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Three months on from Malcolm Turnbull's talk of innovation, Nicholas Aitken asks whether the decline in Australian exports is being adequately addressed, particularly in relation to Chinese tourism.

THERE HAS NEVER been a more important time for Australia to strengthen its economic, political and social relationship with Asia.

Over the past two decades, Australia’s economy has become so interconnected and reliant on East Asia, that a slow-down in demand for Australian exports could see Australia’s economy fall deep into recession.

Since the start of federation, Australia’s economy has been "lucky", having an abundance of exports for economic growth — so much so that governments never had to look for new opportunities. The eggs were always in one lucrative basket. 

In recent times, a slower Chinese economy and steep falls in commodity prices have put pressure on Australia’s most profitable industries, creating a scramble for new opportunities for future economic growth. 

A few months ago, the Turnbull Government launched their innovation agenda.

Turnbull said:

"Long after the mining boom, Australia has a natural resource that will continue to create jobs and drive economic growth — our ideas ... There has never been a better time to be an Australian.”

These words from Malcolm Turnbull filled me with optimism while I reminisced about the Hawke and Keating Governments while sucking on a cigar with Beethoven’s 8th Symphony playing in the background. I held high hopes that a Malcolm Turnbull-led government could take Australia into the 21st century and create discussions around further integration with Asia as well as a republic.

Three months on from the innovation revolution announcement, there has been little movement on ideas in other sectors. The lack of big ideas in other areas is leading me to wonder if this is just another basket, or nice little progressive policy for the government to take to the election and then pray for commodity prices to rise.

One industry that doesn't get the respect it deserves is Australia’s booming tourism industry. On the back China’s economic growth and growing middle class, one million Chinese tourists visited Australia in 2015, injecting almost eight billion dollars into Australia’s economy. The Tourism 2020 Strategy estimates that Chinese tourism has the potential to be worth up to $13 billion by 2020.

The future looks good for Australia’s tourism industry when considering only five per cent of Chinese nationals own a passport. However, the Australian Government should be doing much more to entice more Chinese tourists, and is still very much on the back-foot when it comes to accommodating the influx of our East Asian friends.

In 2015, in a bid to make it easier for Chinese tourists to get off the beaten track and travel out to regional areas in need of economic stimulus, federal Tourism Minister Richard Colbeck proposed the translation of road signs into simplified Chinese. Richard Colbeck’s proposal – which follows the lead of Melbourne’s Chinatown where Chinese characters are seen on restaurant boards and road signs – has been viewed as a radical idea and received little approval from the states and territories.

The Government's suggestion of incorporating Chinese characters on Australian road signs has been hit with a barrage of ignorance and criticism on social media and a general fear that this is the first step to China’s imperialism in Australia. But this should not be about the opinions of sofa-keyboard-politician-economists — this should be a discussion about our economy and how we are going to prepare for the ever-changing global economic environment.

To most free thinkers, the idea of accommodating tourists who will contribute billions to the economy is a no-brainer. In fact, the idea should already be in practice and should go further than just road signs. In major cities across East Asia like Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei, there are English translations on public transport, road signs, in universities, banks and restaurants.

To take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the growing middle class in China, the Australian Government must show strong leadership on issues that may not be popular with the public, lose the economic tunnel vision of the past and show economic foresight. It would be a lack of progressive thinking if we were to let this opportunity pass while waiting for chickens to hatch from another shallow basket.

Nicholas Aitken is a freelance journalist with a background in international relations, Asian studies and politics. You can follow Nick on Twitter @realnickaitken.

 

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