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Not the Asian Century White Paper

Tomorrow the Prime Minister will launch the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. This document, which will plot a way forward for Australia in what is already considered to be the “Asian Century”. It will act as the government’s version of a SWOT analysis. The paper will examine the real internal strengths of Australia and external factors that lead that do contribute to our strengths as we continue to engage in the region. The paper will also look at our weaknesses in terms of trade in particular, but also security. The paper will look at the opportunities for Australia in the Asian century, with whom we can engage more to our benefit. Finally, the document will also look at the threats in the region.

In a way, the Asian Century White Paper is behind the times. Trade with Asia already makes up about 70% of Australia’s international trade. This makes it appear clear, as do public statements, that the blueprint is more about the rise of China and to a lesser extent India, than it is about looking at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that exist in the Asia-Pacific area. As such, the possibilities of greater relations with the “Asian Tigers” and rapidly growing Asian economies will likely not receive much press.

This examination will look mostly at the bilateral activities Australia undertakes currently, could enhance or could begin to participate in and less at the specific domestic policy directions necessary to cope with living in a strong and prosperous Asia.

Undoubtedly, the Asian White Paper will say that China is the country, above all others to focus our energies on. You would be hard-pressed to find many who would say otherwise. We need China and they need us. Our commodities are prized by China and we source cheap goods from the Asian powerhouse, now the second biggest economy in the world after overtaking struggling Japan. To this end, concluding Free Trade Agreement negotiations with China is an absolute must.

Some will have you believe that China also serves as one of the great uncertainties of the Asian Century.  “Reds under the beds” is not a worry that should be occupying the mind’s of our people. China’s continued growth will almost certainly be one of peaceful empire. Their growth is because of the embrace of market economics and China is communist in name and some aspects of internal behaviour only. The military build-up in China is entirely consistent with the growth of the country as a world power and countries like the United States of America have nothing to fear except for loss of economic dominance. 

In terms of Japan, our second largest trading partner, the future of the economic relationship at least is not as certain. The economy of Japan has been battered by high levels of debt, natural disasters and unstable economic leadership. In saying this though, the relationship with the nation of islands should be maintained with caution and buttressed by increasing economic cooperation with other nations in the region. However, it is in our interests to continue to proceed with free trade negotiations with the Japanese.

Trade relations with South Korea continue to be strong with the nation, as of 2011, being our 3rd biggest export market. We have commenced Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Korea, but the discussions have hit the final hurdle. The agreement was supposed to have been concluded by now, but negotiations are ongoing.

Our next biggest market, is also our second biggest opportunity as the growth of Asian economies explodes. That nation is India. This is a nation with economic growth to rival that of China. While India is not in a position to rival China in terms of the size of her economy, India does provide opportunities. This includes, somewhat contentiously, uranium exports which are now being negotiated and also the restoration of Indian confidence in Australia’s safety for the large overseas student and tourism market the nation of the subcontinent can and has provided. Finalising the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Agreement is also a necessary step in continuing to open up India to Australia and vice versa.

There are other nations of Asia in the list of our top 10 training partners too. In fact, Asian countries make up more than half of those nations. Also in the top 10 is Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. With both Singapore and Thailand we have established Free Trade Agreements. However, in the case of Taiwan, there is no economic agreement being negotiated, awaiting approval or in force. Perhaps an opportunity lies there, perhaps we are frightened to pursue one for fear of causing China offense or perhaps our priorities are not mutual.

There are also other Asian states that are outside of the 10 biggest Australian trading partners with which we have already or are in the process of negotiating or approving FTA’s. There is an ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement which includes Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This includes nations such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia with whom we either have individual FTA’s or are in the process of either negotiating or seeking domestic approval for.

In a broad sense, continuing to pursue the recently commenced negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is also a must and will only enhance economic relations with both Asia and other parts of the world.

So in terms of economic cooperation in the Asian region and into the Asian century, the task is not really to establish new markets, but rather to consolidate and build upon those already available to Australia. In the case of the services sector in particular the task is returning it to the vitality we know. Particularly in the case of tourism this will be a lot easier when the price of the dollar lowers and economies recover.

In terms of economic engagement with Asia and the focus that it is given, it is a positive but has the potential to be a negative from time to time. Putting too many eggs in the Asian basket might expose us to regional shocks. So far, with the economic activities we undertake in Asia though, we have managed to avoid major damage to our economy when other countries in the Asia-Pacific have not been spared. But the possibility of exposure to risks should still be in the front of the mind’s of our policy-makers.

New Zealand and the other Pacific Island nations must also factor into the Asian equation. They are as much a part of Asia as we are. New Zealand is our greatest ally in the Asia-Pacific region, a long-term friend and economic partner and we will continue to share and grow our economic relationship and broader bilateral relations with her.

In terms of security, the most volatile place in the Asian region, the place that has the potential to most impact on our security, is Indonesia. Enhancing current cooperation with Indonesia on counter-terrorism efforts is a must. However, this must not be at the expense of combating homegrown terrorism on Australian soil.

It is certain that we will be seen to be deeply connected with the USA . We can, will and should make clear that our actions in the region will be peaceful and aimed at trade and our ongoing security, rather than offensive actions and manoeuvres that constitute a threat.

In terms of China, as stated earlier, it has been quite easy for some to classify the economic growth and consequential militarisation of China as a threat. This eventuality though, as stated before, appears hard to fathom. On the other hand, disputes involving China and her nearer neighbours, currently festering, do have the potential to develop into problems for those nations. By and large, these are conflicts Australia can remain independent of.

With regard to people movements, Indonesia as well as Sri Lanka and Malaysia will remain central to our efforts in cutting down on irregular people movement. We would be foolish to ever imagine that we as a country or even the wider Asian region could solve the complex issue that is asylum seeker movements.

Later on in the Asian century it is also reasonable to keep in mind the potentially significant movement of people in our region brought about by climate change. The scale of this is hard to calculate, but the prospect must be factored into equations. Australia as a rich and prosperous country would be expected to take up the majority of the resettlement burden in such circumstances.

Overwhelmingly the opportunities for Australia in the Asian Century are good. The positives far outweigh the negatives. We must however be careful of too much dependence on the region and too much nation specific interaction within the Asia-Pacific.

We must think, for the century ahead, well beyond commodities and to sources of renewable energy. An ongoing and healthy services sector is also a must as resources begin to diminish.

There is the possibility of regional instability, but much of that should not have consequences for Australia. The major threat will continue to be terrorism with hatred fomented and potential non-state actors trained in Indonesian camps in particular.

We will be seen as one of America’s deputies in the Asia-Pacific, along with South Korea and Japan as well as New Zealand to some extent. In reality though, this should not colour the way we interact in our geographical region nor the way in which our peaceful advances are received.

People movement will continue to be something Australia experiences for as long as there is security and economic concerns in nations around the world. Later in the century this will probably be exacerbated by climate change, particularly in the low-lying areas of the Asia-Pacific.

Australia must not be happy with the status quo. Moving towards greater engagement and cooperation not just in Asia, but the world, is the answer to making the most of the opportunities and the threats that we and the region already experience and may encounter in the future.

Social Progress and the ‘Invisible Hand’: It’s Not All About the Economy Stupid

There seems to be a constant battle between those who think that all social progress comes from good economic management and those that think the government needs to be responsible for most if not all social progress. The truth is that the solution (and solution is probably the wrong word) lies somewhere in between a completely free market/economic response to social progress and a government response which can either be to get out of the way or to legislate for social improvements.

In all likelihood on the ‘free market/it’s all about the economy in social progress and government intervention is the best way to ensure social progress’ pendulum the best answer would likely be very close toward the ‘let the economy sort out social disadvantage’ end of the pendulum. Note that it’s only the best answer. Not one single political ideology offers a solution that will completely solve pretty much every single problem and that is both a political and electoral reality.

Now back to that pendulum. While it is self-evidently true that much social progress comes from a strong economy there is also a need for limited government intervention, be it legislating in an attempt to benefit society or stepping away from legislating in areas that might act to prevent the advancement of the people, most importantly the individual regardless of social group.

So what work does the economy do as regards social progress? Well, a strong economy provides many with the opportunity to be employed in a meaningful job. A strong economy means that more jobs are created and more people will have the opportunity to live at the very least a modest and comfortable lifestyle in what is becoming an increasingly expensive world.

More jobs too means more tax being collected by the government without having to raise taxes for any one group and that means for those who do happen to fall through the cracks, and there will always be people that do regardless of effort and exertion and economic circumstances in the nation and the world, it means that there will be assistance available for them for as long as they need it.

So having a job or a business and earning an income is certainly a big part of social progress but there are things which cannot be provided for by a strong economy or the free market.

A free market does not, will not and cannot stop forms of discrimination, particularly relating to participation in the economy, though in some small way the more people able to be given jobs then it flows that less discrimination may well exist because some ordinarily discriminated against may well be invited into employment opportunities.

Ordinarily though, discrimination will exist and will continue to exist and should at the very least be responded to by educating people about diversity and difference.

Anti-discrimination legislation is also a necessary evil though in many cases it is nigh on the impossible to determine when real discrimination, particularly in employment exists, even though the statistics on minorities show in a broad sense that it is clearly an issue. But again this kind of government intervention needs to be coupled with educating people of the capabilities that people from all works of life possess.

One thing that a free market can never bring, not at all, though I’m sure we’d like to see it happen is the very topical issue of marriage equality. Try as it may, the ‘invisible hand’ just cannot bring about people being able to take the tangible hand of their same-sex partner in marriage.

Same-sex marriage is one area in which the government can either intervene to legislate for marriage equality or completely bugger off from the whole process. Reality says that government, in an eventual move would vastly prefer to legislate for same-sex matrimony rather than to say “hey we really have no place here” and that is okay as long as it is inevitable and you’d have to say it is.

For the most part many of us would love for the government to stay out of our lives and the biggest forms of social progress can be provided for with little or no government intervention, but there will always be a place for government particularly when that means correcting ills that they have fostered or fomented, but that power cannot be unlimited.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Today marks the last sitting day of the parliamentary week and the last day of parliament before the budget is announced in Canberra on Tuesday May 8 by Treasurer Wayne Swan. Consequently economics will continue to be the focus of the day in Question Time and the energy of our politicians will be at an almost anxious high as they try to get attention on their programs for Australia and the Opposition throw everything at the Gillard Government in trying to hold them to account.

The focus of the Opposition will continue to be on the two or three key areas that the Coalition have pursued for some time now  in their Question Time and broader political strategy. The two main focal points of the Abbott-led Opposition questions today will continue to be both the carbon tax and the mining tax which have had varying degrees of focus since both have been announced. They have both now been passed by the government and the Coalition will continue to pursue them as they come into force and for any negative impacts they have.

The Coalition also may ask some questions of the ALP Government about Fair Work Australia and its investigation into Craig Thomson, a long-running affair which has provided much political and parliamentary material for the Liberal and National Party Coalition.

The Opposition is likely to also ask questions of the government about the deal announced today to keep Holden producing cars in Australia for the next 10 years at least.

The government, as has been its strategy all parliamentary year will be to focus on their big programs, at the moment the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) and how the revenue from it is projected to benefit the community, including low income individuals and small and big business. Some Dorothy Dixer’s, as has been the case this week may be devoted to other topical or even less discussed policies, like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which received questions in the House of Representatives yesterday.

The Gillard Government will certainly use some Dorothy Dixer’s to ask ministers associated with the car industry about the deal with Holden to keep car production in Australia for at least 10 years and to highlight the benefits of this for the local and national economy.

The usage of the motion to suspend Standing Orders is another eventuality that cannot be discounted, particularly as we head toward a grand total of 50 of them for this the 43rd parliament of Australia. The motion however is less likely to occur as the topics discussed have been the focus of the motion in the past.What may work in favour of a suspension of Standing Orders is another topical issue presenting itself before Question Time today, likely not the Holden issue, or the fact that it is the last session of Question Time until the parliamentary week beginning the 8th of May.

Look for fireworks and restless pollies slanging remarks across the chamber today in the Lower and Upper House. Expect to see a high number of ejections from both sides and even Ministers sat down by the Speaker for not being “directly relevant” to questions asked by the Coalition and even their own side as they attempt to use Dixer’s for having a go at Coalition policy rather than explaining their own. Get your last fix for over a month from 2pm AEDT today

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