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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6782

Senator WONG (7:26 PM) —I wish to speak tonight on an issue that is very important to me personally and that has also been an important policy position of the Australian Labor Party, and that is the importance of Australia's engagement with Asia. I believe, and the Australian Labor Party believes, that Australia's future does lie in the region in which we find ourselves—that our future economic prosperity and our regional security relies on us having good relationships with our neighbours and a good understanding of the Asian region. It certainly was a political priority of the Keating government to try to refocus Australia's social and economic ties and priorities towards the Asian region. Unfortunately, that is a focus that has not been shared by the Howard government; however, it is an issue which does require national leadership, and it requires national leadership because culturally and historically this country has not been focused on Asia, other than perhaps one might say to regard some Asian nations as a threat. For various historical and cultural reasons we have seen ourselves as a bastion of British culture, of Anglo-Saxon culture, isolated in an Asian region and surrounded by countries that have not shared our political or cultural heritage. This can be demonstrated by looking at many aspects of our history, not the least of which is, of course, the White Australia Policy, which was abolished within the lifetime of quite a number of members of this parliament.

To try to change the way in which Australia views its relationship with the region is an issue that requires national leadership and one that, I was very proud as a member of the Labor Party, the Keating government took as an important issue. It certainly sent very clear messages throughout our region about the focus of the Labor government— that we were no longer looking to the crumbling empire of England and no longer simply looking to America for our future prosperity and security but that we actually understood that relationships with the South-East Asian nations and East Asia generally were critical to Australia's future. I think there would be very few who could seriously argue against the economic imperatives of having good relationships with our Asian neighbours. Indeed, in today's troubled times I would assert that it is even more important for us to have deep, strong, close relationships with our neighbours. It is very difficult to build security relationships with countries when you do not have strong diplomatic relationships with them and when those countries are questioning your position in relation to them and in relation to different religions and different cultures.

I want to speak about that tonight in relation to a report that was issued some months ago by the Asian Studies Association of Australia. The report is called Maximizing Australia's Asia knowledge: repositioning and renewal of a national asset. The Asian Studies Association of Australia seeks to provide focus and direction for the study of Asia in Australia and comprises many academics engaged in the study of not only Asian languages but Asian culture and Asian politics. It is an excellent report which I commend to the Senate and to anyone who is interested in looking at the way in which different policy areas can impact upon the knowledge that many Australians have or do not have of the region in which we live. I want to very briefly quote from one part of the report, which reads:

Australia's capacity to understand its nearest neighbours and largest trading partners is stagnant or declining at a time when pressures of globalisation impel us to interact effectively and sensitively with the countries of Asia.

This is a national concern. Australians need to be equipped for a world in which people from different places and histories increasingly talk to each other, work together and understand the complexities of each other's political and social pressures. Australians know less about Asia than other parts of the world, yet Asia's role in Australia's trade, security and culture is inescapable—and growing.

These are very important and very cogent words, particularly at this time. I note that this report obviously preceded the recent terrorist attacks in Bali and the imperative which has become obvious from those attacks—if it were not already obvious—of having good security relationships with our Asian neighbours, in particular in this instance with Indonesia. This report, Maximizing Australia's Asia knowledge, shows that we are going backwards; that Australians are learning less about Asia than they did some years ago; that fewer Australian students are studying Asian languages both in schools and in the tertiary education sector; that there are fewer Australians who are gaining a deeper cultural and political understanding of the countries that are around us.

In this context I want to comment on the government's recent decision to pull out of the national Asian languages strategy. The national Asian languages strategy is a program jointly funded by the Commonwealth and state governments with bilateral support. The federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson, recently announced that the Commonwealth is pulling out of the program four years early and is cutting funding by up to $30 million a year. This could affect around 750,000 school students who are currently studying Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Korean in around 5,000 schools. These are students who benefited from this program.

I find it extraordinary that at this time, when the importance of engaging with Asia and of Australians having an understanding of Asian countries and Asian language as part of that process is so obvious, the government is choosing to take $30 million away from an extremely good program that supports the study of Asian languages in our schools.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Why don't the states take it up?

Senator WONG —The states are funding it, but the Commonwealth's funding is being cut. The Commonwealth is providing neither national leadership nor support for this program. The states are putting in their fair share; this government has chosen to take away the Commonwealth part of the funding. I would have thought it would have been self-evident that our future economic prosperity does require that we have in our people an asset in Australians who understand Asian languages, who can speak Asian languages and who understand the cultures of Asia so that we can maximise our position and maximise our economic relationships with these countries. Yet we see government taking money away from the study of Asian languages, reducing funding in this area and failing to support this extremely useful program, and doing it at a time when, as the report I referred to has made clear, Australia's Asian knowledge is declining rather than increasing.

I want to make some brief mention of the issue of trade, because that is obviously a key area where we can see the benefit of having close economic relationships and ties with South-East Asia, and China in particular. This government is intent upon progressing as a priority a free trade agreement with the United States. I hope that will not be at the expense of multilateral trade negotiations. In particular I want to note that we are being left behind in terms of the free trade discussions that are occurring in our region. In November this year, the ASEAN plus 3 meeting—ASEAN plus China, South Korea and Japan—commenced discussions for an East Asian free trade agreement, which would obviously exclude Australia. From Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade figures we know how important this region is in terms of our exports. This area counts for approximately 47 per cent of Australian merchandise trade—

Senator Cook —$79 billion in exports.

Senator WONG —Senator Cook reminds me that it is worth $79 billion in exports. This is what could be closed off to us if a free trade agreement occurs in East Asia. The government should address this as a national priority.