As anyone travelling in Asia could tell you, news from Australia in the regional press invariably revolves around a handful of themes, notably cute animals, extreme weather and whatever happens to be the latest racially rancid outrage from a local politician.
Excruciating as they may be, these recurring tropes play into enduring stereotypes about Australia in the region, of an island distinguished not just by its natural exotica but also its psychological distance from its near neighbours.
Should Labor win the election, Penny Wong as the incoming foreign minister (barring a last-minute change in portfolio) will run headlong into such persistent preconceptions. Being female, Asian and gay doesn’t match Australia’s resiliently blokey, Anglo image.
Such an observation might be dismissed as the trite application of partisan identity politics to foreign policy. There’s some truth in that. At the end of the day, Wong will be judged by how she defines and executes Australia’s diplomatic interests, not her personal traits.
But her elevation to foreign minister has the potential to be more than just another ministerial appointment, on multiple levels.
Wong was surely right when she said in a speech to the Lowy Institute during the election campaign that an Asian-Australian foreign minister would help dispel inaccurate stereotypes. “Just as historical negatives can be evoked,” she said, “so too they can be shifted.”
For a country which has squandered its soft power over the last decade in search of politically painless budget savings, such as ending short-wave radio services to south-east Asia and the Pacific, Australia needs to grab advantages where it finds them.
Australia has educated about 7 million foreign students over the past decade, something that should have embedded in them a lifetime of goodwill for this country as they climb the professional ranks in their homelands.
That’s hardly evident. The education business has been very profitable for the universities and their top administrators, but the soft power spinoffs seem to have been little more than an afterthought.
You don’t have to support racial and gender quotas to query why the Australian government and parliament doesn’t remotely resemble the diversity in the rest of the community.
Say what you like about Donald Trump, but his first cabinet, with Ben Carson (African-American), Nikki Haley (Indian), and Elaine Chao (Taiwanese), was far more diverse than any ministry assembled in Australia.
In her speech, Wong castigated Scott Morrison for preference deals with the xenophobic minor parties whose views, she said, “hark back to the White Australia policy, harming the perception of our nation in the region”.
A straightforward enough observation, you might think. But in reporting her speech, one national newspaper came up with an eccentric take, suggesting that Wong talking about echoes of “White Australia” was somehow more damaging to Australian interests than the embers of the policy itself.
If you believe Australia’s foundational history of racial discrimination has been washed away in Asia, just try a name recognition test pitting Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten against Pauline Hanson. In Asia, the Queenslander would win in a canter.
Any allegations of Australian racism can easily provoke finger-pointing the other way about entrenched anti-Chinese discrimination in Malaysia and Indonesia, notions of racial purity in Japan and South Korea, and Han chauvinism in China.
But “whataboutism” on race is a dead-end for Australia.
For all the region’s deep geo-political cracks, the Asian economic century is starting to gel before our eyes. Rather than relying on the wealthy markets of the US and Europe, Asian economic growth now is driven by consumption at home rather than sales abroad.
In the same fashion, Asian countries other than China export more to each other they do outside of the region. China itself is increasingly less reliant on Western markets. Put another way, the postwar economic order is coming to an end.
Acknowledging this trend and trying to profit from it doesn’t amount to some kind of guilt-ridden pre-emptive buckle to a new world order. It is enlightened self-interest to ensure we get a seat at the table whenever the pieces are set up or moved around.
When he was prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull often talked about how Australia was the “most successful multicultural country in the world”.
Whether you agreed with him or not, it was a strikingly positive and confident statement about racial diversity of the kind you don’t hear from Western leaders these days, perhaps with the exception of New Zealand.
Donald Trump isn’t given to boasting about America’s melting pot. Likewise in the UK and Europe, where leaders are invariably on the defensive on race and immigration.
Modern Australia society has been transformed by successive waves of immigration, and the economy along with it. That legacy should be a strength at home and abroad as well.
It’s one thing that has been lost in the debate about Chinese influence and interference operations in Australia. The influence game can work both ways, and it’s about time Australia learned to use all the tools at its disposal.