Christopher Lee

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Ms Gillard wants to reposition Australia – time then to bail another cow?

29th October 2012

The prime minister here, Julia Gillard, announced this week that she wanted Australia to reposition itself  away from what she calls “old countries” and cuddle up to China and India.
 
How to succeed in this cuddling up is not clear, certainly not in a 312 paper she was promoting at the Lowy Insititute here, Australia in the Asian Century.
 
Given Australia’s history as a geo-economic udder of Asia, Ms Gillard’s statement seems a statement of the obvious.  But that has never stopped an Australian from saying nothing.
 
 My great-grandfather’s brother was one of the lot that was sent out to govern New South Wales – not by himself, but as on the staff of someone who did.  He wrote home to his future wife that she would like the Australians because they spoke their minds.  That was more than a century ago.
 
Since that time, no Australian is remembered for having had the mind to say anything of any importance although continuing the torturous (and tortured) geo-economic udder sign language, I think the prize would have gone to Prime Minister Pig Iron Bob Menzies and his: “It’s no good crying over spilt milk; all we can do is bail up another cow.”
 
In other words it most certainly is how you say it rather than what you say as all the misguided Oscar Wilde fans will never understand.  
 
Ms Gillard does not readily slip into or onto the Wildean banana-skin but she certainly has  made the obvious sound better 97th time around.  
 
The obvious is that Australian is already doing Asia in a big way. China is Australia’s top trading partner, ahead of Japan, the US and South Korea.  But this is hardly a new-found affair.  The Chinese started arriving in Australia in the 18th century as crew members of the earliest immigrant ships and then with the mid-nineteenth century gold rush – they called it The New Gold Mountain – they were arriving here in their thousands as migrant workers.
 
By the 1860s, just under 4 percent of Australia’s population was Chinese.  The gee-whiz number is that today, the percentage is about the same, 4 percent.  The difference is the big numbers.
 
That 4 percent comes to nearly 900,000 of Australians who are Chinese or see themselves of Chinese descent and that comes to some 40 percent of the Asian population.
 
So what is it that Ms Gillard’s Australia wants to do differently?
 
 
She says  “The scale and pace of Asia’s rise is staggering, and there are significant opportunities and challenges for all Australians … our future will be determined by the choices we make and how we engage with the region we live in.”  Hardly anything staggering about that.
 
General Bill Slim was saying the same thing in the early 1950s as the 13th governor-general of Australia.  He had made his military name in wartime Asia and understood perfectly that Australia had to look to the lands across which they had recently fought.
 
So where does Gillard start to make a difference?  She wants Asian Studies a core subject in school and raising school and uni standards in Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and maybe Indonesian as mainstream languages.  That’s hardly an ambition too far therefore it must be the bit about repositioning away from the “old countries”. You would think as prime minister she would be better informed.
 
The people who do money in a big way do not need advice on re-positioning. Venturers go where the money is. They tie deals to percentages not to idealism about ducking the past and scanning new horizons.
 
We might remember that America is building a huge military base facility in Northern Australia to protect its commercial as well as strategic interests in the Pacific and the areas of interest and influence among Asian trading states.
 
Also, those very “old countries” that she’s implicitly knocking as not the best business houses to mix into are doing exactly what she is suggesting.  The European banks and venture capitalists that coffer them are already in China in a big way ready to take financial knocks and trouser much bigger gains than the fleetwind losses that zephyr by.
 
Ms Gillard should need no chunky tome to tell her how and when to re-position Australia’s economic ambitions.  
 
One word of warning to her: why does even President Obama say that America is building up its military bits in the Pacific? With the new markets come new instabilities. She did not mention that.
 
Let’s not however, ignore an important point in the First Lady’s favour: China is also repositioning itself as signified by the internal changes to the Politburo.  They are the very people who will be listening to Ms Gillard.  Maybe she has, after all, had the wit and wisdom thing. Maybe she was talking not to Australia, but to the fifty guys who will for the coming decade run China.
 
But they’d better be quick.  No one ever remembers for more than a day what an Australian PM says. But if it all goes a little wrong, then she always quote Bob Menzies and bail up another cow.  The Mandarin for that escapes me.

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