Carr and driver

Bob Carr and I met such a long time ago that the first time he heard me speak, at a conference in Queensland, was also the first time he heard anyone use the term “blogger.” I remember him more for his description of being part of the Chester A. Arthur Club. Who is that you may ask? The very question explains the club: amateur historians who met to discuss obscure people of the past. Arthur was arguably the most unknown of United States presidents. When Carr and I spoke, he had just had a club session where a member had been asked to hold forth on the most obscure of Roman emperors. Obscure he was, I can’t remember the name today. He reigned for less than a day before being murdered by Praetorians.

Now Carr is in the driving set of Australian foreign policy. The new foreign minister, as careful and methodical about his brief as his predecessor Kevin Rudd was flamboyant and incisive just made his first visit to India. He echoed strongly what Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has been pushing for in the bilateral relationship with India.

“India and Australia are moving towards a strategic convergence that will make the more important to each other,” he said. Gillard had done much of the heavy lifting on that, having persuaded her party to allow uranium exports to India. The talks for including the prerequisite safeguard agreement, said Carr, will begin in March.

There was the normal spiel of shared values and so on. But everyone knows there is still a legacy, thankfully disappearing, of bad blood between India and Australia — and it’s not about sledging.

Carr saw three tangible areas on which the bilateral relationship could move forward.

One was migration. In the last Oz financial year, India was the single largest source of permanent immigrant to Australia, about 30,000. Carr reminisced about when he was premier of New South Wales and kept seeing the number of Indian students whom he had to felicitate for achievement rising each year.

Two was energy. Australia wanted to position itself as a “stable and reliable” energy supplier for the rising Inda. Australia already played this role for South Korea, Japan and China. The selling point is reliability. Australia’s labour costs are high, so its natural gas and coal is rarely priced competitively. But with Indonesia and other sources changing their tune every six months, the Australian offer looks better as time passes. As Carr points out, “South Koreans like that we are stable, have the rule of law, and are open to foreign investment.” So they pay the premium. As for the price of Oz coal and gas, Carr says merely, “let the market take care of that. If we Australians charge too much, then the market will correct. In any case, we have legal provisions for foreign labour coming to work in foreign projects in Australia.”

Third, of course, is security. The surprise so far is only how much the two countries till have to do. Carr and his aides stressed that the Malabar Exercises were a bilateral military exercise between the US and India. “They are being hosted by the US this time, so they can choose who to invite,” said Carr. This humility is part appeasement for Australia’s decision to walkout of the exercises some years ago. “But we would like to rejoin,” he said. India’s defence minister AK Anthony will visit Oz in March to see how far things can go.

Carr is suitably optimistic about the two countries and their shared future. “What comes together will come together,” he says.

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