Ali Moore: Carrillo Gantner, let’s go back to the very beginning for Asialink, to where the seeds for this organisation came from.
Carrillo Gantner: In 1988 I was travelling in many countries of Asia just at the time when Australia was attracting some very negative media attention about our immigration policies. We were being described as racist and colonial, when I had always thought we were rather a charming, enlightened, multicultural society. At that time, I don’t think most Australians had any idea that anyone was out there in Asia, let alone listening or taking any notice of what was happening here in Australia.
As I said, I was quite profoundly disturbed by how Australia was being spoken about, in what I had always taken to be our own neighbourhood. So as a Director on The Myer Foundation Board, I came back to its next meeting and spoke about how we urgently needed to do something about how Australia was being perceived in Asia. Ken Myer, the Chairman of the Foundation at the time, and an enthusiastic Asianist, agreed. We decided to call together many of the people who were working in the Asian-Australian space at the time. People like Steve FitzGerald who was then Chairman of the Asian Studies Council, Jenny McGregor who was at the Commission for the Future, and others in public affairs, media and academia, to help us search for a workable idea. Out of those search conferences came the origins of a program for The Myer Foundation to fund Jenny at the Commission for the Future, with Steve FitzGerald and some others on an Advisory Board. And that’s where it all began.
AM: And was there any question in any of your minds about the importance of Asia to the future of Australia?
CG: No, I was brought up to think that. I was surrounded by people like Ken Myer who had a Japanese wife and was an ardent Asianist, Steve FitzGerald, Ross Garnaut, all sorts of important people that I admired. One of my mentors was Myra Roper, a Sinophile who taught courses at Melbourne University and was warden of what was then called Womens College – it’s now University College. Asia was just part of the furniture as far as I was concerned. But it wasn’t then for a lot of the country. It still isn’t for some the country, but we are getting there.
AM: And when you joined forces with Jenny McGregor, when Asialink was born, in those very early days were there a core set of principles? Was there a very clearly defined goal?
CG: I think the broad goal was to help Australians understand our own region; understand that we were part of the region and that the engagement in both directions was very important. Particularly important for Australia, because we were no longer a sort of outpost of the British Empire. We were an ally of the United States of course but they were a very long way away and they didn’t live here. I think it was Gareth Evans who talked about us being part of the East Asia Hemisphere. I mean that longitudinal slice of the orange is very much our slice of the world and how we engage with it in a positive way, was always the driving force.
This is why school education, which is where we all start, was so important to Asialink in the early years. There was also a degree of opportunism because the government at the time was looking to “Asianise” the curriculum and acknowledge its importance. We bid for that first Asia Education Foundation contract and miraculously won it. That gave the organisation a foundation and a stability on which it’s built so successfully.
AM: So education makes enormous sense, get people while they are young. Art, why the involvement with art? How was that a key?
Well it’s key because artists are very influential people in society. Artists make great ambassadors into the region. They have a voice that is beyond their numbers, a visibility. Spending time in Asia, artists will include those new influences into their work, sometimes very subtly, sometimes very overtly, but it is there. We thought that if you could influence a generation of artists, then people who experience their work would start perceiving the world differently. Artists bring bits of the region back into their work and therefore into our lives.
AM: So from the very beginning, what in your mind did success look like?
CG: It was a never ending series of mirrors. We thought we were getting closer to success with Keating. Keating espoused it, talked brilliantly about Asia and arts and indigenous issues, managing to weave them together into a fantastic narrative for this country. The Howard years were harder, at least the first two terms. When, despite great success in many ways, increasing numbers of Asian students, tourism and business connections, he was never prepared to speak about our engagement with Asia. I think he didn’t think there were votes in it. It was Howard and Brendan Nelson as Minister for Education who in fact withdrew the bipartisan support for the NALSAS Program. That had a disastrous impact on the next generation of young Australians and their capacity and opportunity to study Asian languages and cultures. My generation didn’t know any of that existed. In most Australian schools we were only taught Latin, French and German. So to see that opportunity delayed again was really heartbreaking for everyone associated with the Asian agenda in Australia.
AM: That’s just one of the challenges that Asialink has had to face. I know that there have been many. What do you see is the underlying core, the thing that has not changed, and the thing that continues to make Asialink a successful presence?
CG: Well the partnership of The Myer Foundation with The University of Melbourne in the delivery of Asialink became a very potent force. It meant that the core of the organisation had support, so it wasn’t always chasing its tail to pay its own salaries, but could go out and develop their programs very successfully, whether it was in the arts, education, in public affairs, in mental health, in business, in a whole range of areas.
AM: What about how Asialink changed? Because while we talk about continuing core principles obviously you had to change for the times, adjust to new challenges. What were some of the key changes that you saw?
CG: Well first the need to develop a national presence. The arts program was a national program from the beginning, selecting visual artists, performing artists, writers and arts managers from around the country. We delivered public affairs events, first of all in Sydney and then in other capital cities. And then, because in Australia we deliver primary and secondary school education through the states, our Asia Education Foundation people needed to form close relationships with state education departments across the country.
We opened up Asialink chapters nationally and then in the region. They were usually led by alumni from the various Asialink programs like the Leaders program. So that presence gave us strength.
We responded always to the political changes that were happening in this country and sometimes they were positive changes and sometimes they made our lives more difficult. But always Asialink rose to those challenges. For example, Pauline Hansen was one of the negative challenges that we and anyone else working in Asia or education faced. How do you counteract those sorts of negative stereotypes?
I think we have done well but, as I say, it’s often an ever receding horizon. Because just when you think you are doing well, something else falls out of bed and you have got other challenges to work on.
AM: How do you see the role of Asialink in 2018, and I don’t mean its education or increasing awareness program which is where it really started. But more now as a voice of reason and a voice of knowledge and a voice of balance in the Asia Australia relationship?
CG: It has a very important voice but it also provides a platform for all sorts of voices and that’s more important than being a singular voice. People don’t come to Asialink necessarily for a definitive comment about what’s happened in the Chinese leadership situation, or what’s happened in Indonesian politics, or natural catastrophes, but they look to this organisation to open all sorts of doors to the issues.
Asialink has never been a platform for a particular point of view. It provides a diversity of voices to give people the opportunity to learn, to elicit interest that might encourage further study or travel or discussion or however it may be expressed... to help people come to their own opinions.
AM: Is that diversity of voices in fact the reason why Asialink has endured and endured so successfully?
CG: I think it is a very important element of it. The public affairs program over the years has brought in some brilliant speakers, both Australian and international, mainly Asian but occasionally from Europe or North America who are talking about Asian issues. Heads of State, foreign ministers, including our Australian foreign ministers. I think particularly of Gareth Evans, Alexander Downer, Bob Carr, Julie Bishop, people from both sides who have been prepared to use Asialink as a platform to deliver their message. That’s been very influential.
AM: What was your toughest decision when you were chair?
CG: I think to keep the Board and organisation focused on the wider Australian and regional community. It’s very easy when you have a university partner to be naturally sucked back in to teaching and research, the normal functions of the university. But I think the tough job was always to remind people that our job wasn’t to look into the university, it was to look out from the university and deliver a much wider perspective. Now that’s had benefits for the university, it’s had benefits for the Myer Family in terms of credibility and the enormous pride that we all take in this organisation now. But it’s not any one single moment. I think there have been so many wonderful happy moments and moments where we have all had a sense of achievement in what this organisation has done.
AM: So if Ken Myer was alive today, how would you think he would view Asialink?
CG: I think he would be going “Yay team! Keep it up!” There’s a lot more to be done. I think he would be very proud and very happy.