Drinking to success

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 October, 1993, 12:00am

IT'S 34 degrees, 90 per cent humidity and the rains are due next month. Sun Cheong Loong menswear and Quan Chin Optometrists are closed for the night and down at the beach the satay, Thai curry and sarong stalls between the palms and flowering hibiscus are doing a roaring trade.

Up in his air-conditioned office, where one wall is covered by a map of the region, the Asian Relations Minister, Shane Stone, chats on the phone in Indonesian and plans his second visit to Beijing this month.

If you think this is an Asian city, you're close - about as close as Australia gets. This is Darwin, capital of Australia's Northern Territory, a city of 85,000 in a 1.3 million sq km territory (one sixth of Australia) of 180,000.

It's a six hours flight and A$1,000 (about HK$5,000) return from Melbourne, just one hour and A$300 return from Kupang in West Timor, closer to Jakarta than to the Australia capital, Canberra.

The only Australian city above the tropic of Capricorn, here people trade and holiday in Asia and many have never been to Australia's south: an Asian language, preferably Indonesian, is required for senior public service promotion and every high school and many primaries teach Indonesian.

Yet this city, rebuilt after the 1974 devastation of Cyclone Tracy, is an unholy alliance of Asian and the worst of ''redneck'' Australia.

A new survey shows 40 per cent of NT men drink dangerous amounts - more than 42 cans of light beer a week. There is 54 per cent more alcohol-related crime than the Australian average and alcohol abuse costs an estimated A$15 million a year.

A tour guide confides he no longer drinks much on his day off, only light beer - 24 cans of it.

One in three women are domestic violence victims. Walking down the main street at lunchtime is like stepping back in time - men lean out of cars whistling at women and offering sex.

Smoking here is 40 per cent more than the national average and the sports participation rate is Australia's highest.

But although more than 22 per cent of NT people were born overseas and two-thirds of new arrivals are Asian, mostly Hong Kongers, the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Drawn Lawrie, has no recent examples of anti-Asian racism on file.

Ray Chin came to Darwin from Guangzhou at the age of five. His grandfather had set up the family's tailoring business here in 1880 and his father travelled regularly between the two cities.

Mr Chin, 70, is president of the Chun Wah Association and, through its schools teaching Cantonese and Mandarin to 150 Anglo and Chinese-Australians, is trying to ensure Darwin's 5,000 Chinese don't lose their language.

When his grandfather arrived there were about 7,000 Chinese in Darwin and only about 800 Europeans. The town was segregated, the Chinese grossly discriminated against.

It wasn't until 1938 that a Chinese man dared set up shop in the European main street, but that family became one of Darwin's prosperous and one member, Alec Fong Lim, the city's first Chinese mayor in the 1980s.

Despite that bitter past, Ray Chin, who in 1982 became the first Chinese-born clerk of an Australian parliament, says: ''There is no discrimination here now.

''I've heard of it from some of the older ones, but Darwin is an unusual place. Our community has been here so long and is so mixed with the local people, we are accepted. It's different from down south,'' he says in his broad Aussie accent.

His own family tells the story: one child married to a Scot, one to a Singaporean, one an Anglo-Australian; seven grandchildren with relatives by marriage including Latvian, English, German and Yugoslav. Next month they'll get together when his niece marries a Greek.

Here, the Australian Government's much-vaunted Asian push is actually happening. For 30 years, they haven't just talked about it in the NT, they've done it.

NT's Chief Minister, Marshall Perron, says: ''If Australia truly desires a higher stature in the region, then we as a nation must go beyond commerce and become familiar with the customs and cultures of our neighbours. We accomplish nothing long-term if we limit ourselves to the trade deal.'' There's nothing to fear - ''Australia has now come to a critical point in history when our economic health demands that we become much more familiar with Asian people, Asian languages and Asian ways,'' he says.

In January last year his government signed a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia, formalising the strong cultural and social ties between the two, in particular with eastern Indonesia, and recognising the importance of increasing economic co-operation.

It was a controversial move: at the same time as Mr Perron was granted an audience by Indonesia's President Suharto, Australia's Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, who planned to protest over the massacre of East Timorese protesters in Dili, was refused one.

NT's large East Timorese community say the Perron Government's attitude to Indonesia is one of total servility and the NT has been described as Indonesia's next province.

Mr Stone denies subservience, saying the Indonesians will ''cop'' more from those they know. When the 42-year-old Indonesian speaker, former solicitor and Education Minister was appointed Australia's first Minister for Asian Relations last December (he also holds trade, the arts, mines and energy, industries and development), the NT's Asia push was given new impetus.

And in last month's federal budget came the national recognition many here have pushed hard for yet remain sceptical of - a A$4 million committee headed by former New South Wales Premier Neville Wran to study the development of Darwin as Australia's northern gateway to Asia.

''It is the first real sign from Canberra that the Federal Government is starting to recognise the wisdom of capitalising on northern Australia's proximity to Asia,'' Mr Perron says.

Some say this sign is long overdue and goes hand-in-hand with some basic mistakes. Stephen Gillard has managed the Federal Government's export development arm, Austrade, in Darwin for four years and doesn't expect to last much longer after a falling-out over strategy.

Austrade says it wants to boost trade from the north to Asia, yet he is hamstrung by lack of resources, no staff (just him and a secretary) and its northern Australian strategy, released in March, was wrong to place regional management in Townsville, notDarwin, he says.

''I think this Wran committee has proven me right and is a slap in the face for Austrade's senior management and it will probably take a fair while to mend that sort of thing.

''Here it is important to be recognised as a local and not treated as the man from Canberra. Local distrust means it will take mutual co-operation to make this Wran committee work.'' In Darwin for the committee's first meeting last week, Mr Wran said it was time for practical ideas leading to action: ''Already we feel that there is sufficient basic infrastructure here to be built on to provide for Darwin to be Australia's springboardor gateway to Asia.'' He also hinted at support for a railway linking the 3,200 kms between Darwin and Adelaide - a project costing up to A$1 billion the NT Government says is crucial if Canberra is serious about Asia trade.

At present one million tonnes of freight is hauled by road from South Australia to Darwin.

The NT is spending A$60 million to upgrade its port and Mr Perron says the port and railway would ''place Darwin at the centre of a land-sea bridge linking southern Australia to Asia and beyond.'' Such a bridge would give a much-needed boost to a NT Asia push initiative so far notably unsuccessful - the establishment in 1986 of a Trade Development Zone (TDZ) on 200 hectares of scrubland across the bay from Darwin's city centre to try to create a hub for trade with Asia.

The NT Government has sunk in about A$25 million, offers subsidies, concessionary charges and cheap land. Value-adding qualifies for Made in Australia labelling. But most of the site is still wasteland and a dozen companies could fit into its vacated factories.

Three years ago there was a scandal when a Chinese jeans factory was found to be paying its 48 Chinese workers illegally low wages and its import licence was cancelled.

Mr Gillard blames past management plus inter-state rivalry and the Federal Government's unwillingness to give TDZ companies tax concessions or incentives not available elsewhere in Australia.

He believes in the TDZ and says the recent arrivals of a Visyboard operation (a large Australian packaging company), plus Hong Kong and Chinese investment including China Merchant Holdings, bodes well.

Dr Don Watts, a former university vice-chancellor who pioneered selling Australian education abroad, was brought in as TDZ chairman in March to revive it. He says the zone was visionary but ahead of its time.

Some early investors, especially those from China with Hong Kong connections, didn't understand Australian immigration law and industrial relations, and tried to depend on cheap labour, then underwent protracted liquidation of their investments.

''At the time it started Australia as a whole was not showing the vision the NT had. Australian companies were not looking to Asia.

''The zone was a recognition by the NT Government that if it is ever going to have a diversified economy, it was going to have to put products not only into its small domestic market but into other markets, and Asian markets are not only larger but closer than the domestic markets in the south.'' Shane Stone says mineral-rich Northern Territory's exports last financial year were A$1.4 billion and if that was replicated nationwide the country would not be in the mess it is in now.

''We have the gateway - now the Federal Government has discovered it,'' he says. ''There is a whole different psyche here and we bring a different dimension to Asia and trade with Asia. We are more central than Singapore.'' He says Australia must embrace Asia but the region must take this largest regional economy after Japan and China seriously too: ''We have worked on the basis of a two-way street.'' Mr Stone says the NT's success goes wider than trade: ''It has been built on education, cultural and sporting ties. I won't pretend we had this great strategy - It just turned out that way.'' Sakib Awan, a Pakistani-born former hotel sales manager, now the NT's 1992 New Exporter of the Year, didn't have a strategy either when he read about dried seafood in a Singaporean magazine.

Now his company exports dried shark's fin, sea cucumber, scallops and prawns to Hong Kong and Singapore and has built a A$1 million turnover in two years.

''I am so close to my markets, four hours to Singapore, another three to Hong Kong, that I am going to make all my dreams come true in Darwin, Northern Territory, or as people are now preferring us to say, Australia's Northern Territory's,'' he says.

Mr Stone says NT people, whose average age is 27, are ''fiercely independent'' and have a right to suspicion of what is now happening.

''I can understand the resentment of people who have battled the elements and the odds. They say the Federal Government wants the kudos for what we have done. I say give them a chance - at least they have sat up and acknowledged Darwin.''