Good evening and welcome to this most special of events in the Great Hall here in the National Parliament in the National capital. I acknowledge His Excellency the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove; my Ministerial colleagues, particularly Senator Simon Birmingham - who I believe is still at a Cabinet meeting that I just left – and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells; other Ministers who are here this evening, Members and Senators from across the political divide.

I’m delighted to see Vice Chancellors, representatives from the Universities, our diplomatic corps, Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Mr Gary Quinlan, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and heading up our team of DFAT officials who have worked tirelessly on the New Colombo Plan, Members of the New Colombo Plan Reference Group who are here this evening, representatives from business, importantly, New Colombo Plan alumni - and Sonia thank you for your MC duties, there is no end to the talents of our New Colombo Plan alumni – their story epitomises all the excitement and opportunity that can arise from being a recipient of being a New Colombo Plan Scholarship. Importantly, New Colombo Plan scholars and fellows for 2017, distinguished guests all.

Your Excellency, I particularly want to thank you for your presence here this evening and for your commitment to the New Colombo Plan as patron.

It is important to us as a Government - to the Plan’s longevity and enduring nature and to Australia generally - that a Plan such as this has the support of the Governor General as patron and I deeply thank you for your interest. 

Tonight is a celebration - a celebration of individual achievement and recognition - but it is also a celebration of a significant milestone in a very short life, so far, of a remarkable program - the New Colombo Plan.

This initiative has brought support across the Parliament, across the university sector, across business, the broader community - but importantly, across our region – the Indo-Pacific.

I have witnessed a number of speeches given to joint sittings of the House of Representatives and the Senate when Presidents and Prime Ministers from our part of the world address us and when those Presidents and Prime Ministers speak of Australia’s genuine and deep commitment to our region they invariably refer to the New Colombo Plan.

The original Colombo Plan, as His Excellency indicated, dates back to the 1950s and it responded to a need from developing countries in our region for their young people to gain qualifications from Australian universities so that they could go back home with the skills, training, and qualifications to help build their societies, their economies.

During the time they spent in Australia they lived with families, met young people at the universities they attended and became part of Australian life.

Today many of the original Colombo Plan scholars are business, community, political leaders in their respective countries. Their understanding and perception of Australia is very much fashioned by their time here as a Colombo Plan Scholar. I should comment that Senator Penny Wong - the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate - has referred to the fact that her father was a Colombo Plan Scholar from Malaysia and so she has a deep connection to the New Colombo Plan.

I conceived the New Colombo Plan when I was the Minister for Education but the opportunity to establish it arose when I became Minister for Foreign Affairs and that is because it is so much more than an International Student Exchange Program. It goes to the core of our foreign policy and that is Australia’s place in the world and where Australia’s national interests lie.

Of course, for those who travel to one of the 40 destinations that have partnered with the Australian Government for the New Colombo Plan, you will have an extraordinary experience.

To be able to live and study and undertake an internship or practicum or work experience in another country is a privilege and I know that in many instances it will transform lives.

What you brings to Australia is even greater. Of course, you will come back with new insights and ideas and perceptions and understandings, hopefully skills, including language skills.

But what we bring back to Australia is a level of Asian literacy amongst our future leaders that we’ve not had before and your experience will add to your abilities as a future employee or employer. It will add to your understanding of our place in the world and I believe that will have a direct link for Australia’s economic growth and prosperity and stability for years to come.

The connections that you make, the networks, the friendships, the relationships – will endure and will be of enormous benefit to you, but also to our country – for you will be Ambassadors for Australia.

We are so excited by the success of this program. It began as an idea in opposition – at first as my idea as Minister for Education, but again as a foreign policy initiative in opposition. We developed it and then announced it after we won the election in 2013.

I have to pay great credit to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade because by January 2014 we had a pilot program in place - forty students studying in four pilot locations – Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Japan.

By the end of next year - in three years - over 17,500 Australian undergraduates will have taken part in the New Colombo Plan in, so far, one of 34 locations overseas, from Pakistan in the West, to Mongolia in the North, the Cook Islands in the East.

Whether it’s time spent in our region with mobility funding – a shorter course perhaps a teaching prac or working in a health clinic, to a semester long course with an internship at a firm, to the 12 month 18 month month long scholarships - there is an experience for everyone. I truly hope that in years to come a New Colombo Plan experience will be like a rite of passage for Australian undergraduates, so that part of their time as a student at a university involves a period overseas in our region - this is where we live, this is where we will help shape events, this is where our future lies.

The students that have received New Colombo plan mobility grants, scholarships and fellowships come from all walks of life and this is what’s so exciting. You’re an undergraduate at one of our universities across Australia - in all states and territories – you have an opportunity to travel overseas under the New Colombo Plan.

Indigenous students, students with disabilities, students who began their life in a refugee camp, students from a broad array of backgrounds, students who are the first in their family to attend university, students who are the first in their family to have a passport to travel overseas - the stories of our New Colombo Plan recipients are inspiring and heart-warming and I never tire of hearing of them.

Tonight, we are delighted to announce, in addition to the Mobility Grants of 2017 which details were released recently - the 2017 Scholarship and Fellowship winners – 105 undergraduates from 30 universities across each state and territory and they will being going to 17 different locations in the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific.

For the first time we will have students spending around 12-18 months in two new locations – Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. The students will be going to Cambodia, China, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam.

And of course students under our mobility grants are going to one of the 40 countries or locations that partner with us.

We knew it would be important to maintain a connection with those who are fortunate enough to be a recipient of a New Colombo Plan abroad and so we’ve set up an Alumni program. I’ve launched the Alumni program in a number of states so far. This is to keep us connected - the students with each other, the students with their university, their host families, the connections they’ve made overseas and through social media, through emails, through twitter, instagram - we will ensure that the spirit of the New Colombo Plan continues to drive all that you do.

I am pleased to say that we already had 6,0000 alumni in the New Colombo Plan and that will grow. That was actually one of the challenges of the original Colombo Plan - back then it wasn’t as easy to keep connected and we lost touch of many of the original Colombo Plan scholars – that will not happen under the New Colombo Plan.

One of the features of the New Colombo Plan – and there are many - that sets it apart from other student exchange programs or student international study programs is the importance of business and industry and entities offering workplace experiences exclusively to New Colombo Plan students through our New Colombo Plan internship and mentorship network.

The reaction from business and NGOs, other sectors of our economy, of our society, has been utterly overwhelming, not just in Australia but from businesses and entities in the host countries who offer opportunities for Australian students. Think about that. An Australian student gets an opportunity to work in say, a Japanese firm – and many Japanese students would love the opportunity – so it’s a very special privilege afforded to our students. This is part of the deep government-to-government, business-to-business, people-to-people, university-to-university links that we are seeing.

For example this year National Australia Bank through its offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai are hosting New Colombo Plan interns across multiple disciplines of commerce, finance, marketing, human resources and law.

We have been thrilled by the support that the new program, the New Colombo Plan Business Champions, is bringing to this plan.

Last year I announced our ten inaugural New Colombo Plan business champions – two of them are with us tonight – Wendy Holdenson of Mitsui and Rob Thomason of CPA Australia. I thank them for their strong, ongoing support.

I am delighted that this evening I can welcome a further nine business leaders to this group. These are people who are prepared to champion, promote, advocate the benefits of the New Colombo Plan within their own organisation, within their counterpart organisations and beyond.

The CEO of Telstra, Andrew Penn, the CEO and Managing Director of Woodside Petroleum, Peter Coleman, the CEO and Managing Director of Blackmores, Christine Holgate, the CEO of Linfox Logistics in Asia, Gabby Costigan - who I know is here this evening,  the General Manager of Leighton Asia, Boyd Merrett, the CEO of Asialink Business, Mukund Narayanamurti, the NAB Group Executive for Business Banking, Angela Mentis, King & Wood Mallesons China Practice Consultant, David Olsson - and I believe David it also here this evening, and the EY Managing Partner and Asia Pacific Strategic Growth Leader, Michael Anghie.

We are delighted with the involvement of business and the opportunities that have been provided to undergraduates. You will hear many stories of our alumni, about how they have returned to Australia with opportunities for future employment even though they are only a couple of years into their undergraduate degree.

For the first time this year we will be able to announce sponsorship for our 2017 Scholars.

PWC will be sponsoring three New Colombo Plan scholarship winners in Indonesia, Japan and Singapore, and CPA Australia is sponsoring the China Scholarship. This means that these sponsor students will receive leadership training, professional development courses and mentoring.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I cannot think of a better investment in our future than supporting our bright young, passionate, energetic Australians with an opportunity to live, study and undertake work experience in a country in our region.

Yes, I’m passionate about the New Colombo Plan because I have heard from the students themselves, from the university leaders, from the businesses involved, and from the governments of the host countries, that this represents Australia’s genuine commitment to our region and will underpin our future.

Thank you all for being part of this remarkable program.

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