Barry O’ Farrell also expressed Australian support for the Indian proposal for a patent waiver for Covid vaccine, a turnaround of sorts.
Indian industry must get behind free trade talks for them to go forward, says Australian High Commissioner Barry O’ Farrell, ahead of an expected resumption of talks on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which ran aground in 2015. He also expressed Australian support for the Indian proposal for a patent waiver for Covid vaccine, a turnaround of sorts.
Is there a date for the resumption of the CECA talks?
Well, the good news is that both Prime Ministers have committed to re-engaging on the CECA [during bilateral talks] in June last year. Discussions between officials are going on but the ongoing COVID restrictions on travel- have slowed progress somewhat. The Australian Minister of Trade had been hopeful of making a trip in April or May. One of the issues that is being addressed is the point from which they should start, [picking up from 2015, when talks were suspended] or start at Ground Zero? In a post COVID world, the sooner we have clearer lines of economic engagement, which is what a free trade agreement delivers, the stronger both our economies will become, so we are looking forward to the resumption.
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In the next few weeks?
No, not in the next few weeks. These agreements take time. But nevertheless, Australia is committed to concluding a high-quality free trade agreement with India. If I can also add, I think Indian industry must also be persuaded that it’s the right time for deal in Australia. Economic reforms, including FTAs have always come with a chorus from Australian Business urging government on and we need to ensure that business here in in India is equally providing its support for what we want to achieve.
We saw the Prime Ministers make a similar commitment in 2014, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Modi said that by December 2015, CECA would be signed. What has changed now?
I think an enormous amount of change has occurred, due to Covid. The biggest lesson is not just about the need for reliable supply chains, but for reliable trading partners, with whom you’re on the same page, who have similar values and principles, and who have a similar vision. And clearly, I think that fits the bill for India.
I think India’s got nothing to fear from engaging in greater trade in both directions with Australia. And frankly, it’s got everything to gain because if, for example, India wants to have a world class, electric vehicle industry, it’s important that you have access to rare earths and critical minerals that Australia can provide. 95% of refined rare earths come from one country (China), and as we learned last year, when supply chains are closed for geo-strategic reasons, that can do great damage to a country or countries that are reliant on those. It’s not always about getting a good deal, but also about who you’re dealing with. Can you trust them short term and long term? And do they share your views and your ideals?
Could you confirm reports that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott may visit as a special advisor on the free trade agreement negotiations?
I’m confident that the discussions will be led by the Trade minister (Dan Tehan), and I have no doubt that both PMs Morrison and Modi will be heavily involved. But there’s no secret to the fact that Tony Abbott was a significant factor in the earlier effort to get a free trade agreement with India. Tony Abbott was coming to India for the Raisina dialogue (in April), which was cancelled, and so a visit was due.
Is negotiating the CECA a race against time, given the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that includes Australia is nearly done?
Australia will always seek to engage with other countries where they believe there is a commercial interest and that interest doesn’t threaten the national interest. It was India’s right to decide whether or not to sign RCEP. And from the perspective we sit today, it looks as sensible a decision by India today as it did then (to walk out of RCEP).
Quad countries decided earlier this year to distribute a billion vaccines. However, both Australia and India have flagged in their vaccine rollouts, so far at about 22% and 18%. Will that affect the Quad efforts?
What’s important is not how you start but always how you finish. And I notice the numbers here in India of vaccinations on a daily basis, are back up to where they were prior to the second wave taking hold. And happily in Australia, too. My view is that come the last quarter of the year, the Quad initiative on vaccines will start to show the progress that was sought by that historic Quad leaders meeting.
At the G-7 meeting Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would support the proposal for TRIPs waivers at the WTO. Does that mean there is a change in Australia’s earlier position on the India-South Africa proposal?
I don’t quite understand why there was a perception that Australia was not supportive. Prime Minister Morrison, at the UN General Assembly, like Prime Minister Modi was one of the handful of leaders who talked about the need for equitable and fair distribution of COVID vaccines before they were even approved for use. At the G-7, PM Morrison expressed his strong support for the position put forward by Prime Minister Modi. So whether it’s whether it’s an India, South Africa, Australia axis or trilateral approach, whatever it is, it’s where the world should end up because ultimately, until we have as many people as possible vaccinated, our lives will continue to be disrupted.
Speaking of which, what can you tell Indian students about what how soon they might be able to travel to Australia for their education?
I would believe that by the end of this year, we will have seen in a number of states a demonstration of different ways in which students can be returned. And therefore I’m optimistic about next year. Do I think that’s going to placate the students here in India who should have been in Australia? No, and I have great sympathy for them.
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