I am so delighted to be here this evening to launch this Australia-ASEAN Council.

We have been a partner of the ASEAN countries for some 40 years now. The Association of Southeast Asian nations now comprises Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. We have close relations with the individual countries but we are a huge supporter and partner of ASEAN, the organisation.

The South East Asian region is one of the fastest growing in the world in terms of economic growth. It is a dynamic, exciting region within the Asia Pacific. Of course it is straddling the oceans of the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region itself is home to about half the world’s population, about a third of the world’s GDP, about a third of the world’s total exports. South East Asia comprises about 620 million people, a combined GDP of about $3.6 trillion dollars, so it is an area of enormous importance to us, plus it is our neighbourhood. This is our region, this is where we live, this is where our future lies.

As an important trading partner for Australia it is worth noting that about 15 per cent of our total trade is with the nations of ASEAN. Of course we have a Free Trade Agreement with the ASEAN nations and about $100 billion represents our two-way trade. And most of our exports go through Southeast Asia to those countries and to the rest of the world and so it is an exceedingly important region for us and I’m hoping that with the establishment of this Council we can engage even more closely.

Australia is a valued partner of ASEAN. We are an open, liberal democracy, committed to freedoms, rule of law, human rights, democratic institutions. We are an open, export-oriented market economy focussing on liberalising trade and encouraging trade and investment in our region, so Australia is a natural partner for the region and we certainly value our position in that regard.

In terms of growing closer with the countries of South East Asia clearly that is done at senior government levels, at senior business levels, but political relationships can wax and wane. The economic circumstances can ebb and flow. What will keep our countries deeply engaged are the personal connections, the people-to-people links that will endure.

Some of the most successful foreign policy initiatives we’ve seen have been based on those people-to-people links. I think of the original Colombo Plan where we brought people from the region to study in Australia - during the 1950s, 60s and 70s - gain qualifications in our universities and go home to help build communities, economies, nations in the region. We’ve now reversed that Colombo Plan. The alumni from the original Colombo Plan now make up the Presidents, Prime Ministers, Cabinet leaders, business leaders, community leaders, in those countries and their connection with Australia is through their alumni status as a Colombo Plan scholar.

Well we now want Australian students to have that same experience and so we have provided funding for, by the end of next year, 10,000 Australian students to live and study and work in our region, the Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific, and specifically in the ten ASEAN countries. By the end of next year, over 10,000 students will be living and studying and working in your countries and they will be building those personal connections, those networks, those friendships and relationships that will endure, that will last a lifetime and will continue to build this unbelievably close relationship between Australia and the member states of ASEAN.

I was in Kuala Lumpur recently and I attended a terrific BRIDGE Program event at the Selangor School and the students were sitting in their classroom and they were skyping in to a classroom of students on Christmas Island. The difference between the two scenarios could not have been more profound. The students from Christmas Island were all dressed in casual gear because they had just been diving off the jetty, as one does in Christmas Island, and the students at the Selangor School were sitting very properly in their uniforms. Nevertheless the level of engagement between the two classrooms was a joy to behold as they learned more about each other and gained an understanding of the lives that they led in Malaysia and on Christmas Island.

And so the people-to-people connection is the absolute foundation of our ongoing friendship with the countries of ASEAN and that’s why the Australia-ASEAN Council has been established, to not only educate Australians and make our domestic audience more understanding, more aware of the importance of the ASEAN countries, but also to project Australia into the ASEAN countries.

We have focused so much of our foreign policy on economic diplomacy - as many of you will have heard me talk about - Australia using our diplomatic, our foreign policy assets to further trade and investment with countries around the globe. Under economic diplomacy come a number of other soft diplomacy elements including cultural diplomacy, sports diplomacy, I even launched fashion diplomacy last week! But these are ways where different sectors of our community can engage directly with different sectors of the communities within the ASEAN countries and I want this council to tap all of the innovative, creative thinking, to come up with ideas, to encourage applications for the grants funding that they will have so that we can support groups connect with each other across a whole range of areas.

I know our missions in the ASEAN countries, and I see a number of our High Commissioners and Ambassadors here tonight, I know they have so many great ideas, I know that communities in Australia have many wonderful ideas and connections that they would like to explore. I want our Council to think creatively, to think innovatively and come up with ways that we can tap into the well of good feelings, the well of friendship that exists between Australia and the countries of ASEAN.

I want to thank Christine Holgate for taking on the task as chair. She will make a wonderful presiding officer for the Council. We had a meeting this afternoon where we discussed our aspirations for this group and I know that the Council members will take their role very seriously but also be open to new ideas on how we can promote Australia-ASEAN relations.

I’ll hand back to my exuberant Deputy Secretary as he introduces the members of the Australian-ASEAN Council and I have great pleasure in launching this Council that will do so much to continue to deepen relations between Australia and the countries of ASEAN.

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