Address to Health and Papua New Guinea, Burnet Institute

  • Speech, E&OE
15 June 2015

Louise, thank you for the introduction. My Parliamentary colleagues, Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition, Dr Dakulala, the High Commissioner of PNG Charles Lepani, our Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja and Brendan Crabb from the Burnet Institute. Thank you all for being here tonight.

This is a very special tribute organised by Burnet Institute to recognise what has been achieved in Papua New Guinea through partnerships, through collaborations over the last 40 years but more particularly the work that Burnet Institute has done there.

There are challenges and immense opportunities in PNG and over 40 years since independence, Australia and PNG have forged a very special relationship. Of course we have a history going back generations but over the last 40 years since PNG's independence our historic and cultural and people-to-people links have developed into a true partnership. We focus on our economic partnership, we focus on our friendship, our connections and I think that this year will be a magnificent time for us to look back on the road we've travelled together and the journey ahead.

Like so many Australians I have a deep affection and fondness for Papua New Guinea and its people and in my time as Foreign Minister I've been privileged to visit PNG on numerous occasions and previously as shadow foreign minister, and I feel that I've developed real friendships with the Ministers, with officials and most certainly with the people.

And like so many Australians, the connection is personal. As I was growing up in Adelaide I heard so many stories about Papua New Guinea from my uncle who served with the AIF in Bougainville during the Second World War, a great Uncle Harry Penny who established the first teacher's college in the early 1960s in PNG, my sister did her medical school internship in Goroka and Port Moresby and came home and told us all about the amazing time that she had, so much so that her daughter – my niece- has just completed a 12 month volunteer stint with Buk Bulong Pikinini in Goroka, carrying on the family tradition. So I learned so much about PNG and I have visited so often and find it is one of the most fascinating and extraordinary and special places on earth, but it does have its challenges.

In the area of health PNG and Australia have been working together for many years to try and improve the health outcomes for the people of Papua New Guinea because as island continents we need to work together because of our diverse populations, because of the mobility between our people. Warren Entsch the Member for Leichhardt knows better than anyone how our proximity and our geography bring us so close together - that we must cooperate, we must collaborate to ensure that there are better health outcomes for us.

This year the Australian Government has committed a total of $554 million in development assistance in PNG, and our focus, our priority is on health, on education, on law and order, on governance and on infrastructure but in the health area – and might I say through the High Commissioner – that we are delighted the PNG Government itself is allocating significant resources to health, recognising the challenges that PNG faces.

There are geographic challenges – the mountains, the valleys, the remote regions, the deltas – it is a very challenging environment. Secondly, the transport issues, it can be expensive, it can be difficult given the topography of PNG and third, the health workers and the health systems are under constant pressure. So we are very pleased to be working in conjunction with the PNG Government to get better health outcomes and we are working in partnership with other groups.

Let's take one of the real challenges and that is TB. In PNG there is the highest infection rate of TB in the Pacific and there are about 25,000 new infections reported each year - that is too high. So this year we announced a $15 million project with PNG to focus specifically on reducing TB through community awareness.

The challenge really becomes acute because of drug resistant strains of TB and this is where Warren Entsch again has brought these issues to my attention time and time again so that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the government focusses its efforts on trying to overcome drug-resistant TB and we know that early intervention and treatment can make a huge difference.

In the Western Province we know that if you can get there early and check it and get preventative measures in place it can make a significant difference. In fact, the work that has already occurred has seen deaths from drug-resistant TB fall from about 25 per cent in 2011, down now to less than 1 per cent in January 2015. So that is a significant outcome that we've had, but there's more that we should be doing.

The Australian Government works in partnership to leverage the dollars that are available. For example, we have provided $200 million to the Global Fund to ensure that it can continue to work on not only TB but malaria and Aids in our region and that's over a period 2014 – 2016. We have also provided $250 million to the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, and that's over 2016 to 2020. That funding is to ensure that we can strengthen immunisation across our region and we can ensure that there are vaccines available at affordable prices in our region.

On malaria, the Prime Minister is co-chairing with the Prime Minister of Vietnam the Asia-Pacific Leaders' Malaria Alliance and that has the very fine aspiration to make our region – the Asia-Pacific, malaria-free by 2030. We have also announced a $30 million a year commitment to health research, focussing on our region and we are already undertaking a number of initiatives with the private sector that relate to product development, so that we've got the right products, the right policies in place to ensure that our health research is targeted.

We've worked with Burnet Institute in so many ways, most recently we worked with Burnet and the WHO to ensure that Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Pacific Islands were prepared for any potential possibly outbreak of Ebola should that have occurred in our region. Thankfully it didn't but we took preparatory steps, preventative measures and I thank Burnet for that as well.

We have also commenced what I call the innovationXchange. This is a separate division within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that is dedicated to providing innovative, creative solutions to some of the more intractable aid challenges that our region faces. We have an international advisory board of the most innovative and creative global thought leaders and we have already got a number of projects that we want to get underway to deal with some of these issues. We'll pilot the ideas, if they work we'll scale them up, if they don't we will say – well that was a risk worth taking, we'll now move on to see if there is another way of dealing with this problem.

In order to do it we need an evidence base, so the Australian Government entered into a partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Michael Bloomberg who is on our international advisory committee has put in $80 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Australian Government have put in $20 million, that's the kind of partnership ratio that I feel quite comfortable with actually, and we are focussing on gathering, through the latest technologies, basic health data that is just not available.

We are focussing on 20 countries where the sort of health data that you would take for granted has never been collected but can be collected. For example, 65 per cent of deaths worldwide have no cause attributed to them and in some of these countries that we are focussing on there is no cause of death recorded, or very sparingly. How can we have health policies that target health issues if you don't have the evidence available? So through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Data for Health Initiative we will be focussing on gathering the data so that the health policies that are introduced are evidence based.

On that note, I'm delighted this evening to launch the Health for Development Strategy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for 2015 – 2020. This strategy is precisely what I'm talking about, bringing the evidence together to ensure that our investment in health outcomes in our region has a discernible outcome, it makes a difference. We have far too many examples of investment in health that has not delivered the results that one would have expected. So this strategy, and I encourage you all to read it, word for word and line by line, it is available online, will guide our investment in health in our region and I'm delighted to launch the strategy this evening.

So ladies and gentlemen, 40 years on from PNG's independence we are proud partners with our dear friend and neighbour and we want to continue to work with Burnet Institute, with other organisations and particularly with the PNG Government to ensure that the right resources are invested in health, that there is the long term political will to support the right policies, that there are the health workers available, that the children are being vaccinated, that there are expert specialists at the birth of children in PNG, all of these issues that we know are such a challenge, we want to ensure with our friend and our neighbour that they have the right people, the right policies, the right drugs, the right technologies to prevent and treat and manage disease.

And Australia will be there with PNG, as we always are, we will be there with our partner to ensure that the social and economic outcomes result from an improvement in health and development can be assured.

So ladies and gentlemen, what a delight it is to be here this evening, a very special night and thank you to the Burnet Institute.

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