Let’s make friends with another billion people
Trucking magnate Lindsay Fox looks at India’s booming economy and population of 1.2 billion people and sees great potential to create jobs and prosperity for Australia.
“That’s a hell of a lot of tomatoes, bananas, cows, sheep or anything that we can produce in Australia,” he says enthusiastically. Yet apart from Fox and a handful of other business leaders, India has not seemed a top priority for Australia.
The focus has been on the other giant economy in the region - China - and a national obsession to strike deals and sell iron ore. And despite historical links and a shared passion for sport, particularly cricket, India has been in the too hard basket.
Political relations have been strained by two big issues - Labor’s refusal to sell uranium to India because the nuclear-armed nation has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a belief across the sub-continent that Indian students here were under siege from racist attacks.
This week Fox has been leading a trade delegation to coincide with a state visit by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. And the message from India’s political and business elite is those problems have been fixed and now deals can be made.
As India drags itself out of poverty, the rise of middle class and new disposable spending power will unleash opportunities in goods and services, particularly where the average age is a youthful 26 years.
As Fox puts it, there will be 100 million new people every year with money ready to buy things - five times Australia’s population. “We’re in the right spot at the right time and we’ve all got to be smart enough to capitalise on it,” he says.
Gillard will soon unveil a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century - a blueprint for the nation’s strategic and economic engagement with the region.
While there will rightly be a focus on relations with our biggest customer and superpower China, our vital neighbour Indonesia, tradional trading partners Japan and South Korea and closest ally the United States, India will be added to this group which Gillard says are the the six countries that “matter most to Australia”.
The bonds of history are no longer enough to keep Britain at the top any more. The future is the Asian Century.
While the PM’s stumble and fall when her shoe heel became stuck in wet grass might have grabbed the biggest headlines at home, her visit has been vital for Australia.
It’s a clear message that the relationship is not just about cricket, or as one Indian leader said, it has to move beyond “the 3Cs of commerce, curry and coal”.
Gillard gives Kevin Rudd credit for laying the groundwork in a visit to India in 2009 but his decision to maintain Labor’s ban on uranium sales was a roadblock.
Labor’s emotional national conference decision last year to remove the ban in a debate where Right-wing hardman Stephen Conroy cried and voted against the PM, has been the turning point.
Fox says there was “no question” the ban hurt relations. Gillard said it was an “obstacle” and that was why she forced the change.
Not a single ounce of yellow cake has been sold but ANZ boss Mike Smith, who is also part of the delegation, says there is already a “can do” spirit of goodwill.
Gillard insists Australia will negotiate nuclear safeguards and wants the International Atomic Energy Agency to have a watchdog role. But anti-nuclear groups accuse Gillard of trying to buy prosperity by putting the world at risk and say India has shot dead two protestors and safety standards are poor.
GILLARD’S trip has been a charm offensive that has included awarding Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar an Order of Australia medal.
Yet the PM was keen to show there’s more to Australia than the spin of Shane Warne or the singing and Bollywood acting of Brett Lee and she launched a four-month festival of Australian culture with 100 events in 18 Indian cities.
Gillard herself has become a celebrity of sorts in India. Her fall on her face was praised in sections of the Indian media for her ability to bounce back immediately while her speech in Parliament attacking Tony Abbott as sexist has be frequently raised with her.
As one Indian women told a youth forum: “Women like me are getting inspired by you…the way you spoke in the Parliament.”
But while Indians are the fastest growing group of new migrants settling in Australia, with the most number of skilled immigrants and second highest number of foreign students and Hindi Australia’s fastest growing language, formal links have been too weak until now.
And it shows how poor relations were that when the Indian media exaggerated the racist attacks on students, the Indian public were so willing to believe the worst of Australia. That’s in part our fault.
While Australia’s focus has been on communist China, it has seemed strange there has not been the same passion and determination until now about India, who like Australia is a democracy with similar institutions. Gillard also wants to beef up military ties and she was the one who pointed out that Australia currently has stronger defence ties with China than India.
Gillard’s trip has been successful but an Indian PM hasn’t visited Australia for 26 years. Gillard’s counterpart Manmohan Singh says he would love to come, but no dates are set. The 80-year-old pulled out of CHOGM in Perth 12 months ago.
A visit really would show a significant shift in relations.
A decade ago two-way trade was a rather limp $3 billion. It’s now $20 billion and the Government has the ambitious target of reaching $40 billion by 2015. That’s a hell of a lot of tomatoes and bananas.
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