"Indians Make Very Good Immigrants"

Australia is sending a new envoy to India in the aftermath of the Melbourne racial attacks. The retiring high commissioner, John McCarthy, reflects on this point in history

Published: Jun 22, 2009

Name: John McCarthy
Title: Retiring after serving as Australian High Commissioner in India
Age: 67
Career: Started his career in 1965 as a barrister in London. In 1968, he joined the Department of External Affairs and went on to serve as the Australian Ambassador in seven countries including the US during 1995-97
Education: Studied at Cambridge University where he received Masters of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees
Interests: Asian Art, trekking, travel.

Are you disappointed that you are leaving at a time when the diplomatic relations between the two countries are at a low?
Not really. This is the 7th time that I have been the head of mission. And on a number of occasions I have served in countries where our relations have had their ups and downs but the bedrock has been very good, including Vietnam and the early days of Indonesia 10 years ago. Against the volatility of those relationships at those times, I don’t regard this as a serious downturn. I am not relaxed on it. But it is something that we will come through.

Sailing away
Image: Amit Verma
Sailing away
I think the relationship in the last 4 or 5 years — I don’t put this down to my stint here —has actually improved quite significantly and the basis of this is essentially economic. Education is now an issue and I will get to that in a minute. But I feel actually well satisfied. It’s the sort of relationship which you do not mark it with sudden downs and sudden rapid upward shifts in direction.

Is the attacks on Indians the biggest challenge you have faced in your tenure here in India?
It’s the most difficult political issue with which I have had to deal here. The long term challenges have been really in building, for example, relationship in resources, which is crucial. For example, we have a real dialogue now between governments on what we can do to facilitate two way investments in resources trade including oil and gas. That’s very major. But in terms of a political crisis of sorts which attracts huge political attention, this is the most significant that I have had to deal with here in India. It because it’s an issue it’s an issue that not everybody might have a profound knowledge about but it is an issue which anybody can understand. Hence, it is not like the Americans and their nuclear deal which the number of people, who really understood what it was about, on either side was pretty small. This is the sort of issue that everybody who watches TV can grasp. And you must never forget the dictum: all politics is local. I think somebody in my situation if they forget that and think that these things can be dealt with in a rarified way, they are very much mistaken. You have got to explain to the people what you think is going on and you have got to weather the storm. And then gradually get back to normal on this issue.

What is the nature of the violent attacks on the Indians in Australia? If the attacks are racial, even in part, then what could be the reasons?
It is not just a mob of mad racists running around in Melbourne. There have been a number of robberies of Indian students and assaults on Indian students in particular parts of Melbourne especially in the recent months. And this was something that we wish had not happened. But I think it was brought about largely by large number Indian students coming to one particular location, that’s Melbourne, without much money. They felt compelled, because they did not have much money, to live in the poor areas in Melbourne. They work late in the night at jobs and they are vulnerable to attack. Now certainly theft played a very significant role in it, hooliganism has played a very significant role in it and there may have been people who, somewhere in their thought processes, there was a racist factor as well. But I quite seriously think it’s principally a criminal issue with in certain cases racist overtones. But it’s certainly not racism sweeping Melbourne.
Our image has taken a hit and we have got to work on it. And we propose to. The police have already deployed much greater resources in the affected areas in Melbourne.

If the attacks are essentially criminal in nature then how come there are so many in a short time span of one month?
I think that was just unfortunate statistics. And I don t know the answer to that. There may have been a couple that were acting by example as they call. You see news of an attack and then another group says why we don’t do that…I don’t know.

So would it not be correct to say that there are some unresolved issues with managing these multi cultured population in Australia. I mean, what we have seen in the last month or so, is it the tip of the iceberg?
No, I think there are always going to be issues in any big country of immigration.

Considering that the local police in Victoria have accepted that the attacks were racially motivated, do you agree that the Australian establishment reacted a little late?
Whether or not the police could have moved in more quickly, you know, it is fine for me to be sitting in Delhi to be wise with hindsight…may be in certain instances they could. There were complaints that they did not move in as fast as they could but on the other hand they are very good police force and I’d be surprised if this was the habitual behaviour. I think everybody was surprised in Australia and India by the way this grew as an issue…so quickly.

Now you mentioned that there could be an issue with the Indian students going to Australia with a long term view of settling there. Is that something that the embassy here in New Delhi looking at, say when you are granting visas?

It’s more of a policy issue in Australia and it’s not just for India but globally.

I mean, is it resented in Australia that so many Indian might be looking at an opportunity to settle down in Australia?
No, no. They (Indians) make very good immigrants. I think the issue really is that when you get very large numbers coming down very quickly to study with a view to permanent residence, some time you don’t have the educational infrastructure to deal with that. Also, in terms of Australia’s reputation as a destination for education it needs to be balanced. You need to have an element of the PhD type of research, an element of Masters, an element doing Bachelor’s degrees, an element doing ordinary vocational training.

Do you think the embassy would now like to calibrate that?
I think there is a recognition in Australia anyway that it need to be calibrated. We have been aware of this for some time and it’s a global policy and not just India.

Should we expect some more action on this incident?
I think you will probably see some fine tuning of our education policy after this, yes.

Are you concerned that Indians in particular, and Asian in general, might shun Australia as a destination for educational and employment needs?
The first and foremost issue is that the crimes got to stop and our reputation as a country should not suffer.
The secondary and tertiary issues are that we have to look at whether it is affecting our reputation as a destination for education. Yes, I mean, I suspect it’s certainly making some people reconsider and there is evidence of that. We hope that in fullness of time that sort of perception will go.

Are you concerned about the safety of Australian citizens living or traveling in India as a result of the violence in Australia?
Not in a serious way.

You have mentioned about the growth of economic relationship between India and Australia over the last 5 years. However, data from the Indian department of commerce for the same period shows that the share of Australia in India’s total trade with the world, including exports and imports taken individually, has declined. Is it a matter of concern for you?
I am surprised but I am not going to dispute that.

Australia has maintained that it would not supply nuclear fuel to any country which is not a signatory of the NPT. However, Australia approved of the Indo-US nuclear pact. Does that mean Australia will supply nuclear fuel to India if India approaches it despite the fact that India is not a signatory to the NPT?
We have had a long standing policy against the export of uranium to countries that have been non-signatories of the NPT. It’s a very very complex political issue in Australia to change this. I am not saying that it will not happen. The things change but bear in mind that down the line different attitudes to climate change enhance the desirability of nuclear fuel. So all these things could happen with time. But the belief in not exporting the countries that haven’t signed the NPT is deeply held in the back benches and branches of the labour party. So it’s a bit complicated political for us

(This story appears in the 03 July, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Arun Jagatramka

    I fully agree with comments of Mr Mccarthy. Being a frequent visitor to Australia with a large business presence there, I can definitely say that as a nation and people Australians are not racists. The Govt. policies do not distinguish natural born citizens as against immigrants having acquired citizenship. The recent attacks are an offshoot of the Global Financial crisis while Indians could be at the receiving end also because of the negative country image generated globally by the blockbuster award winner movie SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. General law and order seems to have deteriorated in some pockets of the country where we need to be extra careful.

    on Jul 5, 2009
  • B K Lodha

    What more can be expected from a country whose roots have derived as a result of punishment from Crime in England. Violence is set in the Genes. Indians must be more compassionate as they are getting educated in the backdrop of passive and hibernated Genetic characters.

    on Jun 27, 2009
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