How Indians are stirring up Down Under

With India now Australia’s fastest-growing source of immigrants, tourists and fee-paying students, Chris Pritchard explores this major demographic shift over the past decade.


India is suddenly hot in Australia. Politicians and business leaders are unable to disguise their enthusiasm for strengthened ties with the South Asian giant-to-be. From the Indian side, even Bollywood loves Australia.

Mind you, this isn’t the first time. Roughly every 15 years Australia attempts to forge closer links with India in an apparent rediscovery of the obvious: that this vast island country—‘girt by sea’, according to its national anthem—is part of the Indian Ocean group of nations.

The difference this time, canny analysts contend, is that the relationship will blossom rather than wither. The reason? Australia has changed dramatically.

Traditionally, much more attention was afforded to trade and political links with neighbours in Australia’s Pacific backyard, particularly with number-one trading partner China as well as Japan and South Korea. Leaders regularly remind Australians that their destiny involves embracing the Asia-Pacific. Pacific credentials certainly can’t be questioned but one fact is often overlooked:  the Indian Ocean brushes against Australia’s west coast.

China may be top-ranked in two-way trade, as well as in sourcing tourists and foreign students, but India is rapidly catching up in all three categories.

Some commentators contend it will overtake China within a decade.

Australia’s geographic position means it can take advantage of straddling both regions, putting an end to what one leading think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, calls an ‘ocean of neglect’. This vast country—Perth in the west is a four-hour flight from the east’s Sydney—is again poised to upgrade Indian Ocean links, without downgrading those with Pacific Rim nations.

Australia’s geographic position means it can take advantage of straddling both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim regions
Australia’s geographic position means it can take advantage of straddling both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim regions

This altered scenario is attributable to major changes in the past decade to Australia’s demography. In this short time-span, India has become increasingly important to Australia. As Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop notes, the bilateral relationship with India is one of ‘great potential never quite realised’.

But India has quietly become Australia’s fastest-growing source of immigrants, fee-paying students and tourists over the past ten years.

As a prosperous developed nation, Australia’s manufacturing base has shrunk. High costs of raw materials and wages have pushed much of Australian companies’ manufacturing offshore. Consequently, Australia increasingly touts itself as a service economy. Two related industries jockey for top spot: inbound tourism and education.

Education boasts 526,932 foreign students (49,265 from India) attending Australian universities, high schools and vocational colleges. (Tourism and education are considered export industries because they are important generators of foreign exchange.) A hiccup in 2009 worried bureaucrats: a temporary drop in Indian students wanting to study in Australia when a spate of late-night attacks on Indian students received considerable publicity in India. The assaults were widely condemned as racially motivated, though senior police described them as opportunistic muggings. Whatever the reason, the attacks stopped and the industry bounced back.

Unlike in Britain, where it has plateaued, it continues to grow in Australia. Education analysts believe aggressive Australian marketing is the reason. As in Britain there is no language barrier, but costs are lower.

Globally, Australian exports include iron ore, coal, petroleum, natural gas (a fast-growing niche) and agricultural products including beef, lamb, wheat and wine. Australian exports to India, specifically, encompass coal, foods, beverages and mining equipment. Coal shipments are widely forecast to surge and India is predicted to become a major destination for Australian uranium, to be used for expanded electricity-generating nuclear power. India sends Australia textiles (25 per cent of the value of exports to the country), gems, chemicals, machinery and other mining-related goods.

In 2014 Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister in almost three decades to visit Australia. He pulled big crowds wherever he went and addressed Parliament in Canberra. One newspaper referred to his ‘rock star’ appeal, noting his adulation in the Indian community, not just from political supporters but in outpourings of national pride. He visited Indian communities around Australia and took a chartered long-distance train from Melbourne to Sydney where he addressed a stadium full of cheering Australian Indians, many of whom are Australian citizens.

In an address to business leaders, Modi noted that Indian business interest in Australia is growing, with the same true in reverse. ‘Indian investors are coming here in growing numbers and commitments,’ he observed.

Communications between the two are easier. For instance, Air India now flies directly to Australia with travellers no longer having to transit in Singapore or Bangkok. Indian companies invest in Australia’s mining sector.

India has in recent years quietly moved up the list of Australia’s export markets and is now in fourth spot.  Though buying only 6.6 per cent of exports, this translates to an annual value of A$18.8 billion (US14.4 billion). What’s more, there is an unbroken upward trajectory.

Modi mentioned that 450,000 people of Indian heritage are in Australia, which has a population of only 23 million. According to Australia’s Bureau of Statistics, 390,894 people identified themselves as of Indian ancestry in the country’s 2013 census. But the prime minister was probably including students and tourists.

Until recently, Indians were a tiny minority. Indeed, one Australian newspaper asserted that when Australians refer to Asians they usually mean people from Chinese or Southeast Asian backgrounds. In Britain, by comparison, ‘Asian’ usually means South Asians.

Indians are now firmly part of the Down Under landscape.  But innocent ignorance still plays its part. ‘They think we’re all Indians,’ one Nepalese student complained to an Australian current affairs magazine. In fact, Australia has cohesive Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Pakistani and Sri Lankan communities, though even in combined total they come nowhere near the numbers from India.

The Indian community is itself amicably split between people who came to Australia from India and those who came from elsewhere, particularly the South Pacific island nation of Fiji, where Indians are an important minority dominating commerce and some professions.

Then there are the Sikhs. While most Indians arrived in the past decade, a substantial part of the Sikh group is longer established, having settled in Australia soon after World War II. Some entered professions but others congregated in northern New South Wales, coming to dominate banana farming and producing 20 per cent of the state’s banana crops. They support a flourishing temple in the small town of Woolgoolga.

Many Indians who settled in the past ten years are Christian, with a minority following other religions. But this has more recently changed, with Hindus becoming most numerous, as evidenced by multitudinous temples.

Immigrants with family members in India are prominent in Australia’s medical, legal, accounting and engineering professions, as well as in business.

The IT industry, it has been said, would collapse were it not for Indian know-how and personnel.

Prominent Australians with Indian connections include businesswoman Helena Carr, wife of a former New South Wales state premier. She’s the Malaysia-born daughter of an Indian father and Chinese mother. Peter Varghese, born in Kenya to parents from Kerala, headed Australia’s federal department of foreign affairs and trade until recently quitting to become chancellor of the University of Queensland.

MOVIE MAGIC: About a dozen Bollywood films have been shot in Australia in the past decade as directors seek more exotic locations
MOVIE MAGIC: About a dozen Bollywood films have been shot in Australia in the past decade as directors seek more exotic locations

Holders of student visas are able to work legally up to 20 hours a week. In fact, young Indians often work in restaurants (mostly non-Indian) and open-all-hours convenience stores.

Though Indians are widely spread, even in far-flung small towns, the greatest concentration is in Sydney’s Harris Park, a low-crime working-class suburb which revels in the nickname ‘Little India’ because of a retail strip dominated by Indian shops, some of which rent movies and stock foods from India.

Bollywood is a growing presence too. About a dozen Bollywood movies have been shot in Australia in the past decade as directors with beefed-up budgets find more exotic locations. Officialdom is supportive: such films build out-of-India tourist traffic and entice even more students to study in increasingly multicultural Australia. Both tourism and education are recipients of bigger promotional budgets as Australia tries to woo more Indians.

Many Indian students decide to settle in Australia after graduating. According to Dr Jock Collins, professor of social economics at Sydney’s University of Technology, ‘these are the very people we should take in’ because, with resident status, they will make significant contributions to a country about which they have positive attitudes.

As Indians become a more visible and important part of Australia’s social fabric, an inevitable spin-off will be an acceleration of closer trade and political ties between these two large Indian Ocean entities.



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