Address to In the Zone panel discussion

  • Speech, E&OE

Good morning. Welcome to my electorate of Curtin and to the great state of Western Australia. I'm delighted to see so many distinguished guests here and to the bevy of diplomats from Canberra, welcome, and to my Parliamentary Secretary Senator Brett Mason, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, ladies and gentlemen.

Australia as a nation has global interests. We are active in global affairs, we trade globally, we seek out global markets and our two-way investment is global. However our geography is our destiny. We are located between the two great oceans the Indian and the Pacific and so I define our region as the Indian Ocean, Asia Pacific or the Indo-Pacific for short. And unmistakeably our focus in foreign policy terms is on our region. Not exclusively by any means, but this is our neighbourhood, this is where we live, this is where we do business. As the Chancellor said, seven out of our top 10 trading partners are here, in the zone.

This conference is designed to focus on Australia's geographic location for here in Western Australia we talk about being in the same time zone as a means of promoting Western Australia as an attractive destination for doing business.

Our diplomats will, today and tomorrow, be hearing from various West Australian government representatives and Australian Government representatives about why Western Australia is a great place to do business.

In particular we'll be taking a site visit to the Pilbara and even if you haven't visited the Pilbara before I'm sure you'll already have an idea that the scale of projects from the mining and resource sector is world class, of world status. The level of investment in the Pilbara is astonishing, and I cite just two examples. The United States – Chevron and Exxon Mobil - is investing over $50 billion in one of the world's largest natural gas projects, Gorgon. That project alone has greater capacity than our entire LNG exports for last year. Then there's the Sino Iron magnetite ore project south of Karratha, an incredible level of Chinese investment in a magnetite mine, processing plant, port and rail facilities.

Australia has been built on foreign investment and will continue to thrive on foreign investment but it is two way. While we have built a world class mining and resource sector here, and with companies second to none in terms of expertise and sophistication, our mining companies are also investing, working, operating elsewhere around the globe, taking the expertise gained here to other countries and to the benefit of other countries.

Later this year Australia will be hosting the G20 in Brisbane (I'm not sure why it's not in Perth but I wasn't in Government - Stephen Smith I'm looking at you!) and that will be an opportunity for us to showcase Australia to the other G20 members. But I think of Australia as a top 20 country in any event. Whilst we might be 53rd when it comes to population, we are entering our 23rd consecutive year of growth and that's a record unparalleled by any similar economy.

But if you think of us in terms of top 20, we are the 16th largest in terms of outward foreign direct investment, the 13th largest in terms of inward foreign investment, we're the 12th largest economy, we have the 10th largest stock exchange, we're the 5th largest economy in per capita GDP terms, we're the 5th most resilient economy in the world according to one index, we're the fourth largest economy in Asia, after China, Japan, Korea, we have the third largest pool of investment funds under management, I could go on! We're considered to be the wealthiest country in terms of median adult income, so it's a pretty good place to be and as the BBC noted recently, Australia is actually a superpower - they meant a lifestyle superpower, but nevertheless, I'll accept the label.

The new Coalition Government announced very early on that Australia was 'open for business ' but that doesn't mean we take for granted the economic opportunities that we enjoy. The fact is there is a lot of hard work to be done in getting our own balance sheet back in order and there will be a focus in coming weeks and months on the Coalition Government's attempts to reign in debt and deficit. But we have a very ambitious productivity agenda to make Australia an even more attractive place to trade and to invest in. For example, you know that the environmental approval process in particular for major projects has been an obstacle. The Environment Minister Greg Hunt came into office with a stack of approvals in his in-tray and in just seven months he has fast-tracked approvals for $400 billion worth of projects – I'm not saying every one of them will come into fruition but he has cleared the way for them to get off the drawing board.

The Prime Minister has said he wants to be an infrastructure Prime Minister and by that he means that we will be investing significantly in the necessary infrastructure to ensure that major projects can continue, that our economy can thrive, that we'll be creating new jobs - in road and rail and port – yes, even the second Sydney airport – that debate has been going on for 30 years but we have now made a decision - there will be a second Sydney airport. We are also focussing on de-regulation, removing red tape, making it easier to do business here.

In foreign policy terms we have adopted 'economic diplomacy' and what we will be doing is focussing our diplomatic efforts on enhancing trade and investment opportunities between the countries of the region and globally. That is why there has been such a focus on negotiating free trade agreements. Our foreign policy is designed to project and protect our reputation as an open export orientated successful economy as well as being an open liberal democracy committed to the values of freedom, rule of law and democracy.

To that end, we want to engage in trade and commerce and business with our friends, neighbours and beyond. So we are very proud that in the first few months of this government we have concluded free trade agreements with both Japan and South Korea. We have a free trade agreement with China underway, we are part of the membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership – 12 countries seeking to conclude a free trade agreement. We are also part of the RCEP – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – which includes China and the ASEAN countries. If both those free trade agreements were to be concluded we truly would have realised the APEC vision of an Asia-Pacific free trade zone.

In terms of our soft power engagement, Chancellor Michael Chaney is absolutely right, the New Colombo Plan will be a signature foreign policy initiative. I was, in a former life, the Federal Education Minister and I am very conscious of the role that higher education plays in this country's economy. At one point when I was Education Minister educational services were our third highest export item after iron ore and coal. That was all about bringing young students to Australia to study in our universities. But I soon learned, as Education Minister, that there was a much broader opportunity for us through education to actually turn it around and send our young students to study at universities in our region.

If we believe this is the Asian Century, if we believe that the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific is our destiny, then we want our young people to have a much deeper understanding that can only come from living and studying and working in another country. So just as the original Colombo Plan developed such deep ties between its alumni and Australia, I hope that our New Colombo Plan will likewise build generational links between the region and this country. I'm often amazed to find the number of people - sitting around a Cabinet table or a boardroom lunch as I visit cities in the region- that a number of them are in fact Colombo Plan scholars.

Our thinking in terms of the New Colombo Plan was based on deeper, stronger, broader ties, to develop the relationship through future generations, the relationships that we currently base so much on trade and investment but must have more balance. This year we have sent our first crop of New Colombo Plan scholars as part of our pilot program into universities in Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Japan. By the end of the year, a thousand students under this pilot phase will be studying in the region – short courses, semester-long courses, year-long courses. The key to it is that they would have had an opportunity to undertake an internship or a work experience, mentorship at a business or entity operating in the host country.

In 2015 we expect other countries to sign on to the New Colombo Plan and I am sending a letter to the Foreign Ministers of your countries in the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific to invite them to opt-in to the New Colombo Plan. I have a vision of undergraduates at all of our universities having the opportunity to live and study in the region, to learn the language, to understand the culture, to get embedded in the politics – from an observer point of view – and come back to Australia with new perspectives and new insights and new ideas. And not only add to the productivity and prosperity of our country but to build these links that will last a lifetime.

Relationships in our region matter. I am delighted that this year Australia is the chair of IORA, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and I know there are a number of IORA member diplomats here today. This is an association that is about 20 years old and it hasn't featured largely in the global agenda of associations, or alliances, or networks, or dialogues, or frameworks, but nevertheless the 20 members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the dialogue partners recognise that the Indian Ocean is a very significant region. We have a work agenda that focusses on fisheries management, on tourism, on trade, on disaster relief, on humanitarian efforts – a whole range of issues that are important to this region.

Australia is entering its 40th year as a partner of ASEAN this year, so for 40 years we have worked closely with the countries of the ASEAN group. Of course, we are active in the East Asia Summit, in APEC and other regional bodies.

So I hope that over the next few days the diplomats from Canberra will see what we see – that Australia is most definitely open for business, that this is a great place in which to trade and invest and that we are a trusted and reliable trading partner.


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