“The government still has no coherent India strategy,”: Senator Lisa Singh

Tasmanian Senator Lisa Singh’s speech she gave in the Australian Senate on the  India Economic Strategy to 2035 on November 27, 2018, a report written by Mr Peter N Varghese AO.

Ms. Singh who has great passion about the Australia-India relationship, says the report brings both countries great opportunities and is of national significance, “Mr Varghese’s report charts a pragmatic, ambitious and confident course for Australia’s future engagement with India.  And Labor has announced support for its key recommendations, alongside additional complementary policies.”

Here is the excerpt of Ms. Lisa’s speech:

I rise to speak on an issue of national significance and of great importance: Australia’s engagement with India.

In April of last year, then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced with great enthusiasm that the former Secretary of DFAT and High Commissioner to India, and now University of Queensland Chancellor, Peter Varghese AO, would be commissioned to study and prepare an India Economic Strategy.

The opposition welcomed the idea and its chosen author. Indeed, Peter Varghese is highly respected among many in the Indian, economic and trade communities.

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

The Turnbull Government subsequently welcomed the report.  And Labor has announced our support for its key recommendations. But, the Government buried it.  Indeed, in my questioning at Senate Estimates, the Government admitted that it had been sitting on the report since April of this year.

On Friday of last week, some seven months later, and only after continuous pressure from Labor and a visit from India’s President, His Excellency Ram Nath Kovind, did the Morrison government endorse the Report and provide ”˜in principle’ support.

But we still have no substance from the Government. And they still have no coherent India strategy.

As many of my colleagues and stakeholders are aware, as a person of Indian origin, I am a long-time supporter of the Indian-Australian relationship. (Senator Lisa Singh was honoured with Overseas Indians Award in 2015)

The importance of Australia’s engagement with India cannot be overstated.   At present, it is manifestly underdeveloped.

If we don’t move quickly, Australia is at risk of losing out to other countries that have already recognised the myriad of opportunities India brings in the coming years.

Modern Australia and India share a common heritage. And, as His Excellency President Kovind said recently: ”˜a special bond’.

But, much like Australia has shed its colonial links, developed its own culture, autonomy, and may soon become a republic; India similarly bears no resemblance to what it did under the British Raj: it is an economic superpower in the making.

Indeed, as Mr Vargehese observed: India is changing, driven by the politics of aspiration.   As His Excellency, President Kovind fittingly declared last week: “we are running, and soon we will be galloping”.

In this regard, the numbers speak for themselves:

  • India is now the world’s fastest growing large economy
  • It is the third largest economy in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms; and largest democracy in the world.
  • By 2025, one-fifth of the world’s working age population will be Indian
  • And in the next ten years, India’s five largest cities will have economies comparable to that of middle-income countries today.

Within the business sector:

  • Sales and earnings growth among Indian companies are noticeably higher than their Australian counterparts
  • Over the past five years, India’s stock market has seen greater performance than the ASX
  • Inbound foreign direct investment has increased by 19 per cent each year over the past 20 years.
  • And India’s trade has increased from 13 per cent to 40 per cent of GDP.

And there is considerable room for to India to maintain its rapid economic ascent:

  • Its mean age is only 27
  • And 90 per cent of its workers are still engaged in the informal economy

Against that backdrop, the government is seeking to upskill 400 million of its citizens, moving them into the formal economy and expanding the country’s secondary and tertiary industries’ prowess.

As Mr Varghese observes in his Report: “there is no market over the next 20 years which offers more growth opportunities for Australian business than India.”

And Australia’s engagement in India has considerable room to grow. But as Jason Clare observed last Thursday when speaking at the AFR India Business Summit, to date Australia hasn’t been hungry enough.

  • He also rightly observed that Varghese’s report is potentially as important as the one Ross Garnaut produced for Bob Hawke’s government almost 30 years ago on North East Asia.

Our trade with India is comparable to our trade with New Zealand, a country not even 1/100th India’s size (a quarter of the population of Delhi, with an economy smaller than Tamil Nadu). But while 19,000 Australian companies export to New Zealand, only 2000 export to India.

Over the past decade, Australia’s exports to China have quadrupled. But our exports to India have remained stagnant, indeed dropping by a quarter between 2010 and 2016.

Indeed, the report makes the pragmatic estimate that the opportunity exists to expand our export market from $ 14.9 billion to as much as $ 45 billion over the coming decades, and for our investment in India to rise tenfold.

The report emphasises that our economies are complementary: as India continues to advance towards becoming the world’s most populous nation””its third largest economy””it will need more of what Australia can””and has””developed a competitive advantage in providing.

In this respect, the report identifies ten core sectors in particular””education, agribusiness, resources, tourism, tourism, energy, health, financial services, infrastructure, sport, science, and innovation””where Australia is well positioned to succeed.

And beyond complementarity, the potential that India presents to improve our economic security cannot be overstated.

In a time of increasing uncertainty in the international trading system, we need to take steps to add balance and reduce our international trade risk.

But developing a deep, sustainable economic relationship capable of producing increasing and long-term benefit for both states will not happen if left to market forces alone.   Government support is required, and the current government is nowhere to be seen.

By contrast, Labor has committed to supporting the report’s 10 key recommendations and more. This includes:

  • holding Annual Australia Week in India trade missions, following Varghese’s Indian Economic Strategy;
  • working with the Indian Government to establish a reciprocal internship program, to allow recent Australian graduates to help build the Asian business capability of young Australian professionals; and,
  • Implementing a FutureAsia strategy, to immerse ourselves further into the Indo-Pacific region and make Australia””and the region””more secure.

Labor’s commitments will address not just the report’s economic strategy, but also geopolitical congruence and people-to-people ties, which the report stresses, must also improve to achieve success.

Australia’s Indian diaspora now numbers 700,000 strong””tripling over the past decade.   1 in 50 Australians were born in India, more than any other OECD country per capita.

In my time as a Senator of Indian origin, I have engaged actively with the diaspora (ad-lib).

  • And, as an advisory board member of O. P. Jindal Global University, whose Centre for India”“Australia Studies was the first to focus on this important bilateral relationship, I have developed a keen awareness of the value that an engaged diaspora can deliver.

Indeed, as the report emphasises, the diaspora might be our most significant asset of all: “they can go into the nooks and crannies of a relationship where governments cannot”¦they can shape perceptions in a way governments cannot”¦[and] they can create links”¦which can help anchor the relationship.”

For Australia, this will be an obvious spur to stronger, more vibrant bilateral ties and economic cooperation.

The report sets an ambitious goal of lifting India into Australia’s top three export markets; ”˜the third largest destination in Asia for Australian outward investment’.

We want 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.

Successfully executing this will require real leadership. 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.

That is why we need a Shorten Labor government. We are ready to act and act decisively.

This is an opportunity that Australia cannot afford to lose.



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