IN 2009-2010 Australia was a subject of sustained prime time discussion on Indian television with intensified cases of attacks against Indians in the country, many of the assaults laced with racial overtones. Things have changed dramatically since then in the past decade and more-both for the diaspora as well as bilateral ties.
In the run-up to the just concluded elections which have thrown up a new Prime Ministerial leadership Down Under, both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and now Prime Minister Elect Anthony Albanese were seen courting the Indian diaspora actively- from visiting temples to cooking Khichdi. Both also raised eyebrows within large sections of the Australian liberal press as they were photographed with saffron scarves at different events.
At 3 per cent of the population, Indians have overtaken the Chinese to constitute the second-largest immigrant community in the country with Britons leading at 3.8 per cent. Of the around 30 per cent total immigrant population in Australia, there are at least 721000 Indians today- the number of Indian born residents more than doubled from 330000 in 2010. The Indian student community in Australia which has grown from 17 per cent in 2019 to 23 per cent, forms the highest among foreign students in 2022. No wonder then both Morrison and Albanese did not shy away from flaunting Hindu religious symbols in a bid to attract the diaspora votes.
The India-Australia bilateral relationship too has undergone a sea change since 2009 when the two nations entered into a strategic partnership and elevated it to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in 2020. It was a Labour government led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011 that moved to lift Australia’s controversial ban on uranium sales to nuclear power India, thereby removing a major diplomatic thorn in ties.
A White Paper released in October 2012 identified India as a key partner for Australia in an Asian Century. Subsequently, Australia’s White Paper on Foreign Policy released in November 2017 placed India among Australia’s most important international partnerships crucial to regional and global security.
The India Economic Strategy, released in 2018, identified India as the country offering the most growth opportunities to Australian businesses. While the pandemic cast a shadow on the economic opportunities, a recently released update to the 2018 strategy ensures the momentum in ties remains. Under the five year plan, Australia has committed to investments worth over $280 million (Rs 1,500 crore) – to boost people-to-people ties as well as new programmes and initiatives across technology, space, critical minerals and strategic research with India.
The recently inked interim Free Trade Agreement, after years of negotiations, promises a shot in the arm for bilateral trade which stood at 24.3 billion USD in 2020.
On the strategic side, India and Australia are today actively engaged in the Indo-Pacific through the multilateral Quad security dialogue and Malabar Exercise, separate trilateral groupings with Indonesia and France as well bilateral military exercises like AUSINDEX.
As the 59-year-old career politician with working-class roots Anthony Albanese takes charge in Canberra, his immediate challenges will lie domestically on Covid management, a weakened economy, record low unemployment to Climate Change fronts.
In the election campaign, Morrison attacked Albanese as being soft on China despite similar approaches in policies of both parties. Australia’s worsening relationship with China- its largest trading partner- and the polarised world order in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war will remain key foreign policy challenges for the centre-left Australian Labour Party led by Albanese which is returning to power for the first time since 2013.
Prime Minister Modi is expected to have an early engagement with Albanese at the Quad summit meet in Tokyo on 24th May along with US President Joe Biden and Japan’s Fumio Kishida. Hours after Morrison conceded defeat, PM Modi tweeted a congratulatory message to Albanese and wrote- “I look forward to working towards further strengthening our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and for shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific region.
And the Australian High Commissioner in New Delhi Barry O Farrell pointed to the new PM’s India connections. “Australia’s Prime Minister-elect @AlboMP is no stranger to India having travelled the country as a backpacker in 1991 and led a parliamentary delegation in 2018. During the campaign, he committed to deepening 🇮🇳🇦🇺 economic, strategic and people-to-people links. #democracy #dosti.”
For India, largely bipartisan support in the Australian parliament similar to the US Congress will mean new opportunities to add further momentum to the current state of bilateral ties as Australians celebrate the victory of their new Prime Minister who espouses the cause of social justice.
Australia’s PM-elect @AlboMP will be a key figure in deepening 🇦🇺🇮🇳 ties and ensuring stability for the Indo-Pacific which he will demonstrate by participating in the upcoming #Quad meeting in days ahead. #AusVotes22 #QuadSummit @SenatorWong).