Another election closely watched

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What it’s going to take to lead the AIBC – the premier business council between India and Australia

The federal election is just around the corner, but it is also time for national elections at the Australia India Business Council (AIBC), an organisation fostering bi-lateral trade between the two countries.
Having recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, AIBC has active chapters in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra. The organisation’s national leadership rests with the Chair and Vice Chair, who take responsibility for the direction of the Council while working with the state chapters to build a stronger relationship between the various states and the Indian government and businesses.
AIBC.Indian Link
This could well be a watershed moment for AIBC. While there are great opportunities emerging with the potential implementation of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Australia, the end of the mining boom and drop in coal prices could seriously scale back the economic activities in the traditional areas of trade between the two countries.
Sheba Nandkeolyar and Jasbir Singh are contesting the position of AIBC National Chair, while Jim Varghese and Paul McKenzie are running for the position of Vice Chair. Indian Link asked the four candidates their views on where AIBC is currently positioned and where the future opportunities are.

AIBC.Indian Link
Current AIBC National Chair Dipen Rughani

How do you think AIBC has performed as the premier business council between India and Australia over the past 30 years?

Sheba Nandkeolyar (SN):  I believe AIBC has performed very well in recent years and has grown in stature from a loosely held organisation, to a limited company structure with strong governance and accountability in place. As the National Vice Chair I worked closely with the Chair Dipen Rughani to organise a very successful business leaders’ address by PM Narendra Modi when he visited Australia in November 2014. AIBC also worked closely with AII to organise the CEO forum for Mr Modi.
The AIBC Chair and I were invited by PM Abbott to join his CEO delegation when he visited India and we had the opportunity to brief him one-on-one prior to his business trip.
AIBC has presented several white papers on doing business with India and has also been providing inputs to CECA discussions.
Last year, 2015 saw AIBC lead the Vibrant Gujarat delegation, comprising over 45 AIBC members who were further joined by Australian Indian Business Week delegates, making up a delegation of over 100 plus.
A strong achievement for AIBC has been this ongoing partnership with Vibrant Gujarat for the past six years, an initiative largely led by the current Chair of AIBC.
AIBC.Indian Link
More recently, AIBC has been at the forefront on many national initiatives including organising the first ever national conference in conjunction with the Australian Financial Review which was a brilliant initiative. AIBC Chair Dipen Rughani and I worked very hard to make this happen. It was an inclusive conference wherein our objective was to dial up business interest in India and bring together diverse groups of stakeholders interested in working with India.
The inaugural Australia India Trade and Investment Awards announced at the 30th gala evening recognised the importance of this bilateral relationship. AIBC is the only business council that has extensive Australia-wide presence and each of the state chapters has extremely capable management committees.
AIBC industry chapters have made great contributions to sectors including mining and resources, renewable energy, ICT, education, women in business and young professionals among others.
What could we do better? We could contribute with greater policy inputs from AIBC, especially now that CECA discussions are in progress. I would like to see AIBC invited to be a more active participant in CECA discussions and work very closely with both governments. I would like to see big businesses in Australia more engaged with AIBC and SMEs to come to us with new initiatives and ideas.
Jasbir Singh (JS):  India is Australia’s 12th largest trading partner and bilateral relations have been given significant importance by both countries with very high level visits from Prime Minister of Australia to India and reciprocal visit from Indian Prime Minister to Australia. Australian trade minister Andrew Robb led the largest ever Australian business leaders (about 450 delegates) to Australia Business Week in India in 2015. Similarly annual meeting between the foreign ministers has taken centrestage for advancing ambitious bilateral agenda including defence, finance, water and cultural affairs, including Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement (CECA) negotiations. There is a principle commitment from both the governments to complete CECA negotiations at the earliest.
There are still major trade barriers, despite many complementary trade opportunities. Two-way trade is about $14-15 billion and investment is also about $10-11 billion. Australian investment is sectors like manufacturing, telecommunications, hotels, mineral processing, food processing, oil and gas and automotive sector. Indian investment is mainly concentrated in the energy and resource sector.
AIBC.Indian Link
AIBC, formally set up in 1986, has a key role to play in the rejuvenation of the bilateral trade relationship. During its thirty-year history, AIBC has seen many troughs and highs. With India emerging as the fastest growing major economy in the world, AIBC is now at the cusp of a big opportunity to establish itself as premier business advocacy body for its members to facilitate strong bilateral trade and investment. AIBC can also leverage the strong cultural and sports relationships for complementary business relationship. AIBC needs to strongly partner with government bodies like Austrade, Indian and Australian consulates and High Commissions, and federal and state agencies for policy advocacy for its members.
Paul McKenzie (PM): Having been a veteran member of AIBC for over 15 years, AIBC has for far too long struggled in performance, and now must move into the right direction, for the sake of members, stakeholders, and for Australia-India trade relations. Investment is negligible.
However, discussions like the recent Engaging with India conference are a good start, but now must turn into “action”, if AIBC is to grow in good profile and credibility after 30 years.
Failings from the past include too much long talk on commonwealth, curry and cricket for most of those 30 years, and commerce is not a new word since PM Modi’s Australian visit in November 2014. As a proud member of the AIBC, I see us as a business organisation having too much bilateral discussions and not much action. We need to stop the critics labelling us the “Australia India Business Cocktails” association. We need to grow with unity, success, results and pride, as the peak body in teamwork spearheading talks in Australia-India business, trade and investments. We must get the Australia-India Economic Agreement negotiated well and finalised, to cover “all bases”, so that no industry, group or consideration are left out. I want all AIBC members, the AIBC industry chapters and all stakeholders involved, to have a say and to cover all the bases, for the Australia-India Agreement. The “knife and fork” approach inside the AIBC must stop. Unity and teamwork is needed for us to start with action, to have good profile and credibility, to bring in results.
AIBC.Indian Link
Achievements, to AIBC’s credit, they brought Prime Ministers Modi and Abbott together in 2014, the first time two leaders got together on Australian soil in 28 years. Prime Minister Modi at the Sydney event in November 2014, said “I’m sorry it took 28 years for an Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia, but I promise, it won’t be 28 years when I return next.”
Now the challenge is to make the Australia-India agreement into a realty with pride and success, and to ensure it is not discussed for a further 28 years, waiting for an Indian Prime Minister to return to Australia.
I have seen Australia-India trade relations grow from $3.3 billion in 2000 to over $15 billion in 2013.  Now the challenge is to get these data updated and to improve on them into the future.
Jim Varghese (JV): I believe the AIBC has performed really well as the premier business council.
The 30th anniversary Engaging with India conference and dinner, run in collaboration with AFR was an excellent success story and a great exemplar of strategic positioning, engagement, effective networking, high quality information and analyses.AIBC.Indian Link
Similarly, the two joint AIBC/AII National Energy and Resources Forums held in 2015 in Brisbane and 2016 in Perth were also successful strategic events that helped Australian and Indian companies explore serous business opportunities in this mega billion-dollar industry sector.
State branches have also run very successful local events.

What will you do to improve the deficiencies and build on the strengths of AIBC?

SN: Building on strengths and improving on deficiencies are interwoven. My first observation is that a brand is known by the involvement of its people. I would like to see more passionate new members join AIBC and to build on a great legacy created by past AIBC leaders. I would like the leaders to mentor younger members to positions of leadership for future years. This is important for building future sustainability.
I would like to see AIBC being led in states and nationally by individuals who are passionately committed to creating a difference. AIBC needs to steer clear of personal vendettas and politics.
Fortunately we have moved away from petty politics and have rolled over these recent years to a more transparent style of functioning. I would like to strengthen this even further.
Secondly, AIBC needs more funds, grants or sponsorships to strengthen the secretariat services at the national and state level and I would very much like to work on this. This will lead to more benefits available to members too.
Third, more policy-level inputs from AIBC would be welcome and a more national presence of its national team too. In this context Jim Varghese who is based in Queensland if elected will provide for a truly national team.
Finally I would like to work on a collaborative model wherein we work with diverse stakeholders from Government and industry, to ensure we all work towards that one common goal of dialling up this bi-lateral trade relationship.
JS: AIBC can play a vital role and provide platform for its members for advocacy for federal and state policy making in both countries, networking for members, facilitate participation in bilateral trade missions and in general become an information hub for how to navigate the business challenges in both countries. As National Chair, I would like to provide a visible leadership in establishing corporate governance, strategic and operation excellence and expanding bilateral business relations in new horizons or environments for members. Building and managing businesses in cross cultural boundaries are some of my strengths on which AIBC members can leverage.
As Chair, my endeavour would be to promote Australia-India business ties with a focused approach for each business sector and more specific to members from SMEs. As a successful professional with nearly 28 years of industry experience in Australia and India at senior level, I have worked with government agencies, non-profit organisations and business partners in general.
PM: Well known to those inside AIBC, first of all, we need to address our membership, ie, membership retention and new members. We need to target ourselves towards 1,000 members, catering for those involved with Australia-India relations in business, trade and investment, from individual business/professional people, to SMEs, corporations, organisations and right up to multi-nationals. Having a dormant base of 500 members for too long is not acceptable and also not acceptable, is for too long, many are not joining.  Secondly, AIBC needs to show action and leadership on the Australia-India economic agreement/free trade agreement. Thirdly I want better AIBC/corporate relations, to improve sponsorship and support in business, trade and investment.
JV: Improving deficiencies and building strengths is about what we like to see more of and less of.
I would like to see more of the AIBC as a powerful national business council that significantly shapes and influences the economic and business relationship between Australia and India.
I would like to see more of the AIBC as an effective advocate that encourages the Australian and Indian governments to engage with the private sector and business community to ensure that the imminent Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement drives future trade and investment. I would also like to see the AIBC recognised in any negotiations as partners, not passive observers – with a unique role to play in fostering closer economic relations in the context of trade barriers, impediments to investment or lack of cultural knowledge
In this context, it would be good to have your Chair and Vice Chair coming from different states but working as a complementary team harmoniously empowering state branches within the AIBC governance framework.
I would like to see less of the AIBC getting involved and mired in the politics of personality and ego, or providing a breeding ground to pursuing personal agendas.

Who would you like to have as your Vice Chair/Chair from the current nominations and why? What are the complementary strengths you bring to AIBC?

SN: Jim Varghese is my running mate for the National Vice-Chair position. Jim has amazing experience across government and industry. He has been working with AIBC on various national initiatives including organising the National Forum on Mining, Energy and Resources recently in WA. Highly respected by both government and industry influencers, Jim will help in making this team truly national as he is based in Queensland while I am based in NSW.
Both of us will tick six major boxes: extensive experience of the Australia India Business relationship; passionate about the Australia India business relationship; already existing and excellent relationship with all major AIBC stakeholders; gender diversity; geographic diversity; mentoring young people for future leadership positions.
Paul is a good mate and I know Jasbir too. If Jim and I were to be elected, we would very much like to offer both of them special initiatives that they could own at AIBC.
JS: As National Chair, I will be able to work with both the candidates who have submitted their nominations for Vice Chair. As a member of the Queensland Chapter of AIBC from 2010 to 2014, I worked very closely with the candidate from Queensland. I am now based in Sydney and have interacted with the other candidates from NSW as well. I am confident I can have good working relations with them.
PM: I do not wish to comment on the two candidates for the AIBC national chair role, as there are long standing friendships involved. I am running my election campaign independently, based on my own record, experience, skills and talent, with over 15 years’ involvement with AIBC.
I wish both candidates well. They too have experience, skills and talent to give great leadership to AIBC, to bring unity, professionalism, trust and friendliness among the members.
JV: I am running as a team with Sheba Nandkeolyar as Chair, AIBC.
Our comprehensive experience and expertise sets up the platform for the AIBC to become an authentic national organisation readily recognised by the governments of Australia – federal, state and local – for promoting business links between Australia and India.
It is time to put aside ‘old style’ leadership approaches and slogans; we will authentically embrace collaboration with a focus on outcomes.
We have already broken the mould by proposing a leadership team that comes from NSW and Queensland.
We are also Australian citizens who were born in north India (Sheba) and south India (Jim) – giving us a good personal connectivity to the social and cultural complexity of India.
Our well-developed circles of influence and networks equip us to drive AIBC advocacy in the work of the Australian and Indian Governments in enhancing the trade, investment and cultural relationships between our nations.
With the changing of the guard at the national level, NSW, Queensland, Victoria and West Australia, there is now an unrivalled opportunity to refresh our organisation and position the AIBC as a national organisation with effective state branches and networks to usher in a new era in the relationship between Australia and India.
The passion certainly runs deep. The responses indicate a desire to bring the government of the two countries closer but also the grassroots of AIBC to grow the membership with a better value-add for all. While of the four candidates, only Sheba has had the experience of working at the national level through her past tenure as Vice Chair, the others bring to t\he table strong experience of working within AIBC and in their professions. Both Jasbir and Paul are open to working with any successful candidate, while Sheba and Jim have shown a strong interest in working more closely with each other as a team.
With elections open now, it is important for the members to elect a strong team, given that challenges as well as opportunities lie ahead for the AIBC.

Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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