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Proposal: A Department of Soft Power

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20 September 2010 14:39

Julia Gillard is creating, renaming and then correcting the names of government departments with gusto. So let's take the Gillard example and stir in the sentiment offered by Christopher Hitchens about the only government agency he would want to head: the US Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco.

Taking courage from the Gillard-Hitchens lead, I renounce my long ambition to become the first foreign correspondent to run the combined Paris-Venice bureau. Instead, I will dedicate myself to heading Australia's first Department of Soft Power. This has a lofty enough sound. More appropriate than my first doodle: the Sir Les Patterson sounding Bureau for Overseas Rorts, Entertainment and Sport (BORES).

But names matter, and there might be a temptation to dub the Department of Soft Power the 'SoP'. So the formal name might be something like 'Department for Power Projection, People and Persuasion'.

The role of the Soft Power Minister would be to range across Canberra (and overseas) talking about the best way to stir the flavour of Oz into the doings of the world. The serious point (don't worry, this will be brief) is that departmental silos, tight money and conceptual timidity ensure that Canberra gives little weight to our many soft power instruments: education, media, legal institutions, non-government organisations, migrant communities, business lobbies, churches and charities...

The soft power insight expressed by Joe Nye is that hardware needs software to run. Soft power can often get others to desire what you want without having to reach for threats, bribes or bazookas. Soft power is about the influence of culture, institutions, lifestyle and laughter. The Tourism gurus get this, by uniting a great Australian institution with a US power player: Oprah flies to meet the Opera House. Yes!

My Minister of Soft Power, however, wouldn't just be about the feel-good stuff. The Minister's job would be to argue that extending the influence of Oz to the neighbourhood and beyond is good for Australia and deserves to be a policy priority. To start with the word-slingers, we need many more Oz hacks out and about beyond our shores. If China wants to cover the world with 6000 Xinhua scribes, surely we could put a few more of ours out there.

The Murdoch empire salivates at seizing the ABC's contract to run the international TV service. The contract is due for renewal and the Gillard Government must make the call in the next few months. The Soft Power Minister would argue that the international TV service is such a great idea the Government should triple the budget, renew the ABC's mandate permanently and give Murdoch a bit of cash to create a second international TV service. It would be worth it just to see the mandarins at the BBC World Service react to Murdoch coming at them from another direction, this time as the government-appointed Dirty Digger.

In education, more money for language teaching is the easy part. But how about spending more money on foreign students' One of our soft power multipliers is the individual Oz ambassador created by each overseas student who studies here. And for this great boon, they pay us. When Dr Mahathir spent a couple of decades demonising Oz, the silent counterweight to his bile was the 100,000 Malaysians who had lived and studied in Australia. They knew Dr M just didn't understand us: the humour, the food or the political culture.

The Soft Power Minister might argue that the benefit offered by overseas students is such that our universities should get much more money but the students should pay lower fees.

The Soft Power Minister could join hands with the new Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs to find creative ways to get many more Pacific people into Australia. By all means, a 'yes' to labour mobility as proposed in current trade negotiations with the South Pacific. But let's also have Pacific artistic mobility with Australia, as well as Pacific footballer mobility. Anything to get Pacific people into Australia's Pacific policy.

And turning to another issue tearing at the polity, the Soft Power Minister could use the successful experience of the Indo-China boat people in Oz to argue that the latest lot of boat people are less of a threat than a new opportunity. You start to see why the Soft Power Minister is a crazy, long shot.

Photo by Flickr user jithinrk, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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