Address by H E Harinder Sidhu, High Commissioner of Australia to India
to Graduates of Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University
Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh
2 September 2016
“A View of the World from Australia”
Thank you for your very kind invitation to speak. I’d like to renew my warmest congratulations to the class topper, Ms Koka Naga Srilakshmi Pravallika. It is wonderful to see a women excel in a field that is traditionally dominated by men.
A graduation ceremony is a very significant event. It is a rite of passage. It marks the moment when you start to look out at the world, rather than down at your books. It is a time to make decisions about next steps and consider your wider goals in life.
No doubt, you will be surrounded by many people who will give you advice, or offer perspectives to consider, in shaping your decisions.
Allow me, therefore, to provide a perspective from Australia. How does Australia see the world? What does it mean to be Australian?
These questions are not as simple as they seem. To answer them involves dealing with slippery concepts of national identity and values. But let me hazard a try.
Australia has been described as the “lucky country”. This refers at one level to our great natural resource endowment, which has been the source of our economic strength.
Donald Horne, the writer who coined this phrase in 1964, intended to show that from the time of our colonisation, Australia inherited British institutions, democracy and access to manufacturing wealth. We did not have to fight for our fortune.
Anyone looking at Australia today would agree that it is, however defined, “lucky”. Australia’s is the fourth largest economy in the Asian region and the 12th largest economy in the world. We rank second on the UN’s Human Development Report. Our people are highly educated and diverse; and we are blessed with a clean and beautiful environment.
But this also brings some anxieties. At 24 million, we have a relatively small population. To put that number into perspective – that is how many people the Indian railway system transports on a single day! And we are located on the world’s largest island – the sixth largest country on earth, after Russia, China, Canada, the USA and Brazil.
Australia in the World
The fact of being a small population on a large landmass located at the edge of Asia, has coloured how Australia sees the world and its place in it.
For the largest part of our history, Australia felt deeply connected to Europe, and specifically to Britain. Australians saw ourselves as vulnerable - a thinly-populated land mass surrounded by heavily populated, poor and unstable countries to our Asian north.
Our sense of identity was caught in a struggle between our history and our geography.
Our instinct was to protect ourselves from Asia – in trade terms, but also in people terms, through migration restrictions.
But that view has shifted profoundly over the past 50 years or so. We began increasingly to see ourselves as part of Asia. So much so that in the early 1990s, our then-Prime Minister Paul Keating was able to put forward the proposition that:
… psychologically, Australia must understand it has to live in the region around it. Australia must find its security in Asia; it cannot find its security from Asia.
Today, Australia is deeply enmeshed in Asia. Four of our top 5 trading partners [China, United States, Japan, Republic of Korea, Singapore] are Asian countries.
India is Australia’s 9th largest trading partner and 5th largest export market. China and India are Australia’s two largest sources of overseas students. And in 2014-15 India was Australia’s largest source of skilled migrants and second largest source of family migrants.
The Australian Identity – who is an Australian?
While Australia is home to one of the world’s most ancient continuing cultures, the past two centuries of migration has shaped who we are today.
We are a migrant nation. Nearly half of all Australians today were either born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas. Over one-third of the population in Australia’s five mainland capitals was overseas-born.
Australia’s Indian-born population has tripled in the past decade to reach around 450,000 people; with Punjabi the fastest growing language and Hinduism the fastest growing religion.
But if you close your eyes and try to imagine a person who is a typical Australian, chances are that person would not look like me. I would guess that the person you would imagine would be male and probably of British or European stock.
You would not be far off. According to the 2011 National Census, the average Australian is female, aged around 37, born in Australia and is likely a Catholic of either English, Irish or Scottish ancestry.
This is starting to change.
The currents and patterns of migration have led an Australian journalist, George Megalogenis, to say that Australia is becoming increasingly an Eurasian nation.
It is very likely that in years to come, the picture in your mind of an Australian will take a very different likeness.
So the result of being a migration nation is that we all look different, eat different foods and celebrate different cultures and languages. In some ways, this is not so different from India.
Australian character – what makes us “Australian”?
A melting pot of cultures alone cannot make a nation without a uniting factor. In this case, what makes us ‘Australian’ is our shared values.
At one level, Australian values are similar to those which Indians hold dear.
Australians care very much about democracy, the rights of the individual, respect for the rule of law and freedom of religion.
But it is fair to say that the one thing that uniquely defines the Australian character is our egalitarianism.
A prominent Australian academic and writer, John Hirst, described it this way:
What I like about Australia is its egalitarian ethos, I think this is a very precious possession we have that we do treat each other equally. There is a sense that everyone is of equal worth. We don't have a great respect for people because they're better educated, or they're better born, or they've become rich.
He then went on to say:
I think…that friendliness and welcomingness is a tradition. I think it's something we know about ourselves, or we talk to ourselves about… We think of ourselves as friendly, gregarious, unsnobbish, and on the whole that's what most of us are like… I think that is part of our character.
When Indians tell me why they are so keen on watching Australian ‘MasterChef’, they start to describe these attributes. Aside from the food – which is spectacular – the most attractive aspect of the show, I’m told, is the style and behaviour of the judges and the contestants. They support and cheer, welcome and appreciate and above all, don’t place themselves above other contestants.
All this is very nice to hear, of course.It manifests in three ways, that go deeply ito Australian values. First, it means that personal humility is an important attribute for Australians. We do not go about beating our own drum and telling everyone about our accomplishments. This goes much deeper than the notion of British-like understatement. We genuinely believe we are equal with others.
Second, hand in hand with this, is a very strong respect for the merit principle. Australians admire and aspire to be people who succeed by virtue of talent, hard work or skill rather than by virtue of the luck of birth or status or position.
Third – a sense of fairness, the idea that everyone is enttled to a share of benefits in a society – in our words, to a “fair go”.
But it also has a practical value. A fundamental respect for others means that Australia has been able to build a successful and tolerant multicultural society where we draw on the talents of all our people, no matter their backgrounds. A sense of fairness means we try to minimise inequalities among people and find ways to give everyone a chance at their place in society.
It means we can be innovative because we have the confidence to take ideas and accept them on their merits, to listen and to learn.
One oft-cited example is that Qantas is able to achieve its leading safety record because it has a culture of paying attention to safety concerns raised by anybody, whether they are a cleaner, an engineer, a baggage handler or a pilot. Information is not discounted because of who it came from.
And finally, it defines how we shape our relationships with our neighbours and partners in the Indo-Pacific. We seek to partner with others as equals, rather than lecture them.
We are not perfect and at times we don’t achieve our aims, but the point about values is it defines what you aspire to.
While I personally believe that if people show respect for others, have a sense of fairness and are friendly, that would make the world a better place, the question is what can you take away from all this?
India is developing rapidly. In 10 or 20 years time, it will be a qualitatively different country to what it is now.
As the youth and future of India, your behaviour and the values you live by have the potential to shape the society in which you live.
I think it is worth spending some time to think about what your deeply held values are. And also to consider what effect they will have on the world around you if you were to live by them. And then to have the confidence to put them into practice.
I look forward to watching your journey, and I wish you all every success for the future.