28/04/2021 - 13:00

Former DFAT chief urges caution on India message

28/04/2021 - 13:00

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Former diplomat Peter Varghese has called on the federal and state governments to better engage with the Indian community amid the country's worsening COVID-19 crisis.

Former DFAT chief urges caution on India message
Peter Varghese led DFAT between 2012 and 2016. Photo: Attila Csaszar

University of Queensland chancellor and former Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese has called on the federal and state governments to better engage with the Indian community amid the country's worsening COVID-19 crisis.

That comes just one day after the federal government temporarily paused repatriation flights from India amid soaring COVID-19 infections in that country during the past two months.

India has now recorded more than 300,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day for the past week.

Premier Mark McGowan had publicly supported suspending or limiting repatriation flights from India after a returned traveller from the country quarantining at the Mercure Hotel Perth inadvertently infected another returned traveller who, in turn, infected two others in the community.

Flights from India have been suspended until May 15 with the federal government to send aid to the country in the interim.

Mr Varghese, who spoke at a Perth USAsia Centre-sponsored event this morning, told Business News it was up to the federal government to decide who could return to Australia and that India broadly understood the need for current arrangements.

But he warned that Australian officials should be careful in their rhetoric and how they presented the need for flight suspensions.

“Where the risks come are not in any of the decisions the government has taken on suspending flights and providing assistance, it’s if it turns out to be perceived as treating India and Indians unfairly,” Mr Varghese said.

“It’s important for the communications on this issue from governments in Australia at a state and federal level not to say anything that would give rise to the argument that India is being unfairly singled out.

“That sensitivity to the messaging is going to be important.”

Mr Varghese’s comments come just days after Mr McGowan referred to India as the “epicentre of death and destruction”, saying it was not necessary for individuals to travel to the country for weddings, funerals or sport.

Asked whether these comments would have an impact on Australia’s relationship with India in the long-term, Mr Varghese said it was largely context dependent.

“It’s a regrettable comment to make, but I don’t think it will have a huge impact,” he said.

“India is always very sensitive to this idea they’re being discriminated against. That’s what we’ve got to keep in mind.

“If we do something for public health reasons, if what we do is consistent with how we handle other [countries], then the ground for arguing discrimination is essentially taken away.”

Mr Varghese's address, which covered numerous aspects of India and Australia's diplomatic and economic relationship, broached the federal government's need to build relationships with the Indian-Australian diaspora.

He drew parallels with Australia's relationship with China to illustrate the need to strengthen that dialogue.

"The last thing you want is for the Chinese community ... to somehow feel the difficulties we have with the government in China flows on to hostility towards them," Mr Varghese said.

"Being able to engage with them on foreign policy issues, explaining to them what the government's position is and why we're doing certain things is very important."

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