Why all roads lead to AII

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Professor Amitabh Mattoo, who is now helming Australia India Institute’s rebirth in India as the inaugural director and CEO, speaks to Alys Francis about bilateral ties between the nations as well as AII flagship programs

He’s been with the Australia India Institute (AII) since its doors first opened in 2008 as Australia’s only national centre for research on the subcontinent. So it’s fitting that leading scholar Professor Amitabh Mattoo is now helming AII’s rebirth in India as the inaugural director and CEO of its New Delhi headquarters.

The Indian Sun caught up with Prof Mattoo in his new South Delhi office to hear his plans for boosting bilateral ties, and get his take on how the Federal Court rejection of Adani’s $US12 billion Queensland mine has hurt relations.

What does it mean to have AII open a branch in New Delhi?

The central aim of AII in Melbourne, or AII in Delhi, or wherever we expand our network is going to be to foster dialogue, research and partnerships between Australia and India, Australians and Indians, and Australian institutes and Indian institutes. Because its fundamental premise is that there are few democracies in this region which have so much in common with Australia, by way of both values and interests.

Australia didn’t prioritize bilateral ties with India until recently – where is the relationship at today?

Obviously relations can’t be transformed in an instant. What you need to do is create the bandwidth and then ensure that that connectivity remains. Clearly in terms of educational research linkages, India’s partnership with the United States wouldprobably have greater bandwidth. But that’s often also based on ignorance. I think Indian intuitions do not know what high quality research is being done among the premium universities in Australia, particularly the Group of Eight universities. But that is beginning to change. In the last three years I have accompanied several federal ministers to India… also state ministers travelling with delegations of vocational education providers, as well as higher education providers, and vice chancellors. So there’s greater recognition. And now that you also have the renewal of the Australia India strategic research fund, which is a multi-million dollar fund to do collaborative research, I see this relationship really blossoming.

I think one major stumbling block, which had led to a great amount of trust deficit, was the Australian decision not to supply uranium to India. Once former Prime Minister Julia Gillard overturned that, there was a sudden release of tremendous goodwill. In the past there were those incidents in Melbourne where some Indian students had been attacked. So ties had almost reached rock bottom. In some ways, there was a kind of perverse benefit out of that — people began to focus on how to improve ties in terms of policy.

The Victorian government instituted a chair of Indian studies, they have got deeply engaged with the AustraliaIndiainstitute, in fact they’re one of our largest funders today. Similarly in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, again there are multiple initiatives towards India.

Now on the Indian side, clearly, there are so many suitors because India seems to be the new kid on the block, but even then, I think there is a great appetite for the relationship.

The Federal Court overturned Adani’s federal environmental approval to build the Carmichael coal mine in August. How has this impacted our bilateral ties?

I think the fact that hasn’t derailed the relationship tells you how, even in the space of the last five years, the bandwidth has increased. You’ll always have ups and downs in a relationship; you’ll always have policies, which you don’t always agree upon. But a good relationship recognises that you’re not always going to act similarly and agree on everything. That’s true of any friendship. And I think of course people should recognise that there are environmental concerns about mining in that area, including the possible impact that it may have on the Great Barrier Reef. Obviously within the business community there’s going to be some disappointment, but every good robust relationship learns to live with disappointments and move on.

Coal accounts for a significant portion of Australia’s trade to India. If this wanes as some forecasters predict, what do we have left to focus on?

The free trade agreement’s being worked upon. I think obviously other than commodities, I think Australia still has a lot to offer, even though manufacturing may be on the downside. There are niche products, whether it’s dairy or whether it’s in the shoes that I’m wearing, which are RM Williams, that’s typically Australian. Then there’s the service industry, education, tourism… education and research, I think that has the biggest potential.

What have we learned from the more fruitful research partnerships formed through AII Melbourne that you’d like to recreate here?

One of our flagship programs is going to be a mid-career fellowship for academics because that is something we instituted in Melbourne with Indians. There we do not just focus on academics but across disciplines, mid-career professionals would spend a month or two months as an emerging leader fellow in residence. Fortunately we have space in this office where we’ll have resident fellows from Australia, who will be selected after we advertise the fellowships. We want them to work in collaboration and partnership with their peers in Indian universities.

Some of the work that’s been done through research partnerships is outstanding. Like trauma research — Victoria has the gold standard in preventing fatalities after an accident, primarily because they’ve got systems in place. India probably has one of the worst records in terms of accidents and the help that you give that person, so there’s a joint Australia India Institute strategic research fund project on trauma research.

What have you learned about how best AII can create impact that you want to replicate in New Delhi?

I think what Melbourne and Melbourne University teach you is that you can put systems into place, so they can be idiot-proof. It doesn’t matter whether you’re brilliant individually, what matters is there’s a process and system in place. Then things will work. India goes wrong because they often look for individual brilliance and haven’t put systems in place. And that’s what I want to replicate.

One of our flagship programs is going to be the leadership dialogue,which we’re going to bring together next month. A delegation led by minister for trade Andrew Robb, with billionaire businessman Anthony Pratt, and probably mining magnate Gina Rinehart, are all coming here to have a dialogue with their counterparts. Other than foreign policy and international relations, we’re going to focus a lot on trade and business links.

Talk us through AII’s biggest achievements so far.

It’s not right for me to say what are the biggest achievements. But I think the fact that we’ve been able to create a space where there’s a conversation happening, genuine partnerships in place, and great hope for the future. Today we have a critical mass of Indians here [in New Delhi] at the highest level of decision-making who recognise the importance of this relationship, and most of them were exposed to Australia by the AII. We’re the only national centre of India — in Australia — you have a proliferation of China centres — which brings together talent across disciplines. A tenured professor from Oxford University is going to be my successor in Melbourne – it tells you even the best academics from Oxford think the place to go is AII.