In the 1990s, Australia's leaders assured the nation it would not have to alter its society or institutions to engage with Asia. Adjust the diplomatic settings, of course, and learn the languages and ways of the region, but Australia could attend the Asian party dressed as it was.
Ownership of the Asian story was part of the battle between Paul Keating and John Howard. But both stressed the enduring strengths Australia offered the region. As Keating said, Australia would go to Asia as itself, 'a society which is rare in its cultural diversity, richness and tolerance, and a country which is strong and integrated with the region around it'. The Howard mantra was that Australia faced 'no choice between its history and its geography'.
Budget week in Canberra shows how the terms of the argument have shifted. Now the discussion is of what Australia must change to adjust to Asia, as well as what Asia is doing for and to Australia.
The debate is about transforming the economy, not the society or its traditions. The comfort zone, however, has shrunk. Australia is being told that it is already being altered by Asia and must go much further.
Usually, I go looking for the Asia Pacific in the annual budget papers, not from the lips of the pollies. In the past, getting the regional flavour involved skipping past the 'politics' (the big speeches by the Treasurer and Opposition Leader) and diving into the details of Budget Paper No. 1. Now the politicians are in the same game.
The Asian Century forced its way onto the first page of the Treasurer's annual budget speech. And the changes the Asian Century will impose on Australia returned on the final page as Wayne Swan concluded his annual economic address to the nation. On the same theme, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is arguing that if the federal budget does return to surplus in two years, it will be 'made in China, not made in Australia'.
A Treasurer's speech is always a stew of myriad flavours, speaking to many different audiences. Thus, finding Asian demands and promises at the start and the finish is worthy of note. Here is Wayne Swan on page 1:
Mr Speaker, this budget is built on our firmest convictions: That just as our focus on jobs helped Australia beat the global recession, so too can a focus on jobs maximise our advantages in the Asian Century.
No definition is offered for how the Asian Century will differ from the Western Centuries that have preceded it. The crunchy bit of the thought comes in the concluding page, when Swan tells Australia it is going to have to shift to get maximum advantage from Asia's rise:
Labor governments of the past managed the transition from a closed economy to an open economy competing in the world. Now that the world is changing, we must change as well. Ours is again an economy in transition. Global economic weight shifts from West to East — bringing growth and dynamism closer to Australia than ever before.
Australia has decoupled from America's economic woes and hitched on to Asia. When the US had trouble in the 1990s, Australia dipped. Now, as the IMF points out, the US negative effect on Australia is 'no longer statistically significant'. The Treasury argues that the Asia shift will have a 'profound influence' on Australia's evolution. And if China hits tough weather, we are going to feel very poorly indeed.
Treasury also lays out in some detail how China and India are altering where Australians live and what they do at work. Using the heading 'How fast is Australia's economic geography changing?', Treasury answers:
Since the mining boom commenced, the pace of change in the distribution of economic activity between the different states and territories has been unprecedented in recent history, and even more marked than the pace of change in industry structure.
Much is on the move when Treasury starts using words like 'profound' and 'unprecedented', and the Treasurer can throw the Asian Century into the first minute of his annual address to the nation.
Photo by Flickr user The Boatman.