What’s new about policy making in the Asian century?

Authors: Kent Anderson and Clement Macintyre, University of Adelaide

At a time when governments all around the world are struggling to tackle social reform and other problems, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper takes up the massive agenda of dealing with the challenge that Asia’s rise presents in a novel way.

It embraces a quite different and unconventional approach to the policy making process, one that emphasises closer engagement with community stakeholders as the best way to effect and sustain long-term change. Its more cooperative way forward for Australian society should also resonate with policy makers throughout Asia.

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper charts new ground in polict making by imagining a new relationship between government and non-government actors. This approach is different. Recent Australian government white papers — characteristically attempt to set out clear policy goals closely tied to government-driven implementation plans. The dominance of government in setting and meeting targets in that approach is unambiguous. For example, Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper included specific commitments relating to Australia’s contribution to stability and security in Asia. It identified particular actions the government should undertake to assist regional partners, and laid out a detailed path for achieving clearly defined results. The same tone was evident in the recommendations of the 2008 Garnaut climate change report and other recent white papers.

Rather than declaim government policy prerogative in this way, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper employed extensive stakeholder consultation and deep research to define directions for change in Australia on a new course to engagement with Asia. Not surprisingly, therefore, it devotes more space to explaining how to realise its well-tested 25 national objectives than it does to defending them.

In this, significantly, Australia’s Asian Century White Paper offers a new conception of how formal government policy goals can be achieved cooperatively, a strategy that underlines the necessity of involving the community in the process. Taking a lead from a model that has been extensively used in the development of infrastructure for the past few decades, the White Paper proposes something akin to public–private partnerships (PPPs) for the delivery of social policy reform. In many respects, Australian White Paper is best seen not as a policy statement, but as a framework designed to enable government and other actors to work in concert in policy change and reform. Together they can achieve greater ends than none of them could separately achieve on their own.

This is readily apparent in that part of the White Paper that deals on ‘Building Capabilities’. For example, to help achieve the national objective ‘that every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia’, the Australia–Asia BRIDGE School Partnerships program (p 169-170) will be expanded. This program will use Australia’s National Broadband Network to electronically link Australian schools with sister schools in Asia. The funding will partly come from private donations, together with small sums of funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its soft power diplomacy budget. The program also invites private technology companies and state government departments to help ‘build’ the bridge.

This mix of funding sources means the goal of exposing every student to Asia has a real chance of being achieved. On its own, the federal government could not deliver the necessary resources or commitments. It is in this sense that the Australian White Paper embraces a form of PPP for social policy development — an approach that has appeal among business and community stakeholders and has resonance in Asian communalism.

While the eventual fate of the White Paper will take time to assess, claims that it offers nothing new and suggests no financial commitment to achieve its lofty ambitions are far-fetched. Indeed, on this understanding it represents a significant and innovative departure in Australian policy making that seems much more likely to deliver than other ill-fated policy making ventures in Australia and around the world.

This bold new approach to public policy making has the potential to be more enduring because of its broad community engagement. The extensive work in the development stage means the White Paper is more about aligning policy to what the community wants to do and can be mobilised to do rather than an executive-mandated change. The way forward is about leveraging partnerships to get outcomes greater than any one set of actors could achieve. In this way, the White Paper can gain support from many partners and, also most probably, from both sides of politics, despite the intensity of Australia’s current political divisions.

So perhaps an aspect of Australia’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper that is as significant as the directions it sets for Australia’s Asian engagement is that it represents a totally and refreshingly new approach to accomplishing the social policy reforms that will be necessary to achieve them.

Kent Anderson is Professor of Law and Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) at the University of Adelaide.

Clement Macintyre is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide.