Australian High Commissioner says he is “impressed” with PM Modi’s reform agenda

Barry O’Farrell, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, says he is “impressed” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reform agenda.

He said this in an interview session organised by the Indian Express.

The session was moderated by Associate Editor and Deputy Chief of National Bureau Shubhajit Roy.

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Here are some of the key questions that they asked the Australian High Commissioner.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: Was China the glue that brought the Quad nations close?

Barry O’Farrell: I think the Quad was developed very nicely before China decided to change the way in which it interacted publicly with the world, and bilaterally with a number of nations. It is not that long ago that we had our foreign ministers’ meeting at the United Nations, and we have now had our first Quad meeting… It predates China’s changing posture. Power and wealth is shifting from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean continues to be responsible for half of global trade, and it is important to each of the players in the Quad. China’s change of attitude in recent times probably has, to some extent, created an extra incentive, but I think the glue was there before.”

ANIL SASI: The negotiations between India and Australia on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) have been underway since 2011. Will there now be an attempt to revive it perhaps through more strategic tools or even the Quad?

Barry O’Farrell: Yes, our two countries tried to negotiate what is colloquially called a free trade agreement. We got well down the path and then it stalled. We are now in 2021. The good news is that both our prime ministers, on June 4 last year, agreed to reengage on CECA. That essentially means in the language of politics that we are about to have another go at it. That reflects the commitment from both sides to try and improve the trade and economic relationship between both countries, because we understand that it is commerce, investment, business that underpins both our economies and determines the living standards of our citizens. A key part of the comprehensive strategic partnership was to promote trade investment between our countries and see opportunities in India, opportunities that have been opened up by reforms undertaken over the past 12 months, particularly around foreign direct investment… If India wants to have the world’s largest electric vehicle industry, if India wants to have a large battery industry, Australia has the critical minerals that it needs to develop those industries. And the good news is that some of those are already owned by Indian investors. The car world is looking for other opportunities to invest in similar sources of those minerals around the world, but equally in Australia.”

SUNNY VERMA: The Indian government has been raising tariffs on a lot of items in line with the ‘vocal for local’ and self-reliant India campaigns to promote domestic manufacturing. What has been the position of Australian companies on this?

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Barry O’Farrell: Of course, industries that are affected by changes in tariffs or non-tariff barriers will always raise those concerns with their government. But, over the past four months, I’ve been impressed by Prime Minister Modi’s reform agenda… From time to time, there will be, even amongst the closest of friends, the odd difference of opinion, and through the World Trade Organisation and other vehicles we peacefully, harmoniously, have to resolve that matters. I don’t think any nation is without issues that sometimes irk other countries. But I have to say, I’ve witnessed since I’ve been here over the past 13 months now, a closeness in the relationship with Australia. I have been coming here for 10 years, I have been a critic of the lack of consistency of the Australian government in their dealings with India. And at the risk of perhaps exciting some interest back home by this comment, I say, genuinely, that in Prime Minister (Scott) Morrison, in foreign minister (Marise Ann) Payne, and in our commerce minister, we have three individuals who have shown a constancy to this relationship. And I believe in any relationship, private, business or government, constancy is a key.”

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: Not many people know that Australia helped Punjab develop the happy seeder, which is a zero-tillage machine. Are we looking forward to more such initiatives?

Barry O’Farrell: I hadn’t heard of the happy seeder until six months before I came to India. When it was first mentioned to me by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, which has been cooperating here in India for over 25 years, I immediately thought they were talking about Lebanese cedar trees… What the happy seeder does is to do away with the need to remove stubble. It harvests and replants in the same movement. Having been to Punjab a few months ago and having seen it in operation and been told about the way in which it is slowly but surely moving across agriculture in India, I’m pleased by that. We know that change is hard in any organisation. And it’s hardest of all, I suspect, in agriculture in India and Australia. But hopefully, there’s some progress… I think what it reflects is that mining a relationship is often not just about the import of products to India but also about the provision of technology, services and expertise to assist India to develop its markets. In agriculture, we’ve been working together on research projects like the happy seeder. I think one of the lessons out of the past four months, and this has been reinforced to me by technology experts, investors and governments, is that two of the hot areas where I think we are going to see this (collaboration) happening is education and telehealth… or the remote to use of technology for people who… may not be close to a hospital, or a clinic.”

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Do India and Australia know each other any better beyond the three cliches of cricket, Commonwealth and curry? You have come up with the four Ds, which are dosti (friendship), defence, diaspora and democracy….

Barry O’Farrell: I think we have advanced because the size of the diaspora is now significant. One in 35 Australians are of Indian origin, either born in Australia or have a parent or grandparent who was born in India… Indians in Australia join us and participate in local communities and sports and the like. So that is people-to-people. Then at a business-to-business level, just as most US technology companies are run by people of Indian origin, we have similar experience in Australia. I think that has helped to open up the eyes of many in business in Australia to the opportunities that exist in this country. So yes, it (the relation) has progressed….The thing that frustrates me is the media. Firstly, because of the economics of the media, there is only one Australian news representative in India. That means, therefore, when I read Australian newspapers… I am more likely to read articles… that have come from the The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post written by, in many cases, people of Indian origin or citizens living in America or Britain… If Australian newspapers and media organisations can’t afford to have their own representatives in India, I’d like them to take copies from.”