THE market research department of Party Games did some unscientific opinion sampling this week, asking people whether they knew Prime Minister Julia Gillard was in South-East Asia and what she was up to.
The bad news for the Government is most people didn’t know she was away, and of those who did, the one thing they remembered was she travelled with her de facto spouse Tim Mathieson. This is what happens when leaders fail to construct a narrative to fit what they’re doing.
Government officials say Gillard is still introducing herself on the world stage – she’s off on her third rapid-fire piece of summitry to the G20 in Seoul next week – but the Prime Minister needs to start telling the story of her leadership and Government, at home and abroad.
During her trip to Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, Gillard spent most of her time talking publicly about asylum seekers and her proposed regional refugee processing centre in East Timor.
She also touched on education issues in Vietnam and Indonesia – opening a campus for Melbourne’s RMIT university in the former and handing over a $500,000 schools grant in the latter.
Governments in South-East Asia do not like talking about asylum seekers, which makes Gillard’s emphasis on this topic look like what it was, pitching to an Australian audience.
Another research arm of Party Games went looking for something that might capture the imagination of people in the region and also be of interest to people in Australia. We found something after a handful of phone calls.
It’s to do with the Coral Triangle – one of the world’s most precious and richest marine environments, covering an area that has as its three corners the ocean above the northern tip of the Philippines, the eastern edge of Java and the Solomon Islands.
It’s an area of about 650 million hectares which is home to about 3000 species of fish and the richest concentration of marine biodiversity on the planet.
As well as a seafood bowl for the world, the triangle supports and feeds local communities which are as culturally diverse as the marine life – 126 million people representing 2000 separate language groups. What unites them is a historical, cultural and spiritual connection with the sea.
Because of over-fishing and other development pressures, much of this region is under threat, which is why the six countries most closely involved and dependent on the triangle – Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Solomon Islands – four years ago started work to halt the decline in available resources and diminish the threat to its future.
There is also the associated social and political risk to the stability of not just the region but the internal cohesion of individual nations, particularly the Indonesian archipelago.
Led by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, this initiative is aimed at galvanising international attention on the problems and to muster global resources – particularly scientific expertise and financial aid to help a group of nations that includes some of the poorest.
While the US has been supportive of the initiative – stumping up $40 million to get the program going – Australia has been slow and miserly in giving attention to such an urgent need on its doorstep. So far, apart from lip service, Australia has tipped in just $2 million, half of which is spent on administrative support in Canberra.
Australia could assist its nearest neighbours by helping them address some of the most fundamental development challenges, boost regional security and balance the widespread perception in these countries that Australia is only interested in its own problems, particularly border protection.
The Coral Triangle neatly encompasses all of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s stated goals for Australia to embrace and enlarge its place in the Asia-Pacific region.
That we have been invited by the countries makes this a unique opportunity to make a real difference.
According to Canberra sources, interest in the initiative never got beyond lip service because of the bigger-picture ambitions of Rudd when he was prime minister – his plans for a new Asia-Pacific community group and getting a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
But this looks to be a low-cost, high-impact initiative (and sources say Australia would get plenty of brownie points for $10 million or so) that Gillard could talk about. She needs something.