As Barry O’ Farrell approaches the end of an extraordinary three-year stint as Australia’s High Commissioner to India, he can look back with satisfaction at a transformed relationship. The signs of this transformation are many. The momentum might have begun during the term of Scott Morrison as Prime Minister but its continuation under the Labor government of Anthony Albanese reflects a remarkable and somewhat rare bipartisan consensus in Canberra on why India matters more than ever.
On the surface, the transformation could be seen in the warmth with which Albanese was received by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Holi festivities in his home state of Gujarat. It could also be seen in the easy familiarity with which foreign ministers Penny Wong and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar addressed each other as Penny and Jai during a conversation at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in March. And it was certainly visible in the presence of both Morrison and Albanese, along with New South Wales Premier Chris Minns, Penny Wong, Opposition leader Peter Dutton and a host of notables from both sides of the aisle when Modi addressed the Indian-Australian community during his visit to Australia in May. Perhaps the simplest data point to signify the transformation is the fact that during his first year in office, Albanese and Modi have had six bilateral meetings, a far cry from the time when years would go by without a high-level interaction.
Bid farewell to High Commissioner Barry O’ Farrell. His tenure has seen a transformation in India-Australia ties.— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) May 30, 2023
Thank Heads of Missions from Germany, Japan, New Zealand and USA for joining on this occasion. pic.twitter.com/DgMIPOc8Ap
This kind of transformation wasn’t pre-destined. Morrison’s planned visit to India in January 2020 had been aborted by severe bushfires across the country’s south-eastern regions. And when O’Farrell arrived in New Delhi in May 2020, the first wave of Covid-19 was already underway. The situation was ripe for one of those periodic drifts that can last for years. But O’Farrell could persuade Morrison and team to propose a first-ever virtual summit on 4 June that year, which not only created history but also elevated bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. It also paved the way for the first 2+2 dialogue at the ministerial level in September 2021, placing Australia in the ranks of a small handful of countries with which India has this arrangement. Taken together with the increasingly complex and ambitious nature of the annual Malabar exercises, the 2+2 was a strong sign of the growing convergence on strategic issues ranging from challenges in the Indo-Pacific to collaboration in defence, cybersecurity and critical minerals.
The other stellar success for O’Farrell was to revive the comatose free trade agreement and turn it into an Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) that was finally signed in April 2022 and came into effect towards the end of the year. The logjam that had lasted for almost a decade since talks for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) began in May 2011 was finally broken with two imaginative moves. The first involved roping in former PM Tony Abbott as Morrison’s special trade envoy. Abbott was the first foreign leader to visit India after Modi’s election in 2014 and he had built a close personal relationship with the Indian leader. His visit in August 2021 and meetings with Modi, several cabinet ministers, senior officials and media were the equivalent of a political sales pitch for the agreement. The second key intervention was to acknowledge the vast differences between the two economies, drop the insistence on a “comprehensive” agreement and accept the asymmetrical reduction in tariffs reflected in the ECTA.
These outcomes must come as a surprise to critics of then Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s decision to appoint the former Premier of New South Wales to the complex and challenging post of High Commissioner to India. But O’Farrell was better informed than the average politician when he took up the role, having served as deputy chair of the influential Australia-India Council and as NSW’s special envoy for India. Once the Covid-19 restrictions had eased, he set about the diplomat’s task of winning friends and influencing people with great gusto.
In visits to state capitals around the country, O’Farrell described himself as a former “chief minister” of NSW to establish an easy connect with chief ministers of several major states. He also read the tea leaves about the shifts taking place in BJP-ruled India by calling on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the Hindutva-supporting organisation’s headquarters in Nagpur, much to the chagrin of left-liberal elements in Australia. He combined the deft touch of a skilled politician and a calibrated engagement with the raucous Indian media to visibly raise Australia’s profile in the country. But his efforts also coincided with the egregious behaviour of China under Xi Jinping towards both Australia and India. Little wonder that an Observer Research Foundation survey of foreign policy attitudes of urban youth in India showed Australia as the most trusted country after the United States, and also showed China as the country of greatest concern.
There was also an invisible dimension that underpinned O’Farrell’s success. Many of the dramatis personae, including Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Marise Payne and Anthony Albanese, happen to be Sydneysiders like him. As a veteran NSW politician, his easy access to the foreign minister and the prime minister would be the envy of any career diplomat. That also brings up the time-worn question of who is more effective – a politician or a career diplomat? Having served as a diplomat, my own bias obviously tilts towards the latter. But objectivity demands at least the acknowledgement that the right political appointee at the right place can be a force multiplier.
As Philip Green, a highly regarded career diplomat, gets ready for his assignment in New Delhi, he might find that he’s got a pair of rather large shoes to fill. He also inherits a busy inbox that includes the still to be completed CECA, the somnolent Australia-India Infrastructure Forum and the imminent visit of Albanese for the G20 Summit in September.