Meet Australia's High Commissioner to India

20 November 2019
How a Sydney graduate became a high-level diplomat
As a delegation from the University travels across India, Her Excellency Harinder Sidhu tells us about the pressures and rewards of her role, and her hopes for Indian students at Sydney.
Her Excellency Harinder Sidhu

Ms Harinder Sidhu, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, at her residence in New Delhi.

Harinder Sidhu (BEc ’85 LLB ’87) joined the Department of Foreign Affairs directly after graduating. She’s worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Office of National Assessments, and the Department of Climate Change.

She was a senior public servant at the heart of two big public policy challenges: the first involved establishing Australia’s counter-terrorism frameworks in the aftermath of 9/11; the second was designing and delivering a policy solution to climate change.

She’s had postings to Cairo, Damascus and Moscow. Along with English, she speaks seven languages at varying levels of proficiency, including Hindi, Punjabi, Russian, Arabic, Bahasa Melayu and “very bad” French.

In 2016, she was appointed Australia’s High Commissioner to India.

“It’s an honour and privilege to represent Australia here in India,” Ms Sidhu says. “The role is a terrific career highlight, and no two days are the same. If you look at the gamut of everything Australia might do that may intersect with India, at some point or another it comes across my path and I have something to do with it.”

This means she needs to be across complex issues in minute detail. “I do the political stuff,” she says.

“My colleagues in the High Commission will do the technical negotiations, but when it comes to giving it a big push, that’s where I come in. I speak with the authority of the Australian Government, and in India what I say is taken to be the view of the Australian Government.”

In recent months, Ms Sidhu has been involved intensively in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a regional free-trade agreement that seeks to build on Australia’s relationships with 15 Indo-Pacific countries.

In the end, India chose not to join. “But we continue to transmit to India that we want to have a big relationship with you, we want to have a positive relationship with you, we’re prepared to support you,” Ms Sidhu says.

Indian students are a perfect fit for Australian universities.
Her Excellency Harinder Sidhu

Strengthening educational allies

The University of Sydney is also building a big relationship with India, and Ms Sidhu is set to receive the University’s biggest ever international delegation this week.

Led by Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence, the delegation of more than 60 staff will travel across India to meet with institutional and industry partners.

Ms Sidhu also sees a win-win in the education relationship between Australia and India. “Indian students are a perfect fit for Australian universities,” she says. “I am constantly impressed with young Indians. They are sharp, they are articulate, they are energetic, they are entrepreneurial. They’re such an impressive group.”

She sees great potential in getting Indian and Australian students together. “Young Australians interacting first hand with young Indians at university or at the research level, this is where there’s enormous potential for Sydney University.”

Armed with economics

Ms Sidhu, who was born in Singapore to parents of Indian heritage, came to Australia when she was 10. She later studied economics and law at the University of Sydney.

Her strong sense of social justice drove her interest in law, and a desire for a broad, classical education was behind her choice of economics. Both have been central to her career.

“I have two strings to my bow in everything I do,” she says. “Economics has stood me in really good stead.

“You can’t work on climate change issues, for example, without understanding economics in a very deep way, understanding how economic behaviour works and how incentives and all those things work. It was a broadening of my education, a broadening of my horizons.”

She sees her time at the University as formative, as well as intellectually stimulating, particularly as she watched a robust debate over the economics curriculum evolve in the 1980s. One group preferred individualism, micro and macroeconomics, maths and statistics, markets and efficiency; the other favoured political economy and its wide-ranging investigation of broad economic questions within social and political contexts.

Today the University offers studies in all of these areas equally, but 35 years ago “it was a very interesting time in terms of the University’s philosophical approach”, Ms Sidhu says.

Ms Sidhu would love to see more women studying economics and developing careers in the field. “It is actually problem solving, and women are good at problem solving,” she says. “This is where women tend to come into their own because we’re more inclined to be creative. It allows for a bigger variety of ways of thinking to come into the policy development process.”

Her Excellency Harinder Sidhu

Ms Harinder Sidhu, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, at her residence in New Delhi.

From political to personal

The hardest part of being Australia’s Head of Mission in India is maintaining work/life balance. The role is “24/7”, Ms Sidhu says, and managing her time and energy is crucial. She says she is surrounded by a “first-rate team” from whom she draws advice and to whom she delegates when necessary.

Most rewarding of all, she says, is her ability to bring people together to make a difference. “I find that very engaging – I will work very hard to make sure that happens. That’s absolutely my driving force,” she says.

She also finds life in Delhi invigorating. “Delhi is truly a global city. Anything you can find in any other large city in the world you can find in Delhi. It’s got an incredible buzz about it.”

She mentions literary festivals that host famous writers, a vibrant music and restaurant scene, and having befriended fashion designers. To unwind, she loves nothing more than a good Bollywood movie, having watched them since she was five years old.

Does she have any vices? Just the one: chocolate.

“I really feel I have a rich life,” she says.

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