Matching the message to the audience is one of the defining choices in any attempt at communication.

The problem for the White Paper on the Asian Century is the myriad of messages and the multiplicity of audiences — in Australia and beyond. Ken Henry is near the finish in his grapple with the audience-message mix. Now he confronts the issue of crafting a sharp document while trying to say a lot.

The Canberra coconut wireless reports that the drafting process for the White Paper expanded in line with the ambition. The alarm bells started to jangle as the draft flew north of 400 pages towards 500; this would be a weighty tome for a weighty topic. The latest scuttlebutt bulletin reports that the drafters have seized machetes to hack back the foliage and pare the wordage.

Henry has driven the sharpening process by not trying to look much beyond 2025 and by putting the focus on Australia's relationships with six countries: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Dr H has already flagged his embrace of the theme that Australia must develop 'Asia-relevant capabilities' through language and education to match its economic and political needs. The shorthand version of this is a reverse Colombo Plan: to go into Asia in the same way that in an earlier era, many from Asia came to Australia.

The word Bob Hawke used to describe his vision for Australia was 'enmeshment' with Asia. In describing the path for Australia — government, institutions, business and individuals — to be part of Asia's future, the key word for Henry is 'integration':

Across the areas of analysis in the White Paper a single word keeps cropping up - it’s the word ‘integration’. Integration within the region is what is happening on a daily basis. Integration does not mean creating some great homogenous society or imposing the values and culture of any country upon the people of another. What’s happening in the region is largely an economic integration — building on the progress made in the post-war period. That integration has to be taken further.

The prescription Hawke offered in the 1980s was complex and controversial at the time; in the second decade of 21st century, the Hawke choices look relatively low risk. Hawke's enmeshment was a more neutral vision than Henry's integration. Equals can enmesh. The course Henry is plotting, by contrast, assumes Australia will be doing the integrating. This is the 'all change for Asia' message expressed by the head of the Prime Minister's Department, Ian Watt, in predicting that Asia's rise will impact on all aspects of Australian society and institutions.

Grappling with such thoughts explains why the Henry word count would rise. A big document always has bureaucratic benefits, even if the wordage weighs down the messages.

The Asian Century White Paper also has to be broad enough so that it can touch the conceptual edges of the Defence White Paper that will come out in the middle of next year. More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user Alvin K.