FUTUREASIA: Labor’s Deeper Asian Engagement Policy

A Shorten Labor Government will embrace a new, comprehensive and holistic policy approach to a deeper Asian engagement called ‘FutureAsia’, a policy framework for Australia which will build Asia relevant capabilities and foster greater regional collaboration.

Asia’s middle class will reach 1.7 billion people by 2020, bigger than all of Europe and North America combined and yet to be frank, we pay Asia lip service in Australia.

We have Indonesia, one of our closest neighbours, on track to become the fourth largest economy in the world and yet it is not in Australia’s top ten trading partners.

And Australia has more foreign direct investment in New Zealand than it does in China, Japan, ASEAN and India combined.

For too long, policy thinking and initiatives in this space have been characterised by short-termism and a lack of continuity between governments.

Australia needs smarter engagement with our neighbours to deal with the economic challenges and opportunities of our region but in a way that matches our broader geo-political priorities.

Australia needs 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.

It is important that the nation has a policy engagement framework like FutureAsia that is instigated by Government but outlasts any one government and permeates across the nation.

Just this week, the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs were reinforcing the importance of strong economic and trade ties in meetings with political and business leaders in South Korea and Japan.

To take Australia’s economic engagement with Asia to the next level, we need initiatives that build Asia relevant capabilities and foster greater regional collaboration.

Australia’s performance and standing in teaching and studying Asian languages has fallen noticeably in recent times. The Asian Century White Paper identified improved Asian language literacy as a key area for improvement and reform and while the White Paper recommended that every Australian student have the opportunity to take a continuous course of study in an Asian language, nothing has been done over the last four years to progress it.

So a Shorten Labor Government will use the COAG processes to collaborate with states and territories to lift the focus on Asian languages and work on specific programs in this field and will restore the $1.5 million in funding cut from the Asian Education Foundation.

These policy initiatives complement Labor’s commitment to restore every dollar the Liberals have cut from schools, and our goal to have the Australian school system back amongst the world’s best performers in reading, maths, and science. 

And improving Asian literacy and cultural understanding is not just a matter for our education system.

A recent report from AsiaLink entitled ‘Match Fit: Shaping Asia Capable Leaders’ found that 67 per cent of ASX200 board members showed no evidence of extensive operating experience in Asia with 55 per cent demonstrating little or no knowledge of Asian markets.

So a Shorten Labor Government will allocate $3 million over four years to work with the Australian Institute of Company Directors on a pilot program to mentor Asian capable potential board directors to facilitate more Australians with Asian business experience on our boards.

And under Labor’s FutureAsia policy framework, we will pursue a diaspora program based on the US model, empowering Asian diasporas in Australia and the Australian diaspora in Asia.

The FutureAsia diaspora program will include undertaking a stocktake and developing mechanisms for more authentic consultations and engagement with Asian diaspora organisations in Australia, while energising our Asian-based Australia diaspora community by building networks across governments, the not-for-profit and private sectors.

Other policy measures that will come together under the FutureAsia banner include:

– Pursuing the establishment of an Australia-ASEAN studies centre – comparable centres exist in the US, Japan, Korea and India but not in Australia;

– Asia-Pacific Finance Ministers should meet in advance of each G20 Finance Ministers meetings;
– As previously flagged, the Australia and Indonesian Governments should formalise annual meetings between our finance and trade ministers in an economic and investment 2 + 2; and finally;
– The Treasurer should report annually to the Parliament on progress in implementing FutureAsia policies.

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