House debates

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Ministerial Statements


3:37 pm

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I wish to update the House on the Australia-India relationship.


India, the world’s largest democracy, has emerged in recent years as a significant global power, both politically and economically. India is also expanding its strategic reach and capabilities, and is playing an increasingly important role in the security of our region.

  • By 2030, India is projected to overtake China as the country with the world’s largest population.
  • Some forecast India will be the world’s third largest economy by 2025.

Recognising the implications of India’s rise for Australia’s national interests, over the last two years the Australian government has moved towards placing India firmly in the front rank of Australia’s international partnerships. Making India such a policy priority in Australia’s foreign relations was very long overdue. And that is not just because of India’s rise, but because of the strong convergence of interests and values that we share: trade and investment, strategic and security, people-to-people links. We are natural partners.

As the Prime Minister’s visit to India in November last year illustrated, we are building a comprehensive, enduring strategic partnership between Australia and India. Yet for decades the Australia-India relationship did not receive the consistent focus and attention it deserved. In 2008 I compared Australia’s earlier approaches to India to a Twenty20 cricket match: short bursts of enthusiasm followed by lengthy periods of inactivity. I said then we needed to treat the relationship like a test match and to work with diligence, dedication, application and perseverance day in and day out to extend the partnership.

The era of inactivity and even neglect is over. Australia and India are now heavily engaged on many levels across the economic, political, security and strategic spheres. We know each other better. We understand each other better. Since taking office, the government has worked with India to reshape the bilateral relationship for the long term and for our common good.

Before I set out some overall policy directions for the bilateral relationship, I wish to address a matter that is of great concern to Australians and Indians alike. Over the last decade Australia has emerged as a major destination for Indian students studying abroad. Enrolments of Indian students in Australia have increased at an average annual rate of over 40 per cent since 2002. There were over 120,000 Indian student enrolments in Australia in 2009. Of the 96,000 visas issued last year to Indian students, 47,000 were for students to study in Victoria. Recent contemptible attacks on Indian students and others of Indian origin in Australia have cast a long shadow, not only over our education links, but across our broader relationship and bilateral agenda. These attacks are inexcusable.

Australia needs to take this seriously and we are taking it very seriously. We also need to accept and to understand that it has considerably damaged Australia’s reputation in India and among the Indian people. Indeed it has been widely noticed beyond India and South Asia. On behalf of the Australian government and the Australian people I again express publicly, as I have privately to my counterpart, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, my deep sympathy and condolences to those Indians who have had family members in Australia attacked and, in some tragic cases, murdered.

Police forces in Australia are investigating all incidents so that we can bring those responsible to justice. We will continue to do our utmost to ensure that the children Indian parents have entrusted into the care of the Australian community remain safe and come home with a first class education and a great Australian experience. We have zero tolerance for racism in this country. If any of these attacks have been racist in nature—and it seems clear some of them have—they will be punished with the full force of the law.

Let us be absolutely clear about this: the Australian government and the Australian community condemn all such attacks, irrespective of nationality or ethnicity. The Australian government and the Australian community unequivocally condemn any attack which is racially motivated. Such attacks affront our values and are an anathema to our view of the modern Australia. Australia and India are countries for which the rule of law is fundamental. The rule of law means that we allow the processes of investigation, prosecution and sentencing to take their course. That is what we are doing.

Governments at all levels in Australia are working together to address this problem. Law enforcement agencies have brought perpetrators of attacks to justice in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. In Victoria alone some 45 people have been arrested for crimes against Indian students or nationals. Perpetrators are being pursued with vigour. To mention a few recent arrests: nine were arrested and five charged for an attack on 25 January on two Indian students in Melbourne. Arrests have been made or charges laid for four of the five attacks on Indian taxi drivers on 15 and 16 January in Victoria. In New South Wales, on 28 and 29 January this year three were arrested in connection with the murder of Ranjodh Singh, an Indian man, whose burnt body was found in Griffith in 29 December 2009. In New South Wales police have arrested and charged a man for an assault on a man on Coogee Beach on 13 January. In Victoria, an individual was charged with giving a false report to police in which he alleged he was set alight by others, and with criminal damage for financial gain. In one case a sentence of more than 18 years was handed down in November last year for vicious attacks two months earlier, including against a person of Indian origin in Williamstown, Victoria.

Victoria has changed its legislation to allow judges and magistrates to impose tougher sentences for hate crimes. Regrettably, many Indian students in Australia, in particular in Melbourne, find themselves in a higher risk profile for crime. Many work late night shifts in occupations like taxi driving where assaults can be more likely. Many live in higher crime neighbourhoods, often commuting to and from there late at night. None of this excuses the attacks. But it may help to explain why some attacks are happening, and why the perception has arisen that Indians may be targeted in Melbourne.

Indian citizens are welcome guests in Australia. Indian-Australians make a most important contribution to the fabric of our multicultural society. The Indian government estimates that the Indian diaspora in Australia numbers as many as 450,000. Australia’s core values of acceptance, tolerance and open-mindedness have allowed us to forge a modern, vibrant and harmonious multicultural society that attracts people from all over the world. Today, close to half of the Australian population—43 per cent—was born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas. During the past two centuries migrants have arrived from over 200 different countries. Since the Second World War, more than 6½ million people have migrated to Australia, including more than 650,000 through refugee or humanitarian programs.

More than four million people have chosen to become Australian citizens since citizenship began in 1949. On Australia Day, 26 January this year, which also happens to be the day that India celebrates becoming a republic, around 16,500 people from over 140 different countries became Australian citizens. Immigration is a key ingredient in sustaining Australia’s economic and social success. While Australia is one of the world’s most tolerant countries and one of the safest, we cannot promise to stop all urban crime. No government can credibly do that. What we are promising is to make a whole-of-nation and whole-of-government commitment to do our best to address this problem and to minimise it.

Strengthened and higher visibility police operations have been undertaken to improve physical security in Australian cities. Increased police resources mean safer streets for all. In June 2009 the Prime Minister established a special task force to deal with these attacks, chaired by the National Security Adviser. We have also most recently set up a new high-level consultative mechanism between the Commonwealth and Victorian governments. The first high-level meeting was held on 29 January and there have been, and will be, regular meetings since then.

Almost half of Indian students in Australia study in Victoria. On 28 January the Victorian government launched an International Student Care Service. This is a new 24-hour service where international students can get greater access to accommodation, counselling, legal services, emergency and welfare assistance. We want to ensure that international students, whether from India or elsewhere, obtain a quality education, can support themselves financially, and have a positive experience in Australia. The safety issue has revealed deficiencies in our education and visa arrangements for international students. Australian governments at all levels have moved to address these deficiencies.

To ensure that those who apply to study in Australia are genuine students and not backdoor workers open to exploitation, education and visa systems for international students are being reformed and the integrity of those systems strengthened. We have increased to $18,000 per year the amount that international students must prove they have to support themselves financially before they can obtain a student visa. We have also just announced reforms of the general skilled migration intake. This will largely remove the incentive for overseas students to apply for a particular course simply in the hope of being granted permanent residency. Furthermore, we are establishing a national regulator for the vocational education and training sector and for the higher education sector.

The Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland governments have established a program of rapid audits of private education providers and these are underway. Education standards have also been strengthened to improve the quality of education institutions by tightening financial viability and student fee protection requirements. Action is being taken against providers shown to be operating outside legislative requirements. Those that need to be closed are being closed. The Deputy Prime Minister has appointed Mr Bruce Baird to review the Education Services for Overseas Student Act to ensure Australia continues to offer world-class quality in international education. Mr Baird’s report will be finalised shortly. An international student strategy is also being developed by the Council of Australian Governments in order to improve the experience of overseas students.

Australia is, of course, in close contact with India at all levels on these issues, both in Canberra and in Delhi. Prime Minister Rudd has discussed the matter with Prime Minister Singh. I have discussed this issue with Indian Minister for External Affairs, SM Krishna, in person and by telephone. We met during the minister’s visit to Australia in August 2009, during my visit to India in October 2009, and most recently in London on 27 January. I have kept Minister Krishna informed of developments. At our meeting in London, I offered to provide a detailed update on actions taken by Australian governments to address issues arising from attacks on Indians in Australia. This will be conveyed to Minister Krishna this week by the Australian High Commission in New Delhi and through the Indian High Commission in Canberra. We will need goodwill and consistent leadership on both sides to deal with the challenges this matter has identified. From the Australian government’s point of view, we are prepared to take further action wherever it is needed to ensure the quality of the Australian education sector and the safety and wellbeing of overseas students.

There can be no denying that the student safety issue—in all of its dimensions—is having a negative impact on Australia’s broader image, reputation and standing in India. The underlying strength of the Australia and India relationship is our common interests, including shared values and democratic traditions, part of which is our common appreciation of the importance of a robustly independent media. While some reporting on this issue in the press—whether Indian or Australian—has been, in my view, either inaccurate or misleading or both, in the main it has thrown a spotlight on the importance of responding quickly and effectively to these attacks. It is not whether the reporting of this issue has been fair or unfair, but how Australian governments are responding to the substance of the problem.

As Neville Roach, Chairman Emeritus of the Australia-India Business Council, has pointed out, Indian perceptions of Australia matter. They matter very much indeed. Repairing the Australian brand and reputation in India therefore is an essential priority. Just as Australia and Australians need to recognise the realities of India’s evolving society and emergence as a global influence, we have to work harder to convey to India and Indians an appreciation of contemporary Australia, an appreciation of the modern, multicultural and tolerant Australia. We need to highlight in particular the dynamism of our economy, the regional focus of our foreign and trade policies and the great diversity and tolerance of our modern Australian society.

When AR Rahman, the great Indian composer and musician, performed at the Sydney Festival last month, he opened his concert with the phrase, ‘Long live the India-Australia relationship.’ Mr Rahman went on to call for moderation, unity and understanding during these difficult times. I could not agree more.

Strategic Partnership

We are making a concerted effort at the government-to-government level to take our bilateral relationship to the next level, firmly into the front rank of Australia’s international relationships. One way we have done so is by encouraging high-level dialogue and engagement. Ten Indian ministers have visited Australia since early 2008. Ten Australian ministerial visits to India took place over the same period, as well as a prime ministerial visit.

I have visited India twice as Minister for Foreign Affairs. My last visit was in October 2009, when I took part in the Australia-India Foreign Ministers’ Framework Dialogue in New Delhi hosted by Minister Krishna. When Prime Minister Rudd visited Delhi in November last year, Prime Minister Rudd and Prime Minister Singh announced the establishment of a strategic partnership between Australia and India. In keeping with the strategic partnership, Australia will pursue deeper bilateral, regional and international cooperation with India in a wide range of fields, including on strategic and security matters.

Shared values—our commitment to democracy, pluralism, human rights and the rule of law—make Australia and India natural partners in addressing international challenges. India has become an important player on the global issues of our time, not least climate change and international trade. We value our dialogue with the Indian government on these and other global issues. We want to work with India to achieve outcomes which serve the community of nations in a balanced way.

Australia and India have both welcomed the decision to make the G20 the premier forum for international economic cooperation. Australia has been working closely with India in the G20 over the past year to frame and implement a global policy response to the gravest international economic crisis we have confronted since the Great Depression. The G20 is a particularly important forum for multilateral cooperation, because its membership, which includes both India and China, reflects a rebalancing of global architecture to reflect new economic and strategic realities. Australia strongly supports this approach. Australia also firmly believes that India should become a permanent member of a reformed United Nations Security Council and a member of APEC.

Australia and India have many shared interests in South Asia. Australia will attend the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation Summit as an observer for the first time in April 2010. We will work with India and other South Asian nations to forge greater regional cooperation. We both wish to see stability in Afghanistan. Australia is making a substantial military and civilian investment in Afghanistan’s future, while India has provided Afghanistan with approximately $1.5 billion in development assistance.

Economic Links

Fast-growing trade and investment links are key drivers of the Australia-India relationship. Within a few years, India is likely to become Australia’s third-largest export market behind China and Japan. In 2008-09, India was Australia’s fourth-largest merchandise export market and seventh-largest merchandise trading partner. Two-way trade, including goods and services, was nearly A$22 billion. That was a 55 per cent jump on the previous year, making India our fastest-growing major trading partner. In recent years, Indian companies have also shown a great interest in investing in Australia, not only in the minerals resources industry but in agriculture, information technology and consulting as well.

Australia is already a key supplier of the resources India needs to fuel its economic growth and is well positioned to meet India’s energy demand into the future. This was demonstrated by the recently concluded US$20 billion deal between ExxonMobil and India’s Petronet to supply Australian liquefied natural gas to India from 2014 from the Gorgon project in Western Australia. There is significant untapped potential in the highly complementary nature of our economies, including in services, agriculture, and renewable and clean energy technology. Importantly, we are close to finalising a joint study on the feasibility of a bilateral free trade agreement. A comprehensive, commercially meaningful free trade agreement could deliver substantial new market access for exporters and investors, and create job opportunities in both countries.

There are a range of many other initiatives that we have seen between Australia and India in the recent period which I will not detail here. To facilitate these and other initiatives, Prime Minister Rudd recently announced a significant upgrade to Australia’s diplomatic resources in India. Specifically, we are enlarging our missions in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai and establishing new Austrade offices in a number of other regional cities.

It is in the long-term interests of both Australia and India to take our strategic partnership agenda forward. When we face challenges, such as the attacks on Indian students, we address them in a frank and honest way, but in a way which does not disturb the ongoing nature of the relationship and our strategic partnership. We do so because Australia and India’s broad based relationship is grounded in common interests, shared values and democratic traditions.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Curtin, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, to speak for 21 minutes.

Leave granted.

I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the member for Curtin, the deputy leader of the opposition, speaking in reply to my ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 21 minutes.

Question agreed to.

3:58 pm

Photo of Ms Julie BishopMs Julie Bishop (Curtin, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

India is the world’s largest democracy in terms of population and its elections are often described as the single biggest human event on earth, with more than 400 million people casting votes at the last election. It is forecast to be the world’s most populous nation by 2030 and is a rapidly emerging economic and military powerhouse. Currently the 12th largest economy in the world and ranked only behind Japan and China in Asia, India has huge potential for future growth.

One of the key drivers of economic growth has been India’s large pool of well-educated and highly skilled workers. For example, India has established a significant presence globally in the software and technology sectors. As a former Minister for Education, Science and Training, I can attest to the fact that it has long been one of Australia’s proudest boasts that we have welcomed thousands and thousands of students from around the world to our educational institutions. I have always believed that educational exchanges are one of the best ways to build stronger links between nations. It is a form of public diplomacy that over time enhances the understanding of the ideals, values and aspirations of our country.

Student exchanges should be one of the most powerful tools in our diplomatic efforts. Providing educational services can also be important in terms of economic growth in developing countries. Indian students are a welcome presence on our university campuses, in our educational institutions and throughout our communities. People of Indian background and ethnicity have long made an enduring contribution to many aspects of life in the great tapestry of Australian society, with more than 450,000 people of Indian heritage living in Australia. It is the great value of student exchange and our deep respect for Indian people and their culture that makes these attacks against Indian students all the more heartbreaking and soul destroying.

In a number of incidents, there have been reports of racist taunts. Racism is abhorrent to the vast majority of Australians. We are horrified at these reports and condemn them in the strongest possible terms. Australia is not a racist nation. Australia has welcomed and embraced people from all around the world. That does not mean there are no individuals in this country with a twisted view of the world who harbour irrational prejudice against those of different ethnicity.

During a meeting this week with Indian High Commissioner Singh, I expressed on behalf of the coalition our deep sympathy and condolences, particularly with regard to those young people who have lost their lives or been seriously injured in the spate of attacks. I find it impossible to comprehend the psyche of those who have committed these crimes. The police have been working hard to respond to the spate of attacks and I must thank the minister for the briefing given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the many positive steps taken by governments in Australia.

Reforms are also underway in the education sector, where steps can be taken to reduce the numbers of at-risk Indian students in Australia. However, it is also important for national, state and community leaders to re-articulate the values of Australian society. It is illegal in this country to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their race, religion or gender, amongst other things. Those laws are the formal implementation of the national rejection of racism. The perpetrators of these crimes must face the full force of the law. A strong message must be sent by our police and our judiciary that racially motivated violence is utterly unacceptable in this country. The cowards who lurk in dark places at night waiting for the vulnerable to stray into their web must get the message loud and clear that their behaviour will not be tolerated and that they will not get away with it.

It is deeply troubling to read of the distress that these attacks are causing to people in India and that it is impacting more broadly on our bilateral relations with a valued friend. No-one should underestimate the level of concern within India about these attacks. Indian authorities have naturally urged for the welfare and protection of their students in Australia to be given the highest priority. There is a need for urgent action to be taken on this issue and for it to be considered a priority. People in India must be reassured that we do not take the issue lightly. That is why it is important for there to be open lines of communication between everyone involved in the response to this issue. State police and state governments must maintain open lines of communication with the Australian government and with the Indian authorities to reassure them that action is being taken and that concrete steps are being implemented to increase the security of Indian nationals.

I am concerned that many Indian students, particularly in Victoria, are working and living in high-risk situations. They live in areas of increased crime and work in jobs late at night, when crimes involving drugs and alcohol are more prevalent. It is also vital for Indian students to take all possible precautions with regard to their personal safety—the types of precautions that people should take in any large city anywhere in the world. Crime is an unfortunate aspect to life in large cities, and if people can take any additional steps to improve their personal security I strongly urge them to do so. It is my sincere hope that these attacks stop, that the criminals and cowards realise the damage they are causing not only to individuals but to the nation as a whole. I am not hopeful that an appeal to reason will penetrate the fog of immorality that surrounds these people. However, they should know that a coordinated response is underway, and I urge the state and federal authorities to take all possible action to resolve this situation.

While the damage to our bilateral relations will take some time to heal, some time to subside, we must continue to take a long-term view of our relationship with India. There is much that we have in common in terms of shared values and shared aspirations. We share a tradition of parliamentary democracy, membership of the Commonwealth and a passion for the national sport of cricket. The Commonwealth countries, including Australia, look forward to the Commonwealth Games being held in India, reflecting the passion for sport that our countries share.

India can play an important role in regional stability. It is a lead member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which was established in 1985 to promote economic and social development in the region, an area of vital and strategic interest to Australia. It can be a constructive force in Afghanistan, as that country struggles to emerge from the yoke of oppression. I note recent statements by the Indian government of its preparedness to play a more prominent role in Afghanistan in support of the NATO led forces.

India is a growing economic, political and strategic megademocracy, although it sometimes seems Australia is yet to fully come to terms with its global significance and what a deeper and stronger relationship could mean to Australia’s national interest. Rory Metcalf of the Lowy Institute observed of the India-Australia relationship:

There is just so much potential there, and it is probably the only relationship Australia has with a major power that is far less than its potential.

While the attacks on Indian students have been rightly condemned by Australian political and community leaders, there is no doubt that the relationship has been severely tested. This is a very difficult issue. It will need to be resolved.

There is another ongoing and unnecessary thorn in the relationship that, if removed, would help overall efforts to build a stronger bilateral relationship. The minister referred to Australia being a key supplier of the resources India needs for economic growth and its energy demands. But there is a thorn in the relationship, being the Rudd government’s decision to overturn the Howard government’s agreement to sell uranium to India, subject to appropriate safeguards, to help it use low-emission nuclear power for its growing population. The Labor government is refusing to support India in its quest to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by selling Australian uranium to support India’s expanded nuclear energy capability.

It is not in Australia’s national interest because it sends a message to India that Australia does not trust it to be a recipient of our uranium even though the United States and Canada, amongst others, have agreed to sell uranium and nuclear power technology to India. India has an exemplary record in nonproliferation. It is only able to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state, which India believes to be discriminatory because some existing signatories have larger nuclear weapon stockpiles.

Labor uses the excuse that it does not sell uranium to any country outside the 1967 nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That is disingenuous: a Labor government sold uranium to France in the 1980s before France was a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is a missed opportunity for Australia with our large uranium reserves as it has shut us out of a huge export market, a market that is growing and that would underpin more Australian jobs, particularly with the recent lifting of the ban on uranium mining in my home state of Western Australia. Indian officials were told by the Rudd government that the real reason for the ban was internal Labor Party politics. I believe it is time for the Labor Party to put Australia’s national interests ahead of its dated dogma.

Australia should maintain a long-term focus on India, but in order for our two countries to realise the potential of our bilateral relations we must resolve tensions in the relationship. The attacks on Indian students must stop. Australia will not rest until this happens. That is the message we must send to reassure our friends in India and to Indians living in Australia. It is a message that we must send to those who are responsible for these attacks.