Connection with India vital to Australia’s future

Australia would do better to shed light on Indian affairs. Media coverage of the country is dominated by corruption scandals, terrorism or cultural festivals like Diwali. EPA/Sanjeev Gupta

CHOGM As Julia Gillard chairs the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Perth, she would do well to pay special attention to her Indian colleague at the table, Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Brian Stoddart, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University explains.

Ever since the eruption of violence against Indian students in Melbourne the India-Australia relationship has been under the spotlight. It happens every decade, but this time we have to sit up and take notice.

Attitudes are changing. Education is at the head of the charge, hotly followed by business and the media.

The Australian government, for example, created the Australia India Institute now based at the University of Melbourne. Top think tank the Lowy Institute has initiated an annual Australia-India dialogue. Australian news and media organisations have staff on the ground in India, the Australia India Business Council now sees much more commercial activity than it did before.

But there remains a lingering concern that this might become just another light touch that will soon lose substance at a time when the rest of the world is taking India very much more seriously.

There has been massive Indian investment in Australian coalfields backing up earlier strong investments in Australia’s IT industry.

The iron ore-driven preoccupation with China was reshaped by the dawning awareness of the longer term potential of India, and therein lies a problem – the constant Australian political drive to focus on the immediate at the expense of investing in the future (a general line that Australia’s Vice-Chancellors have driven home about higher education, it might be noted).

Serious approaches

The recent India-USA education dialogue was spearheaded at Prime Minister and President level respectively.

There were over 300 official delegates, all working out how higher education linkages might best be developed to have a wider social and economic impact.

This was no love-in. Delegates on both sides were sceptical and/or critical about such contentious issues as India’s proposed foreign higher education providers bill that, among other things, mandates a US$11 million “start up” licence fee for foreign aspirants.

Last year a Canadian delegation visited India and included something like fourteen university Presidents, a clear indication of Canada’s commitment. N

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key earlier this year spent a full week in India, and worked on issues including higher education.

Low-level Australia

Julia Gillard’s engagement with Indian PM Manmohan Singh has been low-key. AFP/Barbara Walton