Tim Watts MP – Asialink Leaders Program Foundation Week Keynote Address

By Tim Watts MP
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs


I start today, as always, by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Woi Wurrrung Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

At this Opening Night reception for the 2021 Asialink Leaders Program I also echo Indigenous leader Noel Pearson’s call that we all work to bring together the ‘three parts of the one Australia’..

.. ‘the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is its foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration….’

What Pearson calls the “Three stories make us one: Australians.”

It’s great to be back at an another Asialink event – and in person at that.

As an Asialink Leaders Program alumnus I’m pleased to see so many familiar faces here tonight from the program and the alumni network.

As one of Australia’s oldest institutions for engagement with Asia, I want to thank Penny and all of the Asialink team for continuing to preserve the pursuit of Asialink’s mission in the face of extremely challenging external headwinds.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the ultimate disruptor - not just of individual lives and of organisations, but of entire industries, nations and global systems.

I know that Asialink has faced a particularly significant challenge in pursuing its mission in the face of this disruption.

Not only the logistical challenges of continuing to invest in Australia’s capability for engaging with Asia at a time when international — and often interstate — borders have remained closed.

But also the challenges for Australia’s engagement with Asia created by the worsening geostrategic tensions within our region that have accompanied the pandemic.

I’m glad you’ve been finding new ways to make it work, because while the times are difficult, the mission has never been more important.

When I spoke in Parliament about my time in the Asialink Leaders Program, I noted way that each generation of Australian leaders and policy makers seems to rediscover the importance of Asian engagement anew.

The repeating cycle of one generation of Australian leaders and policy makers recognising the importance of engagement with the region to our nation’s economic and strategic future…

…only to fail to sustain the long-term commitment needed to effectively develop the capabilities throughout the nation to underpin this engagement.

That is, the language skills, the cultural and historical understanding and the self-awareness of our position in the region.

A decade or so later, another generation of leaders and policy makers then start saying that we really ought to do something about our engagement with Asia and the cycle begins again.

Usually the cause of this cycle of Asian-engagement-amnesia has been benign neglect – the great Australian complacency.

Building Asia-capability takes time and a long-term commitment.

Not an announcement for the media with a funding commitment over the next three years of the forward estimates, but a vision for the future with a national commitment over the next three decades.

It’s built on institutions, not initiatives.

In this way, Asialink as an organisation is a model for all leaders who want to do the hard work of building Australia’s Asia engagement capability over the long term.

Since it was founded in 1990 by the Hawke Government Asialink has been one of Australia’s most enduring institutions for promoting Australian engagement with Asia through arts, education and business.

But unfortunately, it’s been an exception rather than the norm.

Despite periodic good intentions, we haven’t been able to maintain the consistent support for building our Asia capability over time and across changes in government.

We haven’t prioritised the resources necessary to sustain the momentum needed to drive the development of these capabilities broadly throughout society and deeply into our institutions.

As a result, over the past fifty odd years we’ve made progress, but more slowly than our peers, and much more slowly than the national interest demands.

But the current moment presents a more acute threat than just wasted opportunity.

Without leadership, the immediate challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the viability of the institutions that we rely on to build our Asia capability and to engage with the region.

These institutions take decades to build, but without leadership, they can be lost in a single budget crunch, in a single external crisis.

We saw an example of this threat last year when the Australian Consortium on In-Country Indonesian Studies..

… a 25 year old institution that had enabled thousands of Australian students to spend time studying in Indonesia…

… was forced to make 60% of its staff redundant after the government initially ignored its request for emergency funding during the COVID-19 student travel shut down.

Just think of the institutional knowledge, connections and relationships that were lost through a failure of leadership during a transient crisis.

This is just one example of what the President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Kate McGregor, has rightly labelled a ‘crisis’ in Asian language studies in Australia.

A crisis that has been significantly exacerbated by the funding crunch that has hit our universities during COVID19.

A slew of Asian language courses have been cut since the start of the pandemic.

Only last week LaTrobe University announced it would stop accepting new enrolments in Bahasa Indonesian at the end of this year, joining UNSW and Western Sydney University that had previously cut their programs.

Unsurprisingly in this context, fewer than half as many Australians are studying Bahasa Indonesian at University today, than were doing so 30 years ago.

Experts forecast that there will be fewer than ten Australian universities that offer Bahassa Indonesian studies after the COVID crisis, fewer than half that did so a generation ago.

This despite the fact that Indonesia remains on track to become the fourth largest economy in the world and will only become more important to Australia in our changing geostrategic environment.

Just as acutely, after these language program cuts, only one Australian university — the ANU — will be left teaching Hindi, the most widely spoken language in India, a nation that the Australian government frequently lauds as a strategic partner.

As an elected representative during the COVID19 pandemic, I can fully understand how responding to the immediate crisis can monopolise leaders’ attention.

Part of leading during a crisis is not only responding to the urgent and immediate, but also maintaining focus on the long-term vision.

Without a greater focus on the long-term importance of growing Australia’s Asia capability, we risk allowing the current crisis to do decades worth of damage to the institutions of our engagement.

These threats to the institutions of our Asia capability caused by the resourcing crisis that has accompanied the COVID19 pandemic belie a larger threat to our Asian engagement.

A threat to the way that Australia thinks about itself and its relationship with the world.

The COVID19 pandemic has rightly triggered debates around the world about the importance of national resilience and the ability of nations to secure critical supply chains in moments of national crisis.

This has appropriately triggered national conversations about our domestic capabilities and local industry development.

Our response to the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced us to effectively close our borders to immigration for the first time in our history.

Amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of a pandemic that continues to rage around the world, there will be a series of difficult debates about when and under what terms Australia restarts its immigration program.

How we want Australia to respond to these challenges and how we want the nation to change after the pandemic is up for grabs at the moment and the outcome will be shaped by leaders like you in this room.

Amidst these debates, it’s crucial though that we don’t allow our national mindset to turn inwards, or worse, to be seduced by a nostalgia for a misremembered past.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia was in the midst of a nation shaping change – a change with the potential to transform Australia’s engagement with Asia.

This change was the theme of my workplace project in the 2017 Leaders Program, my book, The Golden Country.

(My workplace is somewhat unconventional and required an equally unconventional workplace project!)

The book tells the complex story of the changing relationship of race within Australia’s national identity through the prism of my own family and its ancestors.

The book tells the story of how John Howard initiated a series of changes to our migration system that would collectively trigger the first immigration boom since the end of the White Australia policy.

And whether you’re looking at how Australians have responded to our changing immigration intake…

…how migrants did once they arrived in our country…

…or how immigration has affected our economy or our culture…

these changes to our immigration system, while not perfect, changed Australia for the better.

It also tells the story of how the Asian-Australian community grew from around 3% of the population to over 12% in a generation as a result of these changes.

Something which wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but for the fact that for the bulk of the first two centuries after European arrival, Australia’s national identity was defined in explicit racial contrast to the peoples of the neighbouring Asian nations.

For most of Australia’s history, our national conceptions of an Asian face was as an ‘other’ – a confected contrast against which to define our own unique Australian identity.

The Anglo-Celtic founding fathers of a federated Australia did not see Noel Pearson’s three stories making the Australia that they were building.

My ancestors — who were part of Anti-Chinese Committees lobbying for poll taxes to ban Asian migration and the pre-colonial Parliaments that passed anti-miscegenation laws — did not envisage their descendants as the mixed Chinese-Australians of my present day family.

They saw a single story – a White Australia.

While Howard’s immigration reforms changes Australia’s demography, our national imaginings have failed to keep pace with our changing reality.

While Asian-Australians comprise over 12% of the Australian population, they are chosen for less than 4% of senior leadership positions across politics, government, business, and academia.

It seems that in modern Australia, multiculturalism only works until we are asked to imagine an Asian-Australian (or another Australian of colour) as a representative of us.

We’ve become a multicultural nation with monocultural institutions.

The symbolic nation building of the ‘White Australia’ era of my ancestors isn't fit for purpose for the Australia of my family today, a happy, Eurasian-Australian family living in a diverse open society.

We need to engage in a new nation building project, building a new, inclusive national identity that moves us beyond the psychological hangover of the White Australia era that still sees an Asian face as an ‘other’ instead of an Australian.

In The Golden Country, I explored what it means to be Australian today and how that is shaped by our past.

And importantly for you standing here today what it could mean in the future – and how we can shape that by our actions today.

It’s a book about change – and how we all play a role in shaping that change.

I know that Asialink understands the importance of this change and shares this mission because The Golden Country wasn’t just my workplace project, but I also launched it at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit – another initiative of Asialink to help a new generation of Asian-Australians claim their rightful place as leaders within our national institutions.

What I didn’t anticipate when I was writing this book was that Australia would soon after experience a serious regression in this project.

This regression has taken the form of the real and serious uptick in anti-Asian racism that accompanied the stresses and anxieties of the COVID19 pandemic and worsening geostrategic tensions.

I know that this has been a painful and stressful time for many Asian-Australians.

As leaders we cannot look away from this upsurge in racism.

We need to combat it and to call it out as a betrayal of the values of egalitarianism that have always underpinned the Australian identity.

Indeed, it’s past time that the anti-racism framework proposed by Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan recently was implemented.

It’s also vital that our political leaders take a strong stance on calling out and condemning this racism whenever we see it, not just as a once-off.

I don’t raise any of these challenges to Australia’s engagement with Asia created by the COVID-19 pandemic to depress you – quite the opposite!

I do so to underline the face that you are all leaders at an important time for Australia’s engagement with Asia.

The most important time for leaders to show up is when times are tough.

We are relying on you to ensure that your organisations maintain their long-term commitment Asian engagement, even amidst the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re relying on you to keep the focus on the long-term vision and not allow hard fought gains to be lost amidst the current crisis.

I’m in politics because I believe it is in the power of all of us to deliver change for the better.

Every one of you here today has the opportunity to help effect change.

And to go back to your respective organisations and networks and make the case for continued engagement.

I hope you get as much out of this program as I did, and I wish you all the best.

For more information about the Asialink Leaders Program, please visit the Asialink Business site.