15 June 2011

Dirt poor

So Julie Bishop has been to India: that's nice. Who paid for her to go, who went with her, and what does this trip - we have only her report of it to go on - mean for Australia's trade, and our economic future? If I were a journalist I'd ask these questions.

Australia has depended on India more than is often realised. The fledgling colony of Sydney was saved from starvation by what modern tabloids would call "mercy dashes" from British outposts in India. The revolt by sepoys in the 1850s forced the British to rescind religious discrimination, a massive change for Britain given its hundreds of years of the practice: in the Australian colonies, it encouraged ecumenism and discouraged the entrenched clerical arrogance that comes from being coupled with/shackled to/inebriated by state power and enforcement. When we relied more on Britain than we do, ports then known as Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were crucial stopping-off points to and from that country. Indians as members of the Empire helped confound the White Australia Policy. Indians fought alongside Australians at Gallipoli. All this comes before Australian hippies and Christian missionaries started going to India since the 1960s: baby-boomers can't claim credit for that either. To say that Australia's relationship with India is all about cricket and curry, as many do, is more than a little sad.

The question must be asked: is Julie Bishop the right person to be building the future of this relationship?
It is not hard to be overwhelmed by the scale of the development challenge confronting the government of India.

The third and fourth words in that article should have been swapped. That isn't just pedantry: the whole article starts with a swoon, which makes it hard to trust some of the more difficult contentions that it raises: nuclear exports for a start, poverty, greenhouse gas emissions, and the one Bishop skated over with a single word.

Australia has massive reserves of uranium, and India has a massive need for energy. Given the fact that the ALP has been split for a generation over nuclear energy, I am still surprised that the Howard government didn't move on uranium mining once the GST was bedded down and Beazley Labor vanquished after 2001.
[India] is a nation struggling to provide adequate services in response to the economic growth necessary to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty ... 25 per cent of the population currently does not have access to electricity.

Economic growth is necessary to lift people out of poverty. However, too much can be made of Australia's role in alleviating that:

  • Will Australian-supplied power be targeted toward the homes and job-creating enterprises of poor people in India?

  • Will that power be used in a way that doesn't make these people worse off than they already are (in terms of pollution and industrial accidents)?

  • Is Julie Bishop really the person to make either of the above points stick?

Then, there's the word that Bishop skates over. She describes India as a "growing economic, political and strategic mega-democracy". The growing economy is pretty well understood, and because autocracy was always limited across such vast populations and distances the place has always been political. The key word here is "strategic".

India shares borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma and China. It is building a blue-water naval fleet (i.e. one that can sustain operations away from home ports for long periods), and has one of the largest armies on earth. Its air weaponry needs would be similar to ours in nature, but on a much larger scale. It has nuclear weapons. The growing economy isn't all about lifting people out of poverty: it will also be about arming, protecting and projecting itself and its interests. There is a massive amount of adjustment to be done to the mindset of Australia's foreign and defence policy outlook to deal with this - again, is Julie Bishop the right person to be doing this? Really?

Then, there is the question of economic power. It is unlikely that Indian companies will be content for Australian and other non-Indian companies to dig up and ship resources to them. Indian companies already play a large and growing role in the coal industry as well as in IT, and will take the same sort of stake that Japanese, Chinese, Korean and US companies take in our resources sector. This isn't an argument for xenophobia, far from it; what it does mean is that the relationship with India will require a depth of understanding that simply isn't evident right now. I doubt Julie Bishop is across, or feels the need to get across, these kinds of issues.

Given that we are talking about massive economic power over Australian resources, let's try and address issues of downstream processing without getting all radio-talkback shouty and racist about it. Again, we've had this debate regarding the Japanese and getting all upset gets us nowhere - but be prepared to go through it all again, and the same amount of nothing to be gained from such. We should have sufficient leadership to lift us above this, but we don't.

Given how many asylum-seekers come to Australia from the Middle East and Afghanistan, India could help Australia in its regional initiatives to deal with this problem - but it doesn't, because successive Australian governments are too stupid to ask them and too lazy to build the sort of substantive relationship that might be of assistance to all concerned.
The World Nuclear Association reports that India plans to expand nuclear power capacity to at least 25 per cent of its total requirements by 2050.

This will allow the government to rapidly increase electricity generation while reducing its relative reliance on coal, with obvious benefits in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Since when are we in the business of increasing the capabilities of foreign governments? Aren't we about lifting people out of poverty and reducing greenhouse gases, while making a bit of dough along the way? I'm so confused Julie.

When you consider that the World Nuclear Association is a lobbying outfit for companies in the nuclear industry business - well, they would say that, wouldn't they. Julie's just passing it on incase you are all feeling a bit credulous today. It's the next decade or so that's crucial with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Julie Bishop becomes Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2013 (oh stop it), there will be no discernible impact of Australian uranium exports and usage on greenhouse gas emissions. It's silly even to introduce this into the debate.
The Howard government agreed in principle in 2007 to supply India with uranium, subject to appropriate international safeguards to ensure Australian uranium was only used for peaceful purposes.

It was the judgment of the Coalition at that time that while India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has an exemplary record of non-proliferation and that adequate safeguards could be built into any supply agreement.

Other nations, including the United States, Canada, France and Argentina have come to the same conclusion and have signed agreements to supply nuclear fuel and technology to India.

Canada seems to have forgiven India for playing them for mugs and acquiring nuclear technology in the 1970s. The question remains, though, about the "appropriate international safeguards" - if not the NNP Treaty, what might they be? Did you really go all the way to India just to be told that all you need to do is wind the clock back to 2007?

Given that this is the Liberals' main value proposition - winding the clock back to 2007 - how important would the jaunt to Hyderabad and the ensuing article be in convincing Australians that JB should be managing that relationship? Rudd went in hard over AWB but I still don't know what role Australian officials played in oil-for-food.
The OECD survey said, "Wide-ranging reforms and increased investment have lifted potential growth to almost 9%, the highest in Indian history, helped by improvements in infrastructure. Inclusive growth of 10% per year is feasible given that demographic developments are set to push up saving, but will only be achieved if the administrative and regulatory barriers facing companies are reduced."

Which OECD survey was that? The OECD, like, produces so many surveys.

It seems we should, then, hold off sending uranium to India until the IPA/CIS have taken their cutlasses to "administrative and regulatory barriers". Imagine John Roskam and Terje Petersen sweeping through that country like latter-day Robert Clives. Anyone can read The Road to Serfdom but it's quite another to go to where that road ends, and to convince people that to go the other way along that road they must first abandon where they are, or that Australian uranium exports really are being proposed with them in mind.
India is currently Australia's fifth largest two-way trading partner and accounts for over 7 per cent of Australia's total exports, currently dominated by coal and gold.

And education, Julie, remember how you used to be the Minister for Education? We've all moved on, but not to the extent where we blithely undersell one of our country's major assets as far as India is concerned.
It is important that Australia develop and maintain strong relations with India.

Yes, it is. Apart from the red herrings about Indian poverty and greenhouse gas emissions, and setting aside vulgar greed about the money to be made from selling minerals - what, from Bishop's perspective, is there to this relationship?

To be fair to Bishop, however, much of the responsibility for Australia's poor relationship with India comes from the incumbent minister and his two predecessors, Smith and Downer. Australian Foreign Ministers should have been going to New Dehli much more often than they have. There's time like the present, though, and the incumbent shows no sign of correcting his earlier mistakes by smoothing the way for Australian exporters. It is a dereliction of duty for Rudd not to have helped ameliorate Indian anger over the deaths of students in Melbourne, and it is a dereliction for Downer too that Rudd - and Bishop - had so little relationship for the incumbents and the next government to rely and build upon.

I knew Rudd wasn't much chop as Australia's Foreign Minister (a longer-form post on this is under development), and have long been concerned about Bishop too. It's hard that this area of policy is so bereft of any real understanding, of Australia's interests or of those of other countries. The journosphere can't really examine the strengths or weaknesses of individual politicians or parties against the national interest:

  • For all its foreign correspondent resources nobody from the ABC has comprehensive foreign policy clout, nor does anyone from commercial TV/radio;

  • Fairfax has Peter Hartcher - and Daniel Flitton (thanks kjob85);

  • News Ltd has Rowan Callick (no, Greg Sheridan does not count. There are backpackers reviewing flophouses across southeast Asia who have greater foreign policy acumen and insight than that man); and

  • er, that's about it really. There are some things you just can't outsource to the Lowy Institute.

India and Australia [sucks air through teeth]: big issues there. In the absence of leadership from politicians and guidance from the media, that's all I have to say about that.

Hope the debates on other areas of policy get better than this.

Seriously, the Australia-India relationship is a case study of politico-media failure because their failure lets this country down and leaves us unprepared for our future, and less able to take the advantages of that future than we might be.


  1. Thanks for that, that was a really interesting article. I have passed it on!

  2. Thanks too. Food for thought. I'll confess to having only thought of India as a source of good migrants/workers/Australians. The broader strategic relationship in the coming century hadn't really sunk in.

  3. What a load of self-serving pseudo-intellectual drivel.
    You honestly expect someone to cover the full range of international relations in a blog of a few hundred words?
    Rather than use sarcasm to attack a parliamentarian, why not show the world how to do it?
    So here is my challenge to you!
    Write a blog of the same length as Julie Bishop's blog on the same topic and reveal the majesty of your intellect and allow us to marvel at your brilliance.

  4. David Irving (no relation)16/6/11 5:05 pm

    Earl, I don't think Andrew has any spotty 18-year-old staffers to delegate the task to, so he should be able to make a fair fist of it.

  5. Thanks Rhiannon and Paul.

    Bishop's article has 809 words, mine 1641 if you take out the bits where I quoted her. Earl, I never claimed to cover the gamut of international relations - but I would hope for a minister who can.

    Julie Bishop MP has many outlets to show that she's the best available custodian of the nation's foreign policy. She consistently shows herself to be shallow and unimaginative in the role, which is to the nation's disadvantage. I have touched on relations with one other country to illustrate the fact that neither Bishop nor Rudd are serving the country well on important issues.

  6. Thank you too David. It's bizarre that the shadow minister is not expected to compete with the minister, but with me.

  7. Who paid for her to go? We have an answer...

  8. That figures! Thanks Greg.