By Harinder Sidhu, Australia’s High Commissioner to India
“Is it hard being an Ambassador?”
This was one of the first questions asked by a 10-year-old Grade 5 student during my recent visit to Stuart Park Primary School in Darwin, as part of the regional outreach component of the Global Heads of Mission Meeting.
How do I explain the many roles of an Ambassador to the 10-year-old in the room? Ultimately, as the most senior Australian government representative in a country, my main priority is to strengthen the relationship between Australia and India, to pursue and to protect Australia’s interests. Mostly this is straightforward – India, too, wants a good relationship with Australia. But sometimes it can involve difficult conversations on both sides and working to overcome obstacles for meaningful collaboration.
The last few weeks have captured quite nicely how varied my role as High Commissioner to India can be and how, in this role, I am at the forefront of driving the Australia-India relationship.
You can’t represent Australia if you don’t know it. My outreach in Darwin was to better understand the perspectives and interests of schools, community organisations and local businesses. I also looked for opportunities within the local community to develop the Australia-India relationship.
For instance, the online distance education delivery model used by the Northern Territory School of Distance Education is one that, in an IT-savvy India, offers great potential for transformation in the Indian education system. I participated in an interactive web conferencing lesson with a physics student in Yulara, a remote town close to 2,000 kms away. It is empowering for rural Australian students to have access to this technology. With half the Indian population under the age of 25, the challenge is to skill up and educate young Indians. Tapping into this model can be part of the future for stronger education and innovation links between Australia and India.
Not one week later, I hosted Prime Minister Turnbull on his first visit to India, where he met Prime Minister Modi and launched the India Economic Strategy, a roadmap that will guide the Australia-India partnership through to 2035.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit drew heavily on the High Commission’s in-depth knowledge and understanding of the Indian economy, political environment and social trends. Through our work in-country, we helped to shape the talks between both Prime Ministers on a full gamut of issues, including national security, counter-terrorism, education and energy, and signed six memorandums of understanding. The visit has injected fresh momentum and opened the door to more areas where we can work together.
Australia is a natural partner for India in education, energy, tourism and mining. We are already seeing dramatic expansion in people-to-people links. And as the fastest growing major economy in the world, India presents many opportunities for us.
So to answer my 10-year-old friend, it can be very busy and challenging being an Ambassador. But it is always rewarding.
Ms Harinder Sidhu is a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, most recently serving as First Assistant Secretary of the Multilateral Policy Division. She has previously served overseas in Moscow and Damascus. Ms Sidhu’s previous roles included First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Climate Change, Assistant Director-General in the Office of National Assessments and Senior Adviser in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. She holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Economics degree from the University of Sydney.