It’s 11pm. I’m traveling alone by rickshaw back to my Mumbai apartment following dinner in a back-water restaurant with friends. The auto driver asks me if I’m enjoying India, I say; “very much”. He asks where I am from, I say; “Australia”. There is a pause … “It’s very bad what’s happening to the students there”.
Thus begins the next round of a conversation I’ve been drawn into many times – by rickshaw drivers, friends, students, colleagues …
They are referring to the racially-fuelled attacks on Indian students that occurred in Sydney and Melbourne and head-lined Indian media earlier this year. Before these attacks, I would instead expect to spar in a conversation on the recent prowess of either Australia’s or India’s cricket team.
It would appear potential conversation starters are extremely limited.
Over the last few decades, Australia’s sights have been firmly set on the gains of a strong relationship with countries in East Asia such as China, Japan and Indonesia. So it’s no small wonder that India and Australia have so little common ground. Maybe it’s time to broaden our reach and consider the wealth of advantages available from forging stronger ties with India. And in the process, improve our positioning amongst the wider Indian population.
My opinion is not that we should simply address Australia’s image in India (although we should), it is that there are very strong grounds for a relationship between our two countries.
Australia’s approach needs to be multi-pronged; spanning economics, migration and tourism. To start with, data on our countries reveals some useful insights;
Australia’s exports to India have risen at an annual average of more than 30% for the last 3 years and India is our 4th largest export market for goods and services (DIISR).
India is the world’s 5th largest consumer of energy and consumption is rising at one of the fastest rates in the world (CFR). A point of interest considering our supply to the energy commodities market.
40% of Indian’s population is under the age of 15 (World Bank). This represents a huge human talent market when we face challenges of skill supply in many core industries.
63,731 Indian students commenced studies in Australia in 2009 (to October-end). That’s 19% of overall commencements, second only to China (AEI).
India is one of the fastest growing outbound tourism markets and has grown despite a downturn globally (UNWTO).
Data alone, it looks like there is potential for mutual benefit in forging better cooperation between India and Australia. But there is also something that cannot easily be quantified, but is infinitely important. We should be outraged – OUTRAGED – for our country to have a racist image in any part of the world. It is imperative for Australia to address this, but not this alone.
To be serious about impactful engagement with India, our strategies need to be connected to our foreign policy generally, our involvement with Asia specifically, and connected to domestic initiatives.
Cooperating further with India should be part of an overall strategy of engaging with Asia, in fact, it should be part of an overall long-term foreign policy plan. This should be a bi-partisan plan that defines the growth of Australia’s cooperative partnerships strategically and outlines a conscious connection to forums we participate in and hold over the next 20-30years.
We need to work on regional institutions being comprehensive in their scope and membership. After many years of talking about a power-change from “West to East”, it would seem emerging and influential economic powerhouses in Asia are bringing the pendulum shift. This means a change in dynamic of global discussions is probably not far behind and, in the words of Paul Keating, “we will be looking at some concert of powers in the Pacific and Indian Oceans”. Australia should ensure that the voices of the countries in our region echo with the needs of the region, including our own, through a common comprehensive platform to outline those priorities.
To further access the growing tourist and student market, Australia should have a campaign specifically designed to attract visitors from India. This should be combined with an effort to attract longer-term visits from skilled employees. However, this initial effort needs to be more pro-active. Only 11% of India’s working-age population is educated at a tertiary level (World Bank India). To truly access benefits of the Indian labour market, we should be active contributors to the education of young people in India, invest in attracting these students to study in Australia, and therefore ensure our universities are of an internationally competitive quality.
We need to educate our country, and specifically our young people, on what it means to be truly multi-cultural. This is an excellent opportunity as we develop a national curriculum; how is Australia practically preparing our young people, through our educational institutions, for not just an increasingly multi-cultural country, but an increasingly culturally and linguistically dynamic world?
Australia’s partnerships in East Asia are a good example of how policy and action can lead to new partnerships the rest of the world is yet to consider. It is with this spirit, and in light of the potential, that Australia needs to act on building further ties with India.
To do this, we need to remake our image first. I will not forget the conversation I recounted earlier; being confronted with an image of racism in Australia I did not recognise. India will not forget the stories of their students; being confronted with racism they did not expect. And neither should we. We should not stand for it. We should nurture and promote the multi-cultural Australia we really are.
This is Australia’s time to build a powerful partnership with, and positive image within, India.
We should seek out partnership with current and future global leaders. We should not be observers, we should be architectures of tomorrow. To be on the sidelines is to stagnate, to lead is to be part of the future. Where do we want to belong?
You can read it at the address below, it’s called “Australia’s Positioning in the Asian Hemisphere with a Focus on India”.
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