I’m so pleased to be here this evening and I begin by acknowledging a number of special guests; Premier Mike Baird; Your Excellency, Biren Nanda, High Commissioner of India; Mr Dipen Rughani, AIBC National Chair; John Cox, AIBC NSW Chapter President; Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells; Victor Dominello and a number of my state parliamentary colleagues; Peter Varghese, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the former High Commissioner for Australia to India; and I’ve also seen so many of my friends here from the launch of the Liberal Friends of India that we did in the New South Wales Parliament, Nihal Gupta is here with the team from April 2013; and friends of Australia and friends of India.
I acknowledge the presence also of Mrs Margie Abbott – as she can tell you but I will confirm – the Prime Minister isn’t here tonight but he has asked me to convey his apologies that he couldn’t be here. He is still in Melbourne after the National Day of Mourning for those aboard Malaysia Airlines flight 17 that was shot down three weeks ago tonight. All 298 passengers and crew were killed, and as a nation we grieve the loss of 38 men, women and children who called Australia home. It is a sad time indeed and in normal circumstances the Prime Minister would have been here but these are not normal circumstances. But through this tragic event, I think Australians can be reassured that at times like this, our country is prepared to take the lead - and in this case on many fronts - and we have done what few other countries could or would have done in the extraordinary circumstances in which we found ourselves. Our nation is at its very best when we are looking out for our own.
Tonight I want to pay tribute to the Australia-India Business Council for its 27 years of deep commitment to fostering the relationship between our two nations. One of the common refrains about the bilateral relationship is that it is one of great potential but never quite realised. But I believe that the relationship now has a momentum that is unstoppable – two new governments, both committed to economic reform, both nations declaring proudly that they are open for business.
Our Prime Minister was one of the first world leaders to contact new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, inviting him to Australia for the G20 Leaders’ Summit and a bilateral visit. But you might not know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, headed so ably by Peter Varghese, had a vision some time ago and in 2002, Mr Modi was invited to Australia under our Special Visitors Program as a potential leader – one to watch.
So we’re going to see our two action men, our two action Prime Ministers together on the world stage very shortly. They both have ambitious infrastructure agendas and with so much in common between our two leaders, we recognise the opportunity to broaden and deepen what is a strong relationship but could be far stronger. A surging Indian economy, Australia as a provider of resources and energy and the services that a dynamic India will require, we are natural partners.
We have clearly signalled the desire to take this relationship to a new and higher level. I was pleased to host former Foreign Minister Khurshid for the annual Foreign Ministers’ Framework Dialogue in my home city of Perth last October, shortly after we came into government. And one of my first international visits as Foreign Minister was to Mumbai and New Delhi, where I witnessed first-hand the vibrancy of the Indian economy and the potential it offers for Australian business.
Indeed on my early morning run around Mumbai – the beautiful beachfront, the String of Pearls – I was struck by how many people were out on the streets, so early. What an incredible city, such enthusiastic early risers. They were in the streets, drumming, dancing, cheering – until I worked out that it was Sachin Tendulkar’s final test match and it seems everyone in Mumbai was out in the city, from about 4am, keen to catch a glimpse however, wherever, of the great man. If I ever had any doubts about cricket being a national religion, such doubts were erased that very first morning in Mumbai.
While Australia has traditionally defined our place in the world, as the Asia Pacific, this Government now looks west to encompass India as a crucial part of our region. And that’s why I was so keen to contact the new Foreign Minister Mrs Sushma Swaraj shortly after her appointment in May. I had a warm and productive conversation with the new Indian Foreign Minister and in fact I’ll be meeting her for the first time this weekend at the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit in Myanmar and I’m visiting India again later in the year when Minister Swaraj hosts our next Foreign Ministers’ Framework Dialogue. So these high-level contacts and visits just underscores that we recognise that India is not only our neighbour, a major trading partner, a key strategic ally but a friend. We share important values; democracy, freedom. And our economic, trade, strategic and foreign policy is now focused very much on India. Hence our embrace of the Indo-Pacific; not just a geographic location, but a state of mind.
As your National Chairman, Mr Rhugani observed, the Australia-India relationship will be central to the future of both nations in the broader Indian Ocean Asia Pacific region and the global economy.
Australia and India already have a solid base of trust and mutual respect from which we can take this relationship to greater heights. We already work together in the G20, the East Asia Summit and we are the troika along with Indonesia of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. We are negotiating a closer Economic Partnership Agreement. We hope to conclude a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement to supply Australian uranium for India’s energy needs. We have closer defence and military co-operation.
Nearly half a million Australians are of Indian origin and some 10,000 Australians call India home. India is our largest source of skilled migrants. Punjabi is the fastest growing language in Australia. Hinduism is the fastest growing religion. Earlier this year, Australia had welcomed almost 175,000 Indian tourists to our shores, while some 180,000 Australians each year realise that dream to see the Taj Mahal. Indian soldiers lie in graves side-by-side with Australians at Gallipoli, in the Middle East, in France and in Papua New Guinea, our histories are so deeply entwined.
And we also welcome Indian students to our shores. India is the second largest source of overseas students in Australia and with the Abbott Government’s signature initiative, the New Colombo Plan we will share even greater knowledge and build a better understanding of each other’s cultures. Just as the original Colombo Plan in the 1950’s and the 1960’s brought students to Australia, so our New Colombo Plan will send Australians students to our region. And India has agreed to be a destination country for our young Australian undergraduates under the New Colombo Plan from 2015. This will see our young students offered an opportunity to live, study, work and learn in India and other countries in our region.
For Australia understands the value of international education. It can transform individual lives, but we also recognise that our foreign policy imperatives will find expression in this initiative, the New Colombo Plan, because we want to see generations of young Australians engage with India. Live, study and work in India and come home with new perspectives, new ideas and insights, with friendships and networks that will last a lifetime. I cannot think of a better way to invest taxpayer’s money than investing in the young people of our respective nations. And it will be through these types of exchanges that our relationship will strengthen and endure.
Sure, we have a healthy trade relationship – two-way trade was valued at more than $15 billion last year – but we can do better than that. At the end of last year, Indian investment in Australia was about $11 billion but this Government is determined to make it easier for India to investors to invest in this country.
Just last week the Australian Government approved Indian utility Adani’s development of the Carmichael coal deposit in central Queensland. This is a project is planned as a 60 million tonne a year mine, which will rank it as one of the largest in the world. Other companies including GVK Hancock, Jindal Steel, Bhushan Steel and Mahindra Aerospace have already discovered the benefits of investing in Australia. And there are good opportunities for further investment in resources, energy, research and technology.
It’s not all one way. Australia invests in India — with resource and infrastructure projects of around $10 billion. Australian companies are very keen to partner with Indian companies to take advantage of their local knowledge and reputation, to forge markets in India. BlueScope—a name synonymous with the genesis of steelmaking in Australia—is partnering with Tata Steel in what has been called a union of equals. BlueScope’s experience is that India is a market that demands commitment, robust plans, and a long-term perspective, but great rewards await those willing to make the effort.
Australia is also helping to address India’s need for food security through Australian expertise in areas such as fodder management and cool chain logistics. And we are a reliable, stable and long-term resource supplier to the world’s fourth largest consumer of energy.
But we also look for innovative ways to help businesses function in areas of India that are fledgling markets. Austrade’s India team saw the opportunity to work with Indian authorities to stem the economic and social impact of traffic accidents. There are some 500,000 road traffic injuries and 150,000 lives lost in India each year. The human tragedy is incalculable but the economic cost is about $50 billion annually or over 3 per cent of India’s GDP. So we found a solution – an innovative way of helping to prevent this level of traffic accidents. One that of course presents a commercial advantage for the companies transporting goods but it was also about Australia helping our friend and neighbour find a solution to what was a national problem.
Now, given the presence of the great Brett Lee, I cannot go wrong tonight if I conclude on the topic of cricket. It’s obvious that everybody is excited here in Australia about next year’s Cricket World Cup. The Australian Government is determined to use this opportunity to build our relationships with participating countries—across trade, investment, education and tourism. Austrade will partner with state and territory governments to host business delegations during the tournament to help Australian companies make the highest-level connections. When India plays Pakistan next February in Adelaide, I reckon it’s going to be the most watched cricket match in history. This, and India’s games in Melbourne and Perth, will form the basis of business forums and networking opportunities between Australian and Indian companies—particularly those in the resources, infrastructure, agribusiness and ICT sectors. And I encourage the Australia-India Business Council to play an active role in this unique opportunity, as I’m sure you will.
Australia and India are most certainly ‘Partners in Business’ but natural partners across the board. The Coalition Government is seeking to elevate Australia to the status of India’s “best partner in business”. It has been 28 years since an Indian Prime Minister visited Australia. This year – 2014 – we expect bilateral visits by both Prime Ministers. And Prime Minister Abbott is already planning another visit in early 2015 and so is our Trade and Investment Minister, Andrew Robb, with a much larger trade delegation. So, log onto the Austrade website and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and register.
The Australian Government is determined to encourage more Indian investment in Australia and I know the Indian Government is likewise. With both governments about lower taxes and less red tape and freer trade, so the potential can and will be realised. Australia and India are under new management. They are both open for business. We want to do more business with each other. So I feel very confident to say that the very best days of the Australia-India relationship lie ahead.
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