Australia in the Pacific

  • Speech, check against delivery

Thank you Margaret and good morning distinguished guests. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm so pleased to see a number of my colleagues from the Pacific Islands Forum. We had a very long and productive day yesterday and I thank Minister Kubuabola for hosting us here in Fiji.

I commend Dame Meg for the focused agenda that we had yesterday and her Secretariat's wonderful work and the Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa, thank you for the superb chairing of that meeting. For those Ministers who were still singing at 1am - I love the way our High Commissioner pretends that she wasn't there at 1am (yeah right Margaret) - you have more stamina than I would have thought but I didn't see any of you out running the Sea Wall this morning.

Ladies and gentlemen, as our nearest geographic neighbours, the South Pacific is a region of great importance to Australia.

Since becoming Foreign Minister, I have visited the Pacific region more than 20 times. Our Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, has visited 18 times, as have a number of other Australian ministers visited.

Prime Minister Turnbull and Senator Fierravanti-Wells will be at the Leaders' Meeting in September.

What this demonstrates is that we have a focus on our neighbourhood, on the Pacific and at the Pacific Islands Forum last year, at the Leaders meeting in Pohnpei, Prime Minister Turnbull said that given the nature and complexity of the challenges we face together, Australia would step up its engagement in the Pacific.

Over the course of this year, Connie Fierravanti-Wells and I have had conversations with colleagues around the Pacific about the nature of our long-term challenges and what we need to do in response.

We listened to your feedback, and I am here today to build on that work.

A major challenge facing our region is how we lift economic growth to provide jobs for our young people.

In a world of rapid geopolitical and technological change, we all share the goal of providing peace, prosperity, stability and security for our people.

There is an observation in a Pacific Islands Forum paper that Forum members cover over 40 million square kilometres of land and sea.

We are responsible for a greater portion of the earth than the European Union and the Association of South-East Asian Nations, ASEAN, combined.

This offers great potential in terms of access to natural resources, while posing challenges due to distance from global markets and global centres.

We are the custodians of this vast space. However, in most of our countries, there are too few jobs for the growing numbers of young people.

So conscious of these challenges, the Australian Government has been looking at how we can work more closely with our Pacific neighbours.

We are committed to sustaining and improving our development assistance, to strengthen resilience in our societies and improve health, education and training, and governance.

At the same time Australia is conscious that development assistance alone will never be enough to meet all challenges.

We are also looking at where enhanced access to the Australian economy and Australian systems will provide more support to Pacific economies in addition to development assistance.

So the Australian Government is focused on three goals to strengthen our engagement:

  • we seek stronger partnerships for economic growth;
  • we seek stronger partnerships for our security; and,
  • we seek to support relationships between our people.

Together, these goals are one of Australia's hightes priorities, and will be a central feature of our foreign policy white paper which will be released later this year.

The first goal of Australia's renewed effort in the Pacific is a reinvigorated economic partnership.

The PACER Plus trade arrangements will breathe new life into our economic and trade relationship, and enhance our mutual prosperity.

Labour mobility has been a consistent theme in the conversations that I have had with counterparts ever since I became Foreign Minister but more recently in my discussions with you about our Prime Minister's commitment to step up engagement.

Australia's experience with providing labour market access to Pacific Islanders has been positive to date.

Since 2012, over 17,000 workers from nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste have participated in our Seasonal Workers Programme.

Studies have shown that seasonal workers send home an estimated $5000 per six month placement. This money pays for education, housing, and medical needs, which are investments in a better future for the workers, their families and their communities.

Australia wants to provide more job opportunities for our neighbours in the Pacific. It is a win-win. Australia has labour shortages in some sectors and the Pacific has willing and capable workers.

We are currently looking at the level of training we give Pacific workers before they depart for Australia, and the support they receive in Australia before they begin work.

We are determined to further reduce the cost of remitting money from Australia. Already, Westpac and ANZ Bank have significantly reduced their remittance fees to the Pacific, as the result of the Government's lobbying and advocacy.

We have looked at New Zealand's positive experience with Pacific labour mobility and remittances to the Pacific and it is something we hope to emulate.

We're also looking at further horizons. Given the disruption caused by rapid technological advance, what will be the jobs of the future? What work will our young people be undertaking? What skills will the young people of the Pacific need to fulfill these jobs of the future? Many of these jobs don't currently exist. The industries of the future haven't yet been thought of.

The innovationXchange - an ideas hub within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, charged with responsibility for coming up with new, creative and clever ways of tackling development problems - is partnering with Atlassian, which is a very successful startup company in Australia, and MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to give the academic heft to it, to answer those questions. What are the jobs of the future? What are the industries of the future? What will young people in the Pacific need? What skills and qualifications will they need to fulfill them?

Now the results of that study, that survey, should be fascinating and enlightening and useful for us all.

We recognise that working together, we can integrate our Pacific economies to our mutual benefit. Doing so will allow us all to have better access to the remarkable economic growth of the Pacific rim and beyond – and Rimbink, I want to commend Papua New Guinea for bringing together APEC and PIF leaders when it hosts next year's APEC Leaders' Summit.

The second goal of Australia's increased engagement with the Pacific is to address the safety of our people and the security of our nations and resources.

We strongly support the Pacific Island Forum's work to build a Pacific Resilience Partnership.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that one dollar spent reducing vulnerability to disaster can save $15 in response and recovery efforts.

Last year, Prime Minister Turnbull announced $300 million in climate change and resilience support for the Pacific over four years.

As co-chair of the Green Climate Fund, a global climate fund, Australia has focused the world's attention on the challenges facing the Pacific, attracting over US$250 million for projects in our region. This includes urban water supply improvements in Fiji, coastal protection in Tuvalu and the Tina River Hydropower Development project in the Solomon Islands that will help replace 67 per cent of diesel powered generation with renewable energy.

Fiji's Presidency of COP23 is a valuable opportunity to highlight to the world the climate change challenges faced by Pacific island countries and the approaches we are taking together.

Our partnerships with Pacific Governments and in particular national disaster management offices are a model for other parts of the world. They have meant that many of us have worked together to support national government responses.

Our region is subject to a significant share of global natural disasters. Australia, along with other Pacific nations, responded to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Cyclone Winston in Fiji. We mobilised our military personnel and assets, sending doctors and nurses, engineers and educators.

Importantly, the Pacific diasporas in Australia also responded with particular generosity.

Building on the outcomes of the 2015 Sydney meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum and our agreement to strengthen coordination in response to disasters, I am pleased that the Government of Australia and the Government of Fiji have agreed to co-host a regional civil-military workshop on disaster response later this year.

We will bring together agencies from across the Pacific to share lessons learnt during Tropical Cyclone Winston so that we can work together as a region more effectively to save lives and rebuild communities when disaster strikes.

I will never forget visiting some of the more remote of Fiji in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston and seeing Australian Defence Forces working with local people, rebuilding schools and rebuilding communities so the people could return to a relatively normal life in the aftermath of that disaster.

Also consider one of the Pacific Islands Forum's proudest achievements, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI.

RAMSI's success depended on the region's commitment to take collective action to ensure the security and stability of one of our own.

Together, we took away the guns and brought security.

We rebuilt economic opportunity.

We increased understanding and friendship through community consultation.

RAMSI's success in a difficult undertaking over 14 years shows that together we are capable of strong, smart and sustained collective action.

It was alarming to read late last year that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, working with the Pacific Islands Forum, reported that global criminal activity is now fully integrated into the Pacific.

Drug trafficking, human trafficking and environmental crimes such as illegal fishing and wildlife smuggling are reported to be rife.

In response, we must improve the quality of law enforcement across the Pacific.

Better policing, better laws and stronger justice systems will give our communities access to justice, and combat crime:

  • less drugs – at present, methamphetamine trafficking is a real problem in the Pacific;
  • less theft – together, we recently arrested a syndicate that was skimming money from Pacific ATMs; and, importantly,
  • less domestic violence.

We can also do more to make our ocean more secure.

Maritime surveillance and security is crucial to our ability to fight transnational crime and protect marine reserves.

Australia is providing 19 new patrol boats to 12 Pacific Island countries. These will be larger and more capable than the previous generation of Australian boats. I am pleased to advise that the ceremonial keel laying for the first new Pacific patrol boat took place in my home state of Western Australia on 31 July.

The first boat is scheduled to be completed in October 2018, before being handed over the Papua New Guinea.

Australia will also be proposing ways to deepen our security cooperation, working with existing regional organisations.

One of the keys to improved disaster response, combating transnational crime and keeping our people safe, is better information exchange.

The Pacific Transnational Crime Network has made a strong start on sharing information, as has the Forum Fisheries Agency.

The Oceania Customs Organisation and the Pacific Immigration Development Community both have this issue on their agenda this year.

Just last week, authorities seized a 1.5 tonne shipment of cocaine, with a street value of more than $320 million, bound for Australia. This record seizure is testament to the cooperation between international law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and shows what we can achieve when we work together to combat transnational crime.

Yet there is a lot more we can do.

Our goal should be to have all our regional organisations and national agencies sharing information, training together and operating seamlessly.

No one country and no one agency working alone can meet the challenges we face.

The recommendation by Forum Foreign Ministers to Leaders to take forward work on a new Pacific Island Forum Security Declaration is an important step forward.

We will also look to step up our work together on health security.

A key initiative of the Australian Government is an Indo-Pacific health security initiative to ensure our region is better prepared to combat emerging health threats.

The Ebola crisis in 2014, and the fear that it could spread beyond West Africa to the Pacific, was a reminder of our shared vulnerability to epidemics.

We must continue to build partnerships - country by country, issue by issue - to ensure the region has the capacity and the resilience to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

We must learn from each other's experiences and share our expertise.

This new initiative, to be officially announced later this year, will see world-class medical research directed to the health security needs of the region, bolstering our fight against diseases like multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and malaria. It will also see Australia deploy our health professionals to health bodies throughout the Pacific.

Our innovationXchange has also partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies and we have a program called Data for Health where Bloomberg is using its technology, partnering with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to identify basic health data in countries so we can better shape health policies. In some nations we don't have all the necessary fundamental data we need to build strong health policies. This initiative will be providing that census-like information.

We are also discussing a proposal to pilot a scheme to give Pacific Island Countries access to Australia's pharmaceutical purchasing, procurement and medicine quality testing systems. Working with New Zealand, we could usher in a cost-effective, quality pharmaceutical regime and embrace the economies of scale.

The third goal for Australia's step up in the Pacific is supporting stronger relationships between our people and between our communities.

The strength of our ties owes much to the flow of people between our countries; to work, to study, to volunteer or to simply take a holiday.

In Australia, the Pacific Islands community is a key part of our national fabric, making a valuable contribution to our multicultural society. It is one of our proudest boasts that Australia is the, I would say, most successful multicultural nation on earth.

The New Colombo Plan, one of the Government's flagship foreign policy initiatives, has seen almost 2,500 Australian students study and undertake work experiences in Pacific Island countries, including the Kiribati, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji.

Erin Corkill, from the Australian National University in Canberra, studied at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. She had work experience at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vanuatu.

Returning to Australia, Erin said "my internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vanuatu was the most valuable professional experience of my life"...."Because of the New Colombo Plan, I have a much greater understanding of Australia's role in the Pacific and how I might be able to contribute in the future".

Students like Erin and the New Colombo Plan students here today, are building the foundations of Australia's future engagement with the Pacific. Their experience is fostering a new generation of people-to-people linkages, not to mention enduring friendships. This was the whole point of the New Colombo Plan. To ensure that the next generation of Australians were more engages, more committed, more understanding of our relationship with the Pacific than ever before.

Going the other way, Australia offered 650 new Australia Awards to the Pacific region in 2017. These scholarships are supporting the leaders of tomorrow to undertake study, research and professional development in Australia and the Pacific region.

For Pacific islanders, we recognise that Australia is often their gateway to the world. Our governments work together in education, health, and governance – work we remain deeply committed to.

We will continue to work with Pacific organisations to support women and girls, with a strong focus on the economic empowerment of women.

We want Australian schoolchildren to study and understand our Pacific community, and we would like schoolchildren across the Pacific to feel at home with Australia.

To support this goal, we will develop a schools partnership program between Australia and other Pacific countries. We will offer help for schools in our country to identify partner schools in other countries in the Pacific. We will offer support for school children to form friendships and undertake exchanges. We'll have school sporting exchanges. We will build enduring cultural ties across the Pacific. I still well remember my pen pal in PNG when I was 14 years old.

Our countries have thousands of years of indigenous history and culture, with significant trade and inter-cultural links.

It is critical that we preserve those links for future generations. I believe there is an opportunity for us to use technology to that end. We are keen to explore how we can make our museums' cultural and historical artefacts accessible to a new generation, a global generation, using technology.

We'll continue to work with you as we develop specific initiatives to fulfill our goals.

Ladies and gentlemen, working together in partnership means we can maximise our impact in terms of developing our economies and dealing with challenges but embracing the opportunities that the Pacific undoubtedly faces.

Most importantly, we can safeguard our cultural and natural heritage to the benefit of our communities and on behalf of future generations of people, we can preserve and build a life for those who proudly declare the Pacific as their home.

Thank you for being with us this morning.

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