AUSTRALIA-INDIA RELATIONS AT A TURNING POINT - Keynote Address to the Eighth Australia India Youth Dialogue, Sydney, Saturday, 23 February 2019

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I am very pleased to be here with you tonight to celebrate the eighth Australia India Youth Dialogue with such an impressive group of leaders across a range of fields including business, academia, the arts, politics and the community sector.

It is so heartening to meet young people like yourselves, who are dedicated to building a positive and productive relationship between our two nations.

I hope this past week has given you a better understanding of the ways in which that relationship can be developed, and, perhaps even more significantly, to establish a network of like-minded individuals who will be your allies in the pursuit of that goal.

I was first introduced to the Australia India Youth Dialogue in its early years, when I had the pleasure of meeting with the Dialogue’s founding Chair, Ruchir Punjabi, who as a 22-year old started a digital marketing agency from his living room while studying computer science at the University of Sydney. His venture is now a thriving global business across five countries, including India and Australia.

I was as impressed then as I am now by the Dialogue’s capacity to foster connections spanning the width of the Indian Ocean, which will endure long after the event itself has concluded.

That capacity has only grown.

Over the last nine years, the Dialogue has brought together over 150 of our two nations’ emerging leaders in a strong, diverse community.

Past alumni include my federal parliamentary colleagues Tim Watts and Matt Keogh, as well as the Hon Rebecca White, leader of the Opposition in Tasmania.

The AIYD and its alumni have been key to helping strengthen ties between our two countries.

An India Economic Strategy to 2035

Australia’s ties with India go back a long way.

We share a history. Including on the battlefields of World War 1.

But a great deal has changed over the past 100 years. We have each developed our own independence and cultural diversity.

Today, Australia is no longer an outpost of the Empire. Nor is India.

Today Australia does not find itself at the antipodes but in the heart of the Indo-Pacific with more Indian residents than any other OECD nation.

And India is an economic superpower in the making, the fastest growing major economy in the world.

Our relationship is therefore at a turning point.

What we now need is a map that leads us to a stronger economic partnership.

In July last year, Peter Varghese AO, former Australian High Commissioner to India and former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, delivered his India Economic Strategy to 2035 to the Australian Government.

His Strategy charts an ambitious and confident course for Australia’s future engagement with India; it sets the target of India becoming one of Australia’s top-three export markets by 2035.

To achieve this goal, Mr Varghese focuses on three pillars: economic relations, geopolitical convergence and people-to-people links.


India is the fastest growing major economy in the world.

And, as such, Mr Varghese rightly focuses the heart of his Report on economic strategy.

However, he cautions that such a strategy works best within a much broader and deeper relationship with India.

Achieving geopolitical congruence is key to achieving this outcome.

However, Mr Varghese considers that our people-to-people links, ‘may over time prove to be the most significant asset of all.’

India’s median age is only 27—a tech-savvy generation who make up much of India’s 500-million internet users. These are millennials with a thirst for knowledge that India cannot satisfy on its own, which is why Mr Varghese considers education to be Australia’s “flagship sector”.

As young leaders, all of you here tonight have a pivotal role to play in shaping this generation of internationally-aware young Indians’ perceptions of Australia and our bilateral relationship.

This is because, as Mr Varghese observes, you can go where governments simply cannot, ‘…into the nooks and crannies of a relationship…[to] shape perceptions …[and] create links…which can help anchor the relationship.’

This is at the heart of the AIYD –young leaders from India and Australia, working together to be the voice that steers the relationship towards greater convergence and prosperity.

India and the Australian Labor Party

To safeguard the ongoing prosperity and security of our region we need to forge stronger bonds.

If we don’t move quickly, we risk losing out to other countries that have already recognised the myriad of economic opportunities available in the decades ahead.

As Mr Varghese notes, ‘India is changing, driven by the politics of aspiration, and a reform agenda which recognises the structural barriers to the ease of doing business.’

That is why Labor has committed to supporting Mr Varghese’s top recommendations.

These include initiatives such as:

  • Holding Annual trade missions to India;

  • Setting up a ‘study in Australia’ education hub in New Delhi;

  • Working with the Indian Government to establish a reciprocal internship program, allowing recent graduates to help build the business capability of young professionals;

  • Supporting India’s inclusion into APEC;

  • And, we also think India should become a permanent member of a reformed UN Security Council.

However, to quote Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment Jason Clare, we need you to be, ‘a living bridge between our two countries.’

We need you to deepen our engagement with Australia’s Indian diaspora.

The Indian Diaspora in Australia

Today, the Indian diaspora in Australia is over 700,000 strong. One in 50 Australians were born in India, while the number of Australian-Indians has tripled over the last decade.

In the strategy, Mr Varghese observes that the diaspora is a culturally diverse one, made up of many different groups and associations based on Indian ethnic and religious differences.

But while the diaspora has boomed in recent years, the same thing hasn’t happened with trade.

For example, today our two-way trade with India, a country of 1.3 billion people, is almost equal to our trade with New Zealand – a country of 5 million.

Whereas about 19,000 Australian companies currently export to New Zealand, only about 2000 export to India.

In fact, from 2010 and 2016 the value of our exports to India dropped by almost a quarter.

So we need to urgently forge bonds enabling us to respond to new opportunities.

India’s potential and the potential Australia’s relationship with India is undeniable.

It is clear that our diasporas have the potential to be a driving force in bringing us closer by mobilising entrepreneurs, increasing investor confidence, promoting cross-cultural dialogue and co-operative scholarship, engaging civil society, and developing a positive feedback loop at the governmental level.

There is a real opportunity to tap Australia’s India diaspora by recognising them, as Mr Varghese suggests, as a, ‘network which can open doors, help navigate Indian business culture, enhance the community’s understanding of contemporary India and contribute to Australia’s public diplomacy in India.’

However, while Mr Varghese notes that the diaspora is clearly on the political radar, it remains politically inactive.

Considerable progress must be made before its standing is comparable to Indian diasporas in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Singapore.

The AIYD is perfectly positioned to play a leading role in this process. As your strategy makes clear, your alumni includes prominent leaders in commerce, technology, politics and the media, leaders who are followed attentively by the public online.

In 2011, I became the first person of Indian origin elected to Australia’s federal parliament.

During my time in politics I have had the privilege of engaging in dialogue between our two nations that has strengthened our people-to-people ties.

Most recently I visited the offices of well-known and respected Indian company Tata Consulting Services in North Sydney, to learn about their STEM Go.IT Education program, which promotes gender diversity among Australian students. This is a fantastic example of what we can build upon by implementing Mr Varghese’s India Economic Strategy to 2035, further building our people-to-people ties in the decades ahead.

It is human interactions, relationships between people, that form the foundation of every diplomatic and economic link. Relationships which enable nations to work together in the pursuit of shared goals and interests.

Young leaders like yourselves will be at the forefront of this discussion and cooperation and dialogue in the coming years – indeed, many of you already are.

Forums like this one provide you with a unique opportunity to develop the relationships essential to your success, both in your own fields and in the creation of a peaceful and productive international society.

I hope you will go away from this weekend feeling empowered to build on the connections you have made, and to work together to forge strong and meaningful ties between India and Australia in the years ahead.