OUR TIES WITH INDIA ARE TOO IMPORTANT TO BE LEFT TO CHANCE - Opinion Piece, Hobart Mercury, Wednesday 4 December 2018

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who could deny the importance of economic ties with India in future years.

That is why I welcomed, in September 2016, the Hodgman Government embarking on a trade mission to India. The Department of State Growth said Tasmania was "well placed to serve several key niche markets in the Indian economy". Upon returning, the Premier said he was "confident that in future years we will look back on this inaugural trade mission . as pivotal to increasing trade".

But at first glance of what the Hodgman Government has achieved, little evidence of any increase can be found.

Our trade to India has barely budged; for the best part of this decade it has declined. Indeed, in 2012-2013 Tasmania's trade with India was $254 million, while in 2016-2017 it was $122 million. Over the same time, exports to China ballooned.

Against that backdrop, it is clear the Government's India strategy has gone nowhere.

But the Premier isn't alone.

In April last year, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, enthusiastically announced that the former secretary of DFAT, High Commissioner to India and now University of Queensland Chancellor Peter Varghese AO, would be commissioned to study and prepare an India Economic Strategy to 2035.

The Varghese Report was released publicly in July this year. At 514 pages, the Report charts a pragmatic, ambitious and confident course for Australia's engagement with India. It represents a truly exceptional body of research.

While Labor announced our support for the report's key recommendations, it took a recent visit from India's President, His Excellency Ram Nath Kovind, for the Government to announce in principle support – after having sat on it since April.

The importance of Australia's – and Tasmania's – engagement with India cannot be overstated. It is manifestly underdeveloped. If we don't move quickly, Australia is at risk of losing to other countries that have already recognised the myriad opportunities India brings.

I am a long-time supporter of the Indian-Australian relationship, and as someone with Indian heritage I engage actively with the Indian diaspora. Indeed, modern Australia and India share a common heritage. But our bonds need to go beyond the three c's of cricket, curry and the Commonwealth.

Mr Varghese rightly observes that India is changing, driven by the politics of aspiration.

India is the world's fastest growing large economy. Sales and earnings growth among Indian companies are noticeably higher than their Australian counterparts. The mean age of its population is only 27. According to Mr Varghese, "there is no market over the next 20 years which offers more growth opportunities for Australian business than India".

Tasmania needs to be part of that economic story. Our businesses can play a significant part in the opportunity India offers. Yet our trade with India is comparable to our trade with New Zealand. But while 19,000 Australian companies export to New Zealand, only 2000 export to India and few are Tasmanian.

But developing a deep economic relationship capable of producing increasing and long-term benefit for both countries will not happen if left to market forces.

Government support is required, and current governments, state and federal, are nowhere to be seen.

By contrast, Labor has committed to supporting Mr Varghese's report and its 10 key recommendations. We will address not just the report's economic strategy, but also the geopolitical and people-to-people ties, which it stresses must also improve to achieve success.

Australia's Indian diaspora now numbers near 700,000 tripling over the past decade.

According to State Growth, students from India are Tasmania's second largest source of international enrolments and growing. This will be an obvious spur to stronger, more vibrant bilateral ties and economic cooperation.

We need to create a meaningful relationship that can improve social utility and mobility, creates jobs, is sustainable, and fosters opportunities for people in both countries - and indeed the region - to live fulfilling lives.

But as Mr Varghese said: "taking the relationship with India to the level it deserves is a long haul journey. It will take leadership, time, effort and consistent focus."

This is an opportunity that Australia cannot afford to lose and Tasmania needs to be part of it.

This opinion piece was first published in the Hobart Mercury on Wednesday 5 December 2018.