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Creating an Asia-literate Australia: an address to the 2002 Australia in Asia Series,\nthe State Library of New South Wales.

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Creating an Asia-literate Australia

Mr Kevin Rudd MP Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs

An Address to the 2002 Australia in Asia Series The State Library of New South Wales Tues 8 October 2002

Ten years ago, here in Sydney, a group of Commonwealth, State and Territory officials got together to prepare the agenda for the first meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to be held that December in Perth.

Mike Keating, then Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was in the Chair.

I was part of the bureaucratic flotsam and jetsam of the states and territories gathered before the Commonwealth throne, each engaged in our special pleadings for various forms of Commonwealth munificence.

The end of the very long agenda, which as I recall it, was headed by the Hilmer Report on Australian Competition Policy, an obscure item that had been placed by the Queensland delegation (my delegation) for consideration by the colleagues.

It was entitled “Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future”

It is fair to say that some of my interstate colleagues, and most particularly the Commonwealth, were somewhat restless as to what this particular initiative was doing on an agenda which, in the main, dealt with microeconomic reform, Commonwealth - State financial relations as well as the rationalisation of the roles and responsibilities of Canberra and the States in order to eliminate duplication, overlap or plain old incoherence.

My answer to the question when put by my colleagues was that creating an Asian literate Australia was as much a part of Australia’s economic future as the range of more quantitative reforms before us on the conference table.

My argument was that Australia’s future international economic competitiveness lay not only with creating a competitive exchange rate, competitive interest rates, removing the objective barriers to trade as well as increasing total factor productivity of the economy at large. It also lay with a range of subjective resistances to trade and investment as well.


Objectively, Australia could construct one of the most competitive economies in the world. However, subjectively, if it was not able to identify the range of export and investment markets through which to obtain the fruits of the new competitive disciplines of our economy, then the harvest would be a limited one.

Part of these subjective resistances lay in our ability to communicate with the economies and societies of our immediate region - and those more broadly of the Asia-Pacific.

It was possible to create the most competitive product or service on the planet but still be incapable of penetrating the linguistic and cultural barriers which existed and which prevented or impeded our ability to sell that product and service in one of the emerging markets in our region.

The concept, therefore, of creating an Asia literate Australia was not conceived as an instrument of cultural policy - or even of multicultural policy.

It was conceived as a means by which we could create in the next generation of Australians the range of linguist and cultural skills necessary for this nation to maximise its economic opportunities in Asia.

Of course cultural and multicultural benefits would inevitably flow from such an initiative. And this was entirely desirable. But I would be misleading you if I were to suggest that this was the initiatives primary motivation. It was not.

The rest is history - both bureaucratic and political.

We managed to overcome the deep scepticism of our colleagues and the Commonwealth and the States (by carefully, I can now confess, engineering a whole range of side deals on other COAG matters in the meantime) so that when the Perth Conference was held on the eve of the March 1993 election, the National Asian Languages and Studies Strategy for Australian Schools was born. It is worth quoting the COAG communiqué from the time:

“COAG agreed to make concerted efforts to strengthen the development of an export culture in Australia and to secure the widest possible support for specific export strategies under the umbrella of the National Trade Security, particularly in regard to Australia’s economic relations with North-East Asia and South-East Asia.


In this context, COAG discussed the relevance of Australia’s understanding of Asian languages and cultures to the enhancement of Australia’s economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. To this end, it:

! Noted the importance of the development of a comprehensive understanding of Asian languages and cultures through the Australian education system if Australia is to maximise its economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region;

! Agreed that Asian Languages development is a matter of national importance, requiring urgent and high-level attention at a national level; and

! Agreed to establish a high level-working group to prepare a report for COAG by the end of 1993:

- Outlining current efforts of the Commonwealth and States in Asian language and culture education; and

- Developing a strategic framework for the implementation of a comprehensive Asian languages and cultures program in Austrian schools (and, where relevant, TAFEs) by the end of the decade.”

Negotiating the communiqué was the easy bit. Negotiating the actual strategy was not. It took the entirety of 1993 - and with lots of bureaucratic blood spilt on the carpet. I chaired the working group.

In fact there is still a minor phalanx of Commonwealth officials who have been plotting my demise ever since.

What, you might ask, was the problem?

The answer, unfortunately, as with many things in life, was a combination of power and money.

The Commonwealth wanted the power, but did not want to pay any money.

Specifically, the Commonwealth wanted the power to shape what the States and Territories could do in accelerating the teaching languages and cultures in the schools of this country. But initially they weren’t willing to offer up a Brass Razoo to help lighten the load.


The great thing about the States and Territories, however, is that when they really put their minds to it, they can be absolute bastards. And we were - and without apology.

We argued for a strategy which targeted the priority Asian languages of Mandarin, Japanese, Bahasa and Korean. The Commonwealth - eternally the architects of political correctness in one form or another, wanted all languages incorporated - including Icelandic.

But even the Prime Minister’s Department was hard-pressed to located Icelandic within the explicitly Asian focus of the terms of reference of the COAG communiqué.

The States wanted to mandate targets. The Commonwealth did not.

The States wanted to mandate second language education so that 60% of year 10 students by 2006 be studying an Asian language and 15% of Year 12 students the same. The Commonwealth wanted none of this.

The States wanted a 50-50 shared funding arrangement with the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, at that point, couldn’t be seen for its dust.

In the end, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, intervened. And the strategy was saved.

The Hobart COAG of February 1994 endorsed the strategy. The Darwin COAG of later 1994 endorsed the funding strategy - a 50-50 split rising from $11.3 million in 1995 (the first year of implementation) up to $207.8 million in 2006.

It was conceived as a 12-year strategy - for the simple reason that in order to obtain real rather than nominal benefit from the strategy, it would need to be implemented for an entire generation of Australian school children, for the duration of their school education, before the economy would be delivered real benefits.


We are now into the eighth year of the implementation of NALSAS - its implementation for most of that period having being driven by an NALSAS taskforce chaired by the State.

Much has happened over those eight years, not all of it perfect - but certainly an immeasurable improvement on the past.


Broadly, NALSAS has focused on three areas of work; 1. First the training of a fresh cohort of languages and studies teachers to meet the new demand in the school system; 2. The development of school based curriculum resources so that

comprehensive syllabus, curriculum documents and associated teaching resources could be made available across Australia for the teaching of these courses in the classroom; and, 3. The actual delivery of these courses for years 1 through to year 12 at the chalkface and or the computer face.

What have been the results? On the whole, pretty good but with areas needing improvement.

And for fear of being regarded as unobjective in such matters (as one of the strategy’s midwives - or should I say midpersons) that has also been the conclusion of two independent external evaluations of the strategy - one conducted in 1999 covering the first quadrennium of the strategy’s implementation; and one completed earlier this year covering the second quadrennium.

In 1994, there were 200,000 students of Japanese in Australian schools. By the end of 2000 that figured had risen to 425,000.

In 1994, there were 90,000 of Indonesian in Australian schools. By the end of 2000, that figure had risen to 260,000. In 1994, there were 40,000 students of Mandarin in Australian schools. By the end of 2000, that figure had risen to nearly 80,000.

By the end of 2000, three quarters of a million Australian students were studying on of the four NALSAS languages - or 23.4% of the total student population. This included - ! 37.4% of year 5 students

! 39.4% of year 6 students and 43.2% of year 7 students.

Here in New South Wales, by the end of 2000, 150,000 students across these states primary and secondary schools were studying a NALSAS language. This compared with 274,000 Victorian school students and 134,000 Queensland school students.

By 2000, some 4,685 schools across Australia were offering a NALSAS language - or 49% of the total number of schools. This included ! 2,276 schools offering Japanese ! 1,795 schools offering Indonesian

! 569 schools offering Mandarin and ! 45 schools teaching Korean.


The teaching of Asian studies in schools has also increased considerably. Under the Access Asia program of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) nearly 1900 schools across Australia were teaching the study of Asia.

School specific curriculum development has also continued apace. This has included; ! A learn to speak Indonesian CD Rom for schools ! A learn to speak Chinese CD Rom for Schools

! The Snap Shots of Asia (comprised of 6 large text books and a teachers guide for lower and middle primary schools) ! The Text from Asia series for lower, middle and senior secondary school students ! The Voices and Values on citizenship in Asia - produced in popular

magazine format to enable junior secondary students to explore the lives of young people across the region ! A Studies of Asia curriculum support document ! As well as a range of on-line resources including Asia ED NET - jointly managed by the Asia Education Foundation and the Curriculum Corporation funded as part of the NALSAS strategy

There has been a comparable expansion in the number of teachers teaching Asian languages and studies in our schools. For example in the year 2000 approximately 1300 teachers participated in studies of Asia Professional development activities funded by NALSAS - a further 1800 teachers took place in NALSAS language courses.

A significant sub component of this expansion in teacher numbers and teacher skills in Asian studies and Asian languages has been the nearly 500 Australian teachers who have participated in the Teacher in Country Fellowship to Asia Program since 1997.

So, while we may be away off reaching some of the original ambitious targets which we set down for the nation, and the nations education systems, back in 1994, all would agree we have made a very solid start.

Critically, both the 1999 and 2002 evaluation reports recommended the continuation of the NALSAS strategy for a further quadrennium.

I emphasise again the fact that NALSAS was conceived as a long term, 12-year strategy to create a generation of Asia-literate Australians. And three quarters of a million kids in the pipeline is not a bad step in the right direction.


NALSAS has had its critics from the outset. Their criticisms are well documented. Some of those criticisms are partially valid. But none have ever effectively answered the fundamental strategic question: that is unless our national government acts decisively on the question of creating an Asia-literate Australia, it will not spontaneously combust and we will remain a European outpost completely oblivious to much of the complexity, and opportunity, of our neighbourhood.

NALSAS in terms of the study of Asia in schools dovetails with the study of Asia in higher education which has been the subject of excellent objective analysis by Dr Fitzgerald and others of the state of Australian’s Asia knowledge. And I endorse its recommendations.

The 2002 decision to defund NALSAS

One of the great significances of NALSAS has been that for a decade, it has enjoyed bi-partisan support- with both Labor and Liberal governments in the commonwealth and the states and territories. All nine governments that were party to the original 1994 agreement have since changed. The Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers of the time have all lost office. And in practically all cases, the political complexion of the various governments has changed as well.

But despite that fact, and despite the fact that the political and policy yield from a NALSAS strategy was always going to be more than a decade into the future, the bipartisan consensus held up.

I like to give credit where credit is due. One of the most maligned Ministers of the Howard government is David Kemp. From our side of politics, David has been the subject of considerable, and in our view, legitimate criticism for his performance as both Education Minister and Environment Minister. We call him with some perverse affection, Count Yorga.

But when it came to the maintenance of NALSAS under the first and second Howard Governments, Dr Kemp maintained the program. He may not have expanded it in the manner which the original strategy had been recommended - and as had been endorsed. But he, nonetheless, maintained it.

And for this, I have on a number of occasions on the public record extended my appreciation for his efforts - notwithstanding the hostility of various elements of his department and other branches of the Commonwealth bureaucracy which have never particularly liked the program.


The consequence of all this has been that over the last eight years, nearly half a billion dollars of commonwealth and state funds have been expended on this national vision of creating an Asia-literate Australia.

All that, and I repeat all that has been put in complete jeopardy as a consequence of the decision of Brendan Nelson in the last Howard budget to discontinue commonwealth funding for NALSAS for the following quadrennium.

As a consequence of that decision, federal funding for NALSAS is scheduled to cease as of 1 January 2003.

And as a consequence of that decision I have been as rich in my condemnation of Brendan Nelson as I have been in my praise of Dr Kemp.

Brendan Nelson, as a direct consequence of his political cowardice is personally responsible for a decision which places the future education in the languages and culture of Asia of three quarters of a million of young Australians at risk.

Brendan Nelson is personally responsible for a decision that will also place at risk the careers of thousands of teachers of Asian languages and Asian Studies in our schools.

Brendan Nelson is personally responsible for a decision that will not only bring a halt to Commonwealth funding to this long standing bi-partisan project for the nation, but also a decision that will mean that number of the states will reduce or remove their funding for the program as well. After all NALSAS was conceived, agreed and implemented as a national project resting equally on the financial efforts of the Commonwealth and the States. The States will legitimately argue that if the Commonwealth pulled the pin, why should they not follow suit.

Brendan Nelson’s publicly stated excuse is that it was always intended that this program expire 2002. That is patently untrue. Any reading the 1994 report demonstrates that it was a 12 year program concluding in 2006 - and then subject to reappraisal for the purposes of further implementation in the future.

Furthermore, if that is Brendan Nelson’s serious contention, why is it that the independent evaluation report commissioned by his own department and released early this year recommended the continuation of the program for a further quadrennium between 2002 and 2006?

Brendan Nelson aspires to future deputy leadership - and perhaps even the leadership of his own party.

His handling of NALSAS represents a complete failure of leadership.


A complete failure to show leadership when the business of government is not just about the balancing of the books, but equally about the building of the nation.

A complete failure of leadership when the nation cries out for leadership.

For what the minister has done in this single decision is take a broad axe to the collective energy, dedication and vision of thousands of Australian’s over the past decade.

And those who will suffer from his decision will be the next generation of Australians who’s combined Asia literacy will be as flawed as the last.

Of course, if Brendan Nelson was to experience the Damascus road, and resuscitate the funding of this program for the future our views of him would change dramatically.

But for the time being, however, in our book he makes David Kemp look like a statesman.

That is why the nation needs focused national public advocacy on the need to restore NALSAS and to retain and expand public investment in the higher education sector.

Foreign Policy Toward Asia Of course Nelson has not been operating alone in this.

When the federal cabinet considered the last budget, Nelson’s cabinet colleague Alexander Downer would have been aware of what was been proposed as well.

And it is regrettably eloquent testimony of government disinterest in Asia that our foreign minister chose not to intervene as well.

If a foreign minister is worthy of his office, when questions such as this which go to the heart of our nations long-term interests in the region, come to fore, an effective foreign minister intervenes. Our foreign minister did not.

The charitable interpretation of this is simply benign neglect.

There is however, a less charitable interpretation to which I am increasingly attracted.

Put simply, for this government, they don’t see any votes in Asia.


Just like they don’t see any votes in the UN.

Because for this government, foreign policy is not about the long term national interest transcending the normal partisan divide of domestic politics.

No, for this government foreign policy has become merely the extension of domestic electoral politics by other means.

Over the past five years this Government has exhibited a deep pathology towards Asia. It is a government which extended a partial, Voltairean embrace of Hansonism. It was a government which with great pride pronounced the Howard Doctrine whereby the US was Wyatt Earp, Australia was the deputy sheriff and Asia the OK Corral. It is a government that has spoken overtly about the need to ‘re-balance’ our relationships away from Asia and instead in the direction of the occidental cultural heartlands of North America and Western Europe.

This is also a government that has pulled the plug on funding for Radio Australia, that has sold Radio Australia’s powerful Cox Peninsula transmitters to Christian Vision, a government that allowed Australian Television International simply to wither on the vine and become for this nation across the region a source of national embarrassment.

Putting distance between Australia and Asia is part of this government’s subliminal “Kulturkrig” that it has run for several years now - as an important part of its continuing electoral project.

Another dimension to this project is what might be politely termed UN bashing. If it’s not the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, then it’s the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Or if it’s neither of the above it’s a series of tawdry, provincial assertions of ‘Australian sovereignty’ against the comprehensive evil which is allegedly embodied in the United Nations system.

Significantly on both Asia and the UN, this government, over the last several years has fractured the post Whitlam bipartisan consensus on Australian foreign policy which had three broad strands: " first, a commitment to the US alliance

" second, an independent policy of comprehensive engagement in Asia, and " third, Australia playing a leading role in the multilateral system - as part of what Gareth Evans aptly described as Australia’s commitment to “good international citizenship”.

It is therefore, a profound pity that a program such as NALSAS, crafted with much blood, sweat and tears over many many years, should become one of a


number of victims of this governments intensely ideological approach to foreign approach.

Part of the challenge lies in exposing precisely what this government has done and the reasons for it.

The other part of the challenge, of course, lies in constructing a new policy vision (and importantly a viable political strategy underpinning that vision) which re-establishes the bipartisan consensus in this country around a common national project of comprehensive engagement with Asia.

As nation, we can ill afford to chop and change on this every several years.

As a nation, we need to set a course and stick to it. Scepticism about Australia in the region is already profound. Under this government we are in danger of that scepticism becoming terminal.

It is time, therefore, once again to make the creation of an Asia-literate Australia project for us all, a project for the future, and one capable of transcending permanently the idiocies of the partisan of the political divide.