Excellencies, High Commissioners, Mr Tom Harley the Chairman of the Menzies Research Centre, Nick Cater the Executive Director, the authors Stephen Bolton and Rochelle Ball, my parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.
I am absolutely delighted to be here in our national capital in Parliament House to launch this publication by the Menzies Research Centre and I pay tribute to the authors, for this is a most timely paper.
The Coalition Government has always put the Pacific at the centre of our foreign policy; in fact, Sir Robert Menzies often spoke of the special interests and responsibilities that Australia had in our corner of the world and the “good neighbour policy” that Australia should practice towards the Pacific.
Indeed the Coalition Government has continued that good neighbour policy with the Pacific and have continued our focus on our neighbourhood, putting it at the core of our foreign policy.
For example, over 90 percent of Australia’s aid and overseas development assistance by country and region is focused on our friends and neighbours in the Indo-Pacific.
We are an active member and supporter of the Pacific Island Forum, indeed I hosted the first meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Pacific Island nations in Sydney not so long ago. Prime Minister Turnbull has attended the Pacific Island Leaders’ Forum.
Indeed such is our focus on the Pacific we have a designated Minister – Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific and she is a regular visitor throughout the Pacific.
Indeed we promote our foreign policy in the Pacific on a bipartisan basis and last Christmas I hosted, along with Connie, the Opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs, Penny Wong, and their counterpart international development shadow minister, Claire Moore, on a visit throughout the Pacific.
Tom Harley mentioned the New Colombo Plan, a signature policy of the Coalition Government whereby we support young Australian undergraduates to spend time living, studying and undertaking a work experience in 38 countries in our region; a reverse of the original Menzies Colombo Plan, which brought students to Australia.
We have included the Pacific in the New Colombo Plan and I’ve been thrilled to see the number of young Australians who have elected to go to nations in the Pacific to spend time living there, undertaking studies there and gaining work experience, practicums – living and working and studying amongst our friends in the Pacific.
Another one of our initiatives, the innovationXchange which is an innovation think tank/hub within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade charged with coming up with new and effective and efficient ways of delivering our aid, innovative ways, creative thinking, also focuses on ideas for the Pacific particularly on the economic development that we want to see in the Pacific.
We are actively negotiating PACER Plus, a free trade agreement which provides market access for the countries of the Pacific involving Australia and New Zealand.
And while we focus our efforts on development and economic partnerships, we are also a partner of choice when times get tough.
Australia responds quickly and in an effective way to the effects of natural disasters that beset our region.
When internal conflict can overwhelm the local police and security, Australia is there with New Zealand to lend a helping hand.
There is considerable warmth and friendship between the people of the Pacific and the people of Australia, and we have welcomed many Pacific Islanders to our shores and they contribute to the rich fabric that is Australian society.
Through sport, through culture, we bond even more closely together.
Australia’s aid program has been focused on building communities in the Pacific, on infrastructure, on health, education, security and defence.
But foreign aid alone will not deliver economically sustainable and independent nations.
That’s why we’re focusing on seeking to build the economies of our Pacific Island neighbours.
The Seasonal Workers Programme which was trialled in 2012 and has now been rolled out across the Pacific is an opportunity for workers in the Pacific to spend time in Australia, up to six months, particularly in the horticultural area, gaining skills but importantly sending remittances back home.
It is modelled on a similar scheme that New Zealand has been operating for some time.
The Seasonal Workers Programme benefits not only the Australian employers, because this is employer-driven, but it also provides an opportunity for our Pacific Island friends to send back money which can have a transformative effect in their villages and communities, but also gain some skills.
These are six month programmes and we do market testing here in Australia and the seasonal workers fill the gaps in our labour force needs.
Some of the stories coming out of the Seasonal Workers Programme are utterly heartening; indeed about 14,000 workers have taken part in the programme to date.
One of the seasonal workers from Timor-Leste, Louisa, worked at Cable Beach Resort in Broome in Western Australia, and she gained hospitality qualifications during that time and she’s now running a boutique hotel about three hours out of Dili in Timor-Leste, adding to the economic sustainability of a regional area in Timor-Leste.
Tonga, which is the most significant participant in our Seasonal Workers Programme, now claims about 25 percent of its GDP comes from remittances, including through the Seasonal Workers Program.
So this is an important element but it is narrow in its focus.
We have decided to pilot another program, the Pacific Micronesian States Programme, whereby we have invited workers from Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru to work in Australia in areas more broadly across the economy – not just in horticulture and agriculture but accommodation, hospitality, aged care – and already we’re seeing some remarkable stories.
We have 250 places available and these are three year work opportunities and I was informed that four workers from Kiribati who are at a five star Hayman Island resort were recently named amongst their top five housekeepers under a housekeeper incentive programme, being such highly motivated and energetic and enthusiastic workers.
So these are some of the wonderful stories that come from Australia opening its doors to workers from the Pacific.
It is a win-win.
Australia has some of our labour force shortages met, but those from the Pacific gain skills, gain an opportunity, gain access to Australian qualifications, see Australian business practices and of course send home remittances.
I believe there is more we can do in this area and so this report from Menzies Research Centre could not have come at a better time, it could not be more timely, for as Tom Harley alluded we are in the process of developing a Foreign Policy White Paper that will set out a framework for Australia’s foreign policy for at least a decade to come.
To that end, I have called home to Australia all our Heads of Mission from around the world and this will provide an opportunity for us to harness the experience of our most experienced and senior diplomats. Of course we’ve cancelled other meetings and we’ve done all of the cost effective efficiencies that would come from having one meeting rather than many.
Importantly, our High Commissioners and senior diplomats from the Pacific will be back in Australia and contributing their insights, perspectives to the White Paper, which of course will have a significant focus on the Pacific.
So the proposals, the recommendations, the ideas, the insights that are contained in this publication, ‘Oceans of Opportunity: How labour mobility can help Australia and its neighbours’ will be a very welcome contribution to the debate and discussion that will of course follow the release of the Government’s White Paper.
So to the Menzies Research Centre, thank you again for providing me with a substantial body of work that we will be able to use in our policy deliberations.
Yes, in relation to the New Colombo Plan, we could not have from Opposition, been able to release a policy the day after the election which was then implemented in a matter of months.
The New Colombo Plan was announced in 2013, we were elected in September 2013, and by January 2014 young Australians were being sent overseas under the New Colombo Plan.
At the end of this year almost 18,000 students will have been overseas as recipients of New Colombo Plan funding in just three years.
The Menzies Research Centre was fundamental to that and I believe this is another example where the Menzies Research Centre will be providing the basis for an ongoing policy debate that will transform into public policy that will benefit Australia and our neighbourhood.
I have great pleasure in launching this report.
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