Australia and Asia: A Youthful Perspective
May 8, 2012 in Australia in the Asian Century
By Joshua Castle
The imposing, dark entrance space of the Melbourne Docklands Atlantic Group venue was enclosed with thick black curtains, the colour mirrored by the coffees of the black-suited businesspeople clustered around the water urn. The importance of the event became apparent very quickly as the space filled with the nation’s top business, journalistic, and economic minds.
A fanfare of the quintessential Australian tune ‘Land Down Under’ announced the opening of the central curtains to reveal a dark room of round tables – a bureaucratic casino of sorts. Behind the stage, a prominent banner announced The Global Foundation’s 2012 summit.
The non-governmental organisation The Global Foundation has a broad mandate to ‘help shape longer-term solutions to great challenges’; the challenge for the 2012 summit was ‘Australia’s Role In the Asian Century’. The foundation brings together leading specialists to discuss ‘Australia’s longer term national interest’.
So how did I (a first-year undergraduate University of Melbourne student) end up at such a prestigious event? It seems to me that certain generations like to remedy a lack of a ‘youth voice’ in issues by inviting several token students to conferences – which, quite frankly, make them feel about two inches tall. Refreshingly, however, Global Foundation Secretary General Steve Howard approached me after the event and expressed genuine interest in my views on how to better integrate the foundation’s message and aims with the youth of Australia. I really hope that this is something that is a focus of not just the Global Foundation but also of other policy-generating organisations.
Shadow Minister for Finance Andrew Robb countered the previous night’s speech by Julia Gillard and opened the day’s discussion. As a youth (and thus inherently cynical towards politicians) I found that the speech smothered in political rhetoric with the prefix of ‘an opposition government will…’ did little to engage my attention. Side of stage, a double bell chimed to indicate Robb’s time limit had expired, and he came to his closing remarks by describing his lack of substantive policy ideas as “philosophical tram tracks” in guiding moral action.
My disillusionment in the whole situation was quickly reversed, however, as the Chairman of the Asian Century Taskforce Ken Henry was invited onstage by Secretary General Howard. As both an economist and a public servant, Henry’s passion on the topic of Asian relations was obvious. He introduced key ideas that would become central topics to be debated and addressed later in the conference and heavily referred to by many of the 50+ speakers who contributed to discussion. From one of the plush white lounge chairs that filled the stage, Henry discussed the idea of an Australian nation which operates through a triangular model: natural and created ‘endowments’ as a base; economic political and strategic factors as the middle; and the individual ‘people to people’ interaction as the top segment. At this point my first-year Arts study kicked in and I connected Henry’s ideas to the abstract concept of globalisation, which my fresher mind interprets as a ‘stretching of inter-global social connections’ and a world which, due to modernisation, interacts and communicates on a transglobal level. More importantly, Henry’s speech resonated with me as more than a poorly disguised political agenda, with the typically (and somewhat idealistically) ‘frank and fearless’ voice of the public service.
Henry’s comments got me thinking about an Australian nation that exists in a multi-power world. Moreover, a nation that must confront problems that are not confined to its borders, but transcend traditional boundaries – and must certainly be addressed accordingly. At numerous points throughout the day, the importance of an active involvement in fostering relations between Asia and Australia was underlined as imperative. Mr Mark Laurie, of PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia, commented that ‘you cannot implement an effective Asian strategy by sitting in Collins Street alone’ (coincidentally another sign of the influential elite vs my generation). Vice Chancellor of Monash University, Professor Ed Byrne, challenged a “small Australian viewpoint [as] inept”, and described the collective Australian knowledge of Asia as “woeful”. So what can be done to remedy this lack of cultural knowledge?
Confronting the language barrier is perceived as an important symbolic step towards a greater cultural awareness. The University of Melbourne’s Executive Liaison Zoe Dauth is involved in Global Engagement and advocates for an improved utililisation of “Australia’s own citizens as a resource for developing language” and cultural education. Such a strategy would surely bring about cohesive outcomes and contribute to a nation that consists of, and embraces, multiple cultures. Modernity is a causal factor for globalisation, an outcome of which is a greater diversity of cultures existing together.
The changing composition of the Australian population is illustrated by the experience of Dr Michael Yeoh. Coming to Australia as a Monash University student in 1974, he visited regional towns where people had “never seen an Asian before”. (If our knowledge of Asia is woeful now, I’d hate to hear what words Professor Byrne would have chosen to describe a 1970s Australia). Thus, due to modernity there is a larger range of cultures in Australia than ever before, and consequently, fostering discussions between them all is difficult. Because language is so central in the foundation of ideas, it is logically a significant step towards national cohesion. Surely policy makers should be scrambling to reinvent the language programmes in schools and universities- a task that has been previously neglected out of a perceived lack of necessity due to geographic distance. Language is a long-term investment that will surely have ramifications in business possibilities for future Australian leaders. I am advocating this from the perspective of a disenchanted ex-language student, who was capable, but very unwilling to continue languages past the compulsory 10th grade level. I may quickly note that cultural exchange is not only through language: various forms of art have the ability to exchange cultural messages and ideas in a way that business deals cannot.
Another defining term introduced by Ken Henry was that of ‘peer-to-peer’ contact. By this he was referring to a personal level of interconnectedness between individuals in both Asia and Australia. His intentional phrasing of ‘Australian’s role in Asia’, as opposed to ‘Australia’s’ showed the perceived importance of the individual in fostering global connections. It is often commented that in a global world, person-to-person contacts are achieved through technological means such as social networking. However, I believe that spontaneous online relationships are unlikely to occur without a human interaction or a significant mutual interest. Networking is perhaps not as global as some may like to think. Despite being an active member of the ‘digital age’, I do not want to see person-to-person supplanted by technology. In my experience, teenage Facebook users focus predominantly on communicating in a regional sphere. On many levels a website is a sterile place which struggles to communicate culture. ‘Digital citizenship’ is not necessarily an egalitarian one. Consider the Great Firewall of China, which censors much of the information in the South East Asia region or the Vietnamese government blocking Facebook. Efforts at personal interaction on a micro level between citizens must not be weakened due to a perceived prevalence of digital means. Melbourne University’s Associate Dean of the Arts Faculty Dr Jacqueline Dutton spoke passionately on the topic of travel being integral to forming such relationships. Surely experiencing the globe will assist in fostering cultural sensitivity. Asia is certainly a long way from Collins Street!
The luminous round tables of the Docklands venue gradually started emptying; less bald heads obscured my view of the stage. A line from Bob Dylan crossed my mind: “Old people, when their hair grows out, they should go out”. Despite this cynicism from Dylan fresh in mind, I was incredibly impressed with the Foundation’s mature discussion from a huge range of perspectives. This is coming from a student who has watched and cringed at parliamentary Question Time. Perhaps something could be learnt from putting away partisan motive, for the greater good of the nation. However, one must be cautious of labeling Australia as a ‘leading part of Asia’. Culturally, I certainly don’t see this as the case: for many Australians, cultural immersion only occurs when they put their China-town dumplings in soy-sauce. Early in the day’s discussion Dr Manju Kalra Prakash called for Australia to look beyond the three Cs of “cricket, commonwealth, and curry”. Policy must be focused be at a level that acknowledges culture in a sensitive and non-exploitative way. If Australia is to lead, it should do so in a manner that invests in the cultural long term, beyond our finite mineral resources.
I return to the terms of reference for the day’s debate: ‘Australia’s role in the Asian Century’. To put that kind of time frame into perspective, go back 100 years: since then, there have been two world wars, nations have risen and fallen, and transglobal problems such as environmental management have come into existence. Do we truly know the ‘unintended consequences’ of our current actions, and how Asian democracies will stand the test of time? Australia may possibly be ambitiously “on the dancefloor with giants, trying not to get trodden on”, as stated by Senior Correspondent for The Age Daniel Flitton. Although a century may be ambitious, it would certainly be a shame to miss out on these relatively short-term opportunities to interact with our neighbours. ‘Opportunities’ was certainly a word that many speakers chose to use to describe Australia’s economic possibilities in Asia and it would certainly be a shame to miss out. However, Australians should want to interact with Asia not purely due to geographic proximity. Investing in the youth of Australia- in education, travel, and culture- is surely the initial steps to a long relationship. Make students aware of their place in a global community, let technologies help maintain, but not be the sole impetus for inter-global communications. Professionals are constantly seeking to find out ‘what do the youth think?’ The younger generations don’t necessarily want to be sitting in a dark convention room all day – they want discussion at a level which they can interact with, and national leaders who are responsive to their views on all levels. As Ms Elaine Henry, Member of The Global Foundation’s Advisory Council remarked, “nothing about us, without us”.
Joshua Castle is a first-year Bachelor of Arts undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. He was a participant in UN Youth Australia’s Evatt competition. Josh attended the Global Foundation’s Australia Summit as a youth reporter, representing Australia’s Role in the World.