Trade, investment and maritime security cooperation were at the core of a 24-minute address that Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered to a joint session of the Australian Parliament in Canberra on Tuesday.
Modi described India and Australia as “foremost partners” in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Australia, given its location, was at the junction of the cross-currents in the region, he said, and held the key to its future.
“As Australia has become more engaged in this part of the world, we welcome its growing role in driving this region’s prosperity and shaping its security,” the Prime Minister said.
A day after Beijing signed a comprehensive trade deal with Canberra, opening up its huge domestic market to 95 per cent of Australia’s exports at zero tariff, Modi offered Australia “immense opportunities” to participate in India’s progress. Prime Minister Tony Abbott hopes to sign a similar free trade deal with India by 2015, and has said that he and Modi would make it happen together.
Modi said opportunities existed for Australians in every sector: agriculture, food processing, mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, finance and technology, energy; from providing funds and resources to technology and expertise to working as partners and investors.
“India, in turn, will be your source for world class skills at home or for a manufacturing location abroad,” he said.
India’s development, demography and demand provided a unique long-term opportunity for Australia — all within the familiar framework of democracy, he said. “There are few countries in the world where we see so much synergy as we do in Australia. India, a nation of more than a billion seeking development; Australia, a developed country of a few million people and vast resources,” the Prime Minister said.
Modi was the third global leader after UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron and China’s President Xi Jinping to address the Australian Parliament.
He had members of the House in splits at the beginning of his speech, making a joke about Prime Minister Abbott’s now famous “shirtfronting” remark. “I am the third Head of Government you are listening to this week… I don’t know how you are doing this! Maybe, this is Prime Minister Abbott’s way of shirtfronting you!” Modi said.
Shirtfronting is the name for an aggressive manoeuvre in Australian rules football, in which a player is bumped front-on in the chest. Ever since pictures were published of a grinning Abbott standing with President Vladimir Putin of Russia before the G20 Summit in Brisbane, with both leaders cuddling furry koala bears, Abbott has been reminded repeatedly of his statement last October when, in the aftermath of the downing of MH17 over Ukraine, he had promised to “shirtfront” Putin over the tragedy.
During the course of the day, Abbott often put his arms around Modi and said he considered him a brother.
Peace and stability in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region could no longer be taken for granted, Modi said. India and Australia, he said, must play their part by expanding their security cooperation and deepening international partnerships.
“This vast region has many unsettled questions and new challenges,” the PM said, calling for greater collaboration on maintaining maritime security. “We should work together on the seas and collaborate in international forums. And we should work for universal respect for international law and global norms.”
Modi said India was witnessing a new high tide of hope and energy, with a government with an absolute majority after 30 years. “There are 800 million people below age 35, eager for change, and willing to work for it. They can make it happen. This force of transformation has been unleashed in the six months that we have been in office.”
His government was not only thinking with ambition, but also acting with speed, Modi said. “We are seeking growth not just for growth, but for transforming the quality of life.”
In his comments, Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told Parliament that Australia’s task was to build on its economic relationship with India. “The great significance of your visit, indeed your leadership, is the paradigm shift in Indian politics from the politics of welfare to the politics of aspiration,” he said.