Address to Australia-Thai Chamber of Commerce

08 May 2015

I acknowledge the presence here of Chairman, Khun Isara Vongkusolkit, of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and the Australian Chamber of Commerce President Leigh Scott-Kemmis; and the many distinguished representatives of the Thai business community, friends of Australia, friends of Thailand.

I am really pleased to have the opportunity to be here in my first visit as Foreign Minister of Australia. As the Ambassador indicated, I have been here many times before. I was reflecting that my first overseas trip as a young, 17 year old university student was in fact to Thailand, and I fell in love with the place then. And over many years, my annual sabbatical for rest and relaxation was to Chiva Som. And now, when I really need it, to spend some time at Chiva Som, I don't have the time as Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, it is very good to be here.

I'm pleased to be addressing the business community, for business is vital for the health of our societies, it creates jobs, it delivers economic growth.

That's why we've made such a virtue of what we call economic diplomacy. Just as traditional diplomacy seeks peace, economic diplomacy seeks peace and prosperity.

We are doing whatever we can as a government to support business, trade, investment and growth. Australia has a strong interest in a prosperous and stable region, which directly supports our domestic prosperity and our success.

That's why we are seeking to strengthen and deepen our relationship with countries in the Indian Ocean and Pacific. We call it the Indo-Pacific; it's our neighbourhood. That's why Thailand, as an established major regional economy is too important to Australia and the Indo-Pacific region for us not to want closer high-level engagement

I recognise that Thailand has faced political challenges in recent times, and that this has impacted its growth and development. Those challenges make closer engagement even more imperative.

As a friend and regional partner, we want to see democracy restored, and we want human rights and fundamental freedoms to be protected.

We want to better understand the situation here, including the challenges that need to be overcome and the government's plan for a return to democracy.

As Thailand works on resolving its challenges, one thing is clear: a strong, robust economy and a vibrant private sector are fundamental to recovery and growth in the years ahead.

Australia wishes to be a partner in that growth, as Thailand continues its role as a major part of the regional economy.

Economic weight has increased in our Indo-Pacific region, and with that comes greater strategic and political weight. Demographic shifts in major economies like China, Japan, India and Indonesia are having an increasing influence on economic development, and providing challenges – plenty of them – as well as opportunities.

Most often, we hear about China's emergence – and given China's size and scale, it is inevitable that the seismic shift we have seen, and are seeing in China's economic and strategic weight, is creating global ripples.

But the transformation taking place in regional countries like Thailand is also very much part of the story.

The implications of these transformations are profound – consider, for example, the extent to which countries that were formerly aid recipients have transformed their economies and become aid donors.

Thailand was an early example of this, and its transformation in the region was profound. In 2003, conscious of how quickly the Thai economy was changing, the Thai Government asked Australia to no longer provide bilateral development assistance.

This change is the sort of transformation that we welcome in our time as making a fundamental difference to the lives of the citizens of our region, and this was driven by economic growth.

The Australian Government is committed to strengthening our relationship with countries in the Indo-Pacific, and that's why we have launched what we call the New Colombo Plan.

Around 450 Thai students studied in Australia under the original Colombo Plan in the 1950s and 1960s. We brought students to Australia to gain skills and form friendships that have lasted a lifetime, returning to their countries to add productivity and prosperity. Now, Australian students are coming to study in Thailand.

I'm pleased that in 2015, we will see over 160 Australian students study here in Thailand. It's a major investment in our young people, in our future, and the future of the Australia-Thailand bilateral relationship, by ensuring that undergraduates from our universities, our best and brightest, get an education, gain some skills, learn a language, and gain some business experience in our region.

I'm looking forward to formally launching the New Colombo Plan with the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister this afternoon. I urge business to show its support, for part of the New Colombo Plan experience is to have our students undertake an internship or a mentorship or work experience with a business; Australian or Thai - or multinational - in the country. That way we will have more Asia-literate Australian potential employees and employers in years to come.

Over the past decade, our nations have been well served by the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (or TAFTA).

Trade has doubled since TAFTA entered into force in 2005, and Thailand is now Australia's 9th largest trading partner. Investment has also grown impressively: Thailand's foreign investment in Australia is one of the fastest growing of Australia's top investor partner countries.

For its part, Australian investment in Thailand has increased about 20 per cent a year over the last five years: there are now 170 or more Australian companies operating in Thailand. Many of these use Thailand not only as a production base but also a strategic launching pad for reaching into regional and global markets.

An example is Gold Coast Ships. Since 2011 Gold Coast Ships has been building state-‑of-‑the-‑art, Australian designed catamarans at its shipyard at Ocean Marina near Pattaya. The vessels are designed in Australia, and many of the components imported from Australia tariff-free under TAFTA.

Australian manufacturers can also grow their exports by taking advantage of Thailand's position in global supply chains.

Staetite Fasteners, a Victorian company, designs, develops and manufactures high quality automotive and industrial components. It began exporting to Thailand in 2005 across the automotive supply chain. Sales to Thailand are currently worth over $6 million a year.

As these statistics and examples demonstrate, TAFTA has made a major contribution to the economic partnership between Australia and Thailand. However, we can't be complacent; we need to be alert to opportunities, and to review and enhance the agreement.

I think great progress has been made in recent years across the region in terms of trade liberalisation. Australia has, for example, under the new government in under two years, signed major new free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea – each one of them capable of billions of dollars' worth of trade and investment gains. Each one, mutually beneficial.

In each case, services and investment have been major parts of these agreements – and this is where I believe we could upgrade TAFTA. TAFTA could also be updated to better reflect our contemporary trade and investment relationship.

My colleague, the Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb, is planning to visit Thailand later this year – and hopefully his visit will be the opportunity to not only commemorate the 10th anniversary of TAFTA, but also to consider ways to further enhance our relationship. I'm sure he will bring a significant high-level Australian trade delegation with him.

I believe Australia and Thailand have complementary economies. The strengths of our resources and energy, tourism and agribusiness sectors offer Thai investors opportunities to engage in areas where they have their own strengths and experience.

Situated in the middle of the emerging ASEAN Economic Community, I believe that Thailand offers much to Australian investors. Australian businesses have strengths in services that can help Thailand achieve its goal of becoming an even greater trading nation.

There are three areas where I believe we are working closely together – and where there is even more scope in the future.

First, agriculture, agribusiness and processed food.

The leading Thai sugar company Mitr Phol hasinvested in Australia – thank you, Isara - and has brought technology transfers back to Thailand to improve farming techniques here – lifting local productivity for Thai farmers.

The second area is education.

Our education relationship is strong, with the number of Thai students in Australia growing dramatically over past decades. From just a couple of thousand in the 1990s to almost 26,000 in 2014.

Thailand was our 6th largest source of international students for Australia, and Australia is the 4th largest destination for international students globally. This includes university, vocational education and student training.

A great example is Bluescope Steel, collaborating with Thailand's Ministry of Labour on the "Bluescope Training Centre" in Rayong. The centre is modelled on the TAFE Centre in Sydney, and trains Thai labourers in the efficient and safe usage of sheet metal.

In addition, the Australian Department of Education has worked for many years with its Thai counterpart, recently helping Thailand develop its National Qualifications Framework.

And third, the area of infrastructure.

Australia is a global leader in using public-private partnerships to deliver essential economic infrastructure like expressways, railway systems, ports and airports.

We are also widely experienced in energy: oil and gas, coal, power generation and transmission. Australian companies have the capacity to meet Thai energy demands, using cutting-edge techniques.

All of this means that Australia should be a natural partner for Thailand as it seeks to meet its growing energy demands.

When the coalition came to government in September 2013, Prime Minister Abbott declared that Australia was under new management and open for business. We are a strong economy, we are a great place to invest, and we are in our 24th consecutive year of economic growth.

The government welcomes foreign direct investment. We are seeking to make Australia an easier place to do business. We have an ambitious agenda for trade liberalisation and free trade agreements.

We are ensuring that our regulation and the demands of legislation are eased. We have set aside entire days in parliamentary sittings to repeal unnecessary legislation and regulation.

We are very proud of the fact that while some governments boast about the amount of legislation they have passed, we boast about the amount we have lifted off the shoulders of business. Indeed, in the areas of environmental approvals and major projects, there were several layers of bureaucracy that required approvals, and we have streamlined that to a one-stop-shop between federal and state governments, without compromising our environmental standards. We made it easier to get environmental approvals for some major projects.

Australia is, in every sense of the phrase, a top 20 country. In every social and economic indicator that counts, we are in the top 20 – except for population, where we rank 53rd. But we are about the 12th largest economy in the world. And in terms of ease of doing business, transparency, the size of our stock exchange, and our currency, we are certainly in the top 20. It's not often known that Australia has the largest pool of investment funds under management in Asia, and the third largest in the world.

So we have experience in the services sector, we have many sectors of our society that are ripe for investment and we certainly welcome more Thai investment in Australia, as Australian companies find more opportunities here.

I'm looking forward to discussing the full range of shared interests while I'm in Bangkok. Strong commercial links are at the heart of our ties, and ensure greater prosperity for both our countries. The Australian Government is committed to seeing these links grow.

We have a long history, we have many shared interests, we have known each other for a very long time. My presence here is to highlight the fact that we value our relationship with Thailand and we want to ensure that ours is an enduring partnership.

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