Government’s ‘Asian Century’ strategy all spin: Richard Woolcott

Respected retired diplomat Richard Woolcott has likened the federal government’s Asian Century strategy to Soviet Union-style propaganda, saying it’s been all talk with little action.

Woolcott said at a Melbourne University function last night the government “spin” was distracting from the fact little has been achieved to further Australia’s engagement with Asia.

“The government asserts we are building our future in the Asian Century and our relations with Indonesia. But the rhetoric and the spin emerging from the ministerial offices, much of which finds its way into the media, gives a false sense of satisfaction at our progress,” he says.

Woolcott, the former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and founding director of the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre says more needs to be done to progress Australia’s position in the Asian Century.

“The fact is that we are not doing as well with our Asian engagement as the regular rhetoric and diet of spin emerging from ministerial offices would have the public believe.

“For example, the study of Asian language, especially Bahasa Indonesia, in our schools and universities has substantially diminished in recent years,” he says.

Business policy advisor with CPA Australia – which has been a big advocate of increasing trade and business with Asia – Gavan Ord told SmartCompany the government’s Asian language school’s initiative is “too little too late”.

“The government can do more in relation to getting more people to learn key Asian languages in schools. They have a goal of giving all primary and secondary school students the option of studying an Asian language by 2025, but this is too little too late and it should be made compulsory.

“It needs to be more strident and the government needs to resource it better, but it’s a very important step. More also has to be done to educate students and parents around the value of Asian languages,” he says.

Ord says initiatives such as increasing the ATAR score weighting of Asian languages and ensuring there are separate classes for first and second language students can also increase the number of students learning Asian languages.

Increasing the number of Australians with Asian language skills is vital, as Ord says businesses should be looking to employ people with these skills.

“Businesses need to recruit staff who have Asian language skills and who have knowledge of Asia. They also need directors who understand Asia and can better direct the business’s strategy.

“For smaller businesses, go there and go there often. Don’t get sucked up into the vortex of how wonderful Asia is, you actually need to go there,” he says.

While Ord agrees there is a gap between the current Asian rhetoric and reality, he says it’s a step too far to label it as propaganda.

“In relation to the gap between the rhetoric and the reality we agree – we did a survey of 6000 Australian businesses last year and found the vast majority are not prepared for the Asian Century, as the level of importance put on skills such as knowledge of Asian markets and bilingual staff is quite low,” he says

“But we don’t agree that the government’s strategy is propaganda. It’s an ambitious outline of what can be done and can be achieved,” he says.

Ord says the government can provide more support to businesses through trade delegations and business exchanges with Asia, where business owners are supported to go and spend time in Asia for a few months.

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