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White paper must include new Colombo Plan, more foreign language study

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On Asia - as on so many other issues - the Rudd and Gillard governments have been long on promise but short on delivery.

At the very least, Sunday's white paper must include a new two-way version of the Colombo Plan and a new effort to promote foreign languages in schools as the Coalition has been urging. This will show that the government is finally taking Asia seriously and will help to undo the damage done to many of our key regional relationships over the past four and a half years.

If elected, the Coalition will take concrete steps to enhance Australia’s engagement with Asia, including through a two-way version of the Colombo Plan that doesn’t just bring our region’s best and brightest to Australia but that takes Australia’s best and brightest to our region. And under the next Coalition government, within a decade, 40 per cent of students would complete high school studying a foreign language.

We would also refocus Australia’s aid programme on the Asia-Pacific region, for reasons of impact and national interest.

The Rudd and Gillard governments have damaged Australia’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia by causing a flood of Australia-bound asylum-seekers into those countries. The government’s axing of live cattle exports to Indonesia inflicted further damage on that key relationship.

Prime Minister Gillard’s inept efforts to establish a processing centre in East Timor and then to implement the people-swap deal with Malaysia have proven to be two of the most embarrassing fiascos in Australian diplomatic history. The Prime Minister's East Timor plan was the equivalent of a foreign country trying to launch a diplomatic initiative with Australia via the Governor-General’s office.

The Rudd and Gillard governments have also managed needlessly to offend Japan and India and have struggled to maintain a policy on China which maintains a consistent balance between our interests in a strong and growing relationship while not retreating from our values.

The last Coalition government concluded free trade agreements with Singapore and Thailand. It also started negotiations on various other free trade agreements, including one with China in 2005. Since then, New Zealand has successfully concluded its FTA with China in just three years. But the government, distracted by its obsession with multilateral diplomacy, is still negotiating seven years after talks began.

Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus. Why hasn't the Prime Minister been prepared to put as much diplomatic effort into stopping the boats as she has into securing votes for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council?

Unless the government’s Asia White Paper shows how the government intends to repair relations with key regional partners and details clear, practical steps comparable to the Coalition’s commitments to advance Australia’s interests in Asia, it will be another exercise in spin.

26 October 2012