Stepping-up Australia’s Pacific engagement

Smiling school children
Solomon Island children taking part in Australian supported Early Childhood Development program. Photo: DFAT/Linda Roche

Stepping-up Australia’s Pacific engagement

Australia’s step-up in engagement with the Pacific is one of the highest priorities of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, launched on 23 November 2017.

The White Paper commits Australia to a more ambitious and intensified engagement in the Pacific to support a more resilient region.

It reinforces Australia’s commitments at the 2017 and 2018 Pacific Island Forum Leaders' Meetings, to a range of measures which will strengthen Australia's engagement with the Pacific, including:

  • stronger partnerships for economic growth
  • stronger partnerships for security
  • stronger relationships between our people.

Speaking at the Australian National University’s State of the Pacific Conference on 10 September 2018, Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Senator Marise Payne declared “Stepping up in the Pacific is not an option for Australian foreign policy — it is an imperative”.

The Step-up responds to the significant long-term challenges faced by our partners in the Pacific, including: climate change and responding to natural disasters; sustaining economic growth and boosting education, developing skills and jobs for growing populations; pursuing gender equality and recognising the essential role of women in achieving better development outcomes; preventing major disease outbreak and tackling transnational crime. Australia’s Step up in engagement builds on our development assistance to the region of $1.3 billion.

Strengthening our Pacific Partnerships

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Stronger economic partnerships

The Pacific Labour Scheme commenced on 1 July 2018 following a successful pilot program in northern Australia and building on the success of the Seasonal Worker Programme. The Scheme will help meet business demand across all sectors in rural and regional Australia. Workers from Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are now able to apply for low and semi-skilled employment in Australia under the Pacific Labour Scheme.

Australia’s Step-up in the Pacific region is one of the highest priorities of Australia's 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Labour mobility is a win-win for Australia and Pacific island countries, helping fill labour shortages in Australia and providing a source of savings for Pacific island workers. Economic integration with Australia and New Zealand is important to the economic prospects of Pacific island countries.

The Pacific Labour Scheme is demand driven and will help fill the labour gaps in Australia's towns and on our farms, boosting economic activity and competitiveness in rural and regional Australia. When labour market testing demonstrates that no Australian workers are available, Approved Employers can access workers under the Scheme. Built-in protections safeguard against worker exploitation and the Pacific Labour Facility ensures that workers are prepared to live and work in Australia.

The Facility connects Australian employers with Pacific island workers and supports the administration of the Scheme. The Facility is working closely with the Australian and Pacific island governments to build the work ready pool of suitably qualified workers. At the same time, the Facility is working with Australian businesses to help them access workers under the Scheme.

The new Scheme complements the existing Seasonal Worker Programme which, since 2012 has provided more than 28,000 seasonal jobs to workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste. These workers help growers harvest crops, increase productivity and get produce to market. Savings and remittances from Australia's labour mobility initiatives pay for housing, education and support communities in Pacific island countries.

The PACER Plus agreement will better integrate Pacific economies, facilitating the flow of goods, capital, and people across signatory countries.

PACER Plus is a development focussed, trade agreement signed by Australia, Cook islands, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Ratification by eight signatory countries is required for the agreement to enter into force (expected in 2019). PACER Plus focuses on:

  • Facilitating trade in goods and service;
  • Promoting investment into the Pacific; and
  • Providing a framework for Aid-for-trade assistance to signatories.

Australia and New Zealand have committed over $33million in aid for trade assistance to help Pacific island countries fully benefit from the agreement. For example, to increase transparency under PACER Plus, regional trade portals will be established to make it easier for businesses to invest and trade in the Pacific. The project is being led by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and will help Pacific island countries establish accessible and transparent trade processes to promote trade and participation in regional and global value chains. UNCTAD’s work is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ensuring trade-related benefits flow directly to small and micro enterprises, especially women traders, who currently face a range of barriers which prevent them from engaging in trade.

Reducing the cost of sending money to the Pacific is an important element of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific. Australia continues to work across government, international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund, and the Australian financial sector to facilitate an environment conducive of low cost remittance services. The average cost of sending money from Australia to the Pacific has fallen from 12 per cent to 9.5 per cent for a $200 transfer, since September 2017.

Stronger security partnerships

On 5 September 2018 in Nauru, Pacific Islands Forum Leaders adopted the Boe Declaration on Regional Security to guide future regional responses to emerging security issues. The new declaration recognises an expanded concept of security, inclusive of human, cyber and environmental security.

To support implementation of the Boe Declaration, and as announced in our Foreign Policy White Paper, we will establish the Australia Pacific Security College (College). The College will make a valuable contribution to regional security cooperation by bringing together officials from across countries and agencies for training and professional development opportunities.

The Pacific Fusion Centre (Centre), announced by Foreign Minister Payne in Nauru in September 2018, is another initiative supporting implementation of the Boe Declaration and our Foreign Policy White Paper. The Centre will work with Pacific countries and regional organisations to aggregate and analyse security information, and through improved information sharing, support informed responses to security challenges across the region.

On 8 September 2017, then Prime Minister Turnbull signed bilateral security partnership MOUs with his counterparts from Tuvalu and Nauru. These new MOUs are umbrella arrangements covering existing areas of security cooperation with these countries on maritime surveillance, police and legal capacity building, as well as new engagement on identity, border and health security. This followed the signature of a bilateral security treaty between Australia and the Solomon Islands on 14 August 2017.

To enhance regional health security, Australia is providing Pacific island countries with access to Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration’s world-class pharmaceutical quality assurance systems. The four-year pilot Pacific Medicine Testing Program gives participating countries at least five medicine quality tests per financial year.

These initiatives build on Australia’s long-standing security cooperation with the Pacific. Australia has committed $2 billion to the Pacific Maritime Security Program over the next 30 years, with support to provide 21 replacement patrol boats across the Pacific and Timor-Leste and an aerial surveillance capability to bolster Pacific island maritime security. The Australian Federal Police has an active law enforcement role in the Pacific, including through the Pacific Transnational Crime Network. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority supports efforts through the Forum Fisheries Agency to improve fisheries management in the Pacific and combat illegal fishing.

Stronger people-to-people links

On 8 September 2017, the new Pacific Connect program was announced. It is now underway, to forge stronger, relationships between Pacific and Australian leaders across the public, private and community sectors.

A two-year Australia-Pacific Schools Partnerships pilot program commenced in 2018, starting with schools in Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Solomon Islands. In 2019 it will be expanded to include schools from Fiji, Nauru, Tonga and Vanuatu.

The Pacific Research Program began in October 2017 to foster a strong and vibrant Pacific-Australia-New Zealand-wide network of research on the Pacific to support better policy and development program design outcomes.

Another recent initiative, the $10 million, three-year Australian Aid: Friendship Grants program, commenced in 2018. The program will engage a diverse group of Australian community organisations in the delivery of Australia’s aid program.

These programs build on Australia’s enduring people-to-people ties. Over the past decade, more than 9,300 students from the Pacific have received Australia Awards for study in Australia or in the region. Since its 2014 launch, the New Colombo Plan has supported mobility grants or scholarships for more than 2,400 Australian students to study in 12 Pacific island countries. This includes support for 1,100 participants in the region in 2018. These international students and the talented Australians who study overseas, including through the New Colombo Plan, make up Australia’s Global Alumni Community.

Sport is a great equaliser and is an area where Australians and Pacific peoples share much in common. The Pacific Sports Partnerships (PSP) Program continues to deliver positive outcomes in leadership, gender equality, health and improving the lives of people with disability through sport, while building lasting relationships between Australia and Pacific countries.

Video: Pacific Sports Partnerships Program

Last Updated: 25 October 2018