Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

In praise of Southeast Asia’s miracle

Tom Switzer

11 August 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

TS 100817If you didn’t notice that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), don’t worry: most Australians didn’t either. But ASEAN’s milestone is worth celebrating, because its record shows how developing nations prosper from embracing free trade and free markets.

ASEAN was born on August 8, 1967 amidst war, poverty and the threat of communism. Today, much of Southeast Asia is at peace; living standards have grown at an astounding rate; and communism is a bad memory everywhere but Vietnam where it’s fading fast.

Never has so much wealth been generated across the region and never has it been shared more evenly. More than half of ASEAN’s 640 million people enjoy middle-class status with rising purchasing power.

That prosperity is due not to the edicts of governments, but to the co-operations of millions of people — rich and poor — through free trade and foreign investment. As a result, health has improved and life expectancy has increased dramatically.

Kishore Mahbubani — one of Asia’s most distinguished intellectuals (and a former guest of the Centre for Independent Studies) — tells the story in his recent book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, co-written with Jeffery Sng.

When he was Singapore’s UN ambassador in the 1980s, he witnessed ferocious debates between the America-led free marketeers and those opposed, led by the Latin Americans. Major developing economies, notably India, would sing the anti-capitalist tune. Foreign investment was spurned.

Mahbubani, the lone voice among the so-called G77 bloc at Turtle Bay, recalls how the Singaporean delegation was “brave enough to walk into the lion’s den of G77 meetings and defend the virtues of foreign investment… and free enterprise.”

The upshot is that Singapore’s bold decision to swim against the dominant protectionist current — and its early success with free markets — has had a catalytic effect on the rest of Southeast Asia. So three cheers to ASEAN.

Despair beneath the boab tree

Sara Hudson

11 August 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

SH 100817There is a stark contrast between the beauty of the Kimberley and the sense of despair enveloping many of the people living there.

The State Coroner is currently conducting an inquest into the suicide of 13 Aboriginal people living in the Kimberley, including the recent suicide of a ten year old girl from a remote outstation. Ten years ago there was an almost identical inquiry and last year the Western Australian Legislative Committee released a report on yet another inquiry into Aboriginal youth suicide in remote areas.

This report is a damming indictment of government ineptitude. Following the Gordon inquiry into child abuse $72 million dollars was spent trying to implement reforms, however none of this money can be accurately accounted for. According to the inquiry it was deemed “too difficult” to track progress of actions against recommendations so monitoring of the implementation of reforms was abandoned.  The problem is no one organisation or government agency is responsible for achieving outcomes, so no one is held to account, money is wasted and nothing changes.

Much of the discussion of Indigenous disadvantage conducted by policymakers and the media is largely conceptual. The reality of living in the horrible conditions in remote communities is another thing altogether.

I was made acutely aware of these two different worlds, when I visited an Aboriginal community centre in Broome. The centre had recently held an exhibition, “Beyond the Common Gate”, which showed how until as recently as the 1980s Aboriginal people were excluded from entering the ‘common gate’ into Broome unless they had a work permit.

This history of exclusion has continued symbolically with the governments approach to Indigenous affairs. Too many policies and programs have been designed and delivered without engagement with the Aboriginal people they are intended for.

Unfortunately the staff at the Aboriginal community centre were unable to show us around the exhibition as they were preparing for an event with Prime Minister Turnbull on youth suicide. At that event, Turnbull said: My commitment is to do things with Aboriginal people, not do things to Aboriginal people — we want to work with you“. 

Let’s hope this is true.

Leadership means real promises on real policy

Simon Cowan

11 August 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

SC 100817Bill Shorten probably can’t believe his luck. The Liberal Party has spent the entire winter break focusing almost exclusively on issues that are terribly divisive for their party and base. Labor on the other hand has been disciplined, and to the extent they have led the debate, they have done so on issues that are unifying for the left and right wings of his party: especially inequality.

Shorten’s thought bubbles, potentially dangerous dalliances into issues like an Australian republic, have not gained traction.

To some extent this is a function of Shorten’s stance as a populist opposition leader. In opposition Tony Abbott managed to keep his party focus laser like on divisive issues for the Gillard / Rudd government, a focus which quickly dissipated when he took the Prime Minister’s chair.

The thought of getting into government is the most unifying passion of all for most modern politicians. Once in government though things change and issues that are personally important to politicians get pushed at the expense of party unity. There is an expectation that government will lead, taking action to either bring or prevent change.

However, the problem is that opposition parties are seemingly only building the case for election as leaders of the resistance. The hard work of building a detailed policy case for change is then left for after they win government.

Shorten’s pitch on inequality is a case in point. Labor has no idea what its tax increases might do to an already fragile economy and it’s not clear they have to care, at least until they are in government. As an aside its worth asking if there are reasons why the previous Labor government didn’t implement many of the policies that Shorten now advocates — and it’s not that Wayne Swan was a closet ‘neoliberal’.

In the past the problems of the ‘win government and then figure it out’ approach were solved in part by ideological unity in the party. People knew, broadly, what Howard and Hawke and Menzies would do in any given situation because they knew what they believed.

But will this work in the era of transactional politics, where no-one knows what anyone believes? Maybe politicians are simply trying to survive in an age of political disruption, but maybe this is where real leadership could emerge, not to convince a party to break its promises, but to convince to start making real ones.