Just days before Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott to become the 29th Prime Minister of Australia, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties raised serious concerns about the proposal for Australia to sell uranium to India.
The report stated that the sale should not go ahead until India sets up an independent nuclear regulator, separates its civil and military nuclear facilities, and allows safety inspections, the multi-party committee recommended.
It added that India should be encouraged to become a party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Though the Treaties Committee report cautiously favoured selling uranium, its recommendations are certain to raise eyebrows and blood pressure within the Indian government, which has emphatically stated that the issue of signing the CTBT is a sovereign decision for India and should not be linked to the sale of uranium.
It is to be noted that the deal can still be signed off by the Australian government bypassing the Senate, but it is believed that then this decision could be subject to legal challenges.
While this has been playing in the background, there has been a change in leadership in Australia. Tony Abbott, who had formed a close relationship with Indian PM Modi during their various interactions over the past couple of years, now is not in a decision making position. His ‘captain’s calls’ have been publically rejected by PM Turnbull as a way for the government to make policy. The challenge which comes in for the Indian government is whether the new PM will have the strength and fortitude to press ahead with the uranium sale policy first touted by PM Howard, passed by the Labor Party at their annual conference, and further promoted by PM Abbott.
On one hand, Turnbull does have huge political capital, and according to his speeches and blogs, is largely supportive of India. He has a strong understanding of international affairs and can see the economic rise in Asia, largely fuelled by India and China. His early remarks on Free Trade Agreements (FTA) indicate his desire to reposition the Australian economy to take advantage of these emerging economies.
The FTA with China is well progressed and there is frantic work going on with finalising an FTA with India. Considering the economic trajectory which PM Turnbull wants Australia to embark on, one feels the Turnbull led government will continue on the path towards securing the uranium sale to India, in spite of the road bumps recently identified.
For the local Indian Australian community, there was an emerging desire from the former PM Abbott to reach out and connect. With the polls tightening, the migrant vote was becoming more strategic. The former PM Abbott hosted multicultural media at Kirribilli House earlier this month to start the engagement process. However, with early indications of a tidal wave of support for the new Prime Minister Turnbull, the Indian Australian community may not get all the love they may have received under Abbott.
Nevertheless, the Indian Australian community still commands a healthy proportion of votes in the western regions of Sydney and Melbourne. The Liberal Party has made very limited inroads here and this may well be the opportunity for them to capitalise on the growing pro-Liberal trend by working to woo these votes. Yes, elections are a while away, but as they say, no time like the present to start making headway.