Australian High Commission
Solomon Islands

Stepping-up Australia's engagement in the Pacific

15 September 2017

                                                                                 From the High Commissioner’s Desk

                                                                     Stepping-up Australia's engagement in the Pacific

At last week’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting in Apia, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced measures to step up Australia’s engagement with the Pacific.

The step-up responds to the long-term challenges facing our region. These include climate change and 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 development outcomes; and, the threat of major disease outbreak and transnational crime.

Increasing Pacific labour mobility is part of Australia’s ongoing commitment to promoting economic resilience and improving livelihoods in the region. Prime Minister Turnbull announced a new Pacific Labour Scheme, to commence in July 2018. The Scheme will enable citizens of Pacific island countries to take up work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to three years.

With an initial intake of up to 2,000 workers, the Scheme will focus on sectors with projected employment growth in Australia and which match Pacific island skill sets, and contain protections to safeguard against worker exploitation. Australia will establish a Pacific Labour Facility to connect Australian employers with Pacific workers and support the administration of the Pacific Labour Scheme. Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu were signed. Other Pacific island countries, including Solomon Islands, will be able to access the Scheme over the course of 2018.

A small number of Solomon Islanders participate in Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP). Prime Minister Turnbull announced measures to boost participation in the SWP. These will increase Australian industry engagement and input; pilot additional support for employers to help them provide pastoral care to seasonal workers and reduce up-front costs; strengthen approaches to skills training; improve visa arrangements; and provide additional assistance for seasonal workers to access their superannuation.

On 8 September, the Prime Minister also announced that Australia will 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. Remittance transfers play an increasingly important role in transforming the lives of Pacific workers, with each worker sending home remittances worth an estimated AUD5,000 per six-month placement. Australia is also advancing regional labour mobility through the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus and its related Labour Mobility Arrangement, by creating a Pacific Labour Mobility Annual Meeting to discuss labour mobility priorities.

Solomon Islanders will no doubt be proud to hear that, partly inspired by the success of RAMSI, Pacific Island Forum Leaders agreed to launch consultations on a new Pacific security declaration. As Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Suva last month, "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". These shared regional security challenges include illegal fishing, transnational crime, human security, cybercrime and disaster response.

I was privileged to witness the signing of a security treaty between Australia and Solomon Islands on 14 August during Prime Minister Sogavare’s visit to Canberra. In Apia last week, Australia’s Prime

Minister signed security partnership MOUs with Tuvalu and Nauru. These new MOUs provide umbrella arrangements covering existing areas of security cooperation on maritime surveillance, police, border and legal capacity building, as well as new engagement on identity, border and health security. Work on a similar MOU with Kiribati has commenced.

To help build regional disaster response capability, Foreign Minister Bishop announced Australia and Fiji will co-host a regional disaster response civil-military workshop this year. Australia’s security cooperation with the Pacific is long-standing. We’ve committed AUD2 billion to the Pacific Maritime Security Program over the next 30 years with support to provide 19 replacement patrol boats across the Pacific and an aerial surveillance capability to bolster Pacific island maritime security capabilities. The Australian Federal Police has an active law enforcement role, including through the Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre.

Finally, Prime Minister Turnbull announced the Pacific Connect program to forge stronger networks between Pacific and Australian leaders in the public, private and community sector. This exciting year-long program will focus on the inaugural challenge of "Bringing the Digital Revolution to the Pacific". A lot of work is underway to improve the Pacific’s ICT connectivity. The next challenge is to turn that connectivity into improved jobs and livelihoods. For example, what are the skills and qualifications the young people of the Pacific will need in the future?

The step-up of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific aims to build stronger partnerships for economic growth and security and stronger relationships between our people. The Australian High Commission team and I are looking forward to working on these measures with our colleagues, friends and partners in Solomon Islands.