WA's deputy premier conceded the state has in the past struggled to build a strong relationship with India as he prepares to lead a major trade delegation to the country later this month.
Roger Cook conceded Western Australia has in the past struggled to sufficiently engage with India as he prepares to lead a major trade delegation to the country later this month.
Speaking exclusively to Business News just days out from his departure, Mr Cook emphasised the importance of doing business with India, which is Western Australia’s seventh-largest trading partner with total trade valued at $4.6 billion in 2021.
He’s one of several ministers to travel overseas in recent months as part of the state government’s $195 million ‘Reconnect WA’ plan as Premier Mark McGowan currently tours Europe as part of that plan.
Mr McGowan became the fourth consecutive premier to travel to India in 2019, however, according to calculations by Perth USAsia Centre in 2020, the country’s total value of trade with WA has declined over the past decade while remaining stable with the rest of Australia.
Mr Cook, who oversees tourism and state development, speculated there was a range of reasons why this may be the case, including India’s own significant mining and primary industries sector, while conceding WA could be more strategic in its engagement in the region.
“It’s true we’ve in some respects struggled to build a solid basis for the relationship,” he told Business News.
“That was one of the reasons why I was so keen to take a big delegation there.
“Obviously, there's a lot to discuss as part of our diversifying WA strategy.
“We've got a whole range of industries and sectors that we're trying to target, but I also was keen to send a clear message that we are serious about our engagement with India, and we want to make sure that we can lift the relationship by virtue of that engagement.”
Their visit will last 10 days with notable business figures to attend including representatives on behalf of Fortescue Future Industries, Woodside Energy and Rio Tinto, as well as industry representation from Western Rock Lobster Council and Geraldton Fishermen's Co-operative.
The delegation will make stops in Mumbai, Delhi, Visakhapatnam and Chennai, with a direct flight between Perth and India and a revival of WA’s sister-state relationship with Andhra Pradesh to be top of the agenda.
Mr Cook told Business News he will be on hand to officially open the state’s second trade office in the region, which will be located in Chennai and complement its existing office, which is led by Nashid Chowdhury.
The state government’s handling of WA’s trade commissioner positions has attracted significant criticism in recent years for cutting the state's postings from seven to four in favour of a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model shortly after the most recent state election.
Business News reported on these concerns last year, with Indoshu founder Greg Johnson, Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor and Australia Indonesia Business Council national president Phil Turtle among those to voice concern with the changes.
Addressing those criticisms, Mr Cook said the overhaul had partly been informed by Victoria’s model, which operates 23 offices across eight regions.
“I'm familiar with the critiques, and most of the critiques are from people who are involved in that previous, if you like, period of drift in our engagement strategy,” he said.
“We think we've got the settings about right for what are the needs of the Western Australian economy.”
Mr Cook’s visit also coincides with New South Wales’ state government having fielded a political headache in recent weeks for its decision to appoint former deputy premier John Barilaro to the position of US trade commissioner, a job he had created while trade minister.
Mr Barilaro resigned from that state’s parliament before applying for the open trade commissioner position.
While no evidence has emerged to suggest foul play, the timing of the appointment has become a political headache for Premier Dominic Perottet, who has suggested it would have been illegal for him to have intervened and reversed Mr Barilaro’s hiring.
Mr Barilaro has since resigned the position, maintaining he had followed process while acknowledging his appointment had become a ‘distraction’.
WA has not been without its own controversies in regard to its trade commissioner postings.
Back in 2019, WA’s trade commissioner to Japan was alleged by the Corruption and Crime Commission to have overrun expenses to the tune of $500,000 alongside a handful of other salacious accusations involving two then-serving members of the Legislative Council.
Mr Cook acknowledged this incident had led to a rethink in how these positions are filled, particularly in moving away from lifetime appointments to three-year postings intended to serve a strategic purpose.
“By recalibrating the offices around trade commissioners with a hub-and-spoke model, I think we've got better coverage,” he said.
“Our intention is to have these people in market for three years and not much more and for them to work to a strategic framework rather than be ‘fellow travellers’.
“I think we allowed our international officers to drift a bit in that particular context.”
Asked whether there’s a perception that these postings constitute ‘jobs for the boys’ or are of little value to WA, Mr Cook framed them as a necessary for the state to remain internationally competitive.
“At the end of the day, no one's going to do this for us,” he said.
“New South Wales and Victoria have got particularly aggressive expansions policies around growing those positions and growing those networks.
“We’ve to be in that game as well.”
Direct flights to India not in the offing yet
The state government has previously stated a desire to have a direct flight between India and WA, however, Mr Cook poured cold water on that happening this time around.
While his visit will include meeting with Talace, owner of Air India, to get the ball rolling on such a route, the deputy premier was frank about what can be achieved on the trip.
“I don't think we're going to come out with a direct flight, but we're certainly going to come out with advanced conversations,” he said.
“We've obviously been talking with Australia-based airlines about trying to create that link, but this will give us an opportunity to really sit down with some of the India-based airlines and have a chat to them about what are the possibilities.
“I don't expect they will turn around and say, ‘Absolutely, let's do it now’, but we do hope that it's the beginning of a conversation that sees that it become a reality in the near future.”