A Look Down Under

Published: Friday, Oct 07,2011, 14:51 IST
Race Attacks, Australian, Dramatic, Look East, Geographical Aloofness

It is ironic that the spate of “race attacks” on Indian students in Melbourne and Victoria province in 2009-10 and the extremely shrill coverage of the phenomenon by the media in India may have contributed to an upturn in Indo-Australian relations.

The attacks appear to have spurred the Australian political establishment into two major initiatives.

First, there has been a dramatic clean-up of the higher education sector, including a conscious policy of projecting the excellence of mainstream Australian universities. At the risk of losing some student numbers in the short run, Australia appears to have discouraged new foreign students from enrolling in dodgy colleges.

Secondly, Australia has initiated a serious process of trying to understand the complexities and angularities of a country they had hitherto been content playing cricket against. India, it has dawned on a China-obsessed Australian establishment, is also an important Asian player with lots of economic potential.

The Indian response has been characteristically slower and ponderous.

However, despite the institutionalised wariness of anything new, there is a creeping awareness that the “Look East” policy cannot stop at Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia but has to factor in another great success story “down under” — despite problems of purchasing Australian uranium.

This overdue Eureka moment of Indian diplomacy had, of course, been preceded by the journey of an unshackled Indian private sector to Australia.

While the Indian and Australian strategic community are engaged in dissecting the future of the Indian Ocean community, Indian business houses have invested in Australia’s mineral wealth and taken advantage of its skilled workforce, stable currency and open economy.

Having spent a very agreeable week in Melbourne and Sydney at the invitation of the Australia-India Institute in Melbourne, my real regret is that I didn’t discover Australia earlier.

For very long, Australia has both benefited and suffered from its geographical aloofness. Except for a brief moment in 1942 when an expanding Japan came close to threatening its security, the “down under” location has meant that Australia has been insulated. This has enabled the country to evolve a distinct national temperament that combined hard work, lots of outdoor life and irreverence.

What is truly remarkable about Australia is that the sharp barracking on the cricket grounds rarely gets translated into social disharmony. What is on display is not raw aggression but friendly banter. Australia is a country that is, by and large, at peace with itself. In today’s world that is saying a lot.

A feature of the Indian media coverage of the Melbourne attacks Australians objected to particularly was the repeated accusation of “racism”. It was interesting that this objection was forcefully echoed by many Indian students in Melbourne and Indian professionals in Sydney.

“This is truly a friendly and accommodating country,” I was assured by them. One couple confessed that the shrillness of the Indian media (widely reported within Australia) had embarrassed them. “I kept wondering,” a young techie told me in Sydney, “whether my work mates felt we thought of them as racists.”

Without delving into the question of race relations from the multiculturalist perspective, certain broad conclusions are in order. First, the “white” Australia policy which formed a basis of the Australian Settlement till the late-1970s is now distant memory. Both Melbourne and Sydney are about as visibly cosmopolitan as you can get. The sheer diversity of today’s Australia is insufficiently appreciated in India.

Secondly, jettisoning some of the less appetising features of the Australian Settlement, including immigration and protectionism, has not involved a wholesale rejection of the British inheritance.

What has contributed to the robustness of modern Australia is that at least three of the most positive features of the British way of life have struck deep roots in Australia: parliamentary democracy, rule of law and civilised driving. The implications are important. Australians value their inheritance and the institutions that have been created over the past two centuries.

Australia has revitalised itself through immigration. But it has implicitly expected new immigrants to be mindful of a past which they may not have shared but which they are not expected to repudiate. The resounding defeat of the proposal to turn Australia into a monarchy in the 1999 referendum suggests that the country is unwilling to countenance a sharp rupture with the past.

Contemporary Australia is well integrated into the global economy. It is a free market economy with an elaborate welfare net and a stable political system that avoids wild policy fluctuations with changes of government.

At the same time, there is a spectacular degree of self-contentment that has contributed to what the head of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute Michael Wesley has described as “insular internationalism” — a description equally applicable to India.

This basically means that it is a benign Australian sense of self-satisfaction that both drives its global engagements and also restrains it. Australia isn’t an Asian power and nor does it aspire to be one. Yet, it would be a mistake to judge it as a cultural outpost of Britain or a political outpost of the US. The exceptionalism that marked its history until the 1990s lingers, but with less rigidity.

There is one Australia represented by the exuberance of a Paul Keating and the intellectual dash of a Kevin Rudd. Equally there is another Australia personified by the ethical values of a John Howard. To engage with Australia, India has to engage with both Australias.

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