State of the Pacific Conference

  • Speech, check against delivery

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and thank you very much Professor Calford for your introduction and to all of our distinguished guests, to members of the diplomatic corps, and Pacific enthusiasts one and all.

Professor Calford, to you and to Professor Wesley, thank you for your invitation to this conference and for the opportunity to start my Canberra week with a beautiful morning here at ANU. It is always a great pleasure to visit such a sunny campus and to have the opportunity to engage with you.

May I also acknowledge and welcome Dame Meg Taylor, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General, who has given all for the Wallabies it would seem, and has incurred an off-field injury in her enthusiastic support of the Wallabies over the Springboks on Saturday night. Fair to say it was a weekend of mixed sporting success in my family at least, but for the Wallabies it was nice to actually get one on the right side of the board, it would be fair to say.

May I also thank very much Aunty Violet and Kevin for being here this morning and for your very warm welcome to country. I can understand your brief confusion, it happens to all of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was absolutely determined to be here this morning and to make some very brief introductory remarks. I know the program is very substantial, but to make a few introductory observations as a demonstration both of my support to the conference and its importance, and also the important work that Professor Wesley and his team are undertaking more broadly.

Given it is a sitting day, however, I will be doing the virtual speak-and-run, which is a habit in this job, so my apologies for that in advance. But it is great to be here with Michael, who I have known for a very long time and many other familiar faces who are in the room here this morning.

Although there is new leadership in the Australian Government, I want to absolutely assure you and restate that the consistent focus on the Pacific remains. This conference, which is actually enabled by the Government's Pacific Research Partnerships program, is just one example of the support that the Australian Government provides to the development of a more secure, resilient, connected and prosperous Pacific.

This region is diverse and complex. A clear understanding of the region's potential as well as its challenges is essential if we are to work together to develop effective policy, economic, trade, security and crisis response outcomes.

Of course, as others have observed, the conference is very well timed to follow on after the 49th Pacific Islands Forum concluded in Nauru last week.

I was very pleased that my first international program as Foreign Minister was to Nauru to attend the Pacific Islands Forum, and I was honoured to participate in the Leaders' dialogue.

It was at the 2016 PIF just over two years ago where Prime Minister Turnbull committed to a "step change", a step-up, in Australia's engagement in the region. This was then, as Professor Calford has referred to, set out in the Government's 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, where supporting a resilient Pacific was clearly described as one of five fundamental policy priority objectives for Australia.

Indeed the 2016 Defence White Paper, which preceded that, also committed to increase Defence's international engagement, "particularly with the countries of the South Pacific and South East Asia".

As Defence Minister, I pursued these commitments enthusiastically and vigorously. I was the first Australian Defence Minister to visit Fiji since 1985. I visited PNG several times, and hosted my counterparts here in Australia as well, as well as visiting Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia. The opportunity to visit New Caledonia was too good to pass up during the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise, Exercise Croix du Sud, which brings together not just the FOD and the ADF, but so many other participants from around the region in the fundamental and valuable exercise of building capability, of building cooperation, of building collaboration, particularly in crisis response preparation.

The Australian Defence Force's largest joint task group, Indo-Pacific Endeavour, consisting of HMAS Adelaide, our frigates, Army contingents and ship-to-shore helicopters, this year travelled right through the Pacific before and after attending Exercise RIMPAC in Hawaii, which finished in August.

HMAS Adelaide sailed, with embarked US Marines, Tongan members of His Majesty's Armed Forces, Sri Lankan Marines, and I did notice, seeing the High Commissioner here, one Canadian officer, sailed from Australia, through the Pacific, to RIMPAC, back through the Pacific, and back to Australia, in a strong demonstration of regional cooperation and engagement.

So I come to my new role as Foreign Minister with valuable experience of the concerns and aspirations of the Pacific, built indeed over many years, and I am absolutely committed to continuing this engagement as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I will be working closely with Minister Anne Ruston, the Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific, to build on the strong foundations laid by the Coalition since 2013.

Stepping up in the Pacific is not an option for Australian foreign policy – it is an imperative.

Our ties to the region are long-standing. History, trade, education, employment, sport and migration have brought us together, and the connections continue to strengthen. We are neighbours and we are friends.

A more prosperous and secure Pacific increases our mutual opportunities for trade and investment, and deters potential risks from challenges such as transnational crime, biosecurity problems, and threats to borders and maritime exclusive economic zones.

We live with the reality of a more strategically crowded Southwest Pacific.

We recognise that many countries including India, China, Japan, Indonesia and Russia are more active in the Pacific.

This increased attention brings opportunities for Pacific Island nations, including trade and investment, as well as new sources of support for finance and development.

At the same time, as I said last week at the Pacific Islands Forum, we all want regional interactions, no matter where they come from or from whom, to contribute to stability, to security, to unconditional national sovereignty, and to sustainable and resilient economies.

Australia is very committed, strongly committed, to maintaining our status as a partner of choice on regional security matters, including law enforcement and the protection of rights under international law, as well as crisis response.

These factors remain the key drivers of Australian policy approaches to the Pacific.

We must make sure we are all focusing on partnerships, not just 'engagement', because we don't just live in the Pacific – we live with each other in the Pacific. When meeting regional leaders last week, this was one of my key messages. If something can be done differently, or there is more that we can do together, I want to know about it.

Last week at the PIF, I announced a number of initiatives designed to strengthen our partnerships in the Pacific.

We signed Memoranda of Understanding bringing Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu into the Pacific Labour Scheme. They join Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu. The new Pacific Labour Scheme, which started in July this year, gives an additional 2000 Pacific workers access to the Australian job market each year, and I look forward to seeing it expand to other Pacific nations in the months ahead.

I also I signed Memoranda of Understanding with Samoa and Vanuatu to join five other Pacific states in the Pacific Medicines testing program. They will have access to the world class testing facilities of Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration. This will improve the quality and safety of medicines used in the Pacific.

Australia also supported the new Boe Declaration, which was adopted by leaders across the region at last week's PIF after 12 months of development, building on the foundations of the 18-year-old Biketawa Declaration.

It reflects the collective Forum desire to embrace an expanded sense of security, including human, environmental and cyber security.

To support these security aims, I announced the development of a Pacific Fusion Centre – a facility that will aggregate and analyse security information to better target responses to threats like illegal fishing and narcotics trafficking. It will comprise analysts from Australia and Pacific island nations working together to 'fuse' information that will better equip national governments to make efficient and informed decisions. From my time as Australia's Defence Minister, I have seen fusion centres in a number of incarnations, from the Middle East and in South East Asia. I have seen the effectiveness of an operational fusion centre and I think this will play a very valuable role in strengthening regional security and economic sovereignty in the years ahead.

I also want to stress this morning, that these initiatives, that stem from last week's PIF, are part of a much larger picture. As I said earlier I am absolutely committed to increasing our engagement with the Pacific. I have already had a number of conversations with the Secretary the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, about other ways we can better co-ordinate our whole-of-government efforts in this regards.

I think she's thrilled by the new enthusiasm of her new Minister. But it is such an important opportunity, such an important opportunity to build on our step-up, to build on the initiatives out of the Pacific Islands Forum, that I don't want to miss that chance.

So my message for this morning is that this is about dialogue and partnerships, and that there is more to do.

In the past two years, Australian partnerships in the Pacific have undoubtedly strengthened.

And as I've said, that will continue.

I am very, very pleased that this was my first opportunity to engage in an international program as Minister for Foreign Affairs and that it was in the Pacific, and I look forward to continuing this focus in the months ahead. In November Prime Minister Morrison and I will attend APEC in PNG where we will continue to build on these very important relationships and to further strengthen our mutual bonds in the Pacific. I expect also to visit PNG before then, and several other countries in the coming months.

Why is the Australian Government so committed to delivering the initiatives I have outlined this morning, and others like them?

We do it to deepen those partnerships.

We do it to enhance the collective economic and social resilience of the region.

We do it to advance the aspirations we all share for a free, prosperous and stable region, where each of our nations can rely on our sovereign and collective rights set out in the rules–based order.

More importantly though, we do it because we live with each other in our shared Pacific region, and our future is best faced together, in partnership.

Ladies and gentlemen, I with you all the best for a very productive and collaborate conference. I look forward to hearing the outcomes, perhaps giving me some more ideas and opportunities to deliver to the Secretary of the Department that come your discussions today. These are very practical engagements, conferences such as this. The government is very pleased to have the opportunity to support conference such as this, and encourage you to use all of the available time and to make the most of your discussions. I wish that I could, in fact, spend more time here than I will at Parliament House this week, but that unfortunately is not to be. So I look forward to continuing to work with you in the coming months and years, to continuing to engage on the issues that are of key importance to you, and that have been part of my political life for very many years now. I wish you all the very best for a constructive conference and look forward to seeing you in the future. Thank you very much.

Media enquiries