In the absence of strategy

In the news the last few days has been reports about how China wants to build a base in Vanuatu. It’s caused consternation and controversy and the Australian government has spoken out about it for the obvious reason that a base so close to our mainland – and so far from China – poses a potential threat. And it won’t be an isolated incident.

I rolled my eyes when I read the news. I was totally unsurprised, but experienced a sinking feeling. For me it’s another example of the Australian government’s short-sighted incompetence. This situation could never have developed had we not dropped the ball so badly.

Foreign aid and foreign assistance has been steadily dropping for a few years now, particularly to the Pacific islands. This follows on from the decision a few years back to stop radio and television broadcasts into the region and through Asia. Many a time on my travels I’d flick the dial and come across a familiar accent broadcasting familiar news and views. No longer. This was very popular, not just with expats, but with locals too. All this has been ditched, along with the cuts in aid, for economic reasons.

What price a few million dollars of extra expenditure? Well, now we know. Into that vacuum the Chinese with their expansionary policies have rushed. Once upon a time we exported culture and influence, which was the intangible benefit of our investment. Once we stop making that investment our influence has retracted, and the previous beneficiaries now look elsewhere. Enter the Chinese.

It would be nice to say that none of this could be foreseen, but you have to presume there are some very highly paid people in government departments who would have warned about this. God knows there were voices in the media who did that. Unfortunately the government – and I’ll point the finger at Morrison (and Abbott to a large extent) – chose to ignore those warnings.

Now there is a mad scramble to undo the damage but seriously, I don’t know how that can be achieved.

This is what infuriates me so much, the blind short-termism and the total lack of an actual strategy.

Had there been a proper strategy appropriately championed by the minister, and with a PM a bit brighter than Abbott, then Australia would be continuing to influence and embrace the region – China could never have got a foothold.

Unfortunately this sort of thinking – or unthinking – is not uncommon. The government is rife with it, with energy policy being another prime example. It also happens in the corporate world. I fight an uphill battle every day trying to suggest that the initiatives we take on should be a part of a broader strategy. There is a bigger picture we should be adding to.

In my experience in my present job is that it’s all pretty random. To a large degree that’s structural, with no capacity for a guiding principle. It’s also people, a form of ignorance combined with opportunism leading to misdirected effort. The result is that a bit happens here, a bit there, nothing in concert, with wasted and unnecessarily duplicated efforts, and occasionally contradictory elements.

If it’s a bigger picture then some are working on a landscape, others a portrait, and some an abstract. There is no coherence, sense or overarching purpose. That sums up our government pretty well, too.

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