Australia is an advert for multi-culturalism, not me: High Commissioner Peter Varghese

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 11, 2009

The Australian High Commission in Delhi doesn’t appear to be a building under siege. It is well-ordered, bordered by impeccable green sward. Here, the sound of India’s often inchoate anger at “Australian racism” to Indian students seems very distant. But it is Peter Varghese’s job to hear — and answer — India’s charges. He is Australia’s new high commissioner in Delhi, and his origins in Kerala, birth in Kenya and Australian upbringing make him possibly Canberra’s best advertisement for multi-cultural inclusiveness. He talks political and cultural fusion with Rashmee Roshan Lall. Excerpts from the interview

Would you agree this is a difficult time for any Australian high commissioner in Delhi?

Only to the extent that we have this one issue, which has been a difficult issue. If you take the overall picture, I would say it is a terrific time. I’m not dismissive of the student issue but we’re confident that over time, we’ll be able to resolve this problem.

You use the word ‘problem’. So, it must be a difficult time to be Australian high commissioner in India?

It’s patently a perceived problem.

You’re calling it a ‘perceived problem’?

I think it’s an issue that’s been considerably beaten up in the media. I’m referring to the image that may have been conveyed that this was a rampant problem throughout Australia. Now, that’s not to say that I’m dismissive and that the attacks haven’t occurred, that those attacks were serious and we take them seriously and they ought to be condemned. But this idea that somehow all Indians in Australia are under threat or that Australians are a marauding group of Indian-bashers is obviously, absolutely wrong.

Is this a dream job for you, interpreting your country of ethnicity to your adopted country?

I sought the job essentially for professional reasons. I think this is a big relationship with a lot of growth tissue left in it. There are very few of those available to a professional Australian diplomat because big relationships are usually well-established relationships, which have some room for growth but nothing like the quantum of growth which I believe this relationship has.

Would you regard yourself as Australia’s best advertisement for multi-cultural inclusiveness here in India, right now?

I wouldn’t regard myself as an advert in any way. Look, the best advert for Australian multi-culturalism is the journey we have taken in Australia from where we were in the 1950s to where we are in 2009. In the space of one generation, to be able to move from a society, which formally still practised the ‘white Australian’ policy, to a country in 2009, which is composed of people from every part of the world.

But could there be a better advertisement than you for Australian multi-cultural inclusiveness here in India right now?

I view my position here as an Australian diplomat who happens to have an Indian background rather than putting the stress on having the Indian background.

But surely, you can’t fail to notice that if anyone says Australia is racist, you can reply, ‘look at me. I represent the country’.

To that extent, obviously, to have someone represent Australia from as multi-cultural a background as I have, must say something about the broader Australian community. But it’s not something I want to wear on my sleeve. It can be an advantage.

It can if you speak the language. Do you speak any Indian language?

No, I don’t.

So, how can it be an advantage? Is it just that you’re more likely than an Anglo-Saxon Australian diplomat to know Indian mindsets in your bones?

Having an Indian heritage and growing up with India, in a sense, being a backdrop to your life, may help in understanding the place a little bit better and in communicating with the Indians but I’m not saying this is a clear-cut example of a clear advantage.

Are you totally Australian? Do you have Australian ‘cultural habits’?

I regard myself as an Australian and it would be impossible for me to do my job if I didn’t regard myself as Australian. I consider my, well, ‘cultural habits’, my lifestyle, my values, my worldview to be very Australian.

I deliberately used the term ‘cultural habits’ because in January, a 43-year-old Filipino machine operator in Townsville, Queensland, was sacked for using water rather than toilet paper. It was said to be a very un-Australian ‘cultural habit’. So what hope then of any accommodation with Indian students with their very distinct ‘cultural habits’?

I don’t know that case so I don’t know what all the facts were. To the extent that some of the Indian students coming to Australia may be unfamiliar with an urban or the western lifestyle is another reason for students to be properly briefed before they come.

Australia needs the money Indian students provide; Indians need the gloss provided by a ‘foreign’ education in Australia. Is it a symbiotic relationship? A parasitic one? Or survival of the fittest?

I wouldn’t use any of those biological or Darwinian analogies. The broad issue here is that there is a complementarity between the education deficit in India and Australia’s capacity to offer education to overseas students. To the extent that we’ve had some problems, then, they’re all eminently fixable.

So what’s your favourite dish symbolizing India, from round here, not in Australia?

We still as a family, twice a year, have appam and duck curry for breakfast at Easter and Christmas, which is a Kerala tradition. And we’ve maintained it all these years.

Rashmee Roshan Lall