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Why can’t we be smart like our sister?

THINK OF South Carolina as a restless schoolboy. He doesn’t test well, but he’s got loads of potential; everybody says so. He’s a well-meaning kid, but has an attention-deficit problem. There he sits, as far to the back of the class as he can get away with. As the teacher drones on about science and stuff, he wonders whether he can get away with spending his lunch money on candy again. Then, just as he’s turned to calculating the number of days left until school is out and he can go to the beach (he’s very good at this sort of math), his reverie is rudely interrupted.

The teacher stands over him, her eyes just boring into him over the glasses on the end of her nose. She speaks directly to him, demanding to know, “Why can’t you be smart like your sister?”

The poor kid hears that a lot.

My own rather feckless, aimless mind (I was born here, you know) has been running along these lines all week, as I’ve been repeatedly reminded of how well our smart sister has applied herself. Not my sister, personally, but South Carolina’s. Her name is Queensland, and she’s our sister state in Australia.

Her former premier, Peter Beattie, spoke at my Rotary meeting Monday, although I didn’t realize it at the time because I slipped out of the meeting early (I’m telling you, I am that boy). Mr. Beattie is the one who suggested the whole “sister-state” economic development relationship when he was in office back in the ’90s. He got the idea after a visit here in 1996. He had come to study how our state had taken advantage of the Atlanta Olympics, serving as a training site and hosting the women’s marathon trials. He hoped his state could do the same with the Sydney games.

As things turned out, though, our “sister” would go on to do some things we should emulate. As premier, he pushed a strategy that would lead to Australia’s “Sunshine State” getting a new alias: “The Smart State.”

During a week when the S.C. Senate Finance Committee was reacting to tough fiscal times by cutting back on the endowed chairs program and letting K-12 funding slide backward, I kept getting my nose rubbed in the smartness of our sister despite my best efforts to miss the point. On Wednesday, someone sent me a copy of remarks Mr. Beattie — who has been lecturing at USC’s Walker Institute of International & Area Studies recently — had prepared for a speech this coming Tuesday to the Global Business Forum in Columbia. I skimmed over what he had written...

Twenty years ago, Queensland was a traditional rocks-and-crops economy where education was not regarded as a priority. But with increasing globalisation, my government knew this was not enough to compete with the new emerging markets of China and India.... We publicly said innovate or stagnate were our choices.

As a result we developed a strategy called Smart State. This involved a major overhaul of our education and training systems... the cutting edge of developments in biotechnology, energy, information and communications...

The result has been... Queensland’s lowest unemployment rate in three decades... budget surpluses and a AAA credit rating. Our economic growth has outperformed the nation’s growth for 10 consecutive years and was done on the back of competitive state taxes. Our focus has been long-term and education reform was central.

Since 1998, the Queensland Government has invested almost $3 billion to boost innovation and R&D infrastructure...

... but I didn’t have time to read it all just then. Being that unfocused boy, I did find time to write a pointless post on my blog about how “For some reason, Queensland keeps coming up a lot this week for me....” That night, I was attending a lecture by Salman Rushdie, who had been brought here by Janette Turner Hospital, the novelist and USC professor, who as it happens grew up in Queensland.

So guess who I ran into at the reception that night for Mr. Rushdie? Yep — Peter Beattie. (The coincidences were starting to get as weird and mystical as something out of a novel by, well, Salman Rushdie.)

Cooperating with the inevitable, I introduced myself, and he told me eagerly about the exciting high-tech opportunities he saw here in South Carolina, what with the endowed chairs and Innovista, and our state’s advantages in the fields of hydrogen power, clean coal technology and biotech.

Biotech, by the way, has been a big one for Queensland, employing 3,200 people, generating $4 billion a year in revenues, and leading to such concrete advances as Ian Fraser’s new human papillomavirus vaccine, which is now protecting 13 million women worldwide from cervical cancer — just so you know it’s not all pie in the sky.

When I asked him about some of the less-than-visionary (in my view, not his) decisions being made by S.C. political leaders as we spoke, he insisted that was not his place: “I’m a guest here,” he said in that wonderful Down Under accent. “Queensland is like South Carolina. Manners are important.”

He spoke instead about the opportunities we had in common, and about the fact that places such as Queensland and South Carolina “have to innovate or be left behind.”

South Carolina, so used to lagging behind the other kids, truly does possess the potential to be a “smart state” like our sister. But too many easily distracted boys over at the State House keep staring out the classroom window....

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