Aunty Robyn, thank you so much for that wonderful Welcome to Country - you do us proud. High Commissioners, Ambassadors, friends of Australia, friends of the Pacific, I’m absolutely delighted to be here this afternoon, hosted by the Member for Forde and my very good friend Bert van Manen, along with so many members of Australia’s magnificent Pacific community. Thank you for the contribution you make to your community, to Queensland and to Australia.
I’ll talk today about Australia’s partnerships in the Pacific and I couldn’t think of a better place to talk about this topic than here in Queensland in Bert’s electorate. Geography binds us together, for we all call this region of the Pacific our home, but we have deeper connections with the Pacific including a specific reference in section 51 of our constitution concerning our relations with islands of the Pacific. Even in 1901 we knew the importance of our relations with islands in the Pacific.
We have a shared defence history, particularly during World War II, when Pacific Islander’s sacrificed so much to support our soldiers in the defence of freedom.
Ours is an enduring partnership with Australia having long supported issues of deep importance to the Pacific Islands from the decolonisation agenda of the 1950s to the fight against nuclear testing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to combating the challenge of climate change today. We are part of the Pacific, and the Pacific is part of us. Just think - 40 per cent of the NRL players have Pacific heritage, and more if you play rugby and AFL. And, as the number one ticket holder of the West Coast Eagles, I must mention Nic Naitanui’s name to all the Fijians out there. He’s a superstar. In fact, he joins a long line of Pacific heritage sporting greats across all sporting codes.
Australia is an enduring economic partner and our development assistance is designed to support stronger economies and stable governments in the Pacific. Our links are reflected in the Australian Government’s long-standing engagement with the region’s key institutions. In 1947 Australia become a Foundation Member of the South Pacific Commission, which has become the Pacific community. We’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021. Australia is a member. In fact, I hosted the first Pacific Island Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting in Sydney in 2015, and now the fifth Foreign Ministers Meeting has become an annual fixture on the PIF calendar. Australia has also been a continuous and strong supporter of University of the South Pacific since its opening in 1968.
Relations with the island nations of the Pacific have been one of my highest priorities as Australia's Foreign Minister. I've made 33 visits to the Pacific Island countries since 2013 including five this year with more planned before the end of the year. I am truly passionate about the Pacific. I love the people, the culture, the languages, the diversity, the richness of the Pacific. It gets into your blood.
We have a ministerial position dedicated to the Pacific and last month I led a bipartisan delegation to Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands accompanied by our Minister for International Development and the Pacific Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and our Labor counterparts Senator Wong and Senator Moore. Prime Minister Turnbull has attended each Pacific Island Forum meeting since he has become Prime Minister and hosted many of his Pacific counterparts in Australia, including PNG’s Prime Minister O’Neill, Fijian Prime Minster Bainimarama, and more recently, Solomon Island’s Prime Minster Houenipwela, and Vanuatu Prime Minister Salwai.
There are also deep links at community level with more than 600,000 Australians visiting the Pacific each year for business, tourism, sport, education and there are more than 140,000 Australian residents born in the Pacific, many living right here in Queensland. And they – you –represent an influential and growing bond between Australia and our Pacific Island neighbours.
Across the wider community, according to World Bank estimates, about $120 million in remittances is transferred each year from Australia to Pacific Island communities. And these remittances – from individuals here – help pay for essential services: school and health costs, for housing and travel, and help support children and the elderly. Importantly, these funds also support economic growth by enabling the establishment of small businesses. I am aware of an ongoing issue with the costs involved in the transfer of remittances and I’ve worked closely with Australian banks and some of the large money transfer operators to reduce those fees. Average costs have decreased by 34 per cent over the past 12 months, which means more money ends up back with families and communities in the Pacific. While that's certainly a step in the right direction I'm not yet satisfied, so next month I'm meeting with the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and senior banking representatives to explore more innovative solutions to further address this issue.
Education is a shared priority in our region. Over the last 10 years, more than 6000 Pacific Islanders have been recipients of Australia Awards scholarships to study in Australia. Australia Awards are particularly useful for training in specialist areas that make a positive contribution to the quality of life in the region. For example, in December last year Frank Tuke, an Australia Awards recipient from Solomon Islands, earned a Bachelor of Speech Pathology at the University of Newcastle then returned home to be the first speech pathologist in Solomon Islands. Some Australia awards alumni have gone on to become leaders. Henry Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands completed his Bachelor of Laws at the University of Tasmania. The President of Kiribati completed a Masters in Society and Culture at the University of Queensland.
It is encouraging that almost 60 per cent of Australia Award scholars in the last decade have been women. Earlier this year I was delighted to launch the Australia Awards Women's Leadership Initiative, which is supporting Pacific women while on Australian Award scholarships through leadership development, mentoring and internships, and I was very impressed by all of the participants I met; 12 fabulous women from five Pacific countries: Solomon Islands, PNG, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa. They are working in fields as diverse as IT, finance, teaching and health. We had a launch event in Canberra and Cora Makini from Solomon Islands spoke at that event about how she’d been challenged by her father to stop complaining about the poor state of infrastructure and do something about it. So she did. Cora is now studying civil engineering at Queensland University of Technology. She's focused on identifying infrastructure needs that will have the greatest impact in Solomon Islands. She's also challenging stereotypes in traditionally male-dominated sectors as well as honing her leadership skills with the help of a mentor in Brisbane, engineer Danielle Swan.
Another example: a young woman from Vanuatu, Nirose Silas, wants to be the auditor-general of Vanuatu. So, she won an Australia Award scholarship to study a Master of Business Management at QUT and we’ve paired her with the Chief Government Whip in the Australian Parliament – a friend of mine, Nola Marino, as her mentor – and I’ll tell you: Nirose is on her way to fulfil her dream. Lavinia Toven of PNG is yet another remarkable Australia Awards Women's Leadership Initiative participant. She completed a Masters in Agribusiness at University of Queensland, and Lavinia is from New Ireland Province and she’s striving to improve quality standards and value-adding for agricultural commodities including coconut oil, while also building her leadership skills of opening her eyes to different ways of working.
And I’m particularly excited that this second cohort of Women’s Leadership Initiative participants have recently commenced their program and have met up with their Australian mentors. So that’s now 23 more Pacific Island women from Fiji, PNG, Samoa, and Solomon Islands developing the skills to do great things in their home countries. I’ve often said no country can reach its potential unless it engages with and embraces the skills and talent and energy and ideas of the 50 per cent of their population that is female.
Earlier this year, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill noted that: “More and more Papua New Guineans are studying in Australia and this not only enhances skills and knowledge in the short term, it also establishes long-term bonds between our people into the future”. I agree with Prime Minister O’Neill wholeheartedly and this applies to the entire Pacific region.
The New Colombo Plan is an initiative that I introduced in 2014 which is helping to strengthen our ties because we're supporting thousands of young Australians to live and study and undertake internships in our region, in the Indo-Pacific, and that includes a focus on the Pacific Island nations. We want young Australians to learn from and learn about Pacific Island countries. Between 2014 and 2020, over 40,000 young Australians will have been overseas in our region under the New Colombo Plan, and specifically, about 2,500 Australian undergraduates have lived and studied and undertaken internships in Pacific Island countries.
This is going to create a generation of future Australian leaders with a better understanding of and deeper connections with the Pacific. For example, next year students from James Cook University will take up clinical placements in dentistry, medicine, and pharmacy in Fiji. Students from Griffith University will be in Papua New Guinea doing research in engineering fields.
One of our New Colombo Plan scholars, Emily Forsyth from University of Tasmania, studied law at the University of South Pacific in Vanuatu and then she interned at Vanuatu’s state law office, where she helped draft the new constitution. Now, that's a pretty good effort for a law student from Australia - and what an extraordinary experience for Emily, but the networks and the contacts and the friendships that are built will last a lifetime.
At the heart of our partnership with Pacific Island countries is a common vision, a shared agenda for security and prosperity; working together to keep the Pacific growing economically and to keep our region safe, secure, and peaceful. In the Turnbull Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper, which we released last year, one of our five key priorities for foreign policy was to step up our engagement with the countries of the Pacific.
Our White Paper appeared to be very well received by our partners around the region. For example, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa welcomed the White Paper’s ambitions for what he said was integrating Pacific countries into the Australia and New Zealand economic and security institutions which are essential to long term stability and economic prospects. He recognised that more ambitious engagement by Australia can help boost the resilience and economic prospects of Pacific Island nations. It is in the interests of Pacific Island countries to reach their economic potential, to provide opportunities for their young people, and that can be achieved through stronger governance frameworks that help attract foreign investment and also to ensure that they harness the skills, talent, and energy of all their citizens, including the women and girls.
As part of our deeper engagement, Australia has announced that we will open a new post in Tuvalu, which brings our number of Pacific high commissions and embassies to 14 - the largest diplomatic footprint of any nation in the Pacific.
Now, it is our aim to support greater integration of the Pacific Island economies into those of Australia and New Zealand. By integration, we mean working together to support prosperity, linking our economies, sharing the delivery of priority services, supporting Pacific Island countries to deliver qualifications to Australian standards, and thus help Pacific Islanders secure jobs here and in other nations.
In Kiribati, for example, there’s only one new job created for every 50 school leavers each year, so obtaining work in other countries is critical to supporting the aspirations of the Pacific’s growing youth populations, all of the while boosting the economic growth in their home countries.
Our seasonal worker program has been a real success in that regard and I thank all those who have participated and are working in the seasonal worker program, and a big shout out to Elvis and Dave, who are here from the Pacific Seasonal Worker Program.
Driven by demand from Australia's regions, it’s grown from a little over a thousand Pacific workers in 2013 to close to 8000 last year. Already, more than 25,000 workers have generated about $145 million in net income for the Pacific since this program commenced. The Turnbull Government’s newest Pacific labour mobility initiative, the Pacific Labour Scheme, commenced on 1 July this year, with workers from Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu, some of whom have already started work on Hayman and Hamilton Islands in North Queensland.
The Pacific Labour Scheme enables a Pacific worker to obtain a visa for up to three years to take up non-seasonal work in areas of high demand here in Australia. And what’s great about this scheme is that it fills Australian employment gaps while also supporting Pacific Islanders gain skills and supporting their economies by way of increased remittances to communities, as the seasonal worker program has so successfully done.
The sectors of primary focus include hospitality, accommodation, food services, health and aged care, and social assistance, where demand for jobs from employers is projected to grow in Australia by between 100,000 and 250,000 positions during the next four years. Other sectors include non-seasonal agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.
Australia has put in place a facility for the Pacific Labour Scheme to support Pacific workers who are taking part in the scheme. The facility will help prepare Pacific Islanders for life in Australia - no surprises - with better visa and training support, comprehensive pre-departure briefings, and pastoral care here in Australia.
To complement the Pacific Labour Scheme, we have reoriented the Australia-Pacific Technical College, the APTC, so that Pacific Islanders who want to work in Australia can develop the skills they need. The college was set up over a decade ago under the Howard Government to deliver Australian qualifications to students from 14 Pacific Island countries studying across five different campuses. It's been a huge success and I thank the representatives here today. There have been more than 12,000 graduates, including more than 5000 women. More than 80 per cent of graduates end up working in their qualified trade.
Queenslanders can be particularly pleased that TAFE Queensland has won the tender for the next phase of the APTC, so that it can continue to grow of a pool of skilled and competitive Pacific workers who participate in their own local labour markets, as well as taking advantage of the wider regional opportunities created by the Pacific Labour Scheme.
Our commitment to economic integration was reinforced by our efforts to conclude and sign the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations - PACER Plus - along with 10 other Pacific nations. This PACER Plus trade agreement will lay the groundwork for stronger trade and investment between our economies, which brings more jobs and more opportunities.
Economic development is also reliant on sound management of natural resources, and a key resource for island nations is custodianship over large swathes of ocean and the resources within. More effective management of ocean resources is a key goal for our region, including through the Blue Pacific Initiative, which enhances the opportunities from the blue economy.
Australia remains the key investor in the Pacific through our official development assistance that will reach record levels this year of $1.3 billion. Our funding is helping to build communities through education and health initiatives like tackling communicable and non-communicable disease. It's also about empowering women and about building high quality infrastructure, such as the high speed telecommunications cable that will link PNG and Solomon Islands with Australia and the world.
We've also funded the establishment of the Pacific Leadership and Governance precinct in Port Moresby - and this is a particular passion of mine. It’s providing training to PNG’s current and future public service leaders to improve governance and service delivery. In March this year, I opened the new buildings at the University of PNG campus, including a state of the art lecture theatre - it was amazing. To date, over 2500 two public servants have undertaken courses on governance, ethics, leadership, and financial management, and we’re partnering with institutions including the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.
We're also working to climate-proof the infrastructure we’re helping to build in the Pacific - high quality infrastructure which is much more cost effective than having to rebuild after a natural disaster. For example, in Solomon Islands we're working with the Asian Development Bank to build the Gizo market to withstand a category 5 cyclone, as well as sea level rise. The Pacific is the most natural disaster prone region in the world and Australia has developed timely and efficient responses in disaster relief.
Australia aspires to be an all-weather friend for the Pacific - in good times and in bad, particularly when natural disasters strike. Following the massive earthquake that struck PNG’s highlands in February, Australia's Defence Forces worked closely with their PNG and New Zealand counterparts to provide rapid and extensive air and logistics support to affected areas, and I saw firsthand the level of cooperation between our Australian Defence Force and their PNG counterparts.
We provided urgent humanitarian assistance and are commencing a $50 million program of reconstruction to essential roads, health facilities, schools, and other key infrastructure destroyed by that earthquake.
Australia also acted quickly to help the people of Tonga recover from the devastation caused by Cyclone Gita earlier this year. One of the Australian Defence Force’s C-17 transport planes arrived in Nuku‘alofa within 24 hours of the cyclone and carried the first of seven loads of humanitarian supplies to people in need.
In February of 2016, after the South Pacific’s strongest tropical cyclone in recorded history, Category 5 Winston, hit Fiji, I hopped on board an RAAF C-17 to see it firsthand, our humanitarian response in Fiji. HMAS Canberra, with our Black Hawk helicopters, traversed the affected islands.
At the Penang Sangam Primary School, I was delighted to see how happy the children appeared to be as difficult time, as they were already back at school just a few weeks after the cyclone. Our teams had created temporary learning spaces for almost 15,000 children across Fiji to enable them to get back to the classroom as quickly as possible. The children were well fed through our school feeding programs and had access to water and sanitation facilities in schools, and both students and teachers received psychological support.
Similarly, we responded quickly to help out our friends in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam in 2015. We sent in immediate emergency and early recovery support such as safe drinking water and food and hygiene kits and shelter and playground. HMAS Tobruk traversed the affected areas, delivering much needed assistance and we've followed it up with a $35 million program to support longer term recovery efforts.
On my visit shortly after the cyclone, locals hugged me and told me how they cried with joy when our massive grey Defence planes flew overhead. They knew that help from Australia had arrived. It made me very proud to be an Australian.
Australia will always be there, at the forefront of efforts to assist our Pacific neighbours deal with the impact of natural disasters. Our global humanitarian funding will this year increase to $410 million - our highest ever, and we work with civil society, with UN agencies, with NGOs, to alleviate suffering. The Pacific can always count on us.
Beyond working to more closely integrate the economies of Australia and the Pacific and our swift responses in times of need, we’re also strongly committed to the safety and security of the people of the Pacific Islands. Our Defence and Police and broader security cooperation remains vital to the region and through training and officer exchanges, many of our Defence personnel, our Police, and our intelligence agencies are longstanding colleagues of their Pacific counterparts. There’s a real connection, a real friendship between them.
We’re helping to build capacity to monitor the Pacific Islands’ vast and resource-rich maritime zones, including through upgraded aerial surveillance and new patrol boats. Under our Pacific Maritime Security Program, Australia will gift 19 new Guardian class patrol vessels to our partners across the region. The first has been completed; it’s currently bobbing in the Austal dock in Western Australia to be delivered to PNG before the end of the year. The PNG Defence Minister recently told me that his sailors are bursting with enthusiasm at the prospect of their new vessel and they cannot wait to undertake maritime patrols in it, and I know the same is being felt across the Pacific because these ships are bigger and faster than the current patrol boats Australia provided; they have enhanced communication capabilities, which means the crews can go to sea in rough weather and for longer, and they can police and surveil a far greater area.
It builds on what has been the highly successful 30-year Pacific Patrol Boat Program, which has long helped our Pacific partners to protect valuable fisheries resources, control their borders, and fight transnational crime. Australia's long-term commitment to the Pacific security is also exemplified by the 14 year long Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands - RAMSI - which commenced in 2003, led by Australia and New Zealand as a joint mission with 13 other Pacific nations to help our close neighbour at a time of need.
Chaos had reigned in Solomon Islands and law and order had to be restored. RAMSI was created, and what an extraordinary regional effort it was - Pacific Islands Forum Secretary Dame Meg Taylor called it a truly regional exercise in solidarity and a shining example of Pacific diplomacy and cooperation. Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor noted that RAMSI’s regional character was a defining element of its success and a source of pride for Pacific nations.
Building on the cooperative spirit of RAMSI, we are now establishing and Australia-Pacific Security College, which will deliver training in security and law enforcement fields across the region and will foster collaboration between the Pacific’s security leaders and personnel.
We’re also concluding bilateral security arrangements with a range of Pacific Island countries, including Nauru and Tuvalu, to help protect them and the region against transnational threats: drugs smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and more.
While Australia offers to be the partner of choice to the Pacific, we’re also keen to see other countries engaging more deeply in our region. With its own Pacific reset in mind, and as my counterpart Winston Peters has made clear, New Zealand is a critical regional partner for us all. Australia and New Zealand work together, have worked together for over a century, and we will fulfil our joint goal of a safe, secure and prosperous Pacific working together.
I was very pleased to recently speak to UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson about Britain’s growing focus on the Pacific. During the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London in April, Boris announced an expanded British diplomatic presence in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. We also see Japan, the European Union and the United States amongst others, all looking to do more in this part of the world. We welcome China’s efforts to assist the Pacific Island states with its development challenges, and we look forward to working with China on a broad range of assistance. For example, we are partnering with China on a joint health project in PNG to help eliminate malaria and we’re keen to expand on this cooperation and expand on our dialogue with China on Pacific issues and challenges more generally.
Investment and support to the Pacific is welcome, while ever it supports the sovereignty, long term stability and viability of Pacific Island nations.
Ladies and gentleman, Australia and other nations of the Pacific are natural partners, tied together by geography, history and a combined love of our region. There's great affection between the people of the Pacific and the Australian people, an affection that is enduring, particularly on the rugby league field. We face a time of challenge and opportunity where technology, automation and the rapid advance of developing economies are transforming our world at breakneck pace. Australia is deeply committed to working more closely with Pacific Island nations on their journey to peace and prosperity. The initiatives that I’ve mentioned - economic integration, Pacific Labour Scheme, the Women’s Leadership Initiative, the New Colombo Plan, the new patrol boats and more - are built on a deep foundation of Australia’s long term engagement with the people of the Pacific.
We do this work in partnership with Pacific Island countries because we have their interests at heart and the interests of the region that we all call home. Australia aims to remain a valued and trusted partner for the Pacific as we work together building stronger, more secure and enduring economies and communities. The very best days of our long and close friendship lie ahead of us.
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