Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Has Australia's media dropped the ball in reporting on Asia and the Pacific?

I don’t normally write about the media, but there are times when it seems to be necessary for me to write about the things that are on my mind before I can think about much else.

I was prompted to begin thinking about this question on Sunday by a post by Jim Belshaw on his blog, Personal Reflections. Jim’s post was about the recent ASEAN Summit chaired by the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SYB). The President’s speech mentions that Indonesia is in the process of finishing the Master Plan Percepatan dan Perluasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Indonesia (Master Plan for Acceleration and Expanded Economic Growth of Indonesia/MP3EI), intended to boost the development of six economic corridors in Indonesia. The President claims that this initiative will awaken ASEAN’s economy and speed up the construction of ASEAN connectivity as well as boosting Indonesia’s national economy and intra-Indonesian connectivity.

Jim Belshaw mentioned that he didn’t know what the six economic corridors in Indonesia were and implied that the Australian media’s reporting and analysis of events in Indonesia and the region is deficient. He also notes that there seemed to be no coverage of the ASEAN conference in the Australian media.

I didn’t know what the six economic corridors were either. It turns out that each of the economic corridors corresponds to a region of Indonesia and its economic specialization; for example, as might be expected Java has a focus on industry and services and other islands focus more heavily on agriculture, mining etc. The planning has a strong emphasis of infrastructure development and connectivity.

The planned areas of economic specialization seem to make sense in terms of comparative advantage. That raises the question in my mind of why the Indonesian government thinks it needs a Master Plan. Perhaps it is best viewed as a political hand waving exercise rather than an exercise in constructivist rationalism. A few years ago, when Australian media seemed to report more thoroughly on Indonesia, there was a strong focus on whether the central government would be able to maintain legitimacy in a nation with such disparate elements located on different islands. Perhaps the Master Plan should be viewed in that context as a concept that might help to instil or maintain common purpose. But SBY is presenting the plan as also having implications for ASEAN connectivity. Connectivity suggests to me that fibre optic cable might play a large role in the plan. Who knows what it means? What we do know is that the success or otherwise of economic development in Indonesia has important implications for Australia.

Shortly after reading Jim Belshaw’s blog I visited the East Asia Forum and read a post by Peter Drysdale on why the Doha round of international trade negotiations matters to Asia and the Pacific. Drysdale writes:

“In Washington, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is all the rage. Does it matter if we get yet another pseudo ‘free trade’ agreement, between the US and group of eight partners who in the total scheme of things are pretty insignificant?
It certainly would matter, being absent from Doha.
A rum deal like the one that is shaping up might be of little economic consequence (of somewhat more economic consequence in the unlikely event that Japan signed on) but it would be of considerable political consequence.
In the context of an insecure global trading system it would be a bold statement taking the world in another direction. It would drive a wedge down the middle of the Pacific, not only or mainly economically but also politically — between the United States, its partners and China. It would entrench the adversarial political psychology that is developing in US-China relations in a way that would be very difficult to unravel for a long time. That might matter less if the WTO was not also in disarray. It matters a lot, as that prospect grows daily”.

I think Peter Drysdale has good reasons for concern, but I would also like to see discussion of the implications of Washington’s focus on TPP in the Financial Review and The Australian – to name a couple of papers that I read.

That got me thinking about media coverage of other issues in the region that have implications for Australia. The issue that is probably most important to us is the future of economic development in China and in particular how long China will be able to maintain the economic strategy adopted post-GFC of a very high level of investment in infrastructure. A lot depends on the quality of the infrastructure investment that is being undertaken. I have probably seen general discussions of the issues involved in the Australia media, but if the investment program begins to produce a lot of white elephants I am not confident that I will see that reported and discussed in the Australian media before it begins to impact out terms of trade.

What is going on in India? I was just starting to get used to the idea of India as a high-growth country and a rapidly expanding market for Australian exports, and then it hosted the Commonwealth Games. The games themselves seem to have been a success, but problems with their organization have raised questions about the quality of public administration in India. It is hardly news that the quality of public administration is poor anywhere in the world, but governments do tend to try to put their best feet forward when organizing major international events. Does the quality of public administration in India actually make much difference to India’s future growth prospects? That question might be a bit too profound for the media to tackle, but perhaps Australian journalists should be discussing evidence of whether poor quality of public administration in India is having any effect on foreign investment in that country.

Then there is New Zealand. A few years ago the NZ government set up a Taskforce to advise it on policies it could adopt to catch up to Australian living standards by 2025. This 2025 Taskforce submitted a couple of reports, but the NZ Prime Minister announced a few days ago that it will now be closed down. What does that mean? Has the NZ government abandoned all hope of catching up to Australia’s living standards? If so, what are the implications for Australia? Perhaps it just means that we will be able to look to NZ as a source of labour, the price of NZ sauvignon blanc will remain within our reach and even more of us will be able to afford to have holidays there beyond 2025. Is it too much to ask for a less frivolous discussion of the relevant issues in Australia’s news media?

Is the Australian media to blame for its poor coverage of the Asia and Pacific region or does this just reflect the ‘insular internationalist’ perspective of Australians? The term ‘insular internationalist’ is one coined by Michael Wesley, who observes that Australians have become wealthier and safer than ever before by enmeshing with the world – becoming more a part of the world economy than ever before. He says:
‘We travel more than we've ever travelled before; we have more people who were born outside of this country living among us than ever before, and yet you can see a steady trend of a withdrawal of interest about the outside world, a withdrawal of real skills for dealing with the outside world among the general population in Australia’.

I don’t think that Australians are as insular as Wesley suggests. It seems to me that a substantial and growing number of us will look elsewhere if we can’t find decent coverage of Asia and the Pacific in the conventional Australian news media.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for writing this post, Winton. I will bring a link up in my original post. Don't you love the jargon - connectivity indeed!

I think that China actually gets fairly full media coverage if we include the financial press because of its current importance. India, by contrast, gets far less.

Issues also vanish quite quickly. There is limited follow up reporting. Zimbabwe is an example.

You can get a fair idea of the weighting the Australian media places on international issues from the placement on the on-line editions.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim,
You are probably right that there is fairly full media coverage of China. I suppose I am just hungry for information that might help me to predict how long China's growth strategy will be sustainable.

I wonder whether an 'Asia-Pacific Economic Review' would be a viable proposition for one of the Australian media groups - perhaps as an electronic publication. I don't fully understand the reasons why the Far Eastern Economic Review folded. I guess the name of the publication would have been enough to put off a lot of potential customers.

Parts of the Australian media do some things very well. I thought the coverage of the budget in the AFR this morning was good. I haven't got to any other papers yet.