Friday, November 23, 2012

Farwell High Commissioner

Today’s article is from “The Australian” & discusses the imminent departure (this week) of our High Commissioner, Peter Varghese, who leaves to take up his new role as Secretary – DFAT:


India relationship beyond cricket


  • by: Amanda Hodge, South Asia Correspondent
  • From: The Australian
  • November 24, 2012 12:00AM
Prime Minister Julia Gillard poses with Australian High Commissioner to India Peter Varghese in New Delhi during her recent visit. Picture: Prime Minister's office Source: Supplied

AMID the faded charms of a Bombay movie house this week, Australia's outgoing high commissioner to India watched alongside Bollywood's biggest stars as the late Perth-born stunt queen Fearless Nadia upended villains and liberated villagers from feudalism.

Peter Varghese's swansong - the thoughtful and diverse Oz Fest cultural festival, of which the Fearless Nadia re-screening was a headline event - is as much glamour as the career public servant has seen in his three-year tenure in New Delhi, or is likely to see in his next five years as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Nadia, born Mary Ann Evans, has become a totemic figure in the new era of Australia-India engagement, her fame as a whip-wielding, blonde Hindi film heroine of the 1930s perhaps useful evidence that our historic cultural links go beyond cricket and British imperial rule.

Yet, as Australia's rather less flashy representative in India, Varghese, 56, has pulled off some impressive feats of his own. Most notable has been the resetting and strengthening of a relationship that last month's Asian Century white paper recognised will be crucial to Australia's future.

His term as high commissioner has seen off the two biggest obstacles to better relations: rancour over attacks on Indian students and the Labor Party's refusal to sell uranium to India, which remains outside the UN's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Julia Gillard announced an end to the uranium ban to widespread appreciation last month during a visit in which she also "added flesh to the bones" of the strategic partnership, with an agreement that the two prime ministers should meet annually. Varghese believes that visit marked a turning point in the relationship from repair work to building phase.

His legacy is a bilateral relationship in better condition than that in which he found it. Now that he is tasked with steering DFAT through the Asian Century, that can only be a good thing.

The former head of the Office of National Assessments, and a former senior foreign policy adviser to prime minister John Howard, stepped into the high commissioner's role at one of the lowest points in the relationship, as Australia's reputation in India was shredded by a series of attacks on Indian students.

Much was made at the time of his Indian heritage - he is Kenyan-born to south Indian parents - though when he arrived in 2009 his sum experience in India was three months as a 17-year-old backpacker and a few subsequent government trips.

Cynics suggested Varghese was an Indian face parachuted into the job as an emergency measure. In fact, he had asked for the job in 2007, convinced the room for growth in the "underdone" relationship provided a wonderful professional opportunity. By the time it came his way it was more like a poisoned chalice.

"The student safety issue was peaking as I was arriving. To deal with that, not just in the media but in day-to-day interactions with Indians at all levels, was difficult because it required a very patient explanation of what was happening in Australia, often in an environment where you were dealing with people who had made up their minds based on what they had seen on TV.

"Every time you went out to a dinner party - and you go to lots of those - you would get a constant stream of questions or, if less polite, harangues. That's the business of diplomacy. If all you had was good times you're probably not doing your job. Or you're incredibly lucky."

Like his predecessor John McCarthy - another respected diplomat with a reputation for poise and calm - Varghese forged a straight path through the storm with a determined public diplomacy campaign, an unfailing politeness and an eye on the longer-term goal.

Varghese insists that even at its worst both countries recognised that their converging interests - Australia can supply what India needs - were constrained only by awkward political dialogue over uranium and student safety. The relationship is now "uncluttered by obstacles".

Energy exports to India, in coal but later perhaps also natural gas and uranium, are running strong, as are partnerships in green technology, skills training, education, science and defence. And Varghese believes the pace of Indian migration to Australia - India is now our largest source of migration - has helped expand trade and will also broaden the relationship "in dimensions completely outside of government". But for Varghese the best marker of the relationship's growth is that both countries are finding common ground in institutions such as the G20 and East Asia Summit.

He rejects "outdated" notions that India views Australia as a second-order partner, though acknowledges the relationship will probably never be an alliance (such as that with Britain or the US) given India's historical preference for "strategic autonomy" - diplomatic speak for fence-sitting.

Rather, he believes, as India's interests pull it further towards East Asia it increasingly recognises Australia as a useful strategic partner in its own right. "The fact we now have a dialogue with the East Asia Summit, that we sit and talk together about East Asia issues, is recognition of that. We're both very focused on strategic stability." (At this month's summit in Cambodia both countries sought to lower regional tensions over access to South China Sea islands.)

Varghese recognises his has been a charmed career. He joined the foreign service in 1979 and served in plum posts in Vienna, Washington, Tokyo and Malaysia. As ONA chief, and even in his time as Indian high commissioner, he inherited budgets on the rise. In Delhi he has overseen an 85 per cent increase in the size of the mission, the opening of six trade offices and the expansion of two consulates.

But he takes on a DFAT with decidedly little fat and the likelihood of still further budget cuts. Varghese says he had no input into the white paper, but agrees with its message that stronger Asia relationships can only come through broader engagement.

He cites as a perfect example the public diplomacy campaign in India designed to overturn negative sentiments about Australia (from urgent media troubleshooting to the Oz Fest arts and culture extravaganza). "It was always going to be necessary to give India a more rounded and modern sense of Australia. If you want a serious relationship with any country you really need to have communication at a people-to-people level, which means you need a pretty clear understanding of each other."

Keen India watchers such as the Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf, himself a former Delhi-based diplomat, say Varghese's influence on the white paper is obvious by virtue of India's significance in it. He credits Varghese with "guiding the relationship's historic transition to a strategic partnership" through the student crisis as well as the challenges of the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, which gave rise to the unflattering acronym "I'll Never Do It Again".

Medcalf agrees Gillard's Delhi visit last month marked a "breakthrough" in the relationship. But it was also a crowning achievement for Varghese, who engenders widespread goodwill among diplomats and public servants. Varghese says the white paper will guide his strategy for the neighbourhood, but not at the expense of a robust diplomatic presence across the world.

"I have always seen my job a little bit like house renovations," he says. "You inherit a structure and try to improve it to the extent you can. Sometimes you get an opportunity to do big renovations and sometimes you might only do a paint job."

Copyright 2011 News Limited. All times AEST (GMT +10).

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