The relationship has grown with extraordinary speed. India and Australia are strategic partners – unthinkable a few years ago! An extraordinary bipartisan friendship reflects the way in which both countries have now come to see each other.
The tenure of Australian High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, is coming to a close after three and a half years splendid years. During this period, he worked closely with Canberra and New Delhi in overseeing the relationship gather momentum and emerge as one of the defining pillars in the Indo Pacific. But what is particularly striking is that he foresaw the potential of the bilateral relationship not only during his tenure as the New South Wales Premier (Chief Minister) but also thereafter, and long before he was appointed High Commissioner to India.
I came to know Barry during my tenure as the Indian Consul General based in Sydney. Barry was then the leader of the opposition in the New South Wales (NSW) parliament. Those were difficult days because a spate of attacks on Indian students threatened the already flimsy fabric of bilateral relations. Some elements in the Indian media sensationalized the attacks as being racially motivated. The New South Wales premier, at that time, was Nathan Rees and, followed by Kristina Keneally, both of whom were from the Labour party. Nathan unambiguously adopted a no-nonsense strategy and zero-tolerance against those who were carrying out such attacks. Kristina followed suit and continued with this policy.
It goes to the credit of the NSW parliament that bipartisan support helped build confidence among the Indian diaspora that they had friends in high places, who would unhesitatingly stand by them as a matter of principle and policy. When Barry became NSW premier, I was sure I had another friend whom I could rely on.
During his tenure as premier, Barry did not lose focus on India. The sister-city relationship between Sydney and Mumbai was achieved through his unwavering belief that there were multiple touchpoints between these two great cities, which could transform the bilateral landscape from a non-substantive and even suspicious one to one of extraordinary possibility covering multiple verticals. He never lost focus and even when he was not premier, he painstakingly stayed committed to the India story. His appointment as Australia’s High Commissioner to India was quite simply an endorsement that he was the right choice as the right time.
The 4D in bilateral ties
The 2014 visit to Australia by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already dramatically altered the lens through which New Delhi viewed Canberra. A new security architecture in the Indo Pacific was envisaged in which India and Australia would jointly emerge as be key players. In the years that followed, the bilateral relationship incrementally gained in strength, especially in areas such as security and defence policy, military and naval exercises, and intelligence gathering and sharing. Common concerns brought the leadership and policy makers of both countries together, especially on the threatening and adversarial rise of China and what it meant for the Indo Pacific and the global community.
In 2019, the world went topsy-turvy and was caught up in a great turbulence, as the pandemic swept across the globe. Everyone was gripped by a devastating sense of uncertainty, as nation after nation struggled with death and dying. At one level, there was extreme anger that China had delayed sharing data on the virus and that the wet market in Wuhan could have been the cause behind the outbreak. At another level, there was utter confusion on how the virus may be contained. Barry took up his diplomatic assignment during this challenging time.
I recall speaking with him soon after he took charge. He said he was confronting two significant challenges: first, that he was not a career diplomat and second, that the health protocols consequent to the pandemic meant that face-to-face meetings and relationship building would not be possible It is to Barry’s credit that neither stood in the way of his work. In the pandemic, he saw an extraordinary opportunity. As history unfolded, India emerged as the acknowledged ‘pharmacy of the world’. The foundations of the template for a new area of collaboration had been established.
The relationship has grown with extraordinary speed. India and Australia are strategic partners – unthinkable a few years ago! An extraordinary bipartisan friendship reflects the way in which both countries have now come to see each other. In Barry’s words, it is 4Ds that have helped find common ground – Democracy, Defence, Diaspora, and Dosti. Words, in fact, that prime minister Modi mentioned during his recent speech in Sydney to the diaspora. Barry shifted the vocabulary from the 3Cs that had characterized the relationship for decades.
A belief in the India story
Above all, I believe that what Barry, his wife Rosemary, and the children championed is dosti (friendship). They took to India not because they were living here but because they believed deeply in the India story and how the India-Australia dosti could be a key narrative for the twenty-first century.
He does have a weakness, though, and I saw it first-hand – cricket! Sachin Tendulkar was batting at the Sydney Cricket Grounds (SCG) at eighty in the second innings. He was focused on his hundredth hundred and the Aussie crowd was cheering for him to get it. He batted sublimely, flawless, and sheer magic; the crowd enjoyed every stroke. It seemed certain he would reach the elusive milestone. Barry, then premier of NSW, decided he had to witness the moment and went off to SCG. After all, Australian media and cricket buffs saw in Tendulkar’s batting style the great Donald Bradman. As Barry approached the stadium, he heard a loud roar. He knew the little master was out. Barry tells me he went back to the office.
Barry is walking back to the pavilion only to pad up for his next innings. Philip Green will take his stance at the crease to take the relationship another notches higher. Here’s wishing them both a great innings ahead!
(The author, a former Indian diplomat. is engaged in the area of international education. He was recently awarded the Order of Australia and is the third Indian citizen to receive this high honour. Views are personal)