Friday, November 2, 2012


This is a brilliant piece about the failure of the government that's marked by one critical flaw.

I saw it as soon as I re-read it (the fifth time).

I mention Jim Thompson. Of course I mean David.

That's brain damage for you . . .


Productivity is at the heart of Julia Gillard's white paper on Asia. And if you choose to measure your life by increments of productivity, placing your own finances at the centre of all human endeavour, you will have been thrilled by the wishful thinking it encapsulated.

Who can argue against such a collection of noble aspirations? Of course Australia's school system should reach to become one of the “top 5 in the world". But how is this to be measured? By eliminating school sport and instead insisting children attend Saturday classes (as they do in much of Asia)? And of course we should aim to have 10 universities in the world's top 100. But is this to be at the price of increasing conformity as we ensure graduates can regurgitate factors affecting the mass-production of consumer goods, or instead the development of thinking, happy, engaged individuals?

Questions such as these are obviously intended to be rhetorical. Unfortunately, they're not. The reason they weigh so heavily is because of the implicit thinking that underlies the dreary economic focus of the White Paper. Most of the criticism so far has been focused on the obvious disjunction between the noble visions it articulates of happy little workers whistling on their way to work and the practical problem of an utter lack of resources devoted to achieving this objective. But really, who cares? It doesn't matter that the aspirations the government hasn't articulated any detail about how every kindergarten child is suddenly going to engage with an Internet-pal in one of the “target countries" of China, India, Japan or Indonesia because we all know that this is not going to happen.

What does matter is something far more viscerally connected to the agenda behind the platitudes. Listen to words the PM chose when she launched the paper. “Today we have to educate and open society to complete in the new Asia . . . We can only win in this century if every sector of our economy is dynamic, productive, engaged."

Win? What, exactly, are you aiming to achieve before you die and will make you feel life has been successful? I know my answer to that particular question has very little to do with multi-factor productivity improvements and a great deal more to do with family, friends and ideas. What exactly is “winning" – the way Gillard defines it? I know what I think success is about, but I don't it has very much to do with what the PM's talking about here.

I've lived in Asia twice for extended periods; and I've loved it. And my smattering of badly pronounced Thai did provide an immediate economic benefit. Normally a bit of bargaining in the local language could reduce the initial asking price of everything from an 'antique' vase to fruit purchased from the market by roughly three quarters. But that wasn't why I want to learn the language. It opened the door to a culture; a different way of looking at the world; and new understanding of the way the world works. The deal wasn’t about managing to bring home something cheap.  The bargain was the opportunity to interact with people and learn about how they made sense of this bizarre thing that is the human condition.

That is why I want to engage in Asia. I love what Jim Thompson has been able to do with Thai food and, yes, it's great he's been so successful that he's now wealthy. But I'm sure he'd consider his life had been worthwhile even if “all" he managed to do was allow us to understand and savor the tastes he's introduced us, too. For people with passion – and these are the individuals who actually advance human civilisation – the petty concerns of 'productivity' and 'winning' are irrelevant.

It's difficult not to suspect that the bureaucrats who've provided us with this 312-page document have no concept, none, about the meaning of life. That's not to cast a slur on Ken Henry. His original document was apparently gutted in the rewrite by the plodding pygmies in the Lowy Institute. There is a puzzle contained in the paper, and that is how could such intelligent people be prepared to associate themselves with such a vacuous collection of worthy hopes interleafed with interesting facts and prettily-coloured graphs?

It's perhaps unfair to blame the authors for their predilection for straight-line projections into the future. Given the political requirement for a wide-ranging policy document, the ability to introduce any element of nuance was always going to be limited. But is this really the best we can manage? It's not until page 222 that there is even a pause to consider that the security environment is also changing. Yet even here the focus remains fixed on the nation state. Today it's other drivers, such as climate change; resources and food security that will inevitably assume increased importance, yet the White Paper barely glances in this direction. These, however, are the vital tectonic plates that hold the region together. As they shift, so will the dynamics that are shaping Asia. The adoption of such a relentlessly positive approach by the drafters meant that these tensions received nothing more than a cursory nod. That's probably a fair call, politically, but this does mean that the picture that's being portrayed is wishful rather than accurate.

Sadly, this effort reveals something we already knew. The government can clearly identify the big issues that we're going to face in the future. It can also, although perhaps less surely, suggest things that could be done to assist our urgent attempts to grapple with the future. Unfortunately it appears to be completely incapable of coming up with firm, hard-edged policies to implement its strategies.

It's impossible not to compare this White Paper with the 2020 Summit, and what a lot of rubbish that turned out to be. The need to engage more deeply with Asia is immediate. What a pity the government has done so little to show us the way.

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