Friday Aug 16, 2013

‘Happy go lucky’ Australia now adrift in Asia

Australians used to call themselves “the lucky country,” after the title of a 1960s’ best-seller saying how farming wealth had allowed Australia to create a stable, prosperous and fairly egalitarian society.

But today’s minerals wealth seems to have worked in reverse, to create a nation prone to quick fixes, whimsical political changes, flip-flop foreign policies and crazy economic strategies. From the sober lucky country we move to the feckless happy-go-lucky country.

For example, Australia’s economy has long depended heavily on minerals exports to China. But Canberra is still so caught up in its long-festering anti-China fears that it is now offering Washington the bases and other cooperation needed for U.S. anti-China military strategies. And it is busy creating close military links with a Japan also now girding up for future confrontations with China. Despite these moves it tries to insist that they will not harm its heavy resource reliance on China.

In foreign policy we see the same lack of commonsense. Back in the ’50s, Canberra with its Colombo Plan did much to train young Asian graduates. It helped Indonesia gain independence from the Dutch. But today, while distant northern European nations, including the Netherlands, have been working to solve Asian’s bloody political confrontations, Canberra’s main contribution has been to support bloody U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and the ugly 1975 Indonesian intervention in East Timor.

Both the Vietnam and East Timor involvements were said to be needed to stop Chinese aggression southward. Today Canberra still celebrates its one-sided victories in Vietnam while insisting it sees Hanoi as a friend helping to stop Chinese aggression southward. It claims to respect Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew. But it once worked hard to prevent Lee from becoming prime minister, claiming he was a crypto-communist stooge of Beijing.

Australian politics are equally slap-happy. Up till 2010 it had as prime minister the reasonably popular, Kevin Rudd. But his abruptness toward colleagues and Washington dislike of his mid-road China policies encouraged the apparatchiks in his Labor Party — the “faceless men” they are often called — to have him dumped in favor of the unpopular Julia Gillard who three years later also had to be dumped, this in favor of Rudd.

It gets worse. Current economic problems began with the resources booms of the early 1970s when Australia’s hitherto efficient manufacturing sector was attacked by the so-called Dutch disease — high-value resource exports causing an over-valued currency that then kills import-competing manufacturing. But our free-market fundamentalists insisted that our rich resources endowment meant we could afford the across-the-board tariff cuts that hastened the loss of even more manufacturing.

Meanwhile, an immature resources nationalism was driving Japanese industry to seek resource imports elsewhere, Brazil especially. For much of 1975, conservative bureaucrats in Canberra were able to block the treaty of friendship and cooperation with Japan that some of us had long been pushing, claiming it was a Japanese plot to take control of Australia’s resources.

Only after a conservative government came to power the next year did they discover there was no problem. But by then the harm had been done.

Working in Canberra at the time I could see how the post-oil shock resources boom was distorting the economy. My proposal for resource export taxes, beginning with coal, to help fund economic restructuring, lower upward pressure on the currency and reduce inflation was accepted. But it was handled so badly it had eventually to be abandoned; the “rationalists” had opposed the tax to begin with, and had then insisted it should be universal, across-the-board, which meant new and smaller producers could not pay while the established and more prosperous could.

As we moved into the 1980s, the flood of cheap Asian manufacturing imports predictably began to wipe out much of Australia’s remaining mid-tech manufacturing. Some of us tried to push the idea of Australia using its attractive domestic market to impose the tariffs or import restrictions needed to lure Japanese car and other Asian mid-tech manufacturers to produce in Australia the goods needed to maintain employment and to preserve the industrial base.

But once again the “rationalists” said no; even the example of Reaganite USA using much the same policies to save its car and TV industries could not shake their ingrained anti-tariff dogmatism.

Australia should get rid of all these noncompetitive mid-tech industries, they said, and free up labor and other resources to move directly to competitive high-tech industries. Australia would become the Scandinavia of Asia — a high-tech powerhouse producing computers and other gadgets for the Asian market.

Today Australia now relies on that same Asian market to supply it with just those same high-tech gadgets, not to mention any amount of low and mid-tech goods. It is now losing even the car and steel industries it tried to protect in a last-ditch effort to retain some manufacturing employment.

True, some labor-intensive service industries flourish, helped greatly by Asian hunger for tourism and education. But they cannot hope to provide the jobs and technologies needed to fill the manufacturing gap.

With the Chinese economy slowing, Canberra is now trying to devalue its currency to boost exports and cut imports. But having lost its manufacturing leg, and with its resources leg in danger, the economy is now literally flat on its back — with only half a leg to stand on.

When Canberra has a problem it likes to set up a committee. Asia’s rise has triggered at least three such committees calling for more attention to Asian languages and expertise, the most recent being the much ballyhooed “Australia in the Asian Century” committee. One good result is that Australia is now producing some impressively fluent, young Asian-language speakers, even if in much smaller numbers than originally called for. But many of the top jobs, even in the embassies and academia, have remained in the hands of people who lack Asian expertise.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats prefer to go along with talkfest operations like the originally anti-China Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation where they can work away for years without having to produce concrete results. The Australia-Japan Foundation, which some of us worked hard to set up in the 1970s to fill the expertise gap, has been allowed to run down. Each year the Europeans send dozens of young businessmen to work and get to know Japan; Canberra has long ignored some of our proposals to do likewise, claiming Australia already knew more about Japan than anyone else anyway.

In 1991 a smart Labor Party politician, Paul Keating, once known for his anti-Japan resource nationalism and disregard for Asia (Asia was the place you flew over en route to Europe was one of his quips) became prime minister.

To show the importance he now placed on Japan, our Tokyo Embassy announced a special Paul Keating scholarship for a young up-and-coming Japanese academic who would act as a future bridge for economic research between Japan and Australia’s national university.

For some extraordinary reason they chose an unqualified secretary at a small Australian company it disliked, badly disrupting the company’s efforts to get established here. Said person soon dropped out of sight after she got to Australia.

Today no one at the Embassy or the Australian end admits even to recollection of, let along responsibility for, the squalid affair — yet it’s one more example of the casual, happy-go-lucky attitudes that have left Australia so adrift in Asia.





 オーストラリアの政治もまた同様に、おめでたい。2010年までは、首相は、ある程度人気のあるケヴィン・ラッドだった。だが彼の、同僚処遇の不器用さ、またワシントンが彼の中庸的な中国政策を嫌ったため、彼の労働党内の黒子たち―― しばしば“顔なし人間”と呼ばれる連中―― が動いて彼を下ろし、代わりに立てたのが人気のすぐれぬジュリア・ギラード(これも3年後に下ろされる運命で、次は代わりにラッドを立てた)。

 状況はさらに悪くなっている。現在の経済の問題点は、1970年代初め、オーストラリアの資源ブームとともにはじまり、それまで効率よく動いていた製造業部門がいわゆるオランダ病の攻撃を受けた。―― つまり価値の高い資源の輸出によって通貨の過大評価が生じ、そのため輸品と競争している製造業を殺してしまう――。ところが自由市場を唱えるわが原理主義者たちは、わが国は豊かな資源に恵まれているのだから一律関税引き下げに耐えられると主張。だがそれが、さらに多くの製造業の消滅を早める結果になった。






 彼らによると、オーストラリアはそうした競争力の弱い中間テク産業は廃止すべきだ、そして労働その他の資源が競争力のあるハイテク産業へ直接移動できるように、自由解放すべきだ、という。オーストラリアはアジアのスカンジナビアになれる―― コンピュータほかの機器をアジア市場に向けて生産するハイテク・パワーハウスだ。





 片や、官僚たちはもっぱら「トーク・フェスタ」(おしゃべり会議)で、たとえば「アジア太平洋経済協力」(APEC)―― もともとの発想が反中国だったAPECでは何年もかけてこれといった具体的な成果を生み出す圧力も受けずに過ごしてきた。豪日基金は、70年代にわれわれ有志数名が専門家不足のギャップを埋めようと設立に骨を折ったものだが、後に失速してしまった。毎年ヨーロッパ陣営は数十名の若いビジネスマンを日本に送り込み、日本で働き日本体験を積ませている; キャンベラはわれわれが出した、それと同じようなことをしようという提案を長い間無視してきた。オーストラリアは日本についてすでにどこの国よりもよく知っているから、という理由である。
 1991年一人の気の利いた労働党政治家ポール・キーティング―― 以前は反日的資源ナショナリズムとアジア軽視(アジアはヨーロッパへ行くとき飛び越える地域だ、というのが彼の口癖)で知られた人物―― が首相になった。


いまでは、在京大使館でもオーストラリア現地でも、この奇妙な事件について、誰ひとり、責任追及はおろか、記憶する人さえいない―― これまたオーストラリアをアジアに漂流させている行き当たりバッタリの“いいじゃないの幸せならば”的態度の一つのあらわれである。