A modest but effective international engagement plan from NSW
13 May 2013|

The recent release by the New South Wales Government of an International Engagement Strategy invites comparison with the federal blueprint, the Asian Century White Paper. Both aim to boost growth via more overseas contact but in other respects the two documents couldn’t be more different.

The NSW strategy is low-key, mercifully short at 38 pages, practical and sets measurable and achievable objectives. Its modest plans for increasing NSW’s trade and tourism offices overseas are costed and it seems the government will fund their go-ahead.

Contrast this with the Asian Century White Paper, launched six months ago and relentlessly promoted since. That strategy is a whopping 300 plus pages and proposes what can only be described as tectonic shifts in many areas of national life. It sets out no less than 25 national objectives for 2025 with multiple ‘policy pathways’ to achieve these goals. Targets are set to put Australia’s per capita GDP in the world’s top ten by 2025; our schools in the world’s top five; a national goal to be in the top ten innovating countries, and so on.

In total the paper includes 185 policy initiatives, while the NSW plan has thirteen. But the White Paper’s stretch targets are (perhaps thankfully) not matched with government funding.  Even the modest plan to open an embassy in Mongolia is left to ‘when circumstances allow’, meaning when the money can be found.

Behind the White Paper now stands an elaborate public service machine. Dr Craig Emerson has been given yet more responsibilities as Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Asian Century; a new sub-committee of Cabinet has been formed, as has an external Strategic Advisory Board and a committee of senior officials to monitor implementation across the bureaucracy. An Asian Century implementation plan was released early in April, which is itself as long as the NSW plan.

It might be objected that the Asian Century White Paper needs to be on a bigger scale than the NSW plan. That’s true; Premier O’Farrell isn’t setting out to redesign the state so much as focusing on practical targets to grow state GDP and encourage business investment. But there’s a lot to be said in favour of clear, practical planning tied to measurable targets, using modest but real implementation measures. By contrast the Asian Century White Paper is heavy on central planning but light on practicalities.

The NSW plan identifies ten countries which will be given priority for business and investment promotion. Three aren’t Asian: the US, UK and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Where other countries feature in the State’s top ten economic partners by sector–for example as New Zealand does in primary industry–they too will be targets for promotion.

This is a refreshingly non-ideological approach that’s focused on developing business where opportunities arise. It contrasts with the unnecessarily exclusive approach to Asia taken by the federal government. For some in Canberra, pursuing Asian engagement has taken on a missionary-like zeal. This shouldn’t happen at the exclusion of other countries with which Australia has long-standing interests or places where new opportunities are arising. Our key Asian partners are rapidly globalising their foreign policy and trade interests even as Canberra tries to narrow ours.

The inclusion of the US in the purview of the Asian Century White Paper had the air of a last minute pragmatic addition. Our alliance interests with the US received only the minimum acknowledgement. By contrast, the NSW strategy, as stated by Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner, is to ‘effectively engage the global economy’. NSW has got the point where ‘Asia first’ doesn’t mean ‘Asia only’.

One possible criticism of the NSW strategy it is that it underplays the need to identify new markets beyond the top ten current economic partners. If a similar policy had been written ten or even five years ago it probably wouldn’t have identified the UAE in such a prominent way. The challenge for NSW, as for all governments, is to identify the emerging markets of five to ten years from now. It’s quite possible that such markets could be in Africa, Latin America or Europe, currently well out of Canberra’s foreign policy scope. The NSW government should add an emerging market identification element to its plan.

The NSW International Engagement Strategy is an all too rare commodity: a clear, short, practical and achievable statement of government intent. It has more content than wrapping and didn’t need a spectacular photo-opportunity launch complete with big props to look credible. Canberra should take note.

Peter Jennings is Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.