SRIJANA MITRA DAS: Your family migrated to Australia when you were a child and now you are back in India as Australia’s envoy. Could you share your journey with us. A lot of people are interested in my story. They often ask if I have family in India. The answer is no. There is no close family in India. My family had lived in Singapore for generations. I was born in Singapore to parents of Indian origin and my family moved to Australia when I was a child. I went to school in Sydney and studied in university. In my final year of university, I was accepted into the foreign service. I just completed 30 years as a diplomat.
Australia is a multi-cultural society and we tend to welcome people from all backgrounds into the foreign service… When this opportunity came up, I was very excited to come and work in India. Professionally, India is going through a very interesting time and it is one of the few senior ambassador jobs available where you genuinely have a chance to shape the relationship. Personally, I remain very interested in my Indian heritage, I am very keen to learn about it.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: Soon after Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull went back from India, the 457 visa programme was scrapped. Why?
I think there are some misconceptions. 457 is a class of visa for temporary workers in Australia. That class of visa has been scrapped, but the type of visa remains. We are replacing it with two types of temporary skill shortage visas, which do the same thing but have slightly different criteria, and that has come out of an ongoing review that we had around Australia’s visa programme. In this case, the concern about the quality of people coming and the risk of exploitation of the people once they are in Australia under these visas weren’t appropriately qualified.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: But don’t you think this change in visa programme will affect India-Australia ties?
If you think about it, Indians form about 25% of 457 holders. Majority of those people are skilled IT workers. Under the new rule, highly skilled people who have good English proficiency will continue to qualify for these visas. I am sure there will be some impact on Indian applicants, but at this stage, it does not look like the impact will be very great.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: Where does the free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries stand now?
I am sure that we will conclude a free trade agreement. Negotiations have moved ahead and we are now at the most complicated part. Why this is complex is because each side is looking for something from the other that is important for them. For Australia, it is not just (access to) agriculture, it is also services and investment, it is the whole gamut. There is a whole range of things India is looking for, including access to the labour market. Finding a way to that agreement is going to be a slow, careful process. What I was happy to see was the two Prime Ministers’ interest in pursuing the free trade agreement and making an agreement that the negotiators would continue their talks. So Australian negotiators are planning to come to India over the next few weeks to see if we can take that forward.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: So the 457 visa issue won’t affect FTA negotiations?
I think I addressed that in the sense that 457 is a review and a change in the application of the visa, but in practice it will not hurt Indians—at least not the highly skilled workers.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: While talking about the 457 visa programme, the Australian Prime Minister used a phrase, which has been used in the US as well, and that is ‘Australia first’. Do you think this
concept will affect the brand that Australia has built over the past several decades, which is of a multi-cultural, multi-racial society?
My answer is I don’t think it will affect it, and I’ll explain why. When the Prime Minister did a press conference about the 457 visa, he actually prefixed it with Australia being one of the most successful multi-cultural societies in the world, and that is true. We have people from over 120 backgrounds, over half of all the Australians were either born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas.
So half of all Australians are first or second-generation migrants. With respect to Indian workers who have come to Australia, by and large, they have contributed enormously to the success of our economy. There is no intention on our part to close them out, which is why I keep saying that we continue to have a temporary workers programme under our visa programme, and what we have been doing is reviewing that. So please don’t confuse the language around the 457 visa with an end to the programme.
It is highly reasonable for any government to put the interest of its people first and when he (PM Turnbull) says ‘Australia first’, he means all multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Australians as well as Australians of traditional Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. Any government has an obligation to its own people first, but that is not to say that we are shutting the door. We have had a very successful migration programme to Australia for many decades now. We add about 2% to our population every year just by migration, and that’s quite a significant figure.
VANDITA MISHRA: As an envoy and as a person of Indian origin, what is it that makes India interesting to you?
India has always interested diplomats and thinkers and people who are passionate about history. I fit into all of those categories. But I think what we see in India at the moment is… there is a level of energy and dynamism in the country which, I think, is driven by its demographics. There is a very rapid change in the society and the economy that is underway at a time when the world is shifting… So, watching India undertake this very rapid economic growth, this strategic and economic outreach that it is doing at the moment… I think it makes India a very interesting place to be.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: One of the first things we heard of when Donald Trump assumed office was his run-in with Australia on the issue of the Nauru island migrants and his disapproval of America having to take them in. And then there are America’s unpredictable reactions to North Korea. Does the Trump presidency make Australia a little nervous?
At the moment, US Vice-President (Mike) Pence is visiting Australia. What’s very clear from that visit is that Australia and the US have a longstanding alliance that goes back more than 60 years. It has been a really solid relationship and it is a relationship that has stood the test of time and stood many many changes of government… (In November 2016, Australia and the US had arrived at an “agreement” that refugees being held in offshore detention centers could apply to be resettled in America.)
With respect to North Korea, there have been quite a number of conversations between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull. Both have confirmed that there is really deep concern about North Korea’s provocations. From Australia’s perspective, we genuinely have very serious concerns about North Korea’s behaviour. We are moving to implement the UN Security Council’s resolutions and sanctions on North Korea.
SUSHANT SINGH: India and Australia have worked together on countering violent extremism. Where does that cooperation stand now?
For Australia, Islamist radicalisation is an issue related to particular segments of our population. India has a slightly different focus in terms of radicalisation, but in some ways has been a bit more successful in dealing with some aspects of those. And so, sharing experience has been the number one point in trying to understand all the dimensions of this. The point is, we never know what takes a person from being a person on the street to being radicalised and being prepared to, in Australia’s case, go overseas and fight.
We recognise that there are things that we can do to address that through working with communities and working with individuals, but there are also things that we can’t always control and so we need to look at the whole issue as comprehensively as we can. We can’t do that in isolation. We always have to do that in consultation with other countries.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: The Adani mining project in Queensland is facing a lot of protests from environmental groups and indigenous rights groups. What does the future of the project look like now?
The Australian government has always been very clear about our support for the Adani project. It’s very clear that if that project gets up and running and succeeds, it will employ thousands of Australians. And in any government’s language, that is a good thing to do. Australia is a democracy, as is India, and Australia’s people and NGOs are free to express their views, and clearly, there have been some who have done that about the Adani project.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: For a multi-cultural society such as Australia’s, why is the number of Asians who make it into the national cricket team when compared to, say, the UK, much less?
Well, we’ve (Pakistan-born) Usman Khawaja. Australians are notorious for grabbing talent wherever we can find it. I think it has more to do with the relative size of the South Asian population. Remember, most of Australia’s Asian population is North Asian—Chinese-Australians, Vietnamese-Australians… people who don’t come from cricket-playing countries though, interestingly enough, when they come to an Australian school, they do tend to pick up a bat. But the Indian-Australian population is relatively recent. The growth of the population has only happened in the past decade or so, so we will probably start to see the next generation of that population filtering in through the cricket team.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Our impression of the Australians is based on the image we have of your cricketers—professional, skillful, straight-talking, sledging… Is that the right impression of the country? And what is the impression Australia has of India based on our cricketers?
I always say Australians and Indians speak two languages in common—English and cricket. That is something that instantly connects the two cultures. Cricket is a competitive contest, so when you see people in competition, you see some parts of it but you don’t see all of it. And I think that’s true both ways. When Australians see Indian cricketers, we see people that we admire. One of the great things about watching Australia and India play cricket is just to see how evenly matched the two teams are… and we have respect for people who can compete with us on our level.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Former US envoy to India Richard Verma once mentioned how every time he attended an event, people would walk up to him and tell him that they knew his grandfather or father or someone else. Has that happened with you?
I don’t get people coming up to me and saying they know my family, and I think that is a function of the fact that my family has been out of India for some generations now. But it always fascinates me how much people could tell me about myself and my background based on my name and where my father’s village is. And I really admire their ability to do that. The first time I met Arun Jaitley, he was able to describe to me the ins and outs of all the various clans in Punjab, place my family and my background according to what he knew about me.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Australia has emerged as a big education destination for Indian students.
We have nearly double the number of students from China as we have from India, but Indians form the second-largest group of students… It is about 1,40,000. A significant proportion of students in Australian institutions are from the overseas—15-20%. I think people recognise that Australia provides really high-quality education in English and flexible learning.
And our visa conditions for students are among the most generous in the world. So you come to Australia on a student visa, you can work up to 22 hours a week while you’re studying, your spouse can work full time while you’re studying. So that means your financial conditions are taken care of. So depending on the qualification you receive, you can stay in Australia for anything up to four years after you receive your qualification and continue to work. So what does that mean? You can come back to India with a top-notch qualification and work experience.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: In 2009-10, there were a spate of attacks on Indian students in Australia.
Now, given the rise of far right parties such as One Nation in Australia and impressions about Indians taking away skilled jobs, what would you say to Indians who might fear similar attacks all over again?
With respect to student issues, previously and even now, the level of tolerance in our society for these kinds of attacks is actually very low. Also, the level of tolerance of any Australian government, state or federal, for racial attacks is zero. We just don’t support that sort of behaviour. You see very strict responses from Australian governments when something like that happens in the community. In a multi-cultural society you are going to have a debate at some level. And in a democracy, what you do is you allow the debate to play out. Historically, such debates have resulted in the favour of multi-culturalism. I am confident that will happen again.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: The assertive rise of Beijing in the South China Sea is a concern for both India and Australia. How do you see the two countries cooperating on the issue?
I think that it is one of those areas where India and Australia genuinely have strategic alignment. We have been very open about our concerns over activities in the South China Sea. We have been very clear that we want those issues resolved between the parties according to international law. We welcome the Tribunal’s decision last year on the dispute and we continue to look for a way to resolve those issues. (In July 2016, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the waters within its ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea).
India and Australia have worked really well together in the East Asia Summit last year on this specific issue. We both have close links with Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and we support them in dealing with the issue as well. So, there are many levels at which Australia and India can work together. I think our positions, our responses when the Tribunal’s decision came out were pretty much aligned. At the same time, it is important not to pick on one country either. It is the behaviour rather than the country that we are concerned about.
Australian high commissioner to India Harinder Sidhu with Srijana Mitra Das of The Indian Express