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Australia's Growing Role in the Pacific

28 Sep 2017
By Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells attending the Pacific Islands Forum

Australia is stepping up its engagement with the Pacific through a focus on reinvigorated economic partnerships, enhanced security and stronger diplomatic relationships.

The Pacific is vitally important to Australia and it is no accident that Australia is held in particularly high regard in the Pacific. We are a trusted partner who responds quickly if any of our neighbours are in trouble.

Our shared military history that binds us together serves as a reminder of how pivotal the Pacific islands were in the battle for the Pacific and how we share such a deep and entrenched connection with our Pacific neighbours.

In 2003, Australia leading the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) contributed a AUD$3 billion dollar regional initiative to restore stability to one of our nearest neighbours. Australia was by far the largest donor but RAMSI brought together the big countries and the small countries. It was collaborative and a collective effort and it has now become an international model for restoring stability and security to a troubled region.

Today, the region faces new challenges and they include slow economic growth, population pressures, climate events, health, education, security risks, and challenges in the form of illegal and unregulated fishing, and a range of other risks. If left unaddressed, they will impact on Australia.

At last year’s Pacific Island Forum in Pohnpei, Prime Minister Turnbull undertook a commitment to refocus our engagement in the Pacific and basically to “step-up” our engagement. Earlier this month, at the Pacific Island Forum meeting in Apia in Samoa, Prime Minister Turnbull delivered on the undertaking that he gave last year by announcing a series of initiatives. He said he wanted to deepen engagement at every level with a focus on long-term actions and investments that will ensure the continued resilience and stability of the region.

Our ‘step up’ in the Pacific involves a broad range of measures including stronger partnerships for economic growth, cooperation for security and stability, and closer links between our peoples. We expect that the Australian government’s foreign policy white paper will reflect both the importance of our partnerships in the Pacific for Australia’s prosperity and security, and our new level of engagement and ambition, as articulated through this ‘step up’.

For us, it all starts with stronger relationships for economic growth. This is the first phase of what the prime minister was talking about in our ‘step-up’. We understand the importance of supporting economic prosperity and of course economic prosperity underlies and underpins stability in any society. Helping to build economic opportunity that enables sustainable economic growth by building the links in trade and private sector development that leads to jobs and opportunities.

At the heart of this is our update to the Pacific Agreement for Closer Economic Relations, known as ‘PACER Plus’, which provides a regional framework for economic cooperation, opening up opportunities in a range of new industries and for a range of new Pacific exports. If we build up the capacity of Pacific Island countries through their biosecurity, and their customs and export frameworks, then that’s going to help them export more.

We’re also providing opportunities to access our labour market and we’ve announced a new Pacific Labour Scheme to enable up to 2,000 low and semi-skilled workers in the Pacific to access jobs in Australia. These present enormous opportunities for the people of the Pacific as remittances enable them to do a lot of things for themselves and for their families. This is of great benefit to Australia in the agriculture, the health and hospitality sectors, where we do have labour shortages.

We are reforming education systems to create vitally important opportunities for the next generation of young people and we’re also ensuring that health systems are in place to help people reach their potential.

We are working to make sure opportunities extend to all members of those societies, especially the role of women in government, in business and politics in the Pacific. By assisting women and girls, they in turn not just empower themselves, they empower their families, they empower their communities and I strongly believe they then empower their country.

Australia has a commitment to stronger partnerships for security and stability in the region which if left unchecked, threaten not just Pacific Island countries, but Australia too. For many of the countries in the Pacific, we are the major security partner in combatting disease, cyber-attacks, climate events, illegal fishing, transnational crime and irregular immigration.

Developing climate resilience and preparedness is also vital to regional security. Seven of the 10 most disaster-prone countries are in our region and so the work that we are doing on the climate front is very important. We have a long history of supporting ocean and climate initiatives in our region, and of course conservation and sustainable use of our oceans, our sea and marine resources are vitally important. We have worked very closely with the Pacific Island Forum on preparation of a new UN mechanism on conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

We support 14 Pacific Island meteorological services to improve forecasts and to measure sea level rises. As co-chair of the Green Climate Fund, Australia has helped to secure US$250 million (AUD$320 million) for Pacific climate resilience efforts. We are also campaigning and working with the Commonwealth, particularly in terms of tackling the worldwide problem of plastics and micro-plastics which are polluting our oceans and killing our fish stocks.

Australia also has very close people-to-people links. Around 660,000 Australians were born in the Pacific and every year there are three million people movements between the region and Australia. Over the past 10 years, more than 8,000 students from the Pacific have received Australia Awards Scholarships and in just three years since its launch, our Colombo Plan has brought more than 1,300 students from Australia out into the region.

What we are doing in the Pacific, we are doing so as a family and that’s really the message that I want to emphasise, that Australia is very much a part of the Pacific family; this is our neighbourhood and so it is vitally important to us.

Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is the minister for international development and the pacific. 

This is an extract of a speech presented by the minister to AIIA NSW on 20 September 2017. A full copy of the speech can be read here.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.