Vandalism on places of worship is unacceptable, says Australian envoy to India Barry O’Farrell

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese messaged his strong response to it, but it is hard to deal with graffiti with outrageous statements, says Australia’s High Commissioner; the two nations are close friends and the relationship is good enough and difficult issues can be raised privately and publicly

Updated - March 20, 2023 11:52 am IST

Published - March 19, 2023 09:47 am IST

A file photo of Barry O’ Farrell, Australian High Commissioner.

A file photo of Barry O’ Farrell, Australian High Commissioner. | Photo Credit: Dinesh Krishnan

Australia believes the vandalism and attacks on temples in Australia are unacceptable, and the police force is “vigilant”, says Australia’s High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell, but there are limited options in dealing with them. On the outcomes of last week’s visit to India by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the envoy said leaders of both countries have developed friendship and are committed to completing the Free Trade Agreement this year.

What were the outcomes of PM Albanese’s visit? I ask because beyond the bonhomie on the cricket field and public statements, there were just four MoUs, on issues like solar technology and innovation, sports and audio visual cooperation.

I think first and foremost, you should never overlook the fact that in democracies, personal relationships matter. And the fact that over two days, our two Prime Ministers had five one-on-one meetings, I think, reflects not just the strength of the partnership, but also a friendship. And of course, that’s critical to get anything done when it comes to democracy. So, Prime Minister Albanese, his objectives when he came was to further strengthen and deepen the relationship, particularly in areas of trade and economic, climate and renewable defence and security. The fact that he brought 25 Senior CEOs with him to India, and the diversity of that group demonstrates the keenness of Australian business to take up the opportunities that came out of the [early harvest] ECTA. We are also top tier security partners. In Research and Education of course, we are pleased that Deakin University has become the first foreign first foreign university to take advantage of the policies under the national education mission, and will open up a branch campus here. A second University, Wollongong U will follow shortly.

This visit also followed an important Quad Foreign Ministers meeting. Now, a year before that, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar was very clear that the conflict in Ukraine was not a part of the Quads remit, it was not a part of the Indo-Pacific. But a year later, the Ukraine conflict, is there in the Quad statement? How significant was that?

I think it is [significant]. As we keep saying, the Quad is a positive and practical forum, and a year on from that Quad meeting in Australia, we have seen the other impacts of the war. We have witnessed too often the destruction of lives and, and buildings in Ukraine itself. But we also know that the conflict is having an impact on people worldwide and their economic situation, what it’s doing to food security, and prices. And so whether it’s the Quad leaders meeting or the G-20, I think that there are issues that cannot be ignored. Because whilst it may be a conflict a long way away, whilst people might have different perspectives on it, the consequences of that conflict economically, are having an impact on all.

After G-20 ministerial meetings failed to forge a joint statement, do you think the success of this year’s Summit where India is president, hinges on some kind of a compromise?

The focus simply needs to be on the task of the G-20. One of the benefits coming out of Indonesia (G-20 in Bali) is the Re-statement that the G-20 is the body that basically steers the global economic ship. And if the focus is on economics and what we need to do to ensure the prosperity that all countries deserve, I am sure India’s diplomatic “Jugaad” will deliver an outcome.

The Quad Summit in Sydney this May will also come after the AUKUS announcement in San Diego for nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific. Japan has released three new strategic defence doctrines- will the Quad do more in strategic cooperation as well?

Look, as we have said the Quad is not a military construct, the Quad doesn’t talk about military issues. But the Quad is strategic, the Quad wants to deliver an Indo-Pacific that is sovereign, that is respectful of rules, that is peaceful, and stable. And it does that in ways that are separate to the way in which our defence arrangements, seek to, [by working on] prosperity, working with countries to improve their infrastructure, health, approach to climate change, and provide them with greater confidence about their futures, so they are able to resist some of the strategic pressures they face. And the Quad is trying to do that on some of those practical issues that countries who live in the most strategically challenged part of the world, with the exception of one part of northern Europe, at the present time, are facing every day. I think AUKUS will be mentioned when the leaders meet... I certainly can’t say it won’t come up. The Quad is focused on a vision for the Indo-Pacific that requires prosperity, rules to be obeyed, sovereignty to be exercised, etc. But it is not going to turn into an Indo-Pacific NATO.

Given that India’s access to nuclear-powered submarines is mainly through Russia, is the AUKUS grouping reaching out to India for some kind of technological cooperation?

AUKUS is effectively a technology compact. It is a way for Australia to get access to nuclear power technology for a new class of four submarines to provide a better capability for the defence of Australia and for our interests across the region. Some people have tried to present it as an alliance or a pact. It’s nothing more than in essence, getting U.S. technology through the U.K. for Australian submarines.

After what’s happened in the last three years, you’d never say anything is impossible. What we’re also seeing and what Australia is grateful for, is the indigenisation of defence manufacturing. We understand the benefits it provides to India in terms of jobs and economic growth. But as a purchaser of military equipment, it also is an opportunity for us because it provides greater competition in that sector- and it is what we hope to work with India on more closely.

Will the Quad come out with a new initiative on Health? And are there lessons from the Quad Vaccine Initiative that ended in December 2022 without the original plan for a billion vaccines announced in March 2021 making any headway?

Well, I think the initial crisis was resolved, as vaccine procurement was sorted out, after some problems [and so the Quad Initiative was not needed]. The fact that Indo-Pacific countries know, that should a shortage issue ever arise again, God forbid, in relation to vaccines, and in COVID, that there are now plans in place as to how they would be addressed—is a positive. I think all four countries involved with the court have distributed 790 million vaccines within the region. So the days of shortages have gone.

The good news is that the leaders of the Quad nations learned from their mistakes. They never make that same mistake a second time, and they build on those. And yes, health is a big issue. Health will continue to be part of the Quad agenda.

A year after the Early Harvest ECTA between India and Australia was signed, where are the roadblocks and how confident are you that the CECA will be signed by the end of the year this time around?

Look, if governments could wish up economies, we’d all be much wealthier, we’d all have better incomes, and we all have more jobs. But business activity relies on individual companies, shareholders, or company owners, risking their own capital to build an enterprise. I can say we’re seeing much more interest in the India-Australia trade now. That’s why I talked about the size, the seniority, and the diversity of CEOs that visited with the PM. Let’s also remember that this is not a continuation of the previous time we discussed the CECA (2014-2016). The 2014 deal was dead. I think COVID kick-started a fresh effort by India and Australia to closer economic relations. And so yes, some of the languages are the same. But there is no doubt that this second negotiation has progressed further than the earlier one. Both Prime Ministers talked about swift progress, both Trade Ministers said they wanted CECA done by the end of the year, and you know, in democracies, I’ve noticed that if leaders want things to happen, they happen... As Prime Minister Modi says, we all need to have more ambition.

Was Prime Minister Albanese surprised when Prime Minister Modi raised the issue of attacks against temples in Australia? And is the Australian government able to control them, as another such case occurred in Brisbane last week?

We are close enough friends and the relationship is good enough so difficult issues can be raised both privately and publicly and reacted to publicly. So I think, as much as I deplore what’s caused it, looking at the way in which it’s been dealt with, demonstrates again the strength of the partnership and the respect that exists within the relationship. I don’t think anybody was surprised that Prime Minister Modi would raise public attacks upon temples in Australia. Vandalism attacks on any places of worship, be they temples, mosques, synagogues, churches, or other religions is simply unacceptable, and Prime Minister Albanese messaged his strong response to it. How easy is it to stop these things? Well, certainly our police and security agencies are intending to be incredibly vigilant. But it is hard to deal with vandalism, graffiti with outrageous statements other than painting over them.

What is the Australian assessment of the threat of Khalistani groups?

I hadn’t heard of the Khalistan movement until I came to India three years ago. As the diaspora has grown, so too have some people been involved with the Khalistani movement. These so-called referendums not only have no legal standing in Australia, they have no legal standing in India.

The big photo opportunity of the Albanese visit was from the two Prime Ministers taking a victory lap on a sort of cricket chariot in the Ahmedabad stadium. How do you respond to criticism that they politicised the game?

Well, politics and sport have been part and parcel of Australia since the games began, in a sense, so I don’t think it’s a real issue. In Australia, during every test match, the Australian Prime Minister, Opposition leaders and State Chief Minister, and State Opposition leader make it a point of going to the games. And they do go around the stands to meet people. It was special, I think, for both Prime Ministers to be standing on a hallowed sports field alongside the national players, as the national anthems were played, and marked the 75th anniversary of the 1947-48 cricket tour by the Indian team led by Lala Amarnath of Australia. I can tell you that not only my personal view, but the view of many spectators was that the Australia-India tests these days are much better sport than the Ashes (Australia-UK).

You will end your tenure in Delhi this summer. What is your enduring memory of India?

One, I was here during the COVID-19 pandemic, and at no point was I worried - and I took COVAXIN as a vaccine. Secondly, I will remember the incredible diversity that exists here. And thirdly, how surprising the country is that I think sometimes Indians take for granted some of the technological developments that they rely on every day.

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