Ladies and gentlemen, what a delight it is to be here in Lae and to see so many of you here to support this occasion of the official opening of Australia's Consulate-General here in Lae city. I acknowledge the Governor, Kelly Naru, and of course our High Commissioner, Bruce Davis, my very good friend and Ministerial colleague Rimbink Pato and my Australian colleague, Ministerial colleague, Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells. I am delighted to see Paul Murphy here, our Consular-General, but there are also some former office holders here tonight who deserve mention, Bart Philemon is here, our friend, Ian Kemish who was our High Commissioner and also two of our honorary consuls here, Phil Franklin and Alan McLay. It is great to see you here this evening.
Connie, Rimbink and I have been in Madang this week for the 25th PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, and we had a very productive discussion, as you would imagine, when ten Ministers, five from Australia and five from PNG get together, there is much to discuss. As a core element of Australia's foreign policy the Government has decided to extend our diplomatic presence overseas, and I am very proud of the fact that I have been able to oversight the single largest expansion of our diplomatic network in at least forty, probably fifty years, with the opening of nine new overseas missions, including this one here in Lae.
There would be few countries with a relationship as close as Australia and Papua New Guinea and our connections go back centuries indeed, we were trading across the Torres Strait decades and decades ago. Today, our contemporary economic relationship is one of about $6 billion in bilateral trade and around 5000 Australian companies are connected to PNG, exporting and operating here.
In more recent history, our deep and enduring friendship was forged during World War II and Australians will forever remember the sacrifice made by so many local people in defence of the freedom of PNG and the freedom of Australia. We are hoping that our Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, will be here to take part in commemorative services in 2017.
During our ministerial discussions today, we focused on how the Australia-PNG relationship is transitioning to one of economic, strategic and security partners. This is developing into a true partnership and I pay tribute to Rimbink and his Ministerial colleagues for taking this approach of partnership to another level. The fact that we are opening a Consulate here in Lae, reflects the importance of this economic partnership. We know that Lae is a powerhouse of the PNG economy. It is considered a gateway into Asia, and to the Pacific, to the Highlands and to the islands of PNG. It is the largest cargo port, second largest airport and a booming industrial and commercial hub. It is also surrounded by provinces that are so rich in resources.
Tomorrow I am really pleased that we will be visiting the National Agricultural Research Institute which partners with Australia's ACIAR - the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research - and we'll be looking at projects to do with improving crop yields, the best agricultural practises to ensure that there is greater food security here in PNG.
That is just one example of the joint ventures with joint enterprises that PNG and Australia do together. Our development assistance program to PNG is the largest that we have and our support to PNG's economic and social development focuses on the areas of health and education, transport, infrastructure, gender equality and law and justice. Tomorrow, Senator Fierravanti-Wells and I, with Rimbink, will be going to ANGAU Hospital, which is a significant redevelopment project that the Australian Government has committed to undertake, to improve health outcomes and delivery of medical services here in this province.
Our presence in Lae is significant under our Australia-PNG Policing Partnership. We have 73 Australian Federal Police officers in PNG and I know that 5 are here in Lae. Likewise, under our defence cooperation partnership, we have Australian Defence Force personnel stationed in Lae.
I am delighted that so much of our partnership is now centred on education, because that clearly is the key to economic and social progress. Under the Australian Government's signature program, the New Colombo Plan, we have been supporting Australian students to travel overseas to the Asia Pacific to attend university, study in another country, live and work in another country, come back to Australia with new perspectives and insights and skills and ideas, and more importantly, build relationships that will last a lifetime.
Well, I am delighted that since the program began in 2014, until the end of this year, about 18,000 Australian students will live, study and work in the region under the New Colombo Plan. As students are wanting to come to PNG, fifteen of our New Colombo Plan students will be here in Lae working with Sime Darby Berhad and the University of Technology, focussed on agricultural research.
Likewise, 81 people from this province have studied in Australia since 2008, under our Australia Awards. If you ever needed to be convinced that education is the key to peace, prosperity and security and stability, we saw it today when we went to the Divine Word University. As it is International Women's Day we met with a group of young Papua New Guinean women who are studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. They were from Milne Bay, they were from Sepik, they were from New Britain, they were from all over PNG. They are studying medicine, health sciences, and IT. They were some of the brightest, most engaged, smart young women I have met anywhere.
I can assure the people in this room that if they are indicative of the young women in PNG, and I know they are, then the future of this country is in very good hands.
Consul-General Paul Murphy has been here since the 25th of January and I thank you on his behalf for the very warm welcome you have given him.
Now there are about 1000 Australians in Lae, so we expect Paul to be very busy – hopefully not too busy – but he will have his hands full. This reflects the importance that we place, not only on our relationship with Papua New Guinea, which is a foreign policy priority for us, but also the significance of Lae to Australia.
We are delighted to have the Consulate-General here, and I would like to invite my friend, Rimbink Pato to say a few words and perhaps we can do the formal part of the evening before the Bishop says grace and we have our main meal.
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