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Canada can learn a thing or two from Down Under

Before Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott settled into a speech heavy on his domestic agenda in front of a powerful gathering of Canadian and Australian political and business leaders on the forty-sixth floor of a skyscraper in Melbourne earlier this week, he took a moment to make an intriguing gesture of thanks.

Foreign Minister John Baird, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey were all in attendance at the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum, as were the governors of both countries' central banks and a host of high-profile CEOs, including the chief of the Toronto stock exchange and the head of the massive pension fund, OMERS. These people all got greetings.

But Mr. Abbott's earliest and most effusive thank you went to John Walsh, the behind-the-scenes president of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party, for the "advice, counsel and friendship over the years" that he's given to Mr. Abbott's conservative Liberal Party of Australia, which only recently won an election late last year. In a fireside chat the following day, Mr. Hockey thanked Mr. Flaherty for much the same. "Jim saw me in opposition, which was incredibly gracious of him," Mr. Hockey said. "He's given me great guidance."

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The two seemingly off-the-cuff but clearly heartfelt remarks revealed a close bond between the two parties – now both in government – that could have serious, long-term impact for Canada's foreign policy in the rapidly growing but increasingly unstable Asia-Pacific region, to which Australia belongs and is deeply embedded but from which Canadian public policy and leaders have been noticeably absent.

The forum, held in Melbourne for the three days following last weekend's Group of 20 summit in Sydney, brought together a wide range of big players from two countries that have an enormous amount in common – from similar populations, vast territories and a shared parliamentary tradition to resource-based economies and a desire to ship to Asia from Pacific coastlines. There were sitting cabinet ministers from both countries, including senior portfolios like Defence. There were former ambassadors and current diplomats. And there were captains of industry that control tens of billions of dollars in assets across a region in which many of them have vast, practical experience doing business and dealing with officials big and small.

Panel discussions – held under Chatham House rules, which I agreed to – were rich and peppered with real experience, as well as good-humoured rivalry: One Canadian stressed that Vancouver was closer to Tokyo than Sydney, but an Australian replied tartly that this was like measuring Canada's distance to Asia from Halifax. But the most interesting theme was co-operation. That might sound fuzzy, but it was most vividly explored in a panel that discussed Canadian and Australian security strategies toward countries in the Asia-Pacific region – a panel that was kicked off by the launch of a frank report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Waterloo, Ont.-based Center for International Governance Innovation.

The report highlights the deteriorating security situation across East and Southeast Asia: rising nationalism and radicalized ethnic and religious minorities; disputed maritime boundaries for crucial offshore resources and fisheries; a growing middle class that may begin to demand more democratic inclusion in countries where that might get awkward; proud, rising nations like India and South Korea that may begin to challenge a China-dominated power hierarchy. All this is occurring against a backdrop where a war-weary United States is trying to make up for imperial overstretch in the Middle East by ramping up drone warfare everywhere else, but appears increasingly unable to do all the heavy lifting in this region, as well.

The report recommends that Canada and Australia co-operate more on everything from military exercises and armed forces procurement to strengthening multilateral organizations in the region, such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

But on Canada's engagement with the region, the report makes for grim reading; it suggests that Canada hopes to allow its businesses to pivot toward opportunities in Asia without putting in the diplomatic face-time in regional organizations or making concrete offers of co-operation – such as on humanitarian or military operations – with new players. Fen Hampson, the former dean of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a CIGI fellow, told me after the session that Canada doesn't even have a dedicated military attaché in Indonesia. If Mr. Harper's government is actually serious about free trade deals in the region, the authors say, countries will want Canada "to be a more reliable and engaged security partner." Their broader point is one that Western businessmen in Asia know quite well: If you want to benefit from the vast opportunities in Asia, you better show up early and build relationships.

"Canada should take its cue from the Australian experience, which is predicated on committing the time of senior political leaders, officials, the business community and real resources to deepening bilateral relation and multilateral engagement," the report notes.

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There is, of course, reason for heavy skepticism. Have you ever flown from Canada to Australia? It takes a long time. That's because it's far – distant, removed. But with British Columbia and Alberta looking to plug into the booming demand for energy in Northeast Asia, as well as in Southeast Asia and India, Canadian diplomats in East Asia may finally get a share of Ottawa's Atlantic-facing resources.

Mr. Abbott, in his opening remarks to the session, acknowledged the difficulty of Canada and Australia thinking of each other regularly, but he noted that he had deliberately fished out a painting commemorating the Battle of Vimy Ridge from a government store room and had it hung in his office. "We are not so often in each other's thoughts," he said. "That should change."

This report, one participant noted, will likely be carried home by two foreign ministers and at least one prime minister, so perhaps it will. And if it does, under two ideologically aligned and clearly friendly governments, that just might mean a renaissance of sorts for Canadian engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

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