Mungo MacCallum: Turnbull's $1 billion non-trade deal in India

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Holiday snap of Prime Minister Turnbull with India's Prime Minister Modi (via @TurnbullMalcolm).

Malcolm Turnbull's trip to India has netted taxpayers a $1 billion gift to mining giant Adani and zero free trade deals, but there are some neat holiday snaps with India's PM Narendra Modi. Mungo MacCallum reports.

IT HAS to be said that Malcolm Turnbull’s "Passage to India" was a bit of a letdown.

For starters, he played an almost inaudible second fiddle to the country’s wildly popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi; even during his favourite photo opportunity on a public (well, somewhat) train journey our leader was all but ignored by the rapturous crowds.

But perhaps more importantly for his Australian audience – both the punters and the party room – he produced almost nothing in the way of "announceables".

In fact, almost the only substantial result he could promise was a negative one: the much-vaunted free trade deal with the giant democracy may, in the end, be undeliverable. The problems of securing anything like a win for our local farmers, in particular, are not yet even on the horizon.

This, of course, would come as no surprise to anyone who is even remotely interested in India, arguably the most complex and unpredictable nation on earth — and, for many Australians, the least comprehensible.

And among them is Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott, who celebrated the handshake agreement in extravagant style in 2014, promising to fast track the pact as the next big step in the free trade schedule that had already included South Korea, Japan and China, and was now on track to deliver the big one – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

That one fell apart but the fiasco could be (and promptly was) blamed on the intransigence of the incoming American President. However, explaining the fizzling out of the negotiations in New Delhi may be a bit more awkward, mainly because Abbott, if no one else, regards it as part of his legacy and therefore worth defending to the death. Yet another episode of the ongoing feud within the Liberal Party looms.

And it has probably not helped that Turnbull spent much of his time schmoozing up to Gautam Adani, the zillionaire tycoon who is now about to put the wood on Australia’s long-suffering taxpayers for a billion-dollar subsidised loan to build a railway line, from which he hopes to export enormous profits for himself and his offshore tax havens, while trashing vast areas of Queensland in the process — up to and including the Great Barrier Reef.

Turnbull appears unfazed by this raid on the Australian Infrastructure Plan — indeed, he seems to tacitly approve it. But at a time when the Adani mine is mired in controversy across the political spectrum, this may not be very smart. The Infrastructure Fund was always a boondoggle, but it was supposed to be our boondoggle — a pork barrel for struggling National Party electorates. The idea of shovelling out the loot for dubious foreign tax evaders is not on the agenda, especially when the supposed benefits have been grotesquely oversold.

Turnbull continues to parrot the lie about 10,000 jobs, when even the Adani spin doctors admit the real figure will be less than 1,500. And although he has not yet reached the bathos of Abbott’s “coal is good for humanity”, he is still pursuing the line of liberating the power-hungry millions with what amounts to Australian aid.

Actually, the power hungry millions will never be connected by a coal-fired grid; if they turn the lights on at all it will be from local initiatives, mainly from renewables. But the hell with reality — this is another ideological struggle in which the facts do not matter.

India has always been a land of myth and legend — and this, perhaps, is the most tangible result of what our prime minister did last week. He may not have landed any concrete results but he continues to give the myths and legends a good workout.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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