When change brings continuity

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SummaryThe Abbott government is likely to affirm the Indo-Pacific nature of Australia’s outlook.

The Abbott government is likely to affirm the Indo-Pacific nature of Australia’s outlook.

As momentum gathers for India’s elections next year, democracy has delivered a verdict of change in Australia. The good news for India is that Saturday’s election of a conservative government under Tony Abbott marks the best kind of continuity when it comes to strengthening ties between the Indian Ocean democracies. This matters, given that Australia is becoming increasingly important as a trade and investment partner as well as a strategic friend for India in the shared maritime region of Indo-Pacific Asia.

India is Australia’s fourth-largest export destination. Secure energy supply, from coal to natural gas to uranium, looks set to bind the nations more tightly, alongside defence cooperation, education, joint scientific research and migration. To give due credit, much of this improvement in Australia-India relations has been under a Labor government in Canberra. During the six years of Labor rule, successive prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard took several important steps to bring the relationship to a level of strategic trust.

In 2009, Rudd and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a security declaration, paving the way for defence dialogue, military exercises and intelligence cooperation. Most significantly, in December 2011, Gillard took the courageous step of driving a policy change in her own party on uranium exports to India, consigning to history books Labor’s outdated ban on nuclear commerce with New Delhi. Negotiations on safeguards are under way.

Indians, including the business community and the policy establishment, should feel comfortable knowing that Canberra’s new government will continue to improve on bilateral ties. That was not the case in Rudd’s early phase, in which the nation’s uranium ban was slammed back into place just months after its removal by conservative PM John Howard in 2007. Rudd also presided over Australia’s awkward withdrawal from the quadrilateral dialogue with India, Japan and the US, seen as a concession to Chinese sensitivities. History, and WikiLeaked US cables, will confirm Rudd was in reality suspicious of China, and one of his bolder initiatives was to try to increase Australia’s defensive military weight through an ambitious naval plan. But he got off to a rocky start with India, and it took Gillard to belatedly bring bilateral relations to the level they would have been had Howard stayed in power.

Another reason the conservative Abbott government is likely to prove conducive to good bilateral relations is the steady

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