Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report: ‘Potential damage to Ind-Aus ties’

Indian Link’s Pawan Luthra chats to former High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell about the potential reputation damage done by the ABC’s Four Corners report ‘Infiltrating Australia: India’s Secret War’

Reading Time: 7 minutes


Pawan Luthra: What did you think of the Four Corners report ‘Infiltrating India’?

Barry O’Farrell: The ABC’s charter is that it should be fair and objective, and for its journalists to uphold those standards. The concern I have is potential damage to the Australia-India relationship through such a program.

The report was disappointing, because it seemed essentially like it was a conga line of criticisms without an attempt to enable viewers to decide on the issues presented – be it communalism, Khalistan or the Canadian and American allegations.

The criticism within the program is that Australia turns a blind eye because it’s obsessed with economic opportunities in India. Pawan, during my time in India, we had visits from both sides of politics – the Morrison government and the Albanese government – and I can tell you that the discussions that were held were frank and direct, and the relationship is strong enough to have those frank and direct discussions.

Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report
Barry O’Farrell with his Indian counterpart Manpreet Vohra

Australia clearly has a different view to Canada, which prefers to use megaphones to communicate with India, and we all know that that doesn’t work. Australia continues to bring its values to its engagements with India. When Indian official visitors come to Australia, we expose them to the multicultural, multi-faith, prosperous and peaceful Australia.

So, it is disappointing. I don’t know what happened in Canada. I don’t know what happened in the United States. But what I do know is that all of us, including India, Australia, Canada and the United States, operate on the basis of a court system that enables evidence to be presented and decisions to be made. And almost a year on from the allegations first made by Prime Minister Trudeau, we’ve seen no court action in Canada, [and] to the best of my knowledge, we’ve seen no court action in the United States.

I was frustrated by the program because it was damaging to both Congress and BJP. The brief mention of Indira Gandhi’s actions in Operation Blue Star ignored the fact that a religious place of worship was being used to store Chinese ammunition and bombs. Something like 3,000 people died around that time from this Khalistani movement. I just don’t think that anybody who watched the program could make a decision on any of those things because there was only one side presented.

(Source: Australian High Commission, New Delhi)

Pawan, I think the other thing which has been unhelpful[ly represented] – I picked this up early when I was in politics – is that people who come from India, where democracy is vibrant (as demonstrated again in this month’s Indian election) would bring that enthusiasm to Australia, join political parties, stand for Parliament and engage.

To suggest that the reasons Indians are getting involved in Australian politics are for self-advancement or to influence the Australian government’s relation with India is a complete slur against citizens who are entrepreneurial and peaceful… and who increasingly we find ending up in our parliaments. It’s just disappointing that the presentation was not explaining why Indian-Australians may want to be involved in politics but simply that they were part of a [branch] stack.

Now I’ve been out of politics for a long time. I have no first-hand knowledge of those things. But I do know that [regardless of] whether you’re a Labor member elected to the Federal Parliament [or] the National Party member elected to the NSW State Parliament, you’re there to help your community, you’re there to serve your electorate and if you don’t do that, you don’t last very long.

Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report
Pawan Luthra: Barry, this seems to be a follow-on from an earlier Foreign Correspondent report when the presenter was asked to leave India. Did you feel that there were personal issues involved, rather than it being an unbiased report?

Barry O’Farrell: I don’t think any reasonable person could think otherwise.

That’s a pity; I think the reporter could have presented a program that provided more balance and made the same points that she made and come out of it with the impartiality that the ABC says they want their reporters to have.

I’m not one of those from my side of politics who has ever engaged in criticism or bashing of the ABC; I grew up in Northern Australia, and the ABC was incredibly important to me, informing me about sport and about the world, and I’ve always been a strong supporter of it.

That’s why I say I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. The same program [could have been] done differently, in a way that informed and presented the facts on both sides.

Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report

Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report

Pawan Luthra: What did you think about the issue of spies monitoring the local diaspora?

Barry O’Farrell: We all saw the head of the intelligence service [Mike Burgess] make that statement, but he didn’t provide any context or any background. We don’t know who it was or what it was about.

There’s no doubt it’s a disturbing issue, but I’m not the first one to say when these things are announced, they should be put in some sort of context.

If you just [say] there was an incident, it just doesn’t explain its depth of seriousness. Ultimately those things will be resolved, but it was a surprise to me.

Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report

Pawan Luthra: And the issue about the links to RSS and HSS and the training they do with lathis – was that taken a bit out of context?

Barry O’Farrell: I met with the RSS hierarchy twice, as many ambassadors do in India, and the discussions with them were around economic policy, reforms, and India’s engagement with the world and it’s clear the RSS has shifted positions over the decades as any organisation does.

I read the paper today, Pawan, and there’s a report that the British Conservative Party, who have an organisation in Australia as they have in other countries, are rallying English migrants to vote in the election to support [them]. The [Australian] Liberal Party, the [Australian] Labor Party do likewise in places like Europe, UK, the Americas, and the American political parties have presences in Australia – it’s all about their [members] commitment to their party.

I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about having a ‘Friends of the BJP’ or ‘Friends of Congress’ in Australia; the divide that exists in any democracy between political parties is brought to Australia [too]. I meet many Indians who are strong Congress supporters. I meet many Indians who are strong BJP supporters, and I meet those that support regional parties – given the state of the last election, they all seem a bit happier than they were previously.

I don’t think it’s nefarious, and yet it was presented as though it was nefarious.

I’ve had no association with RSS organisations here… I do know that one of the things that has been part of the RSS mantra is personal development and making people personally disciplined. I’ve had ministers like Gadkari and others talk to me about that, but I have no knowledge of that really.


Barry O Farrell
O’Farrell: ‘Democracy in India is alive and well’ (Source: Australian High Commission, New Delhi)

Bry O’Farrell on Four Corners report

Pawan Luthra: Anything else you wish to add, Barry?

Barry O’Farrell: There’s too little reporting on India in Australia, so when I see this sort of item, it is disappointing. There’s also been very little media follow up to this Four Corners program; when Four Corners has hit a rich vein, it’s [usually] followed up by commercial TV, by newspapers and the like – I haven’t seen much about the program since it aired on Monday night.

To me, it’s a sign that those who did watch it either recognise the fact it was not a balanced piece or people didn’t watch it. I’ve got no idea what the ratings were.

Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report

Pawan Luthra: That’s interesting and it gives me a lot to think about.

Barry O’Farrell: No democracy is perfect. No democracy doesn’t have negatives. For 20 years we ran an offshore detention centre and illegal migrant policy that was criticised around the world, [but it] didn’t stop a democratically elected government doing what it thought was in the best interests of Australia.

The [latest Indian] election again showed that democracy is alive and well. My view is the fact the BJP now has a coalition alliance will be good for its future operations, because as we’ve seen in this country, when the Senate is not controlled by [one] political party, it knocks the hard edges off policies.

I kept a close eye on the 2022 Karnataka elections, [during] which BJP were in power, as we were opening a consulate down there, and the usual tactics which we all despair about were deployed and failed. It’s too soon to analyse, but there’s a suggestion out of the federal campaign that these tactics again didn’t deliver the results expected. There’s nothing that’s more likely to see the demise of those tactics than the fact that they’re no longer effective.

That’s a good thing and I think it reflects again the changing nature of India. The more educated, the more upwardly mobile, the more entrepreneurial and job-focussed India [becomes], [the more] these troubling things from the past start to fade.

At least that’s my hope.

I also want to add that it’s all very well to bring Australian values to our dealings with India, but we should also have our eyes wide open and not simply view things from the perspective of how they operate in Australia.

For instance, I genuinely do not believe that Australia understands what having a land border with a country is like. The land border with China and India is the equivalent of the tip of Cape York to Tasmania. It’s a bloody long border.

Equally, we have never been touched within our country by extremism or terrorism, and India, regrettably has been. India has a clear lower threshold than we do in Australia when it comes to giving groups the benefit of the doubt, based on this experience. To try and conflate both is not informing people. Barry O’Farrell on Four Corners report

Read also: Four Corners’ ‘Infiltrating Australia: India’s Secret War’

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

What's On