Foreign Affairs Reaches Out to the Academy

The following essay was written in (rather dyspeptic) response to recent efforts by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to garner responses to the September 2012 Australian Government’s White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century. The China Story Journal has been following responses to the White Paper, and we have previously published the following essays related to it:

The author is a former diplomat.—The Editors


On 28 May, your correspondent betook himself to a DFAT gig at ANU’s University House, advertised on campus billboards, and apparently elsewhere in the town, as a chance for the public to take part in foreign-policy making by offering suggestions for ‘country strategies’ that had been distilled from the government’s White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century.

Your correspondent is among the sceptics about this White Paper. The title is comically pretentious and arguably mis-begotten. What, after all, is Asia? Which century? Was not the last century also very much an Asian one, with the rise of Japan and India and the other ‘tigers’? And, given the highly volatile nature of the ‘new world disorder’, can we really be so confident that the present one will belong to ‘Asia’? What of the non-Asian countries on the Pacific Rim, such as the US, Canada, Russia, Brazil and Mexico, are they of no consequence?

More to the point though, it ought to be bleedin’ obvious that there’s not much that Australians can do to influence the policies of their Asian neighbours; what we can do was get our own domestic policies right. And we don’t need a White Paper to learn that.

That said, DFAT’s initiative of going among the people is laudable, indeed perhaps ground-breaking, given the tribal contempt for academics as a breed that is so entrenched in the Australian Public Service. As a former DFAT poohbah put it succinctly not so long ago, when it was suggested to him that DFAT might make better use of the resource on its doorstep that is the ANU: ‘what have a mob of f…ing academic ratbags got to teach us professionals?’ So your correspondent approached the event with buoyant expectations.

According to the blurb, DFAT hoped to be rewarded for its decision to approaching their masses by receiving ‘your input into the country strategies being developed (sic) on Australia’s ongoing (sic) engagement with Japan, China, South Korea, India and Indonesia.’ A First Assistant Secretary (no less) would talk on ‘developing’ the country strategies. ‘A town hall forum will follow where participants will be encouraged to share their experiences, plans and ideas.’

Issues Papers that, we were told, had been ‘developed’ (whatever happened to ‘written’?) for the five countries the government has decreed shall be our priorities, were distributed before the meeting; China, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea and Indonesia. This list of course raises the question of what we shall do about all the other Asian countries. Presumably, given DFAT’s chronic shortage of resources, there is a risk that they will henceforth be treated as second class and probably neglected.

An impressive public contingent had been attracted by the initiative, perhaps 120-30 people, with standing room only. All copies of the issues paper for China had been snaffled well before the proceedings began – an eloquent comment on the audience’s preoccupations.

Alas, one must report that the meeting was not a success, indeed it was a depressing experience. After a somewhat formulaic spiel about the exercise, with much use of ‘developing’ and ‘stakeholders’, the word we wish we could dis-invent (and can there conceivably be any denizen of our wide brown land who does not have a stake in Asia’s future?), the DFAT delegation opened the meeting to comments.

Oh dear…what ensued amounted to a revelation of the collective obtuseness and woeful ignorance of government – how the country actually works – in an audience that must have been among the best educated a DFAT agitprop crew might ever hope to address, in this or any other country.

About eighty percent of comments and questions were in effect about our alleged lack of ‘Asia literacy’. That’s hardly surprising – given our dependence on Asian markets and our fast-changing demographics. But virtually all the comments were repetitions of threnodies we’ve been hearing ad nauseam since Lord Rudd of the Brisbane Floods first persuaded Paul Keating twenty years ago that Asian languages should be taught in Australian schools. And most participants – with a few admirable exceptions – clearly think that Asia literacy means knowledge of Asian languages.

But most enervating of all was that almost all comments implied or assumed that DFAT was responsible both for the Federal budget and how it’s spent, and for Australia’s education system and school curricula to boot. The gist of most offerings was: to enable Australia make even more money out of the Asian economic boom (there seemed to be a touching assumption that it must continue, with only one speaker referring to ‘security’) Australians must learn to ‘understand Asia’, and the only way to do that is by mastering an Asian language, preferably Mandarin; and that in turn can only be achieved by making it compulsory for all Australian kiddies from age three (the word kindergarten was mentioned repeatedly). Two participants actually demanded more money for their own childrens’ preschools.

That Australia is a democracy (still, one hopes, though thanks to Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, the NSW Labor Party and, it must be said, the ABC, it would seem increasingly less so), where parents make choices for their children, seemed not to have occurred to these earnest parishioners of the ANU diocese. Some seemed genuinely to be suggesting that the government engage in social engineering à la the DPRK.

Australian schools do not teach Asian languages much because most parents don’t want them too – punkt. The exceptions are those vigilant parents, usually of Asian provenance, who have worked out that their children can score a higher UAI by taking the language spoken in their home as an exam subject. In this context only one member of the audience, who identified himself as a Japanese economist, used the word ‘demand’.

Virtually any Australian school teacher will attest how demoralising it can be to try to persuade Aussie kids, especially boys, to take foreign-language study seriously. Clearly one earnest gentleman had not had such a conversation, as he exhorted the DFAT delegation, and the rest of us, to do all we could to make all our children bilingual, ‘like in Sweden and Norway’ – ‘because once a child has learned one language picking up another is easy’. This participant explained that they knew this because ‘my children attend Telopea Park School’. The reactions of fellow audience members who themselves may have tried to help their kids with the fiendish difficulties of Japanese grammar and orthography or Vietnamese or Thai tones, or indeed even English spelling and contextual meaning, can well be imagined.

So it was refreshing when one Tiffany, who described herself as a final-year student of international relations at ANU, said with ingenuous candour and good humour that she was ‘not a languages person’ and had been defeated utterly by the task of mastering the 3,000 characters required simply to read a Chinese newspaper or news site.

Then, refreshing words of wisdom, as a gentleman from the sub-continent argued that what can be done far better at the school level is the teaching of the histories and cultures of the Asian peoples. If young people are sufficiently interested they’ll then want to learn the language(s). But language on its own, especially badly taught, as it often will be, will only put kids off. The sensible approach is to concentrate intensive language study in the universities. They have demonstrated that, given the resources, they can provide government and business with a pool of competent country specialists. One may have one’s differ with the hubristic Kevin Rudd, but that the ANU gave him a formidable grounding in Chinese language and culture no-one can credibly gainsay.

Another refrain of complaint was DFAT’s alleged failure to exploit our bounteous multicultural endowment by employing so few migrants with their ‘outstanding language skills and country expertise’. This was self-serving nonsense: in fact DFAT’s demographic is skewed towards the children of migrants, and its Secretary is indeed the son of Asian migrants. Moreover, it has built up a pretty effective cadre of country and regional specialists, with sound language skills, the generalist imperative of a small and underfunded foreign service notwithstanding. We could of course always use more.

Subjected to all this verbiage, your correspondent heroically overcame an almost unconquerable urge to surge to his feet and bellow: ‘You’re all benighted! Why don’t you go back to school and learn something about this country! DFAT DOES NOT MAKE DOMESTIC POLICY! Write to your MP, write to [the Opposition Leader] Tony Abbott, telling him that you’d like to pay more taxes so long as the money is channelled to federal and state education departments to be used for the teaching of Asian languages and study trips to Asia for Australian children.’

There were some other noteworthy moments during the meeting. One dauntingly self-confident young man lectured us about how much Australian universities could learn by studying the methods of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School and ‘other academic (sic) institutions in China’; and then scolded us for a failure to ’recognise our limitations’ – after all, Australia was ‘not really a middle power’. Given our comical impulse to exaggerate our international clout (with all that talk about ‘punching above our weight’), in this he may have had a point.

The ubiquitous Sam Wong of the ‘Multicultural Community Forum’ (whatever that is) was there of course and, as ever, was the first to launch into his grab-bag of indignation and opinion: he had been ‘very shocked’ by the White Paper’s failure to acknowledge the huge contribution of migrants to Australia. This failure was because the government ‘talks to the wrong people’. It should consult ‘the common people’, ‘real people’, the ‘migrants’ (presumably, Chinese Australians, and him especially), rather than wasting its time with ‘all these academics in their ivory towers’, who moreover often revealed their deviousness and true colours as Cold War warriors by actually criticising China.

Among the more sensible comments was from the ANU’s Ben Riley, who pointed out that four of the five priority countries were democracies, or aspired to be; DFAT, he suggested, should be a little less timid and more willing to talk about the politics in these countries.

The DFAT staff apparently saw no value in pointing out that their minister does not make education policy, nor control the spending of government monies. Had that been said at the outset the whole exercise just might have been more fruitful. As it was, it seems reasonable to assume that Sam Wong’s natural ally, the DFAT dignitary who pooh-poohed the potential of academe to contribute to policy, would have been gratified by the quality of most of what the DFAT-ies actually heard.