Topic: Prime Minister Modi visit to Australia; Australia-India relationship;
Wednesday, 24 May 2023
Kieran Gilbert: Back to local politics and with me is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, Local in a way, but we’re talking about the Indian leader who’s here, and that was quite an extraordinary welcome for him last night, wasn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: It sure was, Kieran. I mean from an Australian politics standpoint, it’s hard to conceive of the type of event where a political leader attends a rally of tens of thousands of people in a stadium type atmosphere and receives that type of reception. But that is something that has become almost commonplace in India and around the world with Prime Minister Modi. It was a demonstration of the strength of the Australia-India diaspora and their engagement in the relationship as well. And I think that is one of the really strong aspects for Australia to leverage over the years to come, that we don’t just have this very strong government-to-government relationship that’s built up over recent years. We’ve got an increasingly strong relationship of people-to-people links built up of that diaspora that can really help turbocharge the trade and economic links too.
Kieran Gilbert: Are you worried about the treatment of minorities in India?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think we have to make sure that when Australia engages through human rights fora and other things, as we consistently do, that we are consistent and frank about all of those sorts of issues. And we have those fora established through the UN processes and elsewhere and Australia plays a very full and I think consistent and up-front role in that regard, consistent with our principles, and we should continue to do so.
Kieran Gilbert: Narendra Modi doesn’t do news conferences. It is the largest democracy in the world, of course. But are there elements of that democracy that concern you?
Simon Birmingham: Look, different governments and different political systems operate in different ways. That is true. But India is certainly a very vibrant democracy. We’ve seen that over a long period of time. Prime Minister Modi has been in power for a good number of years now. In that sense, he has become, as we said, a very popular leader, not without opposition. That continues to exist. And it’s important that we remain true to those democratic principles. But from an Australian perspective, we have to make sure we seek the best out of our bilateral relationship. And it’s a relationship that is incredible shape and seek the best out of how we engage regionally and with the rest of the world. And that is also a level of engagement where we are doing ever more together and that is something we need to continue to pursue.
Kieran Gilbert: Is it rare we just saw those pictures, our viewers saw the pictures of you and Peter Dutton with the Prime Minister and his delegation. Is it rare to have that full access for an opposition frontbench?
Simon Birmingham: No, within our Australian system we will often, if there is a visiting leader of government from another country, have the opportunity to sit down and have engagement with them. That’s important, much of Australia’s foreign policy is bipartisan and as a nation we are stronger when we speak with one voice.
Kieran Gilbert: Why has it been underdone, the India relationship? Because for years we can- I’m sure our viewers would have heard it so many times. We can do more with India. We can expand our trade. And we’ve got a lot in common with cricket and whatever else, but it’s just always been a bit underdone.
Simon Birmingham: There certainly have been many years of talk, but I think there was a real step change in the last few years. If you look at the engagements and agreements sealed. A new trade agreement that the Morrison government sealed, new elements of defence cooperation and joint engagement, elevating the Quad, re-establishing the Quad and then elevating it to leaders level dialogue. These are all big steps in the Australia-India relationship. The very last big trade mission that I undertook as minister before COVID hit was more than 100 people as part of the Australia-India Business Exchange that we took in across a range of different industry segments for Australia-.
Kieran Gilbert: So, you think it’s turned the corner now?
Simon Birmingham: I think it is a relationship that is in the best shape it’s ever been with great potential upside. And one of the things that Peter Dutton and I, along with Jason Wood, who is with us, enthusiastically spoke to Prime Minister Modi about today, was seeing that trade agreement we sealed transformed into a comprehensive agreement that really eliminates and removes trade barriers between our two countries and we will give absolute bipartisan support to the Albanese Government to see that realised, given the work we had done already on it.
Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham Shadow Foreign Minister, Thanks.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran. My pleasure.