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Issue #1573      14 November 2012

Australia in the Asian Century

Blueprint for war and corporate exploitation

“The transformation of the Asian region into the economic powerhouse of the world is not only unstoppable, it is gathering pace,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard says in the foreword to the government’s White Paper, “Australia in the Asian Century”. “Our region will be the world’s largest producer of goods and services and the largest consumer of them,” says Gillard. And, according to the White Paper, Australia is in Asia and in a strong position to capitalise on that.

“Thriving in the Asian century therefore requires our nation to have a clear plan to seize the economic opportunities that will flow and manage the strategic challenges that will arise… Our nation has benefited from Asia’s appetite for raw materials and energy. The challenge we must now address is how Australia can benefit from what Asia will need next.” By Australia, is meant the private, for-profit corporate sector.

In other words, how can Australian corporations make a killing from Asia’s economic ascendency?

The big profits will not be confined to mining and agriculture. “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,” the paper notes.

Not surprisingly, major employer organisations have given it their stamp of approval. After all, it was written for them by a team of neo-liberals led by former Treasury Secretary and now National Australia Bank director, Ken Henry.

Gillard urges the nation to rally behind making Australia (read big end of town) a “winner”. It calls on all of us to “play our part in becoming a more Asia-literate and Asia-capable nation.”

Neo-liberal recipe

The White Paper is essentially a rehash of the government’s economic policies, with the focus redirected to becoming “Asia-literate and Asia-capable”. It also presents a rosy, nationalistic “vision” to take to the electorate.

The paper sets out 25 objectives for 2025, what it calls “a roadmap to navigate the Asian century”. The main focus of these is boosting productivity, removing trade and foreign investment barriers, economic deregulation, privatisation, modern infrastructure, and assisting business to penetrate Asian markets.

The emphasis is on building closer ties and understanding with Asia towards achieving these ends, signing on for more free trade agreements and boosting the US’s military and political domination of the region.

Boosting productivity

The government will “continue to develop, through the Fair Work Act 2009, and ongoing partnership, a workforce culture in which employees, employers and unions collaborate for continuous improvement and productivity growth.”

A culture based on collaboration with employers to increase productivity means suppression of wages and struggle, increasing output per worker, more “flexible” workforces (casualisation, contract employment, etc) and trade-offs in conditions for wage rises. Section 457 visas will continue to be used, drawing on cheaper, non-unionised labour from the region.

Education and training are portrayed as “crucial” but all the Paper offers is a rehash of existing policies for the creation of education markets, commodification of education, and the privatisation and devolution of public education. The promise of making Australia’s schools, universities and training system amongst the best in the world is not backed by concrete action. The states will be left to continue the dismantling of TAFE, universities will continue to be starved of public funding, student fees will not be abolished.

The government talks about attracting the best academics from around the world but there is not a cent towards increasing salaries, improving working conditions, providing job security or additional research funding.

Innovation is another objective which is hammered to death. There will be a National Research Investment Plan to encourage private sector investment and entrepreneurship in science and technology and promote the commercialisation of our ideas.

Once again, no money to back the rhetoric for cash-strapped universities and other public research institutions. It will be left to the private sector with possibly some tax incentives.

There is a lot of talk about planning, promoting competition and reliance on the private sector in relation to transport, energy, and other infrastructure to improve productivity. The government calls on the states to privatise remaining public utilities.

Tax reforms are also presented as central to boosting productivity. The paper repeats previous commitments and promises a new Tax Studies Institute, a dialogue with business, the lifting of the tax-free threshold for workers and industry assistance.

At the same time there is a recommitment to budget surpluses. Social security looks set to take more cuts. They are dressed up in the usual spin about improving employment incentives for the unemployed, single parents and people with a disability.

Environmental hoax

The White Paper promises that emissions will be reduced by at least five percent below 2000 levels by 2025 – meaning an increase over 1990 levels which is the base year set under the Kyoto Protocol. It claims Australia will be a world leader in sustainable food production methods, sustainable energy and water use, and biodiversity conservation. These claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

For example, its pathetic target of 20 percent of electricity generation by renewable energy sources by 2020 has already been surpassed in other parts of the world.

There are no plans to halt the destruction of fertile land and water systems with coal seam gas and other mining ventures. The government is still balking at taking the necessary decisions to revive and protect key water systems.

A new “risk management” approach to imports of previously prohibited plant and animal products could see the entry of destructive diseases or pests with disastrous, irreversible consequences. It is nothing short of criminal.

Australia has the potential to be a world leader. But it is being thrown away with “risk management”, rampant destruction of fertile land by mining and unknown harm with the introduction of genetically modified crops and expansion of coal mining. All for a handful of corporations to make a few fast bucks.

There is no shortage of job-creating alternatives for sustainable food production, renewable energy and water conservation.

“Asia-capabilities”

In the chapter on “Building capabilities”, the focus is on schools, universities, vocational education and training, and “Asia capable leaders, workplaces and institutions.”

“Every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia across the curriculum to increase their cultural knowledge and skills and enable them to be active in the region.” This includes all students having access to at least one priority Asian language – Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian or Japanese.

The concept of studying the culture and history of Asia, learning Asian languages, building international school-to-school relations, working and studying overseas, etc, is great. The development of such activities could enrich the education of Australian students and our own culture and help strengthen ties of friendship between nations.

But this is not the government’s aim, it is a means to a pragmatic economic end, the end being better equipping corporate Australia to penetrate and exploit Asian markets and boost investments in those countries.

There is a commitment to strengthen public servants’ Asia capabilities by such means as exchanges of senior officials.

In the name of creating “Asia-capable leaders”, big business is urged to employ people who have learnt one of the “priority Asian languages” and for senior staff to spend some time working in Asia.

The corporate sector seems to have treated this one with a grain of salt. Some have suggested they have left the government well behind having already moved into Asia. Others say they would rather employ native speakers of Asian languages who now live in Australia.

There is an offer of financial assistance for students to study in Asia – it turns out it is a rebadging of an existing scheme!

There’s a whole chapter on operating in and connecting with growing Asian markets with promises of government assistance to companies seeking to enter markets and overcome barriers. Visa processing for tourists and business people from selected Asian countries will be speeded up.

While welcoming the policy statement, big business was quick to point out the contradictions between the emphasis on building networks and budget cuts that have seen a relative decline in assistance from Austrade, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and diplomatic staff in that region.

A whole chapter is devoted to developing stronger relations with the “priority” Asian nations of China, Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea and the need for deeper and more comprehensive bilateral ties – public and private sector and institutional.

“Australia will have the necessary capabilities to promote Australian interests and maintain Australia’s influence”. Towards these ends, “Australia’s diplomatic network will have a larger footprint across Asia,” in strengthening economic, cultural, political and security ties.

China and India are the immediate priorities in extending Australia’s influence and promoting the interests of Australia’s corporations.

US Alliance

But it is not just Australia’s influence or footprint that is being promoted in the White Paper. The US is central to Australia’s vision for Asia. The government will work with the US “to ensure that it continues to have a strong and consistent presence in the region, with our alliance contributing to regional stability, security and peace.”

The government acknowledges that there will be shifts in the strategic as well as economic landscape over the years to 2025. It stops short of directly pointing to the US’s relative economic decline and omits the US’s aim of maintaining power through military might.

It condescendingly expresses support for China’s participation in the Asian region’s strategic, political and economic development.

The Paper fails to acknowledge the contradictions in placing Australia’s economic future in Asia while at the same time contributing to military tensions in the region through its support for US domination.

The government’s position may, however, be made clearer in a National Security Statement and a new Defence White Paper to be released shortly.

Other parts of the world such as Latin America and the African continent, where rapid economic and social development are taking place or will be on the agenda during the 21st century are totally ignored.

The most the White Paper offers the working class of Australia, apart from Asian language classes at school, is the hope of some trickling down of crumbs from corporate successes in Asia. The struggle remains to restore funding to public education and hospitals, halt privatisation and cuts to social welfare, ensure wages and working conditions are protected, jobs are created and serious measures taken to address climate change.  

Next article – Editorial – The hoopla is over – back to bombing as usual

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