Australia has revealed its three priority areas of engagement with the Pacific are economic growth, partnership for security and supporting relationships between peoples of the Pacific and Australia.
Speaking in Suva last Friday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia’s priorities are in line with the country’s foreign policy white paper that will be released later this year.
Elaborating on the first goal of a reinvigorated economic partnership, Bishop said PACER Plus is central to the economic and trade relationship between Australia and Pacific Island Countries.
“Labour mobility has been a consistent theme in the conversations that I have had with counterparts ever since I became Foreign Minister but more recently in my discussions with you about our Prime Minister’s commitment to step up engagement.
“Australia’s experience with providing labour market access to Pacific Islanders has been positive to date, Bishop told Forum Foreign Affairs meeting in Suva Friday.
Since 2012, over 17,000 workers from nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste have participated in Australia’s Seasonal Workers Programme.
“Studies have shown that seasonal workers send home an estimated $5000 per six month placement. This money pays for education, housing, and medical needs, which are investments in a better future for the workers, their families and their communities.
“Australia wants to provide more job opportunities for our neighbours in the Pacific. It is a win-win. Australia has labour shortages in some sectors and the Pacific has willing and capable workers.”
Bishop said Australia is looking at the level of training given to Pacific workers before they depart for Australia, and the support they receive in Australia before they begin work.
“We are determined to further reduce the cost of remitting money from Australia. Already, Westpac and ANZ Bank have significantly reduced their remittance fees to the Pacific, as the result of the Government’s lobbying and advocacy.
“We have looked at New Zealand’s positive experience with Pacific labour mobility and remittances to the Pacific and it is something we hope to emulate, said Bishop
The second goal of Australia’s increased engagement with the Pacific is to address the safety of the people and resources.
“We strongly support the Pacific Island Forum’s work to build a Pacific Resilience Partnership.
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that one dollar spent reducing vulnerability to disaster can save $15 in response and recovery efforts.
Last year, Prime Minister Turnbull announced $300 million in climate change and resilience support for the Pacific over four years.
“As co-chair of the Green Climate Fund, a global climate fund, Australia has focused the world‘s attention on the challenges facing the Pacific, attracting over US$250 million for projects in our region. This includes urban water supply improvements in Fiji, coastal protection in Tuvalu and the Tina River Hydropower Development project in the Solomon Islands that will help replace 67 per cent of diesel powered generation with renewable energy.”
Bishop said Fiji’s Presidency of COP23 is a valuable opportunity to highlight to the world the climate change challenges faced by Pacific island countries and the approaches we are taking together.
“Our partnerships with Pacific Governments and in particular national disaster management offices are a model for other parts of the world. They have meant that many of us have worked together to support national government responses.
Our region is subject to a significant share of global natural disasters. Australia, along with other Pacific nations, responded to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Cyclone Winston in Fiji. We mobilised our military personnel and assets, sending doctors and nurses, engineers and educators.
“Building on the outcomes of the 2015 Sydney meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum and our agreement to strengthen coordination in response to disasters, I am pleased that the Government of Australia and the Government of Fiji have agreed to co-host a regional civil-military workshop on disaster response later this year.
“We will bring together agencies from across the Pacific to share lessons learnt during Tropical Cyclone Winston so that we can work together as a region more effectively to save lives and rebuild communities when disaster strikes, said Bishop.
Australia is also keen to improve the quality of law enforcement across the Pacific to ensure that less drugs are transported through the region, less theft through syndicates that skim money from ATMs and less domestic violence.
Another critical area of engagement according to Minister Bishop is ensuring the Pacific Ocean is more secure.
“Maritime surveillance and security is crucial to our ability to fight transnational crime and protect marine reserves.
“Australia is providing 19 new patrol boats to 12 Pacific Island countries. These will be larger and more capable than the previous generation of Australian boats. I am pleased to advise that the ceremonial keel laying for the first new Pacific patrol boat took place in my home state of Western Australia on 31 July.
The first boat is scheduled to be completed in October 2018, before being handed over the Papua New Guinea.
The third goal for Australia’s step up in the Pacific is supporting stronger relationships between our people and between our communities, said Bishop.
“The strength of our ties owes much to the flow of people between our countries; to work, to study, to volunteer or to simply take a holiday.
“In Australia, the Pacific Islands community is a key part of our national fabric, making a valuable contribution to our multicultural society. It is one of our proudest boasts that Australia is the, I would say, most successful multicultural nation on earth.
The New Colombo Plan, one of the Government‘s flagship foreign policy initiatives, has seen almost 2,500 Australian students study and undertake work experiences in Pacific Island countries, including the Kiribati, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji.
Going the other way, Australia offered 650 new Australia Awards to the Pacific region in 2017. These scholarships are supporting the leaders of tomorrow to undertake study, research and professional development in Australia and the Pacific region.
“For Pacific islanders, we recognise that Australia is often their gateway to the world. Our governments work together in education, health, and governance – work we remain deeply committed to.
“We will continue to work with Pacific organisations to support women and girls, with a strong focus on the economic empowerment of women.
We want Australian schoolchildren to study and understand our Pacific community, and we would like schoolchildren across the Pacific to feel at home with Australia, said Bishop.
To support this goal, Australia will develop a schools partnership program between Australia and other Pacific countries.
“We will offer help for schools in our country to identify partner schools in other countries in the Pacific. We will offer support for school children to form friendships and undertake exchanges. We’ll have school sporting exchanges. We will build enduring cultural ties across the Pacific. I still well remember my pen pal in PNG when I was 14 years old.
“We’ll continue to work with you as we develop specific initiatives to fulfil our goals, said Bishop.