Julia Gillard to Australia: 'Look to Asia for our future'

Julia Gillard (in focus), former Australian prime minister. Photo by: Kate Lundy / CC BY

For Australia to keep its place as an international development leader, it must look to Asia.

That’s according to Julia Gillard, the country’s former prime minister, who, in an exclusive interview with Devex, stressed that it is high time for Australia to recognize not just Asia’s economic rise but also the region’s increasing political and cultural importance in the global development landscape.

“What I ought to do if I’m still prime minister is particularly explain to the Australian people that this century we’re in now, whatever else it brings us, it is going to give us Asia’s continued rise,” she said, adding that “everyone needs to understand the rise and changes in our region of the world.”

Gillard, who now chairs the Washington, D.C.-based Global Partnership for Education, explained that this change in mindset and perspective should happen in every level of Australian society “whether that’s a school teacher who’s trying to impart skills and knowledge to the [children] that they teach, or a business person, or a university academic or a person in our defense force.”

For the longest time, Australia has served as a bridge between the West and the East. Hugh White, professor at the Australian National University, explained in an essay that Canberra’s neutral stance explains its strategic pursuit to maintain ties with Asia — particularly economic ties with China — while at the same time helping ensure the United States keeps its influence on the region.

But this is changing.

China’s rise as a strategic and economic development player in Asia — and, arguably, the world — threatens to usurp Australia’s role as the region’s dominant global leader. While Canberra continues to deliberate over whether to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member, for instance, many developing countries in the region as well as emerging donors India and Qatar have already signed up. And just yesterday, much to the United States’ dismay, the United Kingdom formally announced it will be joining the bank as a founding member.

While Gillard made no call for Australia to join the proposed China-led bank, she was clear that Canberra cannot exclude Asia — and China — as it charts its way forward.

“When I was growing up in Australia, we didn’t look to Asia for our future. We looked to the U.K., to Europe, to America. But all these years later, while we still look to America as an ally and friend, we look to our region of the world,” she explained, adding that her country should continue to play a significant role as a reliable economic and development partner for the region.

Education, the GPE chief concluded, is one way to acknowledge and appreciate Asia’s growing role in global development, primarily by learning the languages, history and culture of countries in the region. This constant dialogue can “build a sense of Asia literacy and capability that will stand our population in good stead for all of the years to come as we make our future in our region of the world.”

Check back Monday for the second part of our interview with Julia Gillard, where the GPE chair talks about what the partnership is doing to ensure the post-2015 development agenda will have strong targets for education — exclusive to Devex Executive Members.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.