Opposition Leader Tony Abbott speaks exclusively to Indian Link on uranium, Indian students, 457 visas and… chicken tikka!
With just a few days to go before the 2013 Federal Election, Indian Link wrote to the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition Party to request interviews with their leaders. On behalf of the community, we wanted a better understanding of their overall polices, with particular reference to the ones relating to India, as well as their plans for the Indian Australian community.
The Coalition responded within minutes of receiving our request, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott agreed to an interview that aired on Indian Link Radio recently.
However, we were not as fortunate with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Despite of a number of emails and text messages to the Prime Minister’s senior media adviser, at the time of going to press, Mr Rudd’s office is still to take up this offer.
With the Coalition stretching its lead in the polls and pundits anointing him as the next Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Abbott was friendly and relaxed as he spoke about Indo-Australia issues. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Pawan Luthra (PL): Welcome to Indian Link, Mr Abbott. We are just a few days out from the election; how do you feel?
Tony Abbott (TA): I feel that this election can still go either way. While it’s been a good campaign for the Coalition, and a pretty scrappy campaign from the government, Mr Rudd is a clever politician. The Labor party has unleashed a ferocious negative campaign. They think that negative advertising works, so we can’t take the outcome for granted. Nevertheless, the Coalition has a strong united party ready to serve, and we’ve had the same clear policy position as previously, and I think we’ve had a good chance over the last few weeks to reinforce those with the Australian people.
PL: Did you expect this kind of a negative campaign?
TA: I always thought that a desperate Labor Party would resort to scare tactics. Mr Rudd made a big, big, big play, when he returned to the Prime Ministership of being positive when he said, ‘with all my heart I want to end the negativity’ and I’m just a bit disappointed that he seems to have broken his own promise in that aspect.
PL: Mr Abbott, I’d like to turn your attention to the India-Australia relationship. The white elephant in the room to progress this relationship, is the sale of uranium to India. While this was agreed on by the Labor Party, sadly the process remains stalled with little action forthcoming. If elected, how will the Coalition government handle this situation?
TA: We want it to happen. India is a democracy that enjoys the rule of law, and is a country with which we have good relations. Plainly, if Australia sells uranium to Russia or elsewhere, we ought to be prepared to sell uranium, under appropriate safeguards, to India. It seems like the current government has singled India out for punishment even though India’s role in the international community is a very stable one. I’m very keen to try to ensure that uranium sales to India are resumed as soon as possible. Pawan, I will want to know exactly what the obstacles to these sales would be, exactly why there seems to have been a bit of dragging of the chain by perhaps the officials, rather than others. And if it’s some obstacle of law on the path of Australian officialdom that’s the problem I’d want to resolve.
PL: That’s good to hear, because this is one of the major issues holding back a more conducive relationship between the two countries.
TA: And we shouldn’t make it out to look like we are singling out India for some kind of criticism. India is a democracy under the rule of law, it’s been a very constructive contributor to the international community. It’s one of the coming superpowers of this century and it’s important that we acknowledge that and work as well as we can with India and the Indian government.
PL: Leading on from there, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell made it very clear at the start of his term that he would be visiting India and China every year; would you be looking at a similar agenda?
TA: Yes I would, Pawan. I think that it’s very important that Australia maintains the best possible relations with all its friends. Over the years we’ve obviously had outstanding relations with Washington and London, but we should never allow our strong friendship with our traditional friends and allies to divert us from an even stronger friendship with the emerging powers of our region, and India is very much in the forefront there. So I think it’s important that Australia acknowledges the fact that as time goes by, India is going to count for more and more in the world. Particularly given India’s profound commitment to democracy in the rule of law, it’s very important to build an even stronger relationship with India. India is the emerging democratic super power of Asia and I want to stress that. That’s why it’s very important that Australian leaders spend more time in India, or on India in the future, than we have in the past.
PL: Former Prime Minister John Howard made his first overseas visit to Indonesia, reflecting his particular change in foreign policy. If elected, would India be high on your list of countries to visit?
TA: It would be. I expect Indonesia to be my first significant overseas visit… I’m certainly not getting ahead of myself there, Pawan, but I would be surprised and disappointed if within a matter of months there hadn’t been a trip to India.
PL: On another issue, the changes to the 457 visa program have not only made a deep impact on a number Indian professionals here, they have not played out well in India either. Unfortunately it has added to the perception that Australia is ‘racist,’ triggered by the student attacks in the past. If elected, what would you do to counter this perception?
TA: I acknowledge that the violence against Indian students, particularly in Victoria a few years ago, was a real blot on our national copy book and the then Victorian government was far too slow to response to what was, at the time, racially motivated violence. At the time I deplored these attacks, I think it’s profoundly out of character for Australians to do that. I think Indians in Australia appreciate that Australians are very welcoming people, that we are a very welcoming, free and fair country. Yes, but it happened, it shouldn’t have happened, governments at all levels were slow to respond but eventually we did get on top of it and now it’s not happening. Equally, I deplore the fact that the current national government has demonised people coming to Australia on 457 visas. I’ve been saying repeatedly since this campaign began, the people who come to Australia to work and pay taxes from day one, are not stealing Aussie jobs, they are building our country. We should be very welcoming to people who are prepared to come here for a short time, or for a long time, to work and pay taxes and join the Australian team, which is what people on 457 visas abundantly do.
PL: So will you look at making some changes?
TA: Oh absolutely! We want 457 visas not just to be a component of our immigration program, we want them to be a very possibly, the mainstay of our immigration program. Because the tradition in this country is that we extend the hand of welcome to everyone who wants to come here and join the team, and come to work and pay taxes from day one.
PL: Your recently released education policy promised to improve the take-up of Hindi in Australian schools. While this is a terrific start, are there any plans to extend this to higher education at University levels?
TA: Thank you. I think we had better take one step at a time, Pawan. Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and it’s appropriate that our study of Hindi be expanded, rather than contracted. This is one of the problems of modern Australia; because so many people speak English we become a bit linguistically lazy and we shouldn’t expect that the world will speak to us in our language. We should be ready to speak to the world in its language. That’s why the study of Hindi, the study of Japanese, Bahasa or Korean, is important. Back in the 1960s about 40% of Australia’s school leavers had studied a foreign language. Now it’s less than 10% and this is an indictment of our system, and it has got to be fixed.
PL: We know you travelled to India as a youth and worked at a Jesuit mission in Bihar, but what are your recent links?
TA: I regret to say I haven’t been to India since this time.
PL: But you’re promising to visit post September 7, if elected as Prime Minister?
TA: Absolutely! I had hopes to go this year as Opposition Leader, but unfortunately the pressure of the elections intervened. There was a clash between the proposed dates for a visit by me and a visit by an Australian government minister, so in the end the ministerial visit went ahead, not the leader of the opposition’s visit. But this is a mission on which I want to break the ice very, very soon. I spent some fascinating months in India back in 1981, on my way from Australia to England to take up a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. I spent three fascinating months in India, mostly in the Bihar province, in the company of the Jesuits. I have been fascinated by India ever since. I thought back then, that India was a country with enormous potential. It was in those days a bit of a sleeping giant, but the giant has well and truly awoken and it’s important that Australia makes the most of that potential. And it’s important that Australia acknowledges India’s prospects of future success.
PL: The Indian community in the Western suburbs has been asking the government to collaborate in setting up an India House. If elected, will you assist them in this endeavour?
TA: It’s a very worthy aspiration. I don’t want to give cast iron guarantees, because I’m not familiar with the details of the proposal, but I would be only too happy, either myself, my staff, or some of my colleagues, to sit down with members of the community to explore the proposal and do what we can to help.
Up close and personal with Tony Abbott
PL: An Indian personality, alive or dead, who has made an impression on you?
TA: Mohandas K Gandhi, because he managed to lead his people in a great struggle, and he did what he could to ensure that the struggle was peaceful.
PL: Your favourite Indian restaurant in Sydney?
TA: The Indian Times, at Bantry Bay road in Frenchs Forest is the restaurant I most frequently take advantage of, it is my local. Probably more often takeaway rather than a sit-down meal, but they do a very good job there and I can thoroughly recommend them.
PL: Your favourite order at an Indian restaurant?
TA: Lamb rogan josh, chicken tikka, beef Bombay and there’s a prawn masala there which is very good.
PL: Ever cooked something Indian?
TA: I use to cook a reasonable curry, but these days my wife tries to keep me out of the kitchen.
PL: An Indian book you have read that’s made an impression?
TA: I haven’t had enough time to read lately. There has been an extraordinary proliferation of Indian literature in English over the last couple of decades, and I’m probably not as up with it as I should be, so I’ll probably pass on this question, but I did have a go at Vikram Seth’s, A Suitable Boy, and I must confess I didn’t really like it much. That’s probably a comment on me, on my busy work, but I confess I didn’t get through it.
PL: Seen any Indian films?
TA: Again, when I was in India I watched some Bollywood films. They weren’t really my type, but like everyone else, I watched Slumdog Millionaire and I loved it.
PL: An Indian word you know?
TA: Well ‘khaki,’ as I understand it, is an English word derived from India.
PL: An outstanding memory from your time spent in India?
TA: I guess apart from the colours, the sounds, the extraordinary work of the Jesuits, probably my strongest memory is just the readiness of the ordinary Indian to engage with me. You couldn’t walk 10 yards without being basically hailed and talked to, and maybe it was because in those days, a white face in the street was a rare thing. Maybe it was because they just wanted to practise their English on me, but I certainly had an amazing time there.
PL: Or maybe they saw a fair dinkum fellow in you over there…
TA: (Laughing) Well, I’d like to think that I was a fair dinkum fellow but I guess at that point in time they may not have known that.
PL: India – Australia relationship future?
TA: Well look, I want to do everything I reasonably can to build a better relationship between Australia and India because this will be good for India, but it will be very, very good for Australia.
PL:Your message for the Indian Australian community?
TA: It’s a simple one, and it’s much the same message that I would give to every Australian at this time. We must change the government because we can’t afford another three years like the last six. I lead the coalition and this is what we’ll do; we’ll build a stronger economy so that everyone will get ahead. We’ll scrap the carbon tax and we’ll end the waste, we’ll stop the boats and we’ll build the roads of the 21st century. But in order to do all this, we need a stable majority government and that’s what I will bring with me if elected on 7th Sept.