The immense public response to the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper creates a moment for Australia to throw its energies behind its goals with India, at once the most familiar and the most exotic of the big emerging powers in the region. Australia’s government, business and academic circles must invest in informing themselves about modern India and in getting to know its leaders, through more exchanges and meetings and establishment of research and study institutes in India as well as Australia. Careful building of knowledge and relationships will avoid disappointments in this most complex country.
Nothing in the White Paper dramatised the arrival of India in the forefront of Australia’s regional relationships more than the inclusion of Hindi among the four priority languages for teaching in schools (along with Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian). Hindi teaching in Australia’s schools will necessarily start from a low base, but the two existing Australian primary schools with Hindi language courses – Rangebank Public School in Melbourne’s Southeast and West Ryde Public School in northwest Sydney – and other community language teaching networks, provide models for the extension of Hindi teaching in our schools. Australia’s Indian diaspora, approaching half a million in size, is a pool of language and other expertise that should be tapped to assist in the roll out of the White Paper’s language policy on Hindi.
Recent opinion polls suggest Australia’s image in India has recovered from its nadir after Indian students suffered the effects of violent street crime in Australia in 2009-10. Effective action by Australian law enforcement and education officials brought the problem under control, but more needs to be done to persuade the Indian public that Australia is safe for Indian students and that its education system, which Indians surveyed held in high esteem, welcomes them. Australian vocational training institutions also need to push ahead with plans to provide low cost skills training in India itself, where the potential scale of the market offers enormous opportunities to those who can offer courses at an attractive price and deliver them with the right partners.
In the political and security realms, a window of opportunity has opened for Australia in India. This opportunity demands that we boost efforts to engage India’s leaders and administrators. Connections forged now will have beneficial effects for Australia and India for decades to come.