Target Asia: education the key

EVERY school will be made to teach at least one priority Asian language under a national Asian studies curriculum, as part of a comprehensive embrace of the region aimed at exploiting its rapidly growing wealth over the next decade-and-a-half.

Launching the white paper Australia in the Asian Century yesterday, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said the curriculum changes would be compulsory in return for state and territory governments and private school organisations receiving Commonwealth funding for education which was soon to be boosted.

"Success for an open Australia in a middle-class Asia starts in the classrooms, training centres and lecture theatres in our nation,'' Ms Gillard said.

The white paper, prepared by a team led by the former Treasury secretary, Ken Henry, aims at tapping into Asia's rising middle class wealth by 2025, well beyond Australia's present reliance on minerals.

It outlines 25 objectives covering opportunities for business, government, agriculture, tourism, banking and financial services, science and technology, sport, education, and manufacturing.

It says that by 2025, average individual income could be boosted by 18 per cent, or about $11,000 a year in today's dollars.

It stipulates that the United States will have an enduring role in the region and China must be more open about its military build-up to increase trust and confidence.

It emphasises that the mining boom will continue to play a role as Australia taps the regional prosperity. "Continued economic development in the region will drive demand for energy and mineral resources,'' it says. The paper says "the pace and scale of Asia's rise have been nothing short of staggering''.

Living standards for billions in Asia have improved and by 2025, it will be home to most of the world's middle class as the largest producer and consumer of goods and services.

Early next year the government will negotiate with the states a new education funding agreement taking into account the recommendations of the Gonski review which advocates billions more dollars be spent on education.

The white paper recommendation, adopted by the government, says every child must have the opportunity to learn one of Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese or Indonesian and every school must be linked to a school in Asia to support the teaching process.

In some instances this would require the national broadband network.

"We are working to make this access a core requirement through new school funding arrangements,'' the paper says.

The paper supports many of Labor's policies and policy directions, including the national broadband network, the carbon price and clean-energy policies, and its industrial relations approach. It warns against lowering wages and conditions as a way of getting a larger slice of the Asian market.

"For the first time in our history, Asia is not a threat to our high-skill, high-wage road - it is a reason to stay on it,'' Ms Gillard said.

It pushes for continuing tax reform to eradicate inefficient state taxes and lift workforce participation to boost productivity. One recommendation is to lift the tax-free threshold - set to reach $19,400 on 2015 - to at least $21,000 and scrap the low-income tax offset.

Cross-cultural exchanges are also important and Ms Gillard announced an expanded diplomatic presence in the region and 12,000 Australia awards to promote contact.

The Deputy Opposition Leader and spokeswoman on foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, said the endorsement of government policy led her to suspect the paper had been tampered with by "Labor's spin doctors''.

The paper says increased foreign investment is crucial to the push. To minimise controversy, this would require greater transparency and the government is proposing for the first time "publicly explaining significant decisions where possible'', something not done now because of commercial and national security sensitivities.

The paper stresses that the move into Asia would not be to the detriment of the alliance with the US. Australia would "work with the United States to ensure that it continues to have a strong and consistent presence in the region, with our alliance contributing to regional stability, security and peace'', it says.

It also calls on China "and others in the region" to explain to their neighbours the pace and scope of their military modernisation, to build trust. "This is not a world in which anything like containment policy can work or be in our national interest.''

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