JULIE BISHOP: Thank you Sharman. Dr Sharman Stone is Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls and doing a magnificent job in raising the profile of Australia’s initiatives to boost the empowerment of women and girls around the world and particularly in our region. I acknowledge Minister Connie Fierravanti-Wells, Minister Jane Prentice, Terry Butler representing the Leader of the Opposition, my dear Chief Government Whip Nola Marino, who is part of this program - I’ll come back to that later - and I want to mention Senator Lucy Gichuhi, our new Liberal Senator from South Australia, wonderful to have you here Lucy. To all the Members of Parliament, Excellencies, distinguished guests and particularly the participants in this new initiative. I’m delighted to welcome you here to Parliament House for the launch of the Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative.

I launched the Women’s Leadership Initiative in New York last September on the sides of the UN General Assembly Leaders Week, in the presence of the Pacific leaders who were in New York at that time and today we move to the next step of the implementation of the Women’s Leadership Initiative.

We believe that education is the key to prosperity, to security, stability, and in particular giving women and girls the opportunity to have an education means that they can fulfil their potential. This has been the view of successive Australian Governments. Over the past 60 years or more, from the original Colombo Plan in the 1950s that over about three decades brought 40,000 young men and women to study in Australia, to the Australia Awards of today, about 90,000 people have received an education in Australia and then returned to their country to help build peace, stability and prosperity in their nation.

Indeed, the OECD reports that Australia leads all OECD nations in terms of the investment that we make into scholarships for those in developing countries and I think that’s a record of which we should be proud.

It also means that generations of people have gained an understanding of Australia - our values, our institutions, our way of life, the way we see the world, our perspectives - and they have returned to their home countries and have gone on to be very successful as leaders in business, in community matters, in government, in politics. So we have this whole cohort of ambassadors, people who know Australia, love Australia, have deep networks and connections, and that underpins our engagement with these nations. I’m very proud of our Global Alumni Initiative to connect Australians who have studied overseas and those who have studied in Australia. What a powerful resource that is for our country for international engagement, for soft power diplomacy and better outcomes in terms of our bilateral, multilateral relationships.

This brings me to the Women’s Leadership Initiative. Building on all of the past initiatives, building on the success of our education programs, I wanted to ensure that those living in our neighbourhood, in the Pacific in particular, had the opportunity to be mentored by Australian women who can assist them as they rise through the ranks, as they go home to see if they can take leadership roles, influence the outcomes in their countries.

I know that mentoring works. When I was the Education Minister we actually had oversight of a study, controlled experiment to see how female academics who were mentored against those who were not mentored faired and the results were overwhelming. The women in the mentored group had more career opportunities, more promotions, more grants, more job satisfaction, you name it. It works.

This program is a particular passion of mine. The empowerment of women and girls in the Pacific is of highest priority in our foreign policy and here’s an opportunity for us to really make a difference.

The Pacific is a challenge for women’s representation. We know that currently only 7 per cent of national Parliamentarians in the Pacific are female compared with the global average of over 23 per cent. So we know that giving women the opportunity to take leadership roles, whether it is in families or business or communities or government or politics more generally does lead to greater prosperity and greater stability and better outcomes for those nations. The results are in. We needn’t debate this.

We decided that the Women’s Leadership Initiative would build on the Australia Awards. Under the Australia Awards we provide about 3,500 scholarships each year for talented young people to pursue masters and post-grad qualifications in Australia. By combining the Australia Awards and the Women’s Leadership Initiative we have this outstanding program and we’re starting with a pilot taken from the Australia Award cohort from the Pacific. Twelve Australia Award recipients will be formally mentored under our program. The pilot starts with five nations in the Pacific - Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, and we hope to expand it because, of course, the Pacific is a priority for us. Our recently released Foreign Policy White Paper lists our deeper engagement, stepping up our engagement in the Pacific, is one of our top priorities.

Under this program Australia Award recipients, young women from those five nations, will be connected with our wonderful group of mentors who have volunteered their time and energy and efforts and experience to build this connection and I know that these relationships will last a lifetime.

We are going to hear from a number of participants and Alofa, I want to thank you so much for your role in co-chairing the steering committee. You are an extraordinary woman and we have a lot in common, I’m the first female Member of Parliament for my constituency, and Australia’s first female Foreign Minister, so we can dare to dream! I think you’re an ideal Member of Parliament to have as part of our steering group.

We’ll hear from Cora Makini from the Solomon Islands and her mentor Danielle Swan and I just want to mention also that Nirose Silas from Vanuatu is here and Nola Marino is her mentor.

There are some wonderful stories that will emerge from this initiative but importantly it will mean that women in the Pacific, those potential emerging leaders will have an Australian counterpart, someone to give them advice, a shoulder to cry on maybe from time-to –time, someone who can give suggestions and be there for them. I think it will lead to some wonderful outcomes. I can imagine our mentor, mentees getting together in Australia or in their host country or in the source country, and I’m really looking forward to this being a much broader program than I pilot. I’m sure with bipartisan support here and in Parliament we can expand this to cover all the Pacific island nations.

We have also an initiative called the New Colombo Plan which is about sending Australian undergraduates to study in and live and undertake work experience in one of 40 nations in the Indo-Pacific. This is a chance for young Australians to be exposed to the life and the politics and society in another country while gaining some study experience and work experience. I’ve been delighted by the number of students who have chosen the Pacific, or one of the countries in the Pacific, for their New Colombo Plan experience. Many, of course, are going to popular destinations like China, Indonesia, Japan, but an increasing number are looking at the Pacific - at PNG, at Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu - and the experiences, the work experiences, have been fantastic. Erin Corkill is one that springs to mind. She undertook studies at the University of South Pacific and then gained an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vanuatu and was writing legislation for the Vanuatu Government. An extraordinary experience and there are more of these wonderful opportunities for young Australians to have a greater understanding of our neighbourhood as well as these initiatives that are bringing, in this case, young women to study and work in Australia.

It is with great pride and a great deal of personal satisfaction that I launch today the Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative. Long may the relations between Australia and our Pacific friends deepen and flourish.

- Ends -

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555