Announcement of Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, press conference

16 December 2013


Transcript, E&OE, proof only

16 December 2013

JULIE BISHOP: I am absolutely delighted to be here this morning and I thank you for joining me and my Senate colleagues, Senator Michaelia Cash the Minister assisting the Prime Minister on Women, Senator Brett Mason, who is the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Senator Marise Payne who is the Minister for Human Services.

I welcome you here today because I am absolutely delighted to introduce Australia's new Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja AM. Natasha is joined by her husband Ian Smith and Cordelia and Conrad who are busy drawing pictures of mummy up here at the lectern. Natasha Stott Depoja is well-known to all Australians. She was a Senator from South Australia for 13 years, from 1995 to 2008. She was the leader of a political party, and that is no mean feat in this country – she was the leader of the Australian Democrats. She is a politician who is so readily identifiable by her first name, everyone knows Natasha.

The role of Ambassador for Women and Girls is a very special role within the Australian Government. We see it as being pivotal to our foreign policy policies and initiatives. We see Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls as being our voice on the international stage as we promote important issues surrounding gender equality and gender empowerment. One of Natasha's roles will be to visit developing countries in particular and to work with them to understand that one of the best ways to promote economic development and economic growth, one of the best ways to achieve peace and security and one of the best ways to achieve stronger communities and societies is to empower the women and the girls in your population.

As Foreign Minister, I'm particularly pleased that someone of Natasha's stature and credibility has agreed to take on the role to be our voice in international forums including at the United Nations. Next year we will have our second and final year as a temporary member of the UN Security Council where we have been promoting an agenda on women, peace and security – and Natasha will be part of that dialogue.

At a regional level there are a number of forums that she will attend and have a role, including the G20 and including the Indian Ocean Rim Association. This is an association comprising 20 Indian Ocean nations. Australia is chairing this association for the next two years. While there are six agreed areas of interest amongst the Indian Ocean Rim Association member-countries – including maritime security, fisheries dispute, disaster relief management – at our last meeting in Perth, I suggested there was an issue that cut across all of these areas of common interest, and that was the empowerment of women and girls. The 20 members of IORA agreed that this was an issue we should embed in our agenda for the development of economies and security and peace in the Indian Ocean Rim Association, so Natasha will have a significant role in developing our priorities in the Indian Ocean as we do in the Pacific.

She will also be a pivotal part of our aid program. In developing countries, our focus is on the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific. Over 50 per cent of Australia's aid budget is spent on initiatives and policies and programs that have, as part of their principal focus, the empowerment of women and girls. Whether it is in health, or education, or peace and security, or women's leadership – giving women a voice. And I am absolutely thrilled that Natasha Stott Despoja will be our voice in helping other women find their voice.

It is a fact that in Melanesia, about a third of the jobs are taken by women in the formal labour market. Less than 5 per cent of politicians in the Pacific are women. The levels of domestic violence in the Pacific are very high, dangerously high. Other issues, such as incidence of communicable and non-communicable diseases are high in the Pacific and levels of education are not where we would want them to be. So there is much that the Australian Government does to promote the voice of women in leadership positions in the Pacific and other countries, and that is what we are asking Natasha to do.

This afternoon I will be leading a bipartisan delegation to the Pacific. We are going to the Solomon Islands, then onto Nauru, then Vanuatu, and back to Australia. I will be joined by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek, my colleague Brett Mason and Matt Thistlethwaite. But we have also invited, and she has agreed to come, Natasha Stott Despoja. So this will be her first opportunity as the Ambassador to develop relationships with leaders in the Pacific, so that she can work with them in promoting our agenda, sharing with them our experience, giving them ideas, getting feedback from them.

The Ambassador for Women and Girls is a role that requires and deserves bipartisan support. The issues of gender equality and the empowerment of women are not owned by any one political party, they must be supported across the political divide and that's why I'm delighted that we are being joined by two Labor politicians in our visit throughout the Pacific.

Natasha is ideally qualified for this role. I am absolutely thrilled that she will be such a great role model for younger women particularly as she was certainly a trailblazer in her own political career. I hope she will be able to connect with younger women who are looking for opportunities to be a leader in their communities, in businesses, in politics. She has had a very distinguished career of service to the Australian public since leaving the Parliament. She is the founding chair of a new organisation, the Foundation for the Prevention of Violence Against Women and their Children. She is also the deputy chair of beyondblue and she has had a number of roles, some of which you will have to give up to take on your new role. But her commitment to the Australian people, her commitment to the betterment of her society, of her community, is undoubted. I know she will make an extraordinary contribution as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls.

She will be replacing Penny Williams, the first Ambassador. Penny is a career diplomat. She is moving on to another diplomatic area. She has certainly made a wonderful contribution as our first Ambassador for Women and Girls. Natasha Stott Despoja will make us proud and I thank her for agreeing to take on this very important role with the Australian Government. Before asking Natasha to speak, I will ask my colleague Senator Michaelia Cash, the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women to also say a few words because Natasha will also be working with Senator Cash in her role.

MICHAELIA CASH: Thank you very much Julie, and ladies and gentlemen, may I also commence by saying a heartfelt congratulations to our new Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja. Congratulations Natasha.

As Minister Bishop has already stated, Natasha is well-known throughout her career for advocating for the empowerment of women and girls. I cannot personally, as the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women, think of a better candidate to have appointed by the Coalition Government as our first ambassadorial appointment, but you Natasha. As the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women, I look forward to working with Natasha both on the international front and the domestic front.

In relation to the international front, of course, as Minister Bishop has already stated, we look forward to working together on the Government's commitment to progress the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and of course in March of 2014 I will be leading the Australian delegation to New York and I certainly hope our newest ambassador will be joining us in relation to the 58th Commission on the Status of Women.

In relation to the domestic front, Natasha and I already have, what I consider to be, a fantastic working relationship. Natasha was one of the first people that I met with in regards to my appointment as the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women, in relation to the Government's commitment to the second plan, under the National Action Plan to reduce violence against women and children. I met with Natasha in her role to chair the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children.

Certainly, I look forward to working with Natasha to ensure we do, well and truly, take further steps to not only reduce but to prevent violence against women and children, both here in Australia and of course on the international stage. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate our newest Ambassador, Natasha Stott Despoja.

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Good morning everyone, thank you for coming here today. I begin by acknowledging our traditional owners and pay special tribute to the strength of indigenous women here and around the globe. Thank you both for such generous words, kind words and for this honour. Thank you for trusting me with this role. It is my dream role, my dream job.

I am excited by the fact that this Government has made clear that gender empowerment and gender equality are priorities for Australia's foreign policy and I am a lifelong advocate of gender equality, be it in my legislative role or in my not-for-profit life, be it advocating for paid parental leave or indeed for women's rights in the workplace or especially recently, to ensure that prevent violence against women and their children. You mentioned the Foundation – there are a number of synergies between that role and the one I am honoured to take on today.

I must say, Ministers, I was on the plane coming over last night, and they were showing the documentary I am a Girl. That powerful documentary reminded me of the issues, not just the diversity and difference of women around the world, but the issues confronting women – rape, sexual assault, sex trafficking, forced marriage, disproportionate effects of poverty, the issues surround education and mortality rates for women and indeed violence.

Indeed, you are right to remind us, Ministers, of the high rates of violence in the Pacific and some areas of the Pacific we know that two-thirds of women have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

We know that maternal mortality rates are unacceptable, they are too high in our region, be it in PNG, or places like Timor-Leste, or even in places like Laos, somewhere I was able to visit in recent years with my work, indeed in places like Burma as well. So I look forward to familiarising myself with some of these issues. But as sobering as these statistics are, the inspiring part is the progress that has been made and Australia's contribution to the progress of something.

In Papua New Guinea for example, Australia has helped establish 11 family and sexual violence units so that we can ensure women get justice and support. We are also ensuring there is infrastructure support and governance for markets so that women have a safer place to work and a greater role in decision-making.

As Ambassador for Women and Girls, I look forward to contributing to the Australian Government's efforts to continue this change, to further this progress. I want to see more women in our region, but specifically in the Pacific, elected to Parliament and taking on leadership roles, be it in government or local government, in business, in the community. I want women to have the knowledge and the support that they need to start successful businesses and to increase their family's incomes.

Of course, I want women in the region to have access to health services for themselves and the children. I want all girls to have the right to go to school, recognising that girls in most countries, in the Pacific region, have still not achieved enough in education when it comes to all levels, but in particular higher education. Importantly, women need to be free from violence in order to take their rightful place in communities.

I am excited, Minister Bishop, about our pacific trip this afternoon. I think it will be quite similar to one we did about a decade ago, with the former Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer and his Parliamentary Secretary. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for me and others on this cross-party delegation to learn more about the issues affecting women in the Pacific region. The obstacles that women face and how men and women are working to overcome these obstacles. But also how Australia can play a greater role through our diplomatic and other program initiatives.

We know that it is important that gender equality is owned by men and women in the Pacific, that it grows from their culture and their traditions. I think acknowledging the efforts of those involved will [inaudible]. I am particularly looking forward to working with female parliamentarians across the region, across that Indo-Pacific region and to engage those young women to whom you refer, young women who may have leadership aspirations.

I know this Ambassador role is such an important one. It offers so many opportunities to improve the lives of women in the region and beyond, especially the poorest, the poorest women in their communities. I also know that anything that betters the lives of children affects the entire world for the better. I have always been proud of, and continue to be proud of, Australia's efforts to work with, and for, the world's women. I am honoured to be given the chance to contribute to this work.

I want to acknowledge the work and efforts of the former Ambassador Penny Williams, her extraordinary work in shaping such a pivotal role. I also want to say what an honour it is to share this opportunity with my family today, my children, who are here, Conrad and Cordelia. They and their friends continue to inspire me with their caring, their caring about the world, even at such as young age. It gives me great hope for future generations in solving many of the problems that affect us, including those for women and for girls. It gives me great hope that even the most seemingly intractable problems can be solved.

Once again, my thanks to Minister Bishop and Minister Cash for this wonderful opportunity, for your kind words, for your pledges of support in me, in this role. I look forward to working closely with you both to support the empowerment of women and girls in our region and beyond. Thank you.

JULIE BISHOP: I am glad Natasha reminded me of our visit, 12 no 10 years ago to the month, when we visited the Pacific with Alexander Downer as Foreign Minister. Who would have thought we would be standing here today. Are there any questions?

JOURNALIST: Congratulations first of all. I am sure you will be working very widely in the in the region, but there is a democracy in the region that with a situation with a large parliament with only one woman, what would you advise and [inaudible]?

JULIE BISHOP: First of all, we should point out there are about 22 per cent of the Liberal party who are in fact female, so I am sure that is the first point we should point out.

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I think that women in positions of power in this nation, including the women here, are very much aware of some of the challenges that face our government and many democracies around the world. Everyone knows here that I am an advocate for increased representation for women, whether it be in this Government, or others. My role now will be to work on some of those challenges or opportunities in our region and beyond and I know, and the Minister knows, I will be happy to give that frank and fearless advice on issues, should we need it. But there are common threats, whether we are talking in our own nation or beyond in encouraging women, particularly young women who have leadership aspirations, that the Ministers have in hand in this country, but certainly that will be a focus for me in the region. I am very excited about empowering women and working with, facilitating some of those South Pacific meetings of women who are actively involved already but are getting more involved. When you have got fewer than five per cent of the parliamentarians in the Pacific region who are female, there are some pretty steep and serious challenges there.

JULIE BISHOP: In fact, two of the nations we will be visiting on our Pacific trip have no female parliamentarians at all and the other one has one. We hope by our presence, and I am sure Tanya Plibersek can join us in this effort, of encouraging more women to join political parties, to be involved in the political process at a grassroots level and beyond and I hope that Natasha will be able to inspire them as she has inspired a generation of young Australians.

JOURNALIST: In regards to going to Nauru, there's been a fair bit of reporting in regards to pregnant women on Nauru, some of the issues surround that, what are your thoughts at this stage [inaudible]?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: That's a critical point, people know I have an interest in this area, as the Ambassador, of course, it is an interest of mine now to look at women and girls and specifically pregnant women. That's why this is a great opportunity to go and see first-hand for myself, and I am sure I will be happy to report to the Minister and discuss any of those issues. I am not going to pre-empt those meetings but of course I am concerned about the welfare of women and children around the globe. That is certainly something I will be paying close attention to in the next couple of days.

JOURNALIST: Will you have the ability, if you do have concerns, [inaudible]?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Certainly it has been made very clear to me I am in a position to provide advocacy and advice to the Minister. That is something I will do with her directly.

JOURNALIST: Is this part of a prolonged [inaudible] across the ocean approach to appointing politicians from other parties; is it a new age of conciliation?

JULIE BISHOP: In the area of foreign policy, Australia has been traditionally bipartisan. For example, the Prime Minister invited the Leader of the Opposition to the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The Prime Minister has invited the Leader of the Opposition to Afghanistan. Indeed, I have invited two members of the opposition to join us on the Pacific trip.

In foreign policy, I think there is a level of bipartisanship that is absolutely necessary and that has been the case for decades and we will continue that. In the case of the Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja stands on her own merit. I think she is eminently qualified for the role and indeed, virtually everyone I have spoken to about the role has welcomed with open arms the idea of Natasha filing this position.

So, she is there because we think she is the best person to advocate Australia's support for the empowerment of women, particularly in our region. That has been a focus of mine ever since I took on this role, indeed our focus on empowering women through our efforts on economic diplomacy was the cornerstone of our foreign policy going into the last election.

JOURNALIST: Natasha, you said it was a dream job, and how long did it take you to make up your mind?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: In a spilt second. I just had to make sure it was not a prank call.

JOURNALIST: When was that?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Couple of months or so ago, but it seems to have happened very quickly sorting out the logistics. So yes, it is relatively recently. It is a culmination, dove-tailing with everything I have ever done and believed in and cared about, so subject to time, it has been organised with childcare, we will be fine, won't we.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you said people have embraced the idea with open arms; does that include Tanya Plibersek and the opposition?

JULIE BISHOP: Tanya Plibersek is coming with us. The announcement was made in the paper this morning, we have tried to get in touch with as many people as we can to inform them all, but I have no doubt that Tanya will be delighted to be joining us on the trip this afternoon with the new Ambassador.

But people who have watched Natasha over the years both in the Parliament and since Parliament aren't failed to be impressed by her devotion to the causes of lobbying the rights of women and empowerment of women. She was awarded an Order of Australia for her services to women and girls, the education services for them, and so I think that she will make a fine ambassador and it will be embraced from across the political divide.

JOURNALIST: [Question about the trip's focus on women and women being representatives]

JULIE BISHOP: This the first time we have had a female Foreign Minister, the first time we have had a Labor female Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, I believe. And we are being joined by Australia's second, but the Coalition's first, female Ambassador for Women and Girls. So it was self-evident, given that women's empowerment and a focus on women and girls are very much a part of our foreign policy, it was inevitable and obvious we would be focussing on this in our trip to the Pacific.

Much of our aid budget, as I have said, is devoted to programs and initiatives that give women a voice, whether it is a leadership position in politics, business, the community, whether it is health and education issues, whether it is our fight against the violence that is perpetrated against women in our region, these are policies that we have been working on and successive Australian Governments have been working on and Minister Cash is pivotal to the Government's policies in this regard.

So the visit is not only about women and girls because as the Ambassador pointed out, they are community issues, the treatment of women and girls, the empowerment of women and girls is a matter for all societies, all communities, globally, regionally and in our neighbourhood.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just one question about foreign aid, you pointed out that 50 per cent of our foreign aid is spent on women, but both sides of politics have been successfully delaying or deferring Australia's commitments to get to the 5 per cent of GDP. Are you confident that that goal won't be further delayed or deferred?

JULIE BISHOP: We have not put a timeframe on that goal, what we are focussing on is the most effective way to deliver aid in the context of the envelope that we have. The amount of the Australian Budget overall that will be allocated to aid will be about $5 billion and then increasing by CPI after next year.

But as tomorrow will point out when Treasurer Hockey produces the MYEFO figures, Australia has a considerable Government debt. We have considerable deficits ahead of us and all sections of the Australian Budget, bar a couple such as medical research and defence, which will be quarantined, all areas of the Australian Budget will have to trim their cloth and that includes the Australian aid budget.

But what we will do is make sure our aid is delivered in the most effective and efficient way possible that delivers real outcomes. We have performance benchmarks in place, we have mutual obligation, so that countries receiving our aid will also take responsibility for the results. This way, we believe that we will be able to get better value for the considerable dollars that the Australian taxpayers put into our aid budget.

JOURNALIST: [Question on PNG commitment to support centres for women who have experienced violence]

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Absolutely. Look at the work Australia has already done in PNG and the region more broadly on that issue in particular. I think that will be front and centre of the work that I'm doing in the region but admittedly, importantly working with women and men on the ground in PNG to further expand those services.

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