Remarks at reception for Australian Business Community and Development Partners, Colombo


16 November 2013

Thank you, High Commissioner (Robyn Mudie). I'm delighted to be here this evening. I acknowledge the presence here of the Minister for Environment and other distinguished representatives of the Sri Lankan Government. You honour us by your presence here. The representatives of Australian business, particularly Western Australian businesses, and as I come from Perth, it's wonderful to be amongst friends. And also representatives of International Organisations and our aid and development partners. Distinguished guests all.

This is my second visit to Sri Lanka in 2013. I'm delighted to come in my capacity as Foreign Minister. Because when I was here last time it was as opposition Foreign Minister and really there is no comparison!

I have been here attending the Foreign Ministers' component of the CHOGM meeting. I'm very pleased Australia has made the decision to support Sri Lanka's hosting of the CHOGM meeting. Our Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be arriving this evening. He is on his way here now after a very busy week in parliament. And I want to put that comment in context.

During the course of the last two days I've spoken to many people about some of the controversies surrounding Sri Lanka's hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. And one Minister who spent a lot of time here during the 1990s as a non-resident Ambassador told me of the environment in Colombo and its surrounds during that time. The climate of fear, of violence, the ever present fear of an attack. It was, she said, a very, very challenging place to be and the economy, society suffered accordingly. Sri Lanka was not a place where investors were flocking to invest their capital.

Here we are four years from the cessation of the conflict and who would have thought that Colombo would look as it does today and that significant Australian businesses would be here seeking to invest in Sri Lanka. I pay credit to the Sri Lankan government for what it has achieved in such a very short time. No Government is perfect. Australia is certainly not here to lecture other governments. But we are certainly here to encourage other nations to look at what Sri Lanka has achieved after a thirty year civil war and look at the opportunities that this beautiful Island nation presents.

I'm particularly pleased to see the Iluka team here. Every other person I met just told me they're from Iluka, so you've obviously got your people here, David. And also Crown is looking at a significant investment here. Many substantial Australian companies, such as Iluka and Crown and others, so that… this is the place to invest. And I hope other investors and other countries will follow suit.

Australia is also open for business. Australia is under new management after the election on 7th September. While we are also seeking investment in our country, we do believe that there are great opportunities to increase the two-way trade and investment with Sri Lanka. It currently stands at about $24-25 million of Australian investment in Sri Lanka and over $90 million Sri Lankan investment in Australia. Two-way trade is about $330 million. I think there is the potential for us to increase that substantially, and that's why I'm so pleased that a number of Australian businesses attended the Commonwealth Business Forum to show our interest.

Sri Lanka and Australia have much in common. Ever since we established diplomatic relations in 1947 our people to people links have been strong, our education ties, now our trade and investment ties and also members of organisations such as the Commonwealth, the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

I hosted an IORA conference in Perth recently. And the 20 members of the Indian Rim Association really found that we do have so much in common. We are very diverse, the countries of the Indian Ocean, very, very diverse: large states, small states, five of us are in the G20, others are developing countries, but nevertheless we all share the benefits of being countries that border the Indian Ocean.

We've also shared a wonderful legacy through the Colombo Plan. This was a brilliant initiative in the 1950s to bring the best and brightest young people from the region to study in Australia. Over 30 years about 40,000 young people from the region studied in Australia under the Colombo Plan. And I'm struck by the number of people I meet as I travel around the region. Who are Prime Ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers, business leaders, community leaders who tell me that they are Colombo Plan alumni, and their experience of Australia came through that initiative.

The new Government in Australia has decided it is time that we took this initiative and reversed it. So we have dubbed a new scholarship scheme in Australia, Australia's New Colombo Plan. Whereby young Australian undergraduates will be given the opportunity under a Commonwealth Government-backed scheme to undertake study at universities in the region and we hope that associated with their study would be an internship in the host country so that the student will not only study, hopefully learn another language, but also see the way business and society operates in that country. We believe, in this way, we will bring back to Australia a generation of young people, over time, with new perspectives and understandings, new ideas and insights. They'll be more Asia-literate, if you like.

And we are hoping that this New Colombo Plan will be able to be offered throughout our region. Next year we have four locations to trial a pilot. Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Japan have agreed to be part of the pilot to see whether we can iron out all the issues, the challenges. As you can imagine student visas, course accreditation, all this sort of thing, lining up internships, work visas and once we get the model right, we hope to be able to offer this opportunity to other countries who will open their universities to young Australian undergraduates and as I said to one of your Ministers today I hope that Sri Lanka will see the offering positions in your universities to young Australians as we did to young Sri Lankans so many years ago.

The opportunities for Sri Lanka, I believe, are endless and the opportunities for our relationship are yet to be fulfilled. There's so much untapped potential, I'm very excited about the linkages that we've seen over the last couple of days, and beyond. So I want to take this opportunity to encourage our business community to continue to be involved in Sri Lanka. For I truly believe that, through economic growth, and job opportunities, reconciliation will have a real chance to take hold.

To our aid partners and the representatives of the international organisations, you are an essential part of the work we do here. And Australia, through AusAID, which is now called the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Australian Aid, through Australian Aid we hope that we have made a contribution to the challenges this country faces after 30 years of a bloody civil war. And we work very hard on issues that we hope will underpin reconciliation. We have… and I visited a number of our AusAID projects in the north on my last visit here. I went to Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaittivu, Trincomalee and back to Colombo. So I've seen a lot of the work that we do in the field and we're very grateful to the partners who work with us in some of these projects, who provide education and health support, and on demining initiatives and the like. So your work is very valuable and we certainly appreciate the partnerships.

It has been a very successful visit. Thank you again. I'd hope that CHOGM would have concluded by now but the Foreign Ministers, like naughty school children, didn't conclude the Communique discussion and we've been called back again this evening to finish our homework so we will do that there later this evening. Thank you for gracing us with your presence here this evening and long may the Australia-Sri Lanka relationship flourish. I have absolutely no doubt that the best days of our relationship lie ahead. Thank you.

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