First thoughts on the Asian Century White Paper

The ALP hit the airwaves in force this morning to tout the Asian Century White Paper. In typical Labor fashion though they appeared not simply to be putting the cart before the horse, but completely missed the need for a horse in the picture.

A centrepiece of the Government’s white paper is the up-skilling of the Australian community in Asian languages and Asia literacy in general, and education is recognised as key. Peter Garrett was interviewed by ABC TV News Breakfast and, remarkably for an Education Minister, made no reference to and no recognition of the very first, most fundamental and most obvious task in achieving this. There are simply very very few Asian language teachers in the education system. It’s the bottleneck in the sytem. When Julia Gillard was interviewed by Fran Kelly half an hour later it was clear the ALP, characterstically, have simply failed to miss this point. It’s like they skipped class during Policy 101 – don’t just describe what you intend to achieve but offer how you will achieve it. That is in fact what policy is. Without it you’re delivering vacuous platitude and rhetoric. And pretty quickly in Kelly’s interview with Gillard it was clear that was all the ALP had to deliver. When specifically asked about the lack of teachers Gillard waffled, told us as former Education Minister she recognised finding teachers was a challenge, then deflected the question by turning her answer into something about encouraging kids to study Asian languages in school. ?!!

So here’s a bit of concrete action of the type the ALP are incapable of delivering or indeed conceiving. The very first dollar, first million dollars, first $60 million the Government needs to spend in order to achieve some substance out of this rhetoric is in equipping universities and offering generous scholarships and bursaries to Education students who take on an Asian language and Asian studies. This is how you deliver the first prerequisite outcome – the teachers.

There’s an obvious part of our community who are best positioned to take a lead role in engaging Australia in the Asian world – Asian Australians of course. The ALP’s track record on encouraging Australian schoolkids to further studies in the Asian languages of their roots, so that they might one day operate in these languages at a level that can be useful in business or as educators? In New South Wales the former Labor Government implemented a system of handicapping school children with a non English speaking background should they choose to study the languages of their parent or parents. Students are made ineligible to enrol in Beginners or Continuers language courses, instead forced into “Heritage and Background Speakers” courses. There was a perception that students of NESB were unfairly advantaged in the HSC. It has its roots in xenophobic profiling of Asian students in particular. Consider how absurd it would be if in secondary English examinations similar double standards existed for kids coming from an English speaking background. The net result is Australian kids from Asian backgrounds are discouraged from further study in the native language of one or more of their parents. Yes that’s right – the ALP’s track record is to dumb down our capacity for Asian language and literacy.