Interview with Pawan Luthra, Indian Link

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Australia; Australia-India relationship; Khalistan referendum; Inaugural Advisory Board for Centre for Australia-India Relations.

PAWAN LUTHRA, HOST: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thank you for joining us at Indian Link today.

PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: It’s great to be with you.

LUTHRA: Namaste.


LUTHRA: Now, I understand you have met Indian Foreign Minister Dr Jaishankar a few times. Other than namaste, how many Indian Hindi words have you picked up?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Not very many I’m afraid but I would say, I have met Jai or Dr Jaishankar many times since I became Foreign Minister and I always find our interactions enlightening, he is a very reflective and thoughtful foreign minister, or External Affairs Minister, and it’s been excellent – a wonderful opportunity to get to know him.

LUTHRA: But Hindi words are still some time coming?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Yes, I’m sorry. I’ll try and do better for next time.

LUTHRA: I’m sure, now the scenes at the Qudos Arena last night were vibrant and energetic. In your many experience as a politician, what do you think attracts that sort of crowd and adulation for Prime Minister Modi?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, you know, that’s a good question. It is in many ways unprecedented, isn’t it, to have a democratic leader – a democratically elected leader have that kind of reception. We see some sort of similar reaction in some parts of the world, but last night, as you said, was vibrant and energetic. And one of the things the Prime Minister said which I thought was really insightful was he said, you know, the three Ds define the relationship – democracy, diaspora and dosti. So, you know, I think that exemplifies some of the depth of the relationship.

LUTHRA: What do you think about his reference to the soft power part of the relationship, like MasterChef?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, it demonstrates, doesn’t it, that we’ve got such a broad – look, our relationship with India is about our interests. We share interests – a very clear-eyed strategic interest about the sort of region we want, the sort of world we want. So that is central to our relationship. Our values are also central to how we envisage the relationship.

I think that the words of Prime Minister Modi where he talks about the diaspora, the Indian diaspora, as being both the bridge and the beating heart of the relationship was demonstrated last night. And so whether it’s MasterChef or cricket or family ties or educational ties, we are the full gamut, the full breadth of the relationship is wide and deep and growing, and that is a good thing for both countries.

LUTHRA: Minister Wong, I’ve been in Australia now for about 37 years. I always felt that the relationship could have been very strong but we’ve only started accelerating in this area in the last seven to eight years, since about 2014 onwards when Prime Minister Modi then visited Australia. What has taken Australia so long to realise the similarities and potential in this relationship?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, you’re probably more well placed than I to do that, but whatever the reasons for that in the past, I’m really pleased as Foreign Minister that we see the momentum in the relationship now. Whether it’s our visits to India, and, as you know, the Prime Minister visited in March – Prime Minister Albanese visited in March, I visited, we’ve had a number of other ministers visit, a lot of bilateral visits, and now, of course, an historic visit by Prime Minister Modi. So what that does say is we recognise – we both recognise – at a time where there is a lot of – there are a lot of challenges in our region, there’s a lot of change in the world, we both need partners and we both want to work together in the reshaping of our region to ensure it remains open and inclusive and stable and prosperous.

India is a global power, and it will become increasingly so. As you know, the most populous nation on earth and it will continue to develop and it will continue to grow its security capacity. So I’ve no doubt that Australia-India relations are central to Australia’s national interests. And certainly as Foreign Minister I’m going to keep pressing for that.

LUTHRA: You brought up the dosti element, there’s also the diaspora you mentioned. You have set up the Centre for Australia-India Relations here. Minister, what targets would you like the centre to achieve for the next two or three years?

FOREIGN MINISTER: That’s a really good question. And, in fact, when I met with the – Swati Dave and Tim Thomas, who are the Chair and CEO respectively – and I’ve just appointed the board – well, the Prime Minister and I have just appointed the board, which we announced yesterday. It was yesterday? Yes. There’s been a lot happening.

But your question is a good one because I think that all of us have been to many meetings over the years where people talk about our relationship being underdone. People say we have a good strategic relationship, but the economic relationship is underdone. And what I have said to the Centre is I want some practical ways in which we can improve the economic relationship, deepen the economic relationship. In part that is larger companies, but in part it is the strength of the diaspora, because, as you know, we have business people in the diaspora who are building the economic relationship, are contributing to it. I want to understand how we can as government facilitate more of that and how we can encourage more of those businesses to grow.

LUTHRA: So the entrepreneurial spirit between Indian Australians to do business with both Australia and India?

FOREIGN MINISTER: That’s right. And, in fact, we’ve got a CEO forum later today that I am – I’ve got the privilege of being in with Prime Minister Modi. And I’m sure there’ll be a lot of discussion about opportunities there. And I do want some practical outcomes. I don’t want to have an interview with you in three years’ time after in hopefully a second term of an Albanese Labor government where we’re having the same discussion about what we have to do in the economic relationship. I hope we can have an interview then where you say, ‘Minister, you actually did – we have actually shifted the dial on a few things.’

LUTHRA: I would love to have a chat to see how things are progressing. But we’ll leave that for whenever you have time. Minister, just changing tack a little bit, in many interviews you’ve given earlier today you’ve been asked about how Australia would raise allegations of how India treats its minorities, and you said, “So, we’ll do so respectfully.” But if India ignores these inputs respectfully, in view of a bigger relationship between the two countries there’s not a lot Australia can do about that, can it?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, that proposition is the case in relation to every country, isn’t it? I mean, this is the nature of international relations – it’s between – you know, there are relationships between nation states and on some issues there’s a lot of confluence and on other issues there’s difference. And part of what we have to do as we engage in our region and the world is to manage to find alignment and where interests and values are shared but then also where there are differences of views how you manage that. I mean, I don’t think that’s – it’s certainly not exclusive to India. I would again make the point, though, it is the world’s largest democracy and that is an extraordinary achievement.

LUTHRA: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, at a press conference in Canberra last year you had looked really surprised when asked Dr Jaishankar about the resurgence of the Khalistan issue in the Sikh diaspora in Canada. His answer was blunt, and I’ll quote what he said: “I have myself engaged my counterpart on this issue and we have flagged the need to ensure that freedoms in a democratic society are not misused by forces which actually advocate violence and bigotry. So, it's important I think for countries to understand today really how democracies should function not only at home, but also the responsibilities the democracies have to other democracies abroad. The Khalistan issue playing out here, in the context of the above, has the Australian Government done enough to respect India’s wishes?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think we have been very clear that there is no space in Australia for hatred and bigotry. There is no space in Australia for violence. We value deeply – we treasure our multiculturalism. And equally we safeguard the social cohesion which enables that multiculturalism to thrive. And that is how we approach this and any other issue. The Prime Minister and other ministers, including I, unreservedly condemn the violence that we have seen in terms of the defacing of temples and so forth. You have seen, obviously, the appropriate responses by state police, territory police where appropriate. And we’ll continue to ensure that we coordinate to make sure that these sorts of views which people may hold but in our society cannot be translated into violence and hate speech. You know, we have a very clear view about it.

LUTHRA: Finally before I let you go, Minister, Prime Minister Modi mentioned his favourite Indian eateries in Harris Park in his speech yesterday. Have you eaten there and, if not, are they on your list when you visit Harris Park next?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I’d love to. Obviously I’m from Adelaide and spend a lot of time in Canberra, so I haven’t actually spent a lot of time in sampling some of that cuisine. But I have someone who works for me who grew up in the area, so she’s promised me she’s going to take me to her favourite restaurants.

LUTHRA: That would be fantastic. And you can give a report back.

FOREIGN MINISTER: I’ll let you know. I’ll let you know. You let us know whether you’ve got any particular recommendations.

LUTHRA: I think Prime Minister Modi pointed out two restaurants. I have a feeling we can start from there and work our way through.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Okay, no worries. Excellent.

LUTHRA: Well, Minister Penny Wong, thank you very much for your time and sharing your views.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Yeah, it was very good to speak with you again.

LUTHRA: Thank you.


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