Address to New Colombo Plan Scholarship dinner

  • Speech, check against delivery
02 December 2014

Excellencies, diplomatic corps representatives and particularly Ambassador Akimoto, thank you so much for your words this evening and I deeply appreciate the fact that you spoke on behalf of the four pilot locations this evening.

Vice chancellors and representatives from our universities, thank you so much for the support you have given to the New Colombo Plan right from the outset. When I first approached you back in opposition there was such enthusiasm from the university sector that I knew we were on a winner.

The New Colombo Plan Reference Group - thank you for all the work you've been doing for us. Your advice, your wisdom, your council has been invaluable. Those on the selection panel, thank you for taking the time to work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Education to ensure we selected the very best potential ambassadors for Australia. Of course our special guests this evening, the New Colombo Plan scholars for 2015.

This really is a 'night of nights'. We have had a message from the patron of the New Colombo Plan, the Governor General. We have heard from Kate and Ambassador Akimoto how the New Colombo Plan is seen as the flagship of the Abbott Government's foreign policy. In fact, the New Colombo Plan is where our foreign policy finds its expression. We have said that our focus must be on our region. We have said that we must have practical engagement in the region, that we want an Australian community that is more Asia-literate and so what better way to achieve those outcomes than by investing in our young people.

Tonight we must have some very proud parents and families and friends around this country as 69 of our best and brightest young people are awarded a New Colombo Plan scholarship.

This is not just about the scholarships and the winners of the up to 12 month periods to study. We also have announced in recent days that 3150 young Australians will be studying in short courses, or semester courses in our region in 2015. So there will be literally thousands of young Australians in our region as recipients of grants and scholarships under the New Colombo Plan.

I have a vision for this program. I really do want it to be seen as a 'rite of passage' for students studying at Australian universities, to have the opportunity to live and study and work in our region, so that in years to come we will see thousands and thousands of young Australians, each and every year receiving New Colombo Plan grants and scholarships to study in our region.

A little earlier this evening I attended the launch of a photographic exhibition at the Nishi Gallery to commemorate 40 years of Australian aid. In 1974 our aid program was formalised and the exhibition depicted the scenes, the stories, the people involved in our aid program and I was reminded that our foreign aid program actually had its first manifestation in the early 1950s in Australia as part of the Colombo Plan. This was an initiative post the Second World War where young people from the region came to Australia, to gain qualifications in schools and then go back to the region to be part of the building of economies, communities and societies in the Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific.

I'm always reminded of the words of Percy Spender who was the equivalent of Australia's Foreign Minister at that time. This was what was said on the eve of his departure on the 9th of January 1950, to Colombo this is what he said about Australia's place in the world:

"Geographically Australia is next door to Asia and our destiny as a nation is irrevocably conditioned by what takes place in Asia. This means that our future depends to an ever increasing degree upon the political stability of our Asian neighbours, upon the economic well-being of Asian people, and upon the development of understanding and friendly relations between Australia and Asia. Whilst it remains true that peace is indivisible, and that what takes place in any part of the world may affect us, our vital interests are closer to home. It is therefore in Asia and the Pacific that Australia should make its primary effort in the field of foreign relations".

Australia's foreign policy is focussed on the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific, coming as I do from Western Australia, we look West not East, the Indo-Pacific.

The idea behind the New Colombo Plan came very much from my own experience - travelling overseas as a 17-year-old, all my friends would go to Europe, I decided to go through Asia with my sister, and my experience of having an opportunity to study overseas. It was absolutely transformational, it literally changed my life. It's why I ended up in politics, not that I'm suggesting that will happen to all of you! Also my experience as the Minister for Education in 2006 and 2007, appreciating the depth of the relationships we have with countries where we receive their students. So it occurred to me that we would achieve so much if we sent our students back in turn.

So we announced our New Colombo Plan at the election in 2013 but a lot of work had gone on before that and I want to thank all of those involved in advising me, advising the Opposition and developing the policy behind the New Colombo Plan so that the day after the election I was able to give a detailed report to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – that's the New Colombo Plan, please implement it.

And I can say the Department has excelled in doing a professional, brilliant job. I could not have asked for more support, more focus and a better outcome, so please join me in thanking our team.

So from a standing start we started with a pilot, with four locations in Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore. We sent our first students away in March 2014 and throughout this year over 1300 students have studied in those locations.

The endorsements we have received from throughout the region have been, I have to say humbling because the response of the leaders, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers has been actually overwhelming. They have embraced the plan with so much enthusiasm. So often Australia is seen as being very transactional in our approach to Asia, to the Indo-Pacific and yet here was Australia saying we want to invest for the future by investing in our young people and we trust you and your universities to teach them and we have so much to learn from you. I think it's that humility that underlines the benefits of this as a foreign policy that should not be overlooked, that we have much to learn from our friends in the region and this New Colombo Plan is evidence of that.

I was at the ASEAN regional forum in Napyidaw in August and I'm proud to say that virtually every foreign minister at that meeting referred to the New Colombo Plan as an example of the connectivity, the engagement that the ASEAN countries wanted to achieve amongst themselves and their partners.

I thought I would burst with pride when President Xi Jinping addressed a joint sitting of the Federal Parliament and referred to the New Colombo Plan in his very gracious and elegantly diplomatic speech.

What is the key to its success is the internship, mentorship element. That will be a hallmark of the New Colombo Plan because our students will be testing their skills in real life situations. They'll be making connections with businesses and NGOs and commercial entities and others in the host country and the host country will be exposed to young Australians and see them in these real life situations. I've been overwhelmed by the response from the Australian business community and communities in our host countries who have agreed to be part of our New Colombo Plan. As Andrew Robb and I travel through the region we are delighted by the number of companies and entities that when they hear about the New Colombo Plan sign up and say we want to be part of that.

This evening we have representatives from a number of those businesses who have been so supportive of us Mitsui, QBE, Minter Ellison, Telstra, BHP Billiton and they've also been involved in the selection process so I'm just really delighted that we have such significant backing for the internship/mentorship side of it.

I also want to mention that we have a new addition to the New Colombo Plan Reference Group, a dear friend of mine and former chief of the ACT Kate Carnell. She is currently the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Kate thank you for coming on board, I know with your connections and your background and your experience and your enthusiasm for deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific, you will make a great contribution, so please thank Kate Carnell.

One of the more exciting things we are doing in our aid program is developing an Innovation Hub. I won't tell you too much about it because we'll be launching it next year and it's so exciting that if I start talking about it I'll spill the beans! Essentially what we're doing is bringing in the best and brightest minds from across DFAT, across the public sector, across the private sector to be more creative and innovative in the way we deliver aid. Innovation must be at the heart of what we do in foreign policy as well as our aid policy. I am delighted that tonight I am able to announce what I believe is a very innovative partnership as part of the New Colombo Plan.

There is a foundation in Australia called the Bennelong Foundation and we have representatives of Bennelong here this evening. They have joined with Asialink Business and the Myer Foundation and collectively they have provided a most generous investment in the New Colombo Plan to support cross-cultural training for our young recipients. So with this kind of support we'll be able to provide our students with the training needed so that they can get the very best out of their experience as a recipient of New Colombo Plan funding. This investment is substantial - $500,000 from the Bennelong Foundation and an additional $385,000 from Asialink Business and Myer Foundation so $885,000 to spend on our young people to make them the very best ambassadors that we can send overseas. Thank you.

As I said, last week we announced the mobility and semester long courses 3150 will be studying overseas, from 37 universities, across 32 countries having started with four countries this year we've rolled it out and wrote letters to foreign ministers across the Indo-Pacific and 38 of them wrote back and said 'absolutely' so from India in the West to Mongolia in the North and the Cook Islands in the East we have 32 countries currently, 38 in total involved in the New Colombo Plan.

Interestingly in the breakdown of grants coming out on top is Indonesia with 600 students applying for Indonesia and getting opportunities to go there, 500 for China and 300 for India and that just gives you an indication of the substantial number of students that we will have with some of our most important partners.

This is the exciting part of the evening, the New Colombo Plan scholarships for 2015. These are awards of up to 12 months study with internships for the most talented undergraduates who applied for New Colombo Plan funding. Don't forget these students are undergraduates aged from 18 to 28, a number of them have never been overseas before, haven't had a passport, others have been overseas a number of times. Our scholarship winners will be going to 17 locations Brunei, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vanuatu, of course, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore as our pilot locations as well.

These students judged by our selection panel as the best and brightest of those who applied, demonstrating academic excellence, a commitment to engage with our neighbours and having the character, the commitment, the values to represent Australia with distinction.

The disciplines are so varied, from engineering and business and law and languages, health, natural sciences, across the board. 32 universities will have New Colombo Plan scholars for 2015 from all states and territories and of course as we did with the pilot year the top ranked student in each location will also be awarded a fellow. So they would be for example, the New Colombo Plan China Fellow for 2015, now that means that they will get greater recognition but it also means that they will get a little bit more money! They are presented with a cheque that they can hopefully spend in some very useful and productive way in their host country.

We are so proud of the 69 here tonight. They join the 40 scholars who were announced in 2014. We're starting to build a substantial alumni, over one hundred scholars and fellows over 4000 recipients of mobility, semester long courses and the alumni will be an important part of a successful plan because not only do we want our young people to have a wonderful educational experience, we also want them to come back to Australia with new perspectives, new ideas, new skills, language skills, an outlook on life that means that they can add to the productivity and prosperity of our nation. Most importantly they will have made connections and friendships that will last a lifetime. Not only will that be to their individual benefit but it will be to the enduring benefit of the Australian community and Australia as a nation.

So to New Colombo students here tonight, I've now hopefully met you all as I went around your tables, we are very proud, your families and friends will be very proud of you, our missions in your host countries will look out for you and make sure you get to meet other Aussies and other people in your host country but you'll have, I can guarantee, the most amazing experience and everybody wishes you well.

You are going to be ambassadors for our country and we believe in you and we know that you will serve our country with distinction and come home as potential leaders in business, in community, politics and professions. I think I've made it quite plain how passionate and excited I am about New Colombo Plan. I also want to assure that this has the total backing of our Prime Minister. Prime Minister Abbott wishes he could be here this evening but because he's been called away to other duties he has sent us a message.

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