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Premier Steve Bracks has had to defend his visit to India after Opposition Leader Robert Doyle described his absence before the May 3 state budget as bizarre. "So really, who's running the ship?" Mr Doyle asked, implying that premiers cobble together budgets in a couple of weeks. Mr Bracks offered an apt idiomatic retort that Victoria could not afford to "miss the boat" and "we should not underestimate how powerful India is going to be in the future". That does raise another question about the first visit to India by a Victorian premier: why has it taken so long? Mr Bracks is trailing in the wake of the Queensland, South Australian and NSW premiers who all visited India last year. Even as Victoria hosts the biggest Indian film production to be shot outside India, a Queensland delegation is in Mumbai seeking a bigger slice of the Bollywood pie.
India is emerging as a global giant in another sector, information technology, and Australians have felt its impact through outsourcing. The flow isn't one-way: Victoria gained 3236 Indian migrants last year - an important source of skills. India is also the biggest source of foreign computer science, engineering and postgraduate students in Australia, and ranks fourth overall for student numbers. As for trade, India is Australia's 13th-largest partner, but exports to India grew an astonishing 62 per cent last year and merchandise export growth over the past five years is the highest of our top 30 markets. Given such trends, and the countries' long friendship through cricket, it is perplexing that India, even with an economy rated as the world's fourth-largest (in terms of purchasing power parity), still struggles to get the respect it deserves.
Until the 1990s, when India began a sustained period of reform, its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement led Australia to have reservations about the relationship, which was also set back by India's nuclear tests in 1998. Today, the relationship needs to be seen in a different light as a crucial, mutually beneficial alliance. India, a full dialogue partner with ASEAN since 1995, shares Australia's desire to join the East Asia Summit, and it might be in Australia's interest to back India's claim to a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Despite all this, India does not seem to rank high among Australia's priorities. Prime Minister John Howard, in his recent address to the Lowy Insbreastute on Australia's place in the world, spoke of the power of democratic insbreastutions and instincts, then ignored India while referring repeatedly to its totalitarian neighbour, China.
It is not a case of having to choose between the two; Mr Howard, who in 2000 made the first prime ministerial visit to India in 13 years, correctly cautions against such simplistic approaches. In any case, the world's two biggest countries, with the fastest-growing economies, have just announced a strategic partnership to build economic and political ties. As The Age reports today, however, some economists question whether China has the political, economic and environmental capacity to sustain its remarkable growth. They see the political and intellectual freedom of the more diverse and financially sophisticated India as offering better long-term prospects. Australia is not obliged to "pick a winner", but our leaders can do more to acknowledge India.