The PM has finished her speech and press conference at the Lowy Institute. You can read the Paper itself here and here are the Prime Minister's remarks.

My initial thoughts on the speech and the White Paper are below, with the obvious caveat that I often change my mind after a few days reflection. Also, I've so far only read parts of the 300-page White Paper.

  • The language of the speech and the White Paper is lofty and inspirational. The PM's speech is titled 'History asks great nations great questions', and the White Paper itself calls the Asian century 'a truly transformative period in our history' and 'a transformation as profound as any that have defined Australia throughout our history'. This was a big-picture speech, and the PM wants Australians to think big thoughts.
  • And despite the focus on Asia, this speech was pitched at Australia. Any prime ministerial speech is intended for myriad audiences, and a topic like this obviously carries a foreign policy element. But I got the impression Gillard was speaking foremost to Australians. There was no implied criticism or any references to insularity, and it was all carefully couched in safe language, but there was a sense that, for Australia to embrace the Asian century, Australians would need to change the way they think about the region:

Asia will become home to most of the world's middle class by as early as 2025. Not only becoming the world’s largest producer of goods and services; becoming the largest consumer of them. This is good news for Australia and it should drive a profound change in our thinking about our economic relationship with Asia.

Deep in our Australian culture are the assumptions that equate low wages with Asian labour. Not just in populist politics or at the front bar. These assumptions are never far behind debates about workplace flexibility and international competitiveness either. In the Asian Century, that changes.

  • The tone of the speech and White Paper is also determinedly optimistic, couched in the language of 'grasping opportunity'. In fact, the PM said Australia would embrace the Asian century '(n)ot because we face immediate crisis. Not because we are standing on a burning platform. But because we face unprecedented opportunity. Because we burn with ambition for our nation’s future.'
  • Here's where I would make my major early criticism about the speech and White Paper: there is very little sense of the risks of the Asian century.

  • The PM's description of Asia's explosive growth and the opportunities it offers was never accompanied by any warnings about the potential downsides, particularly the fact that Australia's relative influence in the region will decline as the region's developing economies continue their explosive growth.
    • In a sense, then, the PM avoided what we might call the Hugh White question, which asks whether Australia is prepared to do what it must in order to remain a middle power, or whether we will drift toward a more New Zealand-like small power status.
    • This is not only a military question about how much we're prepared to spend on defence, but also a population question (which will determine our economic size and the size of our tax base). From my scan of the White Paper, it altogether avoids any recommendations about Australia's population. Gillard herself avoided the 'big Australia' issue when it was put to her in the press conference.
  • The point which the media and Opposition will no doubt focus on is the lack of funding promised in the White Paper. The PM listed some quite modest immediate spending initiatives in her speech, including a plan to expand the Australia Awards scheme to allow more Australians to study in Asia, and vice versa, no doubt meant to blunt Coalition attacks that the Government has not embraced their new Colombo Plan initiative.
    • The White Paper commits Australia to modestly increasing its diplomatic representation in the region, but there's no overall funding boost for DFAT.
  • The PM was at her feistiest when it came to media criticism. In both the speech and press conference, she referred to the heavy media emphasis on economic news from the US and Europe. But she wanted to see less of Angela Merkel emerging from meetings looking 'harried and stressed', and more economic news from China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.

We'll have much more on this topic over coming days and weeks. Stay tuned and send us your thoughts on blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org.