08/04/2009 - 22:00

Benefits will grow from regional stability

08/04/2009 - 22:00

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India presents opportunities Australia, and WA, must be prepared to capitalise on.

THE need for greater Western Australian engagement with India has been a pet subject of mine for a long time.

I am a big believer that the sub-continent will mean more to WA in the longer term than China because of our proximity, both in terms of geography and our cultural background as former British colonies.

Yet we seem slow on the uptake with regard to this. The fact, for instance, that there are no direct flights to India from Perth seems odd to me given its strategic importance.

In fact we are better connected - via direct flights - to several other key trading centres such as Johannesburg, Dubai and Singapore. Even an outpost like Mauritius has direct flights.

To me, India is the central plank in the wider region in which WA has a central interest - the Indian Ocean.

I was, therefore, heartened to read local think tank Future Directions' newly released paper on the region entitled 'Such a Full Sea: Australia's Options in a Changing Indian Ocean Region'.

The paper, by Greg Copley and Andrew Pickford, looks at Australia's links across the Indian Ocean and makes numerous recommendations about how we should be acting to secure our long-term interests.

I have to say this paper, quite rightly, makes little direct reference to India.

However, any real reference to the Indian Ocean region can't ignore India. Almost every point raised by the authors - from scholarship and agriculture to instability and threats to trade routes - could be linked to the sub-continent either directly or indirectly.

I was particularly interested in the recommendation that Australia takes a lead role in creating an Indian Ocean forum, with a full-time secretariat and headquarters based in Perth. This is one of those 'small steps for man' types of idea that could place us at the centre of this growing region, rather than just being a passive observer on the periphery.

Strategically, there is much to gain from being proactive. As the report points out, Australia is very reliant on the trade routes that cross the Indian Ocean.

Businesses from WA are active throughout the region and we have much to lose from instability.

India may have its issues, but its billion people have democracy and, I believe, a bright future. They will project this outwardly more and more often, acting as a local superpower. We need to be well connected to that and helping to shape its future.

DOING SOMETHING RIGHT

I HAD great pleasure in attending a Graduate Management Association talk with business leader and Australian Football League chairman Mike Fitzpatrick at the University of Western Australia last week.

Clearly one of Australia's most successful executives, Mr Fitzpatrick's straightforward views reminded me of how much we are missing with all the drama of the global financial crisis going on around us.

It is worth noting he was probably the last of an era when talented people could be good at everything. A champion footballer with Subiaco and captain of Carlton, Mr Fitzpatrick actually took time off from the VFL to study at Oxford as part of the Rhodes Scholarship he won as an engineering student at UWA.

Can you imagine any footballer doing that today? Champions these days have a far different array of extra-curricular activities, which rarely distract from the main game.

But this broad, multi-disciplinary background clearly has its advantages.

I found Mr Fitzpatrick's considered views on a number of subjects quite positive, such as his observation that Australia, due partly to culture, had significant strengths in governance and management training.

For instance, he noted that Australian executives typically had to prove themselves to the people they worked with. In the US he found staff tended to accept the authority of the person parachuted in above them.

He also saw US board engagement with management as limited, leaving everything in the hands of the CEO, till they saw a bead of sweat on his brow, at which point they got rid of him and started again.

These might seem like flippant views or massive generalisations, but the observations were clearly not made on a brief holiday to Disneyland.

For me these views helped affirm my own view that the system by which Australia is governed and the way we do things is not broken.

Of course people got paid too much and many took on too much debt. Investors will pay the price for this, but it's all part of the learning curve. By way of example, some suggest Australia has been less affected by the crisis because of regulation brought in after the disastrous collapse of insurer HIH. Lots of people got burned by that, or even went to jail, but the system was made stronger.

In the same way, therefore, to suggest global capitalism is dead, in my view, is wrong.

The smartest way of doing things will preside in the longer run, and the best thing is to have an open mind - especially if you reckon the Australian way is the right way.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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