Can I start by also adding my acknowledgment of country.
Can I start by thanking you all for the contribution you have made, and that many of you continue to make, as volunteers in communities here and abroad.
It is wonderful to join you here at this inaugural Returned Australian Volunteers Network Conference, most appropriately themed: Value in Volunteers, Bridge Builders and Change Makers.
I would also like to acknowledge the many representatives from our partner organisations – Scope Global, AVI and Australian Business Volunteers – whose work in delivering the Australian Volunteers for International Development program has made your contributions possible.
I would also like to acknowledge the many NGOs and other organisations represented here today that are hosting and supporting our Australian volunteers abroad.
As Minister for International Development and the Pacific, I have had the opportunity to meet quite a few Australian Volunteers in the countries that I have travelled.
Indeed, I have made it a point to make sure that on my trips I have a morning or an afternoon tea to thank our volunteers and share their experiences.
Having returned to Australia, for now, this conference presents a remarkable opportunity for you to consolidate the personal and professional edge that your volunteer experience has afforded you.
I know that just as many of you have continued to contribute to the development sector following your assignments.
Many of you have also returned to lives quite different to those you lived as volunteers, as employers, as business owners, as parents - Australians from all walks of life.
To my mind, this diversity is the great enduring power of the Returned Australian Volunteer Network.
Just as each of you has made an individual contribution to a development challenge abroad, all of you have a role to play at home to ensure the stories of the lives you have enriched is known throughout our Australian community.
This is how we realise the human dividend of this extraordinary network – by inspiring, by encouraging – and yes, by educating – other Australians about the great diversity and opportunity of the region we live in, in the Indo-Pacific, and the important work done by our overseas assistance program.
We all want to hear your stories, and share them with the Australian public.
We encourage you to do this on social media or any outlet you feel comfortable with.
We want to share your experiences and acknowledge your hard work.
In 1952 the first organised group of Australian volunteers set off for Indonesia under the auspices of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme.
By living in the communities in which they worked, they were able to develop what our Embassy reported as a certain "goodwill and prestige" among their hosts.
In part, it was this human connection – what we now call public diplomacy in the Foreign Affairs trade – which inspired the Australian Government to support the expansion of the program.
And so it grew, inspiring similar schemes in Canada and New Zealand along the way.
There is even some evidence that the American Peace Core program, announced by JFK in the early 1960's, was partly inspired by Australia's Volunteer Graduate Scheme.
Over the years, Australian Governments of all persuasions have seen the value of the work our volunteers do – in development and in diplomacy – and we have been proud to support over 10,000 volunteers to complete assignments in our region and beyond.
As I said earlier, when I travel around the region, I am inspired by the calibre of the volunteers I encounter.
Of course the assignments they complete today are a world away from those our earliest volunteers were engaged in.
The changing nature of volunteer assignments reflects the changing nature of our region. Let me mention just a few examples.
Nowadays, we send a speech pathologist to the Philippines to help children with special needs access better quality education, and to help their teachers and parents become better equipped to support them directly.
We send IT professionals to Indonesia to help small community organisations manage their human resources more effectively – so they can focus on their core business.
And we send prosthetists to Samoa, to develop the prosthetics and orthotics component of Samoa's first ever Integrated Mobility Device Service for amputees.
I will be visiting Samoa next week and hope to see some of the work that we are doing in the disabilities sector, which regrettably I have to say is growing in the Pacific region because of the high levels of diabetes and cardio vascular diseases.
Australian volunteers have played a crucial role in supporting and facilitating the changing role of development assistance throughout our region.
The Government's Official Development Assistance [ODA] program as we call it, and the role of Non-Government Organisations and the private sector, is also changing to reflect the new opportunities and challenges in our region.
In recent decades, a billion people have been lifted out of poverty, and billions more have been connected through technology, not just to each other but to a whole world of knowledge and aspiration barely imaginable a generation ago.
Now, private sector investment and remittances are driving development, so delivering development assistance through new partnerships and innovation is key to our work.
Many of our neighbours, Asian neighbours in particular, have now transitioned to middle-income status.
Our development partnerships with countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam are now economic partnerships, in recognition of that fact – appropriately managed – these countries now have the economic power to lift their people out of poverty.
So we work as partners to overcome those pockets of poverty that persist in spite of the growing prosperity in the region.
In the Pacific, however, economic growth has been slower – and the prospects for future growth remain challenging.
Our Pacific neighbours face some of the world's most intractable development challenges, borne of distance from markets and vulnerability to external economic and environmental shocks.
The world looks to us to lead in this region, and we do so in our shared interests – to foster the stability of governance and society that gives rise to economic prosperity, and in turn leads to a much more stable, prosperous region.
As we continue to engage with our dynamic and diverse region we can expect change to continue to be the only constant.
Anyone who has turned on a television or scrolled down a newsfeed in the past few weeks knows that we are in uncertain times.
And for Australia, this means we need to be clear-sighted about our options and responsive to opportunities.
Your network has a crucial role in this in the years ahead.
The experiences you have had in our region, the networks you have built and the lives you have touched, will prepare you well for these future opportunities and Australia will benefit from your regional expertise and experience.
So in that spirit – I wish you all the very very best for your conference, which is being held on the eve of International Volunteers Day on Monday 5 December.
I encourage you to make the most of this network and to consider ways that you can come together to be the bridge between Australia and our region.
I ask you to take opportunities to advocate for this small but inspiring program – to encourage other Australians to take a step on the journey of a lifetime and to continue to tell the story of your volunteering adventure.
Can I thank you for your kind attention, and it gives me great pleasure to officially open the conference. Thank you.
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