Keynote Address: Australia’s Pacific Partnerships

  • Speech, check against delivery
09 July 2018

Aunty Robyn, thank you so much for that wonderfulWelcome to Country - you do us proud. High Commissioners, Ambassadors, friendsof Australia, friends of the Pacific, I'm absolutely delighted to be here thisafternoon, hosted by the Member for Forde and my very good friend Bert vanManen, along with so many members of Australia's magnificent Pacific community.Thank you for the contribution you make to your community, to Queensland and toAustralia.

I'll talk today about Australia's partnerships inthe Pacific and I couldn't think of a better place to talk about this topicthan here in Queensland in Bert's electorate. Geography binds us together, forwe all call this region of the Pacific our home, but we have deeper connectionswith the Pacific including a specific reference in section 51 of ourconstitution concerning our relations with islands of the Pacific. Even in 1901we knew the importance of our relations with islands in the Pacific.

We have a shared defence history, particularlyduring World War II, when Pacific Islander's sacrificed so much to support oursoldiers in the defence of freedom.

Ours is an enduring partnership with Australiahaving long supported issues of deep importance to the Pacific Islands from thedecolonisation agenda of the 1950s to the fight against nuclear testing in the'70s and '80s, to combating the challenge of climate change today. We are partof the Pacific, and the Pacific is part of us. Just think - 40 per cent of theNRL players have Pacific heritage, and more if you play rugby and AFL. And, asthe number one ticket holder of the West Coast Eagles, I must mention NicNaitanui's name to all the Fijians out there. He's a superstar. In fact, hejoins a long line of Pacific heritage sporting greats across all sportingcodes.

Australia is an enduring economic partner and ourdevelopment assistance is designed to support stronger economies and stablegovernments in the Pacific. Our links are reflected in the AustralianGovernment's long-standing engagement with the region's key institutions. In1947 Australia become a Foundation Member of the South Pacific Commission,which has become the Pacific community. We'll celebrate the 50thanniversary of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021. Australia is a member. Infact, I hosted the first Pacific Island Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting inSydney in 2015, and now the fifth Foreign Ministers Meeting has become anannual fixture on the PIF calendar. Australia has also been a continuous andstrong supporter of University of the South Pacific since its opening in 1968.

Relations with the island nations of the Pacifichave been one of my highest priorities as Australia's Foreign Minister. I'vemade 33 visits to the Pacific Island countries since 2013 including five thisyear with more planned before the end of the year. I am truly passionate aboutthe Pacific. I love the people, the culture, the languages, the diversity, therichness of the Pacific. It gets into your blood.

We have a ministerial position dedicated to thePacific and last month I led a bipartisan delegation to Palau, Micronesia andthe Marshall Islands accompanied by our Minister for International Developmentand the Pacific Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and our Labor counterpartsSenator Wong and Senator Moore. Prime Minister Turnbull has attended eachPacific Island Forum meeting since he has become Prime Minister and hosted manyof his Pacific counterparts in Australia, including PNG's Prime MinisterO'Neill, Fijian Prime Minster Bainimarama, and more recently, Solomon Island'sPrime Minster Houenipwela, and Vanuatu Prime Minister Salwai.

There are also deep links at community level withmore than 600,000 Australians visiting the Pacific each year for business,tourism, sport, education and there are more than 140,000 Australian residentsborn in the Pacific, many living right here in Queensland. And they – you–represent an influential and growing bond between Australia and our Pacific Islandneighbours.

Across the wider community, according to World Bankestimates, about $120 million in remittances is transferred each year fromAustralia to Pacific Island communities. And these remittances – fromindividuals here – help pay for essential services: school and health costs,for housing and travel, and help support children and the elderly. Importantly,these funds also support economic growth by enabling the establishment of smallbusinesses. I am aware of an ongoing issue with the costs involved in thetransfer of remittances and I've worked closely with Australian banks and someof the large money transfer operators to reduce those fees. Average costs havedecreased by 34 per cent over the past 12 months, which means more money endsup back with families and communities in the Pacific. While that's certainly astep in the right direction I'm not yet satisfied, so next month I'm meetingwith the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and senior bankingrepresentatives to explore more innovative solutions to further address thisissue.

Education is a shared priority in our region. Overthe last 10 years, more than 6000 Pacific Islanders have been recipients ofAustralia Awards scholarships to study in Australia. Australia Awards areparticularly useful for training in specialist areas that make a positivecontribution to the quality of life in the region. For example, in Decemberlast year Frank Tuke, an Australia Awards recipient from Solomon Islands,earned a Bachelor of Speech Pathology at the University of Newcastle thenreturned home to be the first speech pathologist in Solomon Islands. SomeAustralia awards alumni have gone on to become leaders. Henry Puna, Prime Ministerof the Cook Islands completed his Bachelor of Laws at the University ofTasmania. The President of Kiribati completed a Masters in Society and Cultureat the University of Queensland.

It is encouraging that almost 60 per cent ofAustralia Award scholars in the last decade have been women. Earlier this yearI was delighted to launch the Australia Awards Women's Leadership Initiative,which is supporting Pacific women while on Australian Award scholarshipsthrough leadership development, mentoring and internships, and I was veryimpressed by all of the participants I met; 12 fabulous women from five Pacificcountries: Solomon Islands, PNG, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa. They are working infields as diverse as IT, finance, teaching and health. We had a launch event inCanberra and Cora Makini from Solomon Islands spoke at that event about how she'dbeen challenged by her father to stop complaining about the poor state ofinfrastructure and do something about it. So she did. Cora is now studying civilengineering at Queensland University of Technology. She's focused onidentifying infrastructure needs that will have the greatest impact in SolomonIslands. She's also challenging stereotypes in traditionally male-dominatedsectors as well as honing her leadership skills with the help of a mentor inBrisbane, engineer Danielle Swan.

Another example: a young woman from Vanuatu, NiroseSilas, wants to be the auditor-general of Vanuatu. So, she won an Australia Awardscholarship to study a Master of Business Management at QUT and we've pairedher with the Chief Government Whip in the Australian Parliament – a friend ofmine, Nola Marino, as her mentor – and I'll tell you: Nirose is on her way to fulfilher dream. Lavinia Toven of PNG is yet another remarkable Australia AwardsWomen's Leadership Initiative participant. She completed a Masters in Agribusinessat University of Queensland, and Lavinia is from New Ireland Province and she'sstriving to improve quality standards and value-adding for agriculturalcommodities including coconut oil, while also building her leadership skills ofopening her eyes to different ways of working.

And I'm particularly excited that this secondcohort of Women's Leadership Initiative participants have recently commencedtheir program and have met up with their Australian mentors. So that's now 23 more Pacific Islandwomen from Fiji, PNG, Samoa, and Solomon Islands developing the skills to dogreat things in their home countries. I've often said no country can reach itspotential unless it engages with and embraces the skills and talent and energyand ideas of the 50 per cent of their population that is female.

Earlier this year, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neillnoted that: "More and more Papua New Guineans are studying in Australia andthis not only enhances skills and knowledge in the short term, it alsoestablishes long-term bonds between our people into the future". I agree withPrime Minister O'Neill wholeheartedly and this applies to the entire Pacificregion.

The New Colombo Plan is an initiative that Iintroduced in 2014 which is helping to strengthen our ties because we'resupporting thousands of young Australians to live and study and undertakeinternships in our region, in the Indo-Pacific, and that includes a focus onthe Pacific Island nations. We want young Australians to learn from and learnabout Pacific Island countries. Between 2014 and 2020, over 40,000 youngAustralians will have been overseas in our region under the New Colombo Plan, andspecifically, about 2,500 Australian undergraduates have lived and studied andundertaken internships in Pacific Island countries.

This is going to create a generation of futureAustralian leaders with a better understanding of and deeper connections withthe Pacific. For example, next year students from James Cook University willtake up clinical placements in dentistry, medicine, and pharmacy in Fiji.Students from Griffith University will be in Papua New Guinea doing research inengineering fields.

One of our New Colombo Plan scholars, Emily Forsythfrom University of Tasmania, studied law at the University of South Pacific inVanuatu and then she interned at Vanuatu's state law office, where she helpeddraft the new constitution. Now, that's a pretty good effort for a law studentfrom Australia - and what an extraordinary experience for Emily, but thenetworks and the contacts and the friendships that are built will last alifetime.

At the heart of our partnership with Pacific Islandcountries is a common vision, a shared agenda for security and prosperity;working together to keep the Pacific growing economically and to keep ourregion safe, secure, and peaceful. In the Turnbull Government's Foreign PolicyWhite Paper, which we released last year, one of our five key priorities forforeign policy was to step up our engagement with the countries of the Pacific.

Our White Paper appeared to be very well receivedby our partners around the region. For example, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepawelcomed the White Paper's ambitions for what he said was integrating Pacificcountries into the Australia and New Zealand economic and security institutionswhich are essential to long term stability and economic prospects. Herecognised that more ambitious engagement by Australia can help boost theresilience and economic prospects of Pacific Island nations. It is in theinterests of Pacific Island countries to reach their economic potential, toprovide opportunities for their young people, and that can be achieved throughstronger governance frameworks that help attract foreign investment and also toensure that they harness the skills, talent, and energy of all their citizens,including the women and girls.

As part of our deeper engagement, Australia hasannounced that we will open a new post in Tuvalu, which brings our number ofPacific high commissions and embassies to 14 - the largest diplomatic footprintof any nation in the Pacific.

Now, it is our aim to support greater integrationof the Pacific Island economies into those of Australia and New Zealand. Byintegration, we mean working together to support prosperity, linking oureconomies, sharing the delivery of priority services, supporting Pacific Islandcountries to deliver qualifications to Australian standards, and thus helpPacific Islanders secure jobs here and in other nations.

In Kiribati, for example, there's only one new jobcreated for every 50 school leavers each year, so obtaining work in othercountries is critical to supporting the aspirations of the Pacific's growingyouth populations, all of the while boosting the economic growth in their homecountries.

Our seasonal worker program has been a real successin that regard and I thank all those who have participated and are working inthe seasonal worker program, and a big shout out to Elvis and Dave, who arehere from the Pacific Seasonal Worker Program.

Driven by demand from Australia's regions, it'sgrown from a little over a thousand Pacific workers in 2013 to close to 8000last year. Already, more than 25,000 workers have generated about $145 millionin net income for the Pacific since this program commenced. The TurnbullGovernment's newest Pacific labour mobility initiative, the Pacific LabourScheme, commenced on 1 July this year, with workers from Kiribati, Nauru, andTuvalu, some of whom have already started work on Hayman and Hamilton Islandsin North Queensland.

The Pacific Labour Scheme enables a Pacific workerto obtain a visa for up to three years to take up non-seasonal work in areas ofhigh demand here in Australia. And what's great about this scheme is that itfills Australian employment gaps while also supporting Pacific Islanders gainskills and supporting their economies by way of increased remittances tocommunities, as the seasonal worker program has so successfully done.

The sectors of primary focus include hospitality,accommodation, food services, health and aged care, and social assistance,where demand for jobs from employers is projected to grow in Australia bybetween 100,000 and 250,000 positions during the next four years. Other sectorsinclude non-seasonal agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.

Australia has put in place a facility for thePacific Labour Scheme to support Pacific workers who are taking part in thescheme. The facility will help prepare Pacific Islanders for life in Australia- no surprises - with better visa and training support, comprehensivepre-departure briefings, and pastoral care here in Australia.

To complement the Pacific Labour Scheme, we havereoriented the Australia-Pacific Technical College, the APTC, so that PacificIslanders who want to work in Australia can develop the skills they need. Thecollege was set up over a decade ago under the Howard Government to deliverAustralian qualifications to students from 14 Pacific Island countries studyingacross five different campuses. It's been a huge success and I thank therepresentatives here today. There have been more than 12,000 graduates,including more than 5000 women. More than 80 per cent of graduates end upworking in their qualified trade.

Queenslanders can be particularly pleased that TAFEQueensland has won the tender for the next phase of the APTC, so that it cancontinue to grow of a pool of skilled and competitive Pacific workers who participatein their own local labour markets, as well as taking advantage of the widerregional opportunities created by the Pacific Labour Scheme.

Our commitment to economic integration wasreinforced by our efforts to conclude and sign the Pacific Agreement on CloserEconomic Relations - PACER Plus - along with 10 other Pacific nations. ThisPACER Plus trade agreement will lay the groundwork for stronger trade andinvestment between our economies, which brings more jobs and moreopportunities.

Economic development is also reliant on soundmanagement of natural resources, and a key resource for island nations iscustodianship over large swathes of ocean and the resources within. Moreeffective management of ocean resources is a key goal for our region, includingthrough the Blue Pacific Initiative, which enhances the opportunities from theblue economy.

Australia remains the key investor in the Pacificthrough our official development assistance that will reach record levels thisyear of $1.3 billion. Our funding is helping to build communities througheducation and health initiatives like tackling communicable andnon-communicable disease. It's also about empowering women and about buildinghigh quality infrastructure, such as the high speed telecommunications cablethat will link PNG and Solomon Islands with Australia and the world.

We've also funded the establishment of the PacificLeadership and Governance precinct in Port Moresby - and this is a particularpassion of mine. It's providing training to PNG's current and future publicservice leaders to improve governance and service delivery. In March this year,I opened the new buildings at the University of PNG campus, including a stateof the art lecture theatre - it was amazing. To date, over 2500 two publicservants have undertaken courses on governance, ethics, leadership, andfinancial management, and we're partnering with institutions including theUniversity of Queensland and the Australian National University.

We're also working to climate-proof theinfrastructure we're helping to build in the Pacific - high qualityinfrastructure which is much more cost effective than having to rebuild after anatural disaster. For example, in Solomon Islands we're working with the AsianDevelopment Bank to build the Gizo market to withstand a category 5 cyclone, aswell as sea level rise. The Pacific is the most natural disaster prone regionin the world and Australia has developed timely and efficient responses indisaster relief.

Australia aspires to be an all-weather friend forthe Pacific - in good times and in bad, particularly when natural disastersstrike. Following the massive earthquake that struck PNG's highlands inFebruary, Australia's Defence Forces worked closely with their PNG and NewZealand counterparts to provide rapid and extensive air and logistics supportto affected areas, and I saw firsthand the level of cooperation between ourAustralian Defence Force and their PNG counterparts.

We provided urgent humanitarian assistance and arecommencing a $50 million program of reconstruction to essential roads, healthfacilities, schools, and other key infrastructure destroyed by that earthquake.

Australia also acted quickly to help the people ofTonga recover from the devastation caused by Cyclone Gita earlier this year.One of the Australian Defence Force's C-17 transport planes arrived inNuku'alofa within 24 hours of the cyclone and carried the first of seven loadsof humanitarian supplies to people in need.

In February of 2016, after the South Pacific'sstrongest tropical cyclone in recorded history, Category 5 Winston, hit Fiji, Ihopped on board an RAAF C-17 to see it firsthand, our humanitarian response inFiji. HMAS Canberra, with our BlackHawk helicopters, traversed the affected islands.

At the Penang Sangam Primary School, I wasdelighted to see how happy the children appeared to be as difficult time, asthey were already back at school just a few weeks after the cyclone. Our teamshad created temporary learning spaces for almost 15,000 children across Fiji toenable them to get back to the classroom as quickly as possible. The childrenwere well fed through our school feeding programs and had access to water andsanitation facilities in schools, and both students and teachers received psychologicalsupport.

Similarly, we responded quickly to help out ourfriends in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam in 2015. We sent in immediate emergencyand early recovery support such as safe drinking water and food and hygienekits and shelter and playground. HMASTobruk traversed the affected areas, delivering much needed assistance andwe've followed it up with a $35 million program to support longer term recoveryefforts.

On my visit shortly after the cyclone, localshugged me and told me how they cried with joy when our massive grey Defenceplanes flew overhead. They knew that help from Australia had arrived. It mademe very proud to be an Australian.

Australia will always be there, at the forefront ofefforts to assist our Pacific neighbours deal with the impact of naturaldisasters. Our global humanitarian funding will this year increase to $410million - our highest ever, and we work with civil society, with UN agencies,with NGOs, to alleviate suffering. The Pacific can always count on us.

Beyond working to more closely integrate theeconomies of Australia and the Pacific and our swift responses in times ofneed, we're also strongly committed to the safety and security of the people ofthe Pacific Islands. Our Defence and Police and broader security cooperationremains vital to the region and through training and officer exchanges, many ofour Defence personnel, our Police, and our intelligence agencies arelongstanding colleagues of their Pacific counterparts. There's a realconnection, a real friendship between them.

We're helping to build capacity to monitor thePacific Islands' vast and resource-rich maritime zones, including throughupgraded aerial surveillance and new patrol boats. Under our Pacific MaritimeSecurity Program, Australia will gift 19 new Guardian class patrol vessels toour partners across the region. The first has been completed; it's currentlybobbing in the Austal dock in Western Australia to be delivered to PNG beforethe end of the year. The PNG Defence Minister recently told me that his sailorsare bursting with enthusiasm at the prospect of their new vessel and theycannot wait to undertake maritime patrols in it, and I know the same is beingfelt across the Pacific because these ships are bigger and faster than thecurrent patrol boats Australia provided; they have enhanced communicationcapabilities, which means the crews can go to sea in rough weather and forlonger, and they can police and surveil a far greater area.

It builds on what has been the highly successful 30-yearPacific Patrol Boat Program, which has long helped our Pacific partners toprotect valuable fisheries resources, control their borders, and fighttransnational crime. Australia's long-term commitment to the Pacific securityis also exemplified by the 14 year long Regional Assistance Mission to SolomonIslands - RAMSI - which commenced in 2003, led by Australia and New Zealand asa joint mission with 13 other Pacific nations to help our close neighbour at atime of need.

Chaos had reigned in Solomon Islands and law andorder had to be restored. RAMSI was created, and what an extraordinary regionaleffort it was - Pacific Islands Forum Secretary Dame Meg Taylor called it atruly regional exercise in solidarity and a shining example of Pacificdiplomacy and cooperation. Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor noted that RAMSI'sregional character was a defining element of its success and a source of pridefor Pacific nations.

Building on the cooperative spirit of RAMSI, we arenow establishing and Australia-Pacific Security College, which will delivertraining in security and law enforcement fields across the region and willfoster collaboration between the Pacific's security leaders and personnel.

We're also concluding bilateral securityarrangements with a range of Pacific Island countries, including Nauru andTuvalu, to help protect them and the region against transnational threats:drugs smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and more.

While Australia offers to be the partner ofchoice to the Pacific, we're also keen to see other countries engaging moredeeply in our region. With its own Pacific reset in mind, and as my counterpartWinston Peters has made clear, New Zealand is a critical regional partner forus all. Australia and New Zealand work together, have worked together for overa century, and we will fulfil our joint goal of a safe, secure and prosperousPacific working together.

I was very pleased to recently speak to UKForeign Secretary Boris Johnson about Britain's growing focus on the Pacific. Duringthe Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London in April, Borisannounced an expanded British diplomatic presence in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.We also see Japan, the European Union and the United States amongst others, alllooking to do more in this part of the world. We welcome China's efforts toassist the Pacific Island states with its development challenges, and we lookforward to working with China on a broad range of assistance. For example, weare partnering with China on a joint health project in PNG to help eliminatemalaria and we're keen to expand on this cooperation and expand on our dialoguewith China on Pacific issues and challenges more generally.

Investment and support to the Pacific is welcome,while ever it supports the sovereignty, long term stability and viability ofPacific Island nations.

Ladies and gentleman, Australia and other nationsof the Pacific are natural partners, tied together by geography, history and acombined love of our region. There's great affection between the people of thePacific and the Australian people, an affection that is enduring, particularlyon the rugby league field. We face a time of challenge and opportunity wheretechnology, automation and the rapid advance of developing economies aretransforming our world at breakneck pace. Australia is deeply committed toworking more closely with Pacific Island nations on their journey to peace andprosperity. The initiatives that I've mentioned - economic integration, PacificLabour Scheme, the Women's Leadership Initiative, the New Colombo Plan, the newpatrol boats and more - are built on a deep foundation of Australia's long termengagement with the people of the Pacific.

We do this work in partnership with PacificIsland countries because we have their interests at heart and the interests ofthe region that we all call home. Australia aims to remain a valued and trustedpartner for the Pacific as we work together building stronger, more secure andenduring economies and communities. The very best days of our long and closefriendship lie ahead of us.

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