Launch of the Pacific Research Program
Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, Dean Michael Wesley, distinguished diplomats particularly from our Pacific missions, and eminent researchers, ladies and gentlemen.
It's an absolute delight to be here to welcome and launch a much needed initiative, the Pacific Research Program.
I also congratulate the winning consortium with Nicole Haley and Stephen Howes and Michael Fullilove, and they all bring their expertise and passion and commitment and excellence to this program.
The Pacific is a significant part of Australia's foreign policy, indeed I have often thought it is the most significant part because it is our neighbourhood, it is our region, it is where we live, it is where we have primary responsibility.
If a government's commitment to a particular policy can be measured by the number of times the minister has visited a relevant region, then the Pacific comes out pretty high on that list. As Foreign Minister I have made 26 visits to the Pacific and my colleague the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Fierravanti-Wells has made 24 visits – indeed she was in Fiji last week for COP23 and she is in the Cook Islands this week. So between us we have made 50 visits to the Pacific and I have another one scheduled before the end of the year.
That just gives you an indication of how much focus we place on our engagement and connections and relationship with the Pacific.
Indeed at the 2016 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Summit, Prime Minister Turnbull spoke of our commitment to "step up" our engagement in the Pacific.
At the 2017 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Summit, Prime Minister Turnbull delivered on that commitment with a range of announcements across a broad area of engagement, including in the security space, a deeper and broader relationship with Pacific Islands and Australia and New Zealand in the security area; in health, in particular a new initiative that will bring our experience and our contribution through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to quality procurement and purchasing in pharmaceuticals across the Pacific, which is an important health issue.
We also announced the Pacific Labour Scheme. We already have in place a Seasonal Workers Programme whereby Pacific Islanders can work on seasonal jobs in particular the agriculture in rural and regional Australia, but we've expanded that now to a Pacific Labour Scheme which provides opportunities for Pacific Islanders to undertake low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs in areas of need in Australia for up to three years.
This is something that the Pacific Islanders have been asking for from Australia for a very long time, and I'm delighted that the Turnbull Government has been able to roll out this Pacific Labour Scheme.
Not only will it have an important impact in terms of the remittances that can be sent home, but three years working in Australia in much more diverse sectors of the economy – from aged care and health and tourism and accommodation and hospitality, as well as the traditional seasonal workers areas – I think will provide enormous opportunities to upskill and build capacity in the Pacific Island workers and I am really looking forward to seeing the benefits from that scheme.
You will be aware that the vast majority of Australian Overseas Development Assistance – our aid program – is directed at the Pacific.
At least 80 percent of all initiatives that we undertake have a focus on the empowerment of women and this is a key to our aid program across the board, but specifically in the Pacific – giving women and girls the opportunity to participate in community life, in political life, in business, in the economy – and I am really keen for this to be an area of focus of the Pacific Research Program.
Likewise we have focussed our engagement through the New Colombo Plan on the Pacific and I am delighted to say that in the first four years of the New Colombo Plan – this is the Government initiative to provide support for Australian undergraduates to live and study and undertake work experience at one of 38 countries in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region – over 2,500 students have chosen to live and study and undertake work experience in the Pacific.
2,500 young Australians in Kiribati, Palau, Solomon Islands, PNG and Fiji, and I can't think of a better way of building understanding, connections and friendships and relationships than to invest in our young people, our future leaders, to have a better understanding of the Pacific through these opportunities to live and study and undertake practicums and internships in the Pacific.
Likewise our Foreign Policy White Paper which will be released this year – hopefully in late November, I'm just pinning the Prime Minister down to a date as I'd like him to be present as well – the Pacific region will feature heavily in the Foreign Policy White Paper as you would expect from a Government that sees the Pacific as such an important foreign policy area.
So to the team at the Pacific Research Program, you will be carrying out important work and that's why the Australian Government has directed funding towards this program.
We want to see the high quality research that ANU and Lowy are renowned for producing. This will lead to a much greater understanding, not only amongst academics and researchers, but from the media and more importantly, from the public.
So I am looking forward to the work of the consortium – ANU and Lowy – who have a reputation for producing high quality research, and I know that as a Government we value independent, objective – ferociously independent and objective – research and opinions, so we are looking forward to seeing the benefit of our investment in this Pacific Research Program.
I also note that there will be great benefits for ANU and its relationship with universities in the Pacific, and that's so very important. I know through bringing Pacific researchers to Australia, to ANU under the Australia Awards program we will see that deeper engagement emerge.
So ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted that the consortium comprising Nicole, Stephen and Michael will be driving greater focus on policy, on initiatives and on understanding between Australia and the Pacific.
It is with a great deal of pleasure that I launch the Pacific Research Program here in Australia's National University.