White paper, wish paper

Labor's Asian Century white paper describes a most excellent future for Australia. It's also choc full of unfounded fantasies and empty promises.

Reading the white paper called Australia in the Asian Century is a very surprising and uplifting experience: it lists all these wonderful things that are going to happen to our nation by 2025. I had no idea.

For example:

"Australia will have an innovation system, in the top 10 globally, that supports excellence and dynamism in business with a creative problem-solving culture…”

"Australia’s tax and transfer system will be efficient and fair…”

"Australia will be among the most efficiently regulated places in the world…”

"Australia’s school system will be in the top five schooling systems in the world...”

There are 25 such points in the white paper, covering every aspect of Australian society and government, and all of them announcing some excellent thing that is going to happen, using the word "will”. Isn’t it great?

Why wasn’t I told all this was going on? I mean to pull all this off within 13 years there must have been secret armies of people beavering away in Canberra on fixing our education, tax, and regulatory systems for a decade already.

Oh. They haven’t been? The white paper is just another wish paper? Damn.

As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times last week on the subject of Mitt Romney’s policies: "if describing what you want to see happen without providing any specific policies to get us there constitutes a "plan,” I can easily come up with a one-point plan that trumps Mr Romney any day. Here it is: Every American will have a good job with good wages. Also, a blissfully happy marriage. And a pony.”

Here’s mine for Australia in the Asian Century: every Australian will be really smart and work really hard and speak fluent Mandarin or Indonesian, and have an Asian pen friend.

The panel led by Ken Henry has produced a paper that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

It could be seen as framing the national agenda and providing a roadmap for all future policies, except that it mostly restates what has already been said over and over: that Australia needs to lift productivity, be fairer, be smarter, be better educated, etc etc, blah blah.

If merely stating this stuff would make it happen, yesterday’s white paper would not be needed because Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit in 2008 would have worked already, as would the hundreds of previous papers laying out broad policy aspirations.

But what none of these things do is include specific goals and a system for measuring and benchmarking between now and the year in question – in this case 2025.

What is the government promising to have achieved by 2014, and then by 2015, 2016, and so on? How will we, or they, know whether the nation is on the right track towards achieving the worthy aspirations set out in the Australia in the Asian Century white paper?

The answer of course, is we won’t, and we’re not meant to.

The Minister for Trade and Competitiveness, Craig Emerson, will now also become the Minister Assisting the Primer Minister for Asian Century Policy, with the task of "supporting the implementation” of the white paper plan.

One genuinely wonders what this means. Presumably he’ll start by drawing up a "To Do” list and distribute copies of the white paper to heads of department, to stir and inspire them.

That can be national objective number 26.

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