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Address to the Australia-India Business Council, Sydney

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Address to the Australia-India Business Council, Sydney

Saturday, 1 December 2012

As a 23 year old I spent three months backpacking around India, through Mumbai, Rajasthan, Delhi, Kashmir and then Bihar where I spent some six weeks with the Australian Jesuit mission. I was on my way to England as a Rhodes Scholar and didn’t want to fly over India without touching down. I had read too many of Rudyard Kipling's stories. I was too conscious of India’s role in Australia’s battles, and those of the old empire, not to want to explore this exotic yet accessible country.

At Gallipoli, in the Middle East, in France, even in PNG, there were war graves alongside those of Australians with headstones simply inscribed "here lies a soldier of the Indian Army." As Rahul Dravid observed of our two countries in his recent Bradman lecture, "we were comrades long before we were competitors."

Back in the early 1980s, I found a country of contrasts where bullock carts would take supplies into nuclear power stations; a land which, even then, had a vast middle class; and where almost every educated person spoke my language.

Australia and India have so much in common: democracy, the rule of law, a vigorous free press, a language, and perhaps most importantly a deep atavistic yearning to beat England at cricket.

It's important to note that China is not the only emerging super power of Asia. With a GDP that has quadrupled in two decades, with economic growth of up to 10 per cent a year and with the world’s third largest total gross domestic product, at least in purchasing power terms, India is also an emerging super power of Asia. What's more, it is the emerging democratic super power of Asia.

Since the early 1980s when I spent my three months in India, our two countries have grown significantly closer together. Some 300,000 Australians were born in India. In some years India is now our single largest source of migrants. In some years there have been over 100,000 Indian students studying here in Australia.

India is now Australia’s sixth largest trading partner with the promise of an even larger role should a free trade agreement be negotiated.

So, the people-to-people relationship is doing fine. It’s the government-to-government relationship that needs work.

In 2007, the incoming Australian government banned uranium sales to India and has only just un-banned them. No uranium has actually been sold even though this is an important source of clean energy to a country that desperately needs power and even though India is a fully democratic country which has maintained an impeccable non-proliferation record and which wholly respects the rights of its neighbours.

The incoming government also suspended the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that united the key democracies of our region - Australia, the United States, Japan and India.

And, of course, federal and state governments here in Australia were too slow to tackle the violence against Indian students that flared up, particularly in Victoria, in 2009.

To her credit, Prime Minister Gillard has visited India recently. John Howard made several visits as prime minister, but I regret to say that the last Indian prime minister to visit Australia was Rajiv Gandhi back in 1986. Prime Minister Singh was, perhaps pointedly, unable to visit Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last year.

As Prime Minister, should that honour fall to me, I would take India seriously as I have always done.

There are three categories of countries that are particularly important to Australia - our neighbours, our major trading partners and our key strategic allies - the countries with which we share important values - and India falls into all three categories. It is not only the emerging democratic super power. It’s also the emerging English-speaking super power. As far as I am concerned, this means it should never be the emerging super power that's taken-for-granted or neglected.

By 2050, India is forecast to be the world’s most populous nation. Unlike China, which is tipped to grow old before its citizens grow rich, India is tipped to grow rich before it goes grey.

As Prime Minister, should that honour fall to me, I will treat India as one of the key countries helping to shape the future of Australia and the wider world.

I know the Indian-born citizens of this country. There are few people who better embody Sir Robert Menzies' injunction to be "lifters, not leaners" which is why the Indian people who have come to Australia have been such model citizens.

I salute Australia, I salute India and I pledge myself to build an even stronger friendship between our two countries.

On this occasion, I should also thank the Australia-India Business Council for the work you are doing to build links - personal as well as economic - between our two countries.

This is a very important relationship and I am so pleased to be here tonight to see it flourish.

Thank you.