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Masterchef to the rescue…

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… of the India-Australia relationship!

An old friend from India visited Australia for the first time recently with his wife and two teenage kids. All four had their list of ‘things to do in Australia’. The items on the youngsters’ lists simply blew me away.

OK, so they wanted to pat a kangaroo and cuddle a koala. What else? See a show at the Sydney Opera House? No. Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge? No. Go snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef? No! Believe it or not, they wanted to visit the Masterchef Australia kitchen at its Sydney studios, and dine at celebrity chef Kylie Kwong’s restaurant in Surry Hills.

Sadly, my young guests were disappointed as they were able to do neither: Masterchef was not filming, and Billy Kwong was booked out for a private function.

When India’s leading actress Vidya Balan visited last year, one of the things she wanted to do on her only night in Sydney, was meet her “favourite TV personality” Matt Preston. Her hosts, obviously better connected than me, pulled it off for her (although we did get the chance to splash the photos from that dinner on our pages).

Contemporary Australian offerings seem to have stuck a chord in the Indian psyche. Move over, cricket – it’s cuisine!

A recently released report by the Australia India Institute entitled Beyond the Lost Decade, attempts to analyse the fractured relationship between the two countries, and makes recommendations for closer connections. Over 30 recommendations are listed: some, if adopted can have an immediate positive effect on the relationship; others seem rather ambitious in their scope but it is good to see them on paper.

One immediate action recommended was the extension of the visas of Indian students who were in Australia on Feb 8, 2010 and were affected by changes in the immigration regulations. Adjusting these students in some other visa category, allowing them to extend their stay, will be a welcome gesture by the Australian government. While this can be a short term solution, the report does suggest that Australia must promote quality education for Indian students. However, the report falls short on recommending actions on some of the basic problems which aggravated the student crisis of 2009, that of subsidised travel options for overseas students and low cost housing. Subsidised travel concessions will give the option to overseas students to use public transport rather than cutting corners and while saving a few dollars on travel, expose themselves to unnecessary risk of walking through the streets at night.

What is noted in the report is the decline in student numbers from the peak of 120,000 in 2009 to 37,500 in March 2012, a fall of 82,500. These declining numbers have cost the industry close to $3 billion. Putting this in context, in the May budget the government cut defence spending by $5.5 billion over the next four years in order to return to the surplus forecast of $1.5bn for 2012-13. The loss in Indian student numbers have had a major impact on the Australian economy: the issue could certainly have been handled better.

It is noteworthy that a major report such as this had limited ground-based community consultation. If the 400,000 plus Indian-origin Australians are going to be ambassadors between the two countries, perhaps a greater involvement from them could have been expected in the preparation of the report.

Perhaps supplementing this report should be a program to get George Colambaris, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston to get on a plane and film a series of Masterchef in India. One believes new friendships will be forged very quickly.

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