On current planning, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper will be released within a few weeks. Former Treasury Secretary Dr Ken Henry and his team are finalising the report and Cabinet will consider it soon.
In an ASPI Policy Analysis published today, and in an opinion piece in The Australian, I argue that the success of Australia in the Asian Century will depend on how well it deals with some threshold strategic issues. As the Prime Minister said on launching the review ‘There will be plenty of hard questions—not all of them will have easy answers’. Four hard questions should be asked: will the white paper focus on the right region in the right way; how will it address strategic risk; how will it treat defence and security; and what place will it accord to other parts of the world?
In this blog I won’t go over that material again, except to note a concern that we must avoid the risk of delivering the perfect regional strategy for Australia at the same time as the region looks to a more globalised engagement. For Australia, a global rather than regional approach helps to diversify our economic and strategic links and matches the increasingly global strategies of the major Asian countries. Dr Henry and his writing team understand the need to balance our global and regional interests, but it will be a hard act to capture that in the White Paper, especially given its Asian remit.
There’s one very unusual feature of Dr Henry’s report that hasn’t received much attention. As a White Paper, it will emerge as a fully endorsed statement of government policy. That distinguishes it from past major review efforts, such as Paul Dibb’s Review of Defence Capabilities, Dr Henry’s Review of Australia’s Future Tax System, the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling and many others. In all those cases, the government saw value in taking the recommendations from an external expert and allowing time for consideration before adopting some recommendations and allowing others to fall away. This could well mean that the Asian Century White Paper will have a tougher ride through Cabinet than would be the case if it were simply an expert’s review. It’s one thing for Canberra’s departments and agencies to be consulted as a report is developed, but quite another to find money being committed to policy decisions. And, as always, it’s the commitment of money which is the ultimate test of policy believability.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.