OVER recent weeks a ''reality'' television series has led a mixed group of Indian citizens on an at times hair-raising guided tour of Australia, a nation that the program's title suggests is ''Dumb, Drunk & Racist''. Having got our attention with this outrageous provocation, it becomes clear that the bleak label is host Joe Hildebrand's own creation - his Indian fellow travellers are clearly in at least two minds about the proposition. Clever, funny and at times brave and insightful, the show entertains. It also confronts a serious issue: are Indians and Australians ready for that larger journey towards understanding each other better?
Recent signals have been mixed. Assaults and robberies that affected Indian students in 2009-10 saw them leave Australia in droves. The exodus wrought havoc in the tertiary education sector and cost Australia billions of dollars. Aussies visiting India used to be set upon by happy crowds chanting names such as ''Boon'', ''Border'' and ''Mark Taylor''. Cricket is still a shared passion, but since the student crisis travellers from Down Under have been asked, "Why do Australians hate us?"
The good news is that recent polling suggests an unexpectedly rapid recovery in Australia's reputation in India. The AMR Research data, revealed in a report published today by the Australia India Institute, shows that Indians surveyed ranked Australia the eighth-best country in the world, up from 35th during the depths of the student crisis.
Yet similar optimistic moments in the past have turned out to be false dawns and there has been precious little solidarity between our democracies. Australia hasn't hosted a visiting Indian prime minister for 26 years.
The AII report, Beyond the Lost Decade, reveals some of the reasons why. Influential Indian policymakers regard Australia's foreign policy as ''erratic'', ''impetuous'', ''immature'' and ''unduly mercantilist''. Australian diplomats counter that India is simply holding on to old grudges, mainly the perceived overreaction to its 1998 nuclear tests.
The report, produced by a taskforce whose members combine decades of experience in diplomacy, government and media, finds that perceived commonalities such as cricket, democracy and the English language have created a deceptive sense of familiarity that masks very different world views. India's need for energy security will not necessarily produce close political ties. India demands respect and prefers discrete alliances with reliable partners. It seems to move slowly, yet once its confidence is gained - as an unlikely friend in Israel has gained it - doors can open quickly.
The Labor Party's decision last December to lift its ban on uranium sales to India created a circuit-breaker and an opportunity to advance the relationship. But since then the Gillard cabinet has not formally adopted the policy, apparently due to problems with international treaty obligations. This is creating renewed uncertainty among some Indian officials.
Nimble diplomacy from the 1960s to the 1990s helped Australia get in on the ground floor of Asia's economic miracle. But when India opened its economy in 1991, Australia failed to seize the opportunity. It will now be harder for business to establish a foothold, especially without an Australian Indian community as large and influential as those in Britain and the United States, which facilitated closer ties.
The taskforce report highlights practical actions that both nations can take to build goodwill, stronger people-to-people ties and better understanding of each other.
Changes to visa regulations after the student crisis moved the goalposts for some Indians studying in Australia. Although some grandfathering measures were put in place, many of those affected have only until the end of this year to make other arrangements, or leave. The report suggests giving them another year to work out their futures.Similarly, the withdrawal of post-study work rights for international students undertaking vocational courses hit Indian students hardest. The report suggests restoring those rights to students at TAFE and other reputable vocational institutes, where most Indians were enrolled.
Australia's federal system makes achieving uniform standards in any field a challenge, but competition between states can be healthy. States that enjoy the benefits of the international student program should be rated annually on student security and education quality. A high ranking would produce overseas marketing opportunities for states that excel.
Making Australia Asia-literate won't just happen of its own accord. Innovative programs to educate Australian schoolchildren in the history, culture, economies and languages of our dynamic regional neighbours are essential. To avoid the possibility of some states and schools failing to implement these changes, the Australian curriculum should mandate and specify the study of India from primary school onwards.
In higher education, for every 100 international students who study here, one Australian student should be supported to study in Asia. On today's enrolment figures, that would mean up to 3500 young Australians completing all or part of their degrees in Asian countries, including India.
Australia's reputation abroad is high, but this popularity is superficial and, as the student crisis showed, can plummet when negative narratives get picked up by 24-hour television news channels abroad.
The taskforce report calls for major changes at Radio Australia and the international television service Australia Network. India doesn't need news broadcasts funded by Australian taxpayers - it has 500 television stations of its own, dozens of which carry 24-hour news. Nor do Australian expatriates and travellers need Canberra to pay for their news and sports updates, all of which they can get from the internet. By junking the old broadcasting model, Radio Australia and Australia Network resources could be freed up to commission or produce quality programs that Asians want to hear, read and view. Doing so would convey a far better sense of what Australia is, and can do, than any number of news bulletins. Such content would have greater impact if distributed via India and Asia's own TV and radio networks.
In 2009, when Indian media reported the student crisis as symptomatic of racism, Australian officials reacted defensively, provoking claims of a cover-up. Dumb, Drunk & Racist suggests a braver approach. A smart, sober and diverse Australia should be big enough to admit everything is not perfect, engaged enough to effectively communicate what it offers the world, and confident enough to allow others to judge.
(Co-authored with Christopher Kremmer)
(Source: The Age)