People like me, who believe passionately that Australia needs to take seriously the study of Asian languages, can only see Kevin Rudd's demise as a huge lost opportunity.
For the two-and-a-half years of the Rudd Government, we had a Prime Minister who had invested enormous time and effort in learning – and retaining – the ability to speak and read Mandarin Chinese. He was also the key figure who, as a Queensland bureaucrat, lobbied for the NALSAS program that was eventually adopted by the Keating Government in the early 1990s.
On his pathway to power, Rudd spoke and wrote regularly about Australia's need to train itself in Asian languages if it was to succeed in its region in the future – particularly as that region is increasingly shaped by powers that speak languages other than English. When the Howard Government canned NALSAS, Rudd wrote one of his most all-time acid letters to then-Education Minister Brendan Nelson.
I had a role in ensuring the foreign policy stream of Rudd's 2020 Summit contained some passionate believers in Asian language education – people of the caliber of Jenny McGregor, Tim Lindsay, Geraldine Doogue, Sid Myer and David Hill. Unsurprisingly, the need for Australia to introduce a broad, high quality and properly resourced program of Asian language education was recommendation number one of our report to the Government.
In the euphoric weeks after the 2020 Summit, we decided not to let the issue die. My Vice Chancellor at the time generously provided some funds for me and a small research team at Griffith University to conduct a study into how such an Asian languages program should be designed and implemented – and how much it would cost.
The final report, Building an Asia-Literate Australia, was completed by late September 2008 but the launch was postponed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers until June 2009. It argued for the need to:
- Implement a comprehensive, nation-wide, long-term strategy.
- Teach Asian languages at all levels of education – from primary school to tertiary.
- Build the program gradually, focusing on getting it right in Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian before expanding.
- At the same time, focus on building student demand for language study.
- Build an adequate and world-class supply of language teachers and resources.
We costed the program at $11.3 billion over 30 years.
Rudd and Gillard were given copies of the report and I spoke privately with both of them. Rudd said the Government would 'do something about it'. Whether they read it, I can't say, but there was no formal response, and it must have settled at the bottom of a very big in-tray.
Now the opportunity's gone. We're still the third most monocultural country in the OECD and our Asian language proficiency and teaching resources just keep eroding.