AIBC Annual Address and Gala Dinner: Two differing views

Two attendees speak on this year's AIBC address and gala dinner honouring India's Independence Day. By DARSHAK MEHTA and SRIRAMAN ANNASWAMY.

Reading Time: 6 minutes


The Australia India Business Council (AIBC) concluded its Indian Independence Day festivities with a gala dinner this week, featuring some of the top leaders in government, industry, and community. However, the grand occasion has received mixed reviews from attendees.

Darshak Mehta OAM

Two speakers held the room at the recent AIBC’s Annual Address and Gala Dinner at Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel – the Indian High Commissioner H.E. Shri Manpreet Vohra and
Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Other than these two, it was a talk fest that went on and on.
Speaker after speaker droned on. The audience started getting restive. They were ignored. In turn, the audience ignored the speakers.

Repeated attempts were made to silence them, but people were being aurally assaulted from the stage, non-stop. There was simply no respite. People could not talk to their table guests or anyone else for that matter.

Speaker after speaker paid (repeated) obeisance to the dignitaries in the room, rather than a simple ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and getting on with their points succinctly. Has no one at the AIBC ever heard of “more is less”?

Why would they impossibly cram an evening programme, with several speakers and how is that even courteous to the Foreign Minister and the Indian HC whose addresses are meant to be the highlights of the evening?

Manpreet Vohra AIBC
Indian High Commissioner Manpreet Vohra makes his address at the AIBC dinner. Source: Twitter (@DrSoumyadeepB)

A few speakers implicitly blamed Australia for the poor traction in the economic relationship and of course huffed and puffed about the size of India’s market and economy. Has there been enough soul-searching on why Australian businesses have been traditionally slow or reluctant to embrace India, in comparison to China? And, what would be a constructive way to fast- forward the economic relationship? Surely, not by guilt, digs or recriminations and accusations!

Earlier that evening, the portends were not great when I spent about 20 minutes trying to find my name badge. There were unorganised queues and the volunteers at the badge table were missing or inadequate. Then, another 10 minutes trying to find my table number on the solitary board outside the room, where the font was tiny and the list idiosyncratic. Prominent businessman Ashok Jacob was as despairing as I was. In desperation, I rang my table host who told me where he was, and then apologised for its far corner location (after being told it would be well located).

From conception to execution, the Dinner was hopelessly flawed. This organisation has no clue on how to organise an event of this gravitas, and as an Australian of Indian origin I was ashamed of the total shambles that the event turned out to be. What must Sir Peter Cosgrove, Tony Abbott et al who were in the audience think about our organisational abilities?

The dinner itself took forever to be served. At my table, guests were so hungry that everyone ate two bread rolls, when offered.

And, the bread rolls were charred, too! The main course for vegetarians, was a big fat slab of paneer painted over in a bright orange colour. If this was meant to be a great example of Indian cuisine, my main course failed miserably. The wine was highly average to complete the dismal dinner.

Rather than troll me for this critical piece, the AIBC would do well to seek the objective input of other attendees (not their own committee) and ascertain what improvements they will make at future events?

Attendees had come to listen to the chief guests, the Australian Foreign Minister and the Indian High Commissioner. What transpired unfortunately was a non-stop pile on and prattle.

Give people a break. At least a decent interval between courses, to converse at their table or meet others.

And, please stop these fashion parades and cultural dances. A dinner of this sobriety is not meant to be a tamasha – though the AIBC turned it into one. And, it is insulting to the poor
participants too – the models and the dancers who go blithely ignored and unappreciated.
Was there was anything about the dinner that I didn’t mind? Apart from the speeches by Minister Wong and High Commissioner Vohra, it was the rendition of the Australian anthem by two of our First Nations musicians. One vocal, and the other on the Didgeridoo. They were simply sensational.

I last attended an AIBC Dinner over 10 years ago, as a guest of then Indian High Commissioner Sujatha Singh, and I had penned a critique – I take it all back. In comparison to the fiasco which was AIBC’s latest effort, that one over a decade ago was a
shining light of their proficiency and organisation.

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Sriraman (Sri) Annaswamy

Congratulations to the AIBC on a fitting finale to its inaugural Australia India International Business Summit, the AIIBS gala dinner last night.

Kudos to the two co-chairs for this memorable event, the ever- striving Sheba Nandkeolyar and the diligent Irfan Malik, for breaking new ground. After all, this is the first time ever that a business and commercial engagement focused gala dinner (and indeed, summit) had been organized by any major Indian organization and that too on this scale (at least to the best of my knowledge over the last 30 years or so).

What shone brilliantly during the night was the truly noteworthy quality of the content, business and cultural, that had been curated and delivered amidst a three-course dinner to a jampacked and often obstreperous audience.

Some of this outstanding content included a young Indian-Australian lad who enthralled the audience with a flawless renditioning of both the Australian and Indian National Anthems.

A persuasive speech supported by incisive analysis was made by the Indian High Commissioner, His Excellency Manpreet Vohra, exhorting Australian corporates to not let the mega opportunities pass them by this time, as they had done since the early 1990s and which concluded with an evocative call to action to resounding applause.

There was an understated but effective response by The Hon. Penny Wong, Australian Foreign Minister, who acknowledged the need for laser-sharp focus on prioritizing the Australia-India commercial relationship and assured the audience that the government was serious about dealing decisively with the hurdles including the clunky skilled migration system.

Penny Wong speech aibc
Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the AIBC annual address. Source: Twitter (@DrSoumyadeepB, @SenatorWong)

And finally, a credible panel discussion moderated by The Hon. Jodi McKay, former state opposition leader and MP for Strathfield, with the standout contributor being the CEO of Invest India Deepak Bagla, who shared a meticulously prepared list of 33 commercial sectors where they had received enquiries from Australian businesses over the last three years and urged others in such sectors to contact his organization to make use of their pro bono consulting services.

What are some of the simple things that the organizing committee could have done better to enhance the overall experience for the next occasion and take it to the next level?

First, limit the number of items to no more than say five. Schedule the logistics such a way that the items filled the natural pauses in a three-course dinner service (for example, the first speech after the entrée, the second speech and panel after the main, and so on).

Get the compère to announce the “house-keeping rules” right at the start like switching off mobile phones, not walking around during the items, and reiterating these a couple of times during the night.

Perhaps a roving microphone for audience engagement would’ve averted strange situations like the one wherein a member of the audience had to yell from the back of the room
querying whether he could ask a question!

Also, having a clearly visible timer with lights (green, amber, red) could help ensure that speakers and panelists don’t overshoot their time range.

In summary, this was a watershed event, especially for the Indian-Australian business community. The leadership team of the AIBC especially the two event co-chairs, Sheba and Irfan, deserve an unequivocal round of applause and a huge pat in the back for demonstrating what could be achieved over just a few hours (and indeed, during just a couple of days of the summit.)

Iron out a few simple logistical issues and we have the makings of a great series of memorable events, right here.

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