Stepping-up Australia’s Pacific engagement

Grou pof people standing on a headland with a tropical beach in the background
I-Kiribati workers at Hamilton Island under DFAT’s Pacific Microstates-Northern Australia Worker Pilot Program.

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 reaffirms Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcements at the 2017 Pacific Island Forum Leaders' Meeting on 8 September in Samoa, of a range of measures to strengthen Australia's engagement with the Pacific, including through:

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

Speaking at the launch of the White Paper, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, said Australia aimed to, “increase support for a more stable and prosperous Pacific”.

“The Government will extend our ‘step up’ in the Pacific on economic and security issues, including by establishing with our Pacific partners a new Australian Pacific Security College to deliver security and law enforcement training at the leadership level,” Ms Bishop said.

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, skills and jobs for growing populations; gender equality and recognising the essential role of women in achieving better development outcomes; and the threat of major disease outbreak and tackling transnational crime. Australia’s step up in engagement builds on and leverages our development assistance to the region of $1.1 billion

Video: Australia's aid budget in the Pacific

Stronger economic partnerships

The Pacific Labour Scheme officially commenced on 1 July 2018. The Scheme, which was announced by Prime Minister Turnbull at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting on 8 September 2017, will enable citizens of Pacific island countries to take up low and semi-skilled work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to three years. The Scheme:

  • includes an initial cap of up to 2,000 workers in 2018-19;
  • focuses on sectors in Australia with projected employment growth and which match Pacific island skill sets;
  • is employer-sponsored and requires labour market testing to ensure Australians have priority for local jobs; and
  • contains protections to safeguard against worker exploitation.

The Scheme initially focuses on Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu. Access will be extended to other Pacific island countries based on need, impact and progress on the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus regional trade agreement.

Building on the 25,000 workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste who have worked in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme since 2012, the Prime Minister also announced a range of measures to support participation in the Programme and to improve uptake, including:

  • increasing Australian industry engagement and input;
  • piloting additional support for employer provided pastoral care and reduce up-front costs;
  • strengthening approaches to skills training;
  • improving visa arrangements; and
  • providing additional assistance for seasonal workers to access their superannuation.

The Government will establish a Pacific Labour Facility to connect Australian employers with Pacific workers and support the administration of the Pacific Labour Scheme. The Facility will:

  • increase the quality of training and supply of workers;
  • promote the Scheme with Australian employers;
  • provide pastoral care services for workers in Australia;
  • support the return of Pacific workers to their local communities and economies; and
  • monitor the social and economic impacts of the labour mobility arrangements.

On 8 September 2017, the Prime Minister announced that Australia would continue to work with the private sector, New Zealand and the International Monetary Fund to reduce the cost of remittances from Australia to the Pacific. At last year’s Forum Leaders’ Meeting, the Prime Minister also welcomed Vanuatu as the 11th signatory of the PACER Plus. The PACER Plus agreement is central to achieving better integration of economies in the Pacific.

Stronger security partnerships

On 8 September 2017, Pacific Islands Forum Leaders agreed to commence consultations on a comprehensive ‘Biketawa Plus’ Pacific regional security declaration to guide future regional responses to emerging security issues. We expect the new declaration to include an expanded concept of security, inclusive of human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritising environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change.

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

As Foreign Minister Bishop said in Suva on 12 August last year, “our goal should be to have all our regional organisations and national agencies sharing information, training together and operating seamlessly. No one country and no one agency working alone can meet the challenges we face”.

Another initiative supporting our Foreign Policy White Paper is a feasibility study and pilot program for the Pacific Information Sharing Network to improve information sharing in the Pacific. This will explore ways to connect regional security and law enforcement bodies. Enhanced information sharing between regional agencies is vital to delivering a stronger, more coordinated, response to transnational security threats in the Pacific.

On 8 September 2017, the Prime Minister 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, border 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, the Prime Minister signed MOUs with Nauru, Tuvalu and Tonga on 8 September 2017 to enable Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration to provide medicine-quality testing on their behalf. Kiribati signed an MOU on 27 November 2017 to participate in this pilot.

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 Coordination Centre. 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 Prime Minister announced the new Pacific Connect program, now underway, to forge stronger, strategic-level relationships between Pacific and Australian leaders across the public, private and community sectors.

This follows the Foreign Minister’s 12 August 2017 announcement that Australia would establish a schools partnership program with the Pacific and a Pacific digital cultural access program, both due to commence in 2018.

On 24 October 2017, Foreign Minister Bishop launched the Pacific Research Program 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.

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.

Last Updated: 6 July 2018