Barry O’Farrell: CECA will help deepen bilateral trade between India and Australia

Australian High Commissioner, Barry O’ Farrell in an exclusive interview with TIDU reporter in Delhi, Ritu Ghai

On a nippy winter afternoon of Dec 22nd, 2021, at a pre-fixed time, I walk into the premises of Australian High Commissioner’s residence in Delhi, to interview him and reflect on the year gone by.

As I wait for him in the living room facing a sprawling garden where resident peacocks move freely, I sweep my gaze across the bungalow surrounded by lush greenery all around. The sheer curtains allow mellow light to filter in the room. The décor speaks volumes about the impeccable taste and friendly ambience. I sit there sipping coffee and truly enjoying the luxury.

A few minutes later, Mr Barry O’ Farrell walks in, immaculately and comfortably dressed with a smile on his face.  After a brief introduction, he immediately starts talking about the many landmarks in Australia-India relations and how past milestones have skyrocketed.

We have a Positive agenda in future, i.e. shaping a free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific region. A rules-based order and a system where people know the boundaries, limits and how to abide by them. Last year, four like-minded democracies – India, USA, Australia and Japan – came together at the Quad summits to share a commitment on issues like cyber security, climate change, maritime security, and health cooperation particularly during the pandemic. These issues have helped bring India and Australia closer and equally helped focus the Quad on important issues in the region. The Quad also discussed Afghanistan for the first time and commits to deepen counter terrorism and humanitarian cooperation in the coming months”, says High Commissioner O’Farrell.  He also talked about several important Australia-India initiatives such as the Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership (AIIPOIP). “This initiative helps shape maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to support an open, inclusive, resilient, prosperous and rules-based maritime order. We have been growing engagement in the defence areas between India and Australia with joint exercises such as AUSINDEX and Exercise Pitch Black, as well as the Malabar naval exercise, one of the cornerstones of the Quad. These exercises are trying to ensure freedom of navigation for all nations and cooperation in the field of vaccines, infrastructure, semiconductor supply chain, cyber security, satellite data and more.  It’s all about supporting each other. Forces that were reverent pre-pandemic have been amplified post pandemic. Australia looks forward to India joining its largest military exercise on land – the ‘Exercise Talisman Sabre’ in 2023”, points out Mr Barry O’ Farrell.

On CECA, he talked about the face-to-face meeting in Delhi between Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Dan Tehan and his Indian counterpart Minister Piyush Goyal.  “Both the Ministers are committed to conclude the negotiations on CECA agreement soon in order to liberalise & deepen bilateral trade. This is good news as it reflects the commitment between both countries to try and improve the trade and economic relationship, because we understand that it is commerce, investment, business that underpins both our economies. Australia has the inputs that India needs to deliver its ‘Make in India’ policy. Right from pharmaceuticals to critical metals, metallic coal needed to build steel, provision of mining for extracting mineral in hard-to-find places to merino lamb sheep and improving flock. Here, I would like to point out about a designer in Melbourne who helped Varanasi silk weavers during covid times.  Great things have been happening and I am truly impressed by the striving vision Prime Minister Modi has for India”, saysthe High Commissioner.  

Australia is blessed by many critical minerals that India needs for its electric technology industry i.e the 2, 3 and 4 wheelers that are growing at a fast rate. “It is estimated that 5 kg of rare earth is used in every electrical vehicle, so if this industry takes off in India, Australia will get a massive market. We are talking to companies who will be using rare earth. And the good news is that already there are companies, owned by Indian investors, in talks with Australian rare earth mineral companies”, he shares.

Here, Mr O’Farrell does admit that close economic cooperation is always hard because trading investment might be easy but when it comes to reducing tariffs and removing barriers on products, every country has issues. “Talking from 20 years in politics, I agree that things don’t always go straight or smoothly. The key is to keep showing progress. No trade agreement takes place overnight”.

He sees a trend of sorts in Agricultural Initiatives being launched. “From time to time people have been talking about the politics of India’s agricultural sector. But every country faces same issues in this sensitive area. France had issues, Britain had but it did not stop Britain and Australia from signing a free trade agreement. In agriculture, we’ve been working together on research projects like the happy seeder machine developed by the PAU in collaboration with Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), for in-situ management of paddy stubble. The challenge is to commercialize it and also whenever a machine or mechanism is introduced- you have to be careful about its impact on employment”, he reflects while talking about Rubicon, a Victorian company which is helping to renovate, renew canals in a Southern state by bringing the knowledge and experience they have in irrigation areas of Australia, to India. “And they are doing it with an Indian partner. Which is a good way of working as it is easier to understand the working structure, eco system, the business climate of that country. Like the joint venture between Tata Steel and Australian major BlueScope Steel to foray into the business of zinc and aluminium metallic coated steel, painted steel and roll formed steel products in India and South East Asia”, says Barry O Farrell.

Talking about China he is quick to tell, “Both India and Indians knew that China was our number one trading partner and when we looked for other markets, owing to the threat China posed and excluded few countries from our 5 G network, it surprised many nations. This made India realize that Australia makes decisions on national interest and not always looks at the commercial interest alone. As a trading nation, we don’t pick fights with anybody. We provide a service but we would like to see a resolution of issues that China has put”, says the Australian High Commissioner while agreeing that all countries have looked for other trusted markets.  “We all had reliable supply chains and disruptions to products that we took for granted during good times”.

Uranium sales to India has a long history but the successive Government in Australia decided not to sell uranium to India. “The basic issue is that there are no obstacles except one that while we were deciding to sell or not to sell Uranium, Canada signed up long term contracts. That’s the consequences of a democratic government. We missed the commercial opportunity. We look forward to a future opportunity at a time when India announces to expand its nuclear electricity generation system”, he says while highlighting the consequences of the democratic style of Government, “While the Governments were incoming and outgoing, we missed the commercial opportunity”.

In India he has witnessed incredible progress. “When I first came to India, Mr Adani was running a sports company. In Australia he has been known for the first coal base. And when I come to India again, around 22 months ago, he is one of the largest investors in renewable energy. This is a company that continues to move in new areas. At an Expo Trade in New South Wales, I sat next to Mr Mukesh Ambani. When I came to India, I realized how big JIO is and the entire telecommunication business. This is a country where economic opportunities are growing in the upward direction. Modi has an ambition to have the world’s largest electric vehicles industry, petro storage. What impressed me most about India is that the Government, particularly in the renewable sector, is leading in terms of its ambition. And the private sector – The Ambanis, The Adanis – are following as quickly”, he explains. “So the main focus is to find a good partner. Australia does not need a big part in the Indian market to have significant returns. There are more 9-years-old in India than the population of Australia”.

Truly enjoying his stay in India, he happily states, “I love the diversity around the people and places in India. There has been no truer advertising slogan than the Incredible India campaign. I would love to explore this country, travel to the Rajasthan Forts and the reserves in Maharashtra and Gujrat. I plan to visit Jim Corbett, places in North East and the Andaman Islands. I love to see elephants in family groups. It’s the greatest honour to represent Australia in India”.

He loves Indian food, particularly Bhel Puri. “The tangy tamarind sauce is amazing. I love spice although my wife does not. We have different spice temperatures’, he laughs. “Also the butter chicken. In fact my sons, who have yet to visit India, asked me whether there is butter chicken available. There is so much variety of food in India. Infact whenever I am asked about my food preference, I willingly admit being a vegetarian so that I can taste the different dishes”, he laughs.

Impressed by how the Sikh community kept looking after their fellow citizens at Gurudwaras, he talks about them carrying this spirit to Australia.

Assuring that the borders shall open for students and Immigrants, he tells, “It won’t be long that completely vaccinated Indian students are back to where they were in Australia. We have welcomed India’s new National Education Policy that offers twin degrees. Opportunities for think tanks and universities to work together is huge. Both India and Australia have prioritized health of their citizens during Covid and during this pandemic, 80% of the Indian students, in Australia at that time, stayed back in Australia. They were welcome, felt safe and looked after. Australia is keen to rekindle its tourism industry as Qantas starts its services. Students and skilled workers will soon be flying to Australia.  I can’t say anything about the impact of Omicron but it may only cause a momentary pause”, he concludes.

Australia and India are ready to enter new turfs with a prosperous investment climate in the air and niche opportunities for both countries to develop strong strategic partnership where constancy is the key and better opportunities in future.

Short URL: