29 August 2018
Courage and vision have been in short supply in Canberra of late, so it might be unfair to judge Australia’s most recent foreign minister by standards we have learnt not to expect.
Julie Bishop was not particularly creative or adventurous in the foreign ministry, and did little to reshape Australia’s relations with the region. She is known for “emoji diplomacy” – she once responded to a BuzzFeed interview with a red-faced, angry emoji when asked to describe Vladimir Putin. She engaged in friendly texting with counterparts – but these days everyone, diplomats included, is on WhatsApp and Twitter. While she deserves credit for last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper, which was surprisingly candid about changes in the Asia-Pacific region and the challenges posed by China’s rise, she at times clung to unrealistic hopes about US commitment to the region, and Australia’s ability to rely on it.
“There’s no question about the United States’ engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” she said at the launch of the White Paper. “It is there and it will continue, and successive administrations may have different nuances.”
But Donald Trump’s administration represents more than “nuance”. Trump’s insistence on “America first” reflects a strong vein of isolationism and protectionism in American foreign and trade policy. “I oppose [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] now … I will oppose it as president because it is one-sided and unfair to American workers,” Hillary Clinton said in 2016 of the eleven-nation deal that excludes China and includes Australia and could have given the United States a leading role in Pacific trade.
Bishop must also take some of the blame for cuts to Australia’s aid program. This short-sighted approach is affecting Australia’s ability to promote its interests in the region. Aid is not simply charity, a non-essential line item to be cut whenever budget pressures arise. It can be used to fund, say, counter-radicalisation programs in Indonesia, or anti-corruption projects in Papua New Guinea. Such programs are in Australia’s interests, as well as in the interests of the recipients.
But Bishop does deserve to be praised and remembered for her signature policy: the New Colombo Plan, which sends Australian students to work, study or learn a language in forty countries across the region. This is a relatively unknown and uncontroversial scheme that could have repercussions lasting decades.
The plan, which Bishop says she devised when she was education minister in the Howard government, was named after the Colombo Plan, a scheme launched in 1951 to provide aid across the region, including funding for students to study in Australia.
By 1985, about 20,000 students from Asia had studied in Australia under the scheme, including future political leaders of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. One of the Colombo Plan scholars from Malaysia was Francis Wong, an architect who studied at the University of Adelaide. He is the father of Penny Wong, the shadow foreign affairs minister.
The New Colombo Plan, which started in 2014, has sent almost 30,000 students abroad. Next year, it will send a further 11,817 students, part of a commitment in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper to support at least 10,000 students a year. The annual cost is about $51 million, roughly equivalent to, for example, the amount spent by the Abbott government on resettling seven refugees in Cambodia.
Labor said in 2016 it would halve funding for the scheme, though it has recently indicated it may reverse the decision. It should. The scheme could address one of the great failures of Australia’s engagement with the region: the lack of cultural ties and language skills that have hampered political, trade and business relations.
Australia has one of the lowest rates of language learning in the developed world. A survey last year by Asialink Business of 1223 board members and 489 executives from Australia’s top 200 companies found that 67 per cent had “no extensive experience operating in Asia”.
The shift from Colombo to New Colombo says much about a fast-growing Asia, and Australia’s place in it. Australia no longer pays for cohorts of Asians to study here; instead, international students from China, India, Malaysia and elsewhere prop up the nation’s cash-strapped universities and education institutions.
Today, Australia is a fiercely English-speaking island: it has erased almost all traces of the original languages that once coexisted here and the memory of a land in which distinct nations brushed up against one another. As a result, it perhaps encourages a tendency to seek comfort in the familiar.
Bishop’s grasp of the region was sometimes hampered by a reluctance to embrace change. But her most important legacy will be a scheme that will pay dividends over years and will, hopefully, encourage the nation to extend the limits of its comfort zone.