October 29, 2012
The Australian Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper comes at a time when the mining boom is over and Australia needs to shift beyond being Asia's quarry, or Australia's traditional 'rocks and crops' engagement with Asia. It's a picture of Australia after the mining boom.
The White Paper recognizes, it's own words, that:
The Asian century is an Australian opportunity. As the global centre of gravity shifts to our region, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity. Australia is located in the right place at the right time—in the Asian region in the Asian century....An increasingly wealthy and mobile middle class is emerging in the region, creating new opportunities. They are demanding a diverse range of goods and services, from health and aged care to education to household goods, and tourism, banking and financial services, as well as high‑quality food products.
It argues that it is in the interests of all Australians—and therefore in the national interest—to develop the capabilities and connections that Australia will need, so that we can contribute to, and learn from, the region, and take full advantage of these opportunities.
It's a good and familiar roadmap, as it one that we know quite well: Australia needs to lift productivity, be fairer, be smarter, be better educated etc. It is a more realistic road map than the Queenland's dinosaur one of coal being the future based on the coal industry's carbon capture scenario. Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson shows why.
He talks about three phases of Australia’s Asian Century boom: Asia’s extraordinary demand for our minerals and energy; then, as incomes rise, its demand for high-quality food; and finally, with the rise of Asia’s middle class, its demand for professional and tourism services and niche manufacturing.
However, the roadmap assumes that Asia is out there which Australia needs to adapt to. It does not see Australia as being within Asian, nor does it address the fear of Asia held by many Australians.
The puzzle is: how are we going to get to this kind of high skill future? The road map states that with the right plan, we can make the new middle-class Asia a new market for a high-wage, high-skill Australia. What is the right plan? For instance, how would the NBN facilitate this? If so, how?
Will it be through high-growth tech companies? Creating a world-leading technology city to rival Silicon Valley? Does Australia's Tech City---the Digital Harbor in Melbourne's Docklands---have a global profile? Are the majority of serious tech people in Asia and around the world now aware of "Tech City"? Does Australia even have entrepreneur visas' [a fast-track visa scheme for entrepreneurs]? Does Australia have a world-class computer science university near "Tech City"?
Unfortunately, there is no plan to implement the vision other an increase in schools studying an Asian language by 2025 and engaging with the history and culture of the nation states in the region. This "Asian literacy' covers over the probability that in a high-wage, high-skill Australia the wages of semi-skilled and unskilled workers in declining industries will continue to fall further behind those of skilled Australians. The gap between high and low-income earners will widen because unskilled workers will struggle to gain a foothold in the expanding skill-intensive sectors.