave any serious thought to what US President George H. W. Bush (41) once referred to as “the vision thing.”

And it’s even longer since we had someone apply any deep vision to Australia’s relationship with Asia in a holistic way. Well, since Paul Keating anyway.

So it was quite startling shock – in an oh-so-good way – that Labor’s treasury spokesman Chris Bowen presented arguably the most thoughtful speech on just about anything from Labor in 20 years.

Chris Bowen: The most thoughtful speech on anything from Labor in 20 years

It was not stuffed with the usual, tired and wrong-headed sets of fact and figures designed to awe us all about the size of the Asian market (or that – more shock and amazement – that these markets come replete with multiple policy ideas and solutions.)

It came from that rare place in Australian politics, one that truly recognises that this country’s relationship with Asia on every level is the make or break factor that will to see this country either survive and thrive, or ebb and fade away slowly to a point where we are in real trouble.

Bowen made it clear he was speaking on behalf of his leader Bill Shorten and foreign affairs spokesman cum national moral conscience Penny Wong.

As well, he included a range of other shadow cabinet figures who have survey over various pieces of this puzzle, some of whom impressively either speak or are learning Asian languages – Bowen included, who is studying Bahasa Indonesian at night.

That’s is to say, senior labor figures are eating their own dog food as they push the case for an overhaul to Australian Government thinking on Asia. This alone is, to put it mildly, impressive.

And the insistence in Labor’s plan on finally doing something about the abject level of Asian language learning in Australia is essential.

Bowen laid it out it succinctly when he opened his detailed and lengthy address to say that while Australia’s economic relationship with Asia has been integral to the 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth, Asian economies are changing, and “Australia isn’t keeping up.”

“We need a step-change in our thinking. Not tinkering, not gradualism, but a fundamental whole-of-government, indeed whole-of-nation, effort to deepen and broaden our engagement with Asia.”

Branding polices is always important and this time Bowen said a Shorten Labor government would embrace a “new, comprehensive and holistic policy approach to Asian engagement that we will call ‘FutureAsia’.”

He described this as a “whole of government framework which will underpin our efforts to deepen and broaden our engagement. Detailed policy announcements that we will be making will sit beneath “FutureAsia”. I’m announcing a few of these today and we will be announcing more between now and the election.

Equally refreshingly Bowen noted that Labor ‘s commitment to FutureAsia is not just an election commitment or even just a plan for the term of the Shorten Labor Government “but rather a longer term commitment to a step change in our engagement.”

Having lived in Asia and covered the regions relationship with Australia for the past nine years, I can’t begin to tell you how encouraging this is to hear. It is veritable music to the ears of someone who has often felt he has been banging his head against a wall trying to help governments wake up and at least try to do their jobs.

Many long-time Asia watchers including this writer have long bemoaned the lack of a whole of government approach, not only to China but also to the region as whole.

The China piece alone is quite unbelievable. That no Australian government for the past 20 years has bothered to when you think about it, although Malcolm Turnbull did seem to be moving in that direction on our biggest trading partner cum regional security threat (ex-North Korea) in his Shangri La Dialogue Address recently, more than four years into government.

Beyond that, the coalition has completely taken its eye off the ball.

Julie Bishop’s recent speech in Thailand on the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – as a combined trading block now Australia’s second largest trading partner – was such a by-the-numbers laundry list of condescension and nothingness that it took more than a week to post it on her own website.

Trade minister Steve Ciobo, apparently bereft of any new ideas, has simply continued his predecessor Andrew Robb’s agenda.

“I am talking about what the Australian Council of Learned Academies has called ‘smart engagement,’ in their words: Smart engagement…means more than pragmatic emphasis on economic benefit, and working towards nurturing wide-ranging, long-term, deep and mutually beneficial relations based on the principle of reciprocity, ” Bowen said.

And it is about matching Australia’s economic and trading agenda with our broader geo-political priorities.

“Let me also be clear about what this step-change does not involve. It doesn’t involve agreeing to anything proposed by any other country in our region, which is not in our national interest,” Bowen said.

“It doesn’t involve walking away from a foreign policy approach is based around Australian values and interests.”

“It doesn’t involve ignoring engagement with the rest of the world, but it does involve a prioritization, which recognises where so much economic potential lies,” he said.

“Rather it involves a significant increase in engagement in our region.’

“This is something the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong and I are of one mind about. For too long, Australia’s engagement with Asia has been in cruise control.”

Dead right.

“If we want to keep up our record of economic growth, if we still want our place in the G20 in decades to come, I can think of few more important things to do than significantly improve our trade, investment, education and cultural links with Asia, “ Bowen added.

This concept of a whole of government rethink and whole of government approached to the region with we do the vast bulk of our trade.

It applies to every sector in the Australian economy and that includes, in particular, the technology sector. Or multiple tech sectors these days, as every industry undergoes the next convulsive wave of technology-based upheaval the final triumph of ecommerce, FinTech, HealthTech, AgTech, RegTech – indeed any other tech that one can think of – and all exports to the vast Asian markets.

Bowen, pertinently to the tech sector, said that there needs to be better education of Australian directors and we need to find ways of better tapping into the growing Asian diaspora in Australia.

On Monday Penny Wong followed strongly with a speech to an environment conference in Perth.

“The engagement we advocate is motivated by two fundamental propositions – that economic strength is a foundation of national power; and that economic engagement benefits our relationships with key nations as well as ourselves, Wong said.

Maintaining and enhancing our economic strength and resilience is critical – for the Australian people and for national power. And this demonstrably requires engagement with Asia, across the Indo-Pacific, Wong said.

“Foreign policy is a national enterprise. It involves the entire nation, and helps deliver to our citizens the benefits of living in a globalised world.”

One former diplomat had this observation to offer: “We have had too many on-again, off-again policies especially on change of government. It took the Howard prime ministership a decade to get where Keating ended up.

“Personal trusted respectful contacts are extremely important and we do not seem to have those now. The Keating’s relationships with several Asian leaders were remarkable, but as an architect of APEC, he had something to offer.”

It’s hard to see how the government can come up with an answer for this plan by Labor, because over the past five years it simply has not been anywhere near it and, it seems the electorate has largely stopped listening.

There’s much more to Bowen’s speech and you can read it here.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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