Well thank you, thank you very, very much Penny; and to all the Australian volunteers past, present and future who are here tonight; to my parliamentary colleagues who are here - and most especially to my counterpart Senator Claire Moore; and representatives from the diplomatic corps; and most importantly to all our volunteers past and present and hopefully some future ones as well!

Can I start by also adding my acknowledgement of country.

It’s wonderful to come here this evening and celebrate the important contribution that our volunteers make in building links and sharing skills between Australia and countries across our region. This celebration also marks the commencement of the new Australian Volunteers program, which reaffirms our commitment to international volunteering.

We have a long and very proud history of volunteering, both domestically and internationally. Since 1951, when our first international volunteers went to Indonesia, successive Australian Governments have supported more than 14,000 Australians to volunteer in developing countries through Australia’s aid program.

Individuals making a difference in the most powerful way possible: by investing their own time, by giving of themselves, their passion and their efforts to help in a different part of the world, often in parts of the world that are very far and very distant from Australia.

Over the years our program has been reshaped and has been repackaged, but the vision has always remained the same. We know that they make such a vital contribution to our aid program.

They are at the front-line of our development program, but most importantly they are ambassadors for Australia abroad. But in-country they are often our eyes and ears, they’re amongst the community, they hear things and they provide vital linkages and often information that means that simple things can be dealt with - often in an informal way. So for that I think it is really very important that this program is such a success.

They give a lot, but they also get a lot in return.

Often when I have the opportunity to meet our volunteers they talk about the benefits – the mutual benefits – of volunteering, not just in terms of that skill exchange, that deep cultural understanding that comes with living and working in a community for an extended period of time.

These are the sort of benefits that we see for Australian students who are now participating in the New Colombo Plan.

So volunteers bridge between cultures and they bring unique perspectives.

The United Nations has acknowledged this. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the global plan to end all forms of poverty, to fight inequalities and tackle climate change – explicitly recognises volunteer groups as stakeholders in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Our own Foreign Policy White Paper recognises the importance of our volunteers in creating those vital links between communities in our region and advancing our reputation overseas.

As I said, my role as Minister for International Development and the Pacific means that I have the privilege – wherever I go, there are two groups that I always want to meet. One are our diplomatic staff at that Post and secondly our volunteers.

So there is always something that we try and make sure is in the program so that we can meet our volunteers – not only to thank them, but to also get feedback from them firsthand and their personal stories, their interactions.

Volunteers, I have to say, come in all shapes and sizes – and I mean that in a very, very nice way! Young, old, different professions. It’s wonderful to see and hear the different things, the different skills that people were sharing, whether it’s in the health sector, in the education sector, in the town planning sector, and in the land titles area.

I spoke to one gentlemen who had been in the land titles office as part of his profession and there he was helping one of our countries in the Pacific establish their land titles. And that’s a second career.

I get a bit enthusiastic! You never know, there’s a career for me – maybe in the future, but not for now!

I just wanted to share some examples. You know them all; I’m just picking some examples.

Last year, I met eight young Australians who were about to take part in the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange, spending six weeks in South Africa, developing and sharing leadership skills and building links with South Africa. Of course, cricket and rugby was an important part of that, but I’m sure they learnt other things as well!

In Vanuatu, I met Australian volunteer Jade Brockley, who was a Small Business Development Officer at the Malekula Provincial Council of Women. She shared with me; she shared her business nous with other women – sharing skills which will ultimately really make some life-changing economic empowerment for women.

In Myanmar, I met Andrea Flew, an Outreach and Learning Specialist based at the Learning Centre at the Union Parliament.

In Cambodia, I met eight Australian volunteers working in various sectors including mine action, agriculture, gender empowerment and microfinance. One of the volunteers, Sara Denby, has since received the ‘Best Newcomer’ award by CARE International for developing and implementing campaigns, which engaged young men in preventing sexual harassment in communities.

Last year, I was in the Solomon Islands for the commemoration of the Battle of Guadalcanal and the sinking of HMAS Canberra during the Battle of Savo Island. I was asked by the Solomon Islands’ government, then-Prime Minister Sogavare, how we could help to protect this mutually important cultural heritage site. During my visit, I announced an Australian volunteer placement with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture on the development of the Bloody Ridge National Park. Louise Feltus, who is here tonight, will start her assignment later this month – a perfect example of how each volunteer assignment is part of that bigger tapestry of enduring linkages and relationships across the region.

These are all inspiring Australians increasing not only their understanding of our region, but bringing that understanding back to Australia.

A Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference in 2016 was a wonderful occasion where I was able to meet lots of returned volunteers. They were able to meet each other as well and reminisce about their wonderful stories. I know that some of you who were at that conference are here this evening.

That’s part of the other side of it – it’s not just that you go you volunteer, but you come back and you share and you continue to stay engaged with other volunteers and therefore encourage other people to be advocates for our volunteer program.

Today we celebrate the commencement of our new Volunteers program – a new chapter in our Government’s long-term commitment to volunteering. Over the next five years, we will support more than 5,000 Australians from all walks-of-life to volunteer through this program.

The new program will retain and enhance a number of the core elements of the past program, including the Volunteer Network, which was launched in 2015.

We know that this program will continue to contribute to achieving our development objectives and pursuing new opportunities for innovation, to partner with business, and to strengthen long-term connections between Australia and our region.

We want to encourage a more diverse group of Australians to volunteer. From a personal basis, coming as I do from a culturally diverse background, to see more of the second and third generations of Australians from different heritages giving back themselves and going back potentially to the country of their parents and their grandparents and volunteering where they can.

Therefore, I am very proud to confirm that we will continue our commitment to Australian volunteers, which is integrated very much in our ambitious agenda in the Foreign Policy White Paper.

Can I thank the members of the diplomatic corps who are here this evening and all of the members of our diplomatic corps who host Australian volunteers and share the richness of your cultures to further strengthening our personal ties.

Again, to our volunteers past and present, thank you very, very much for making this commitment. Can I thank your families for their understanding that they show to enable you to make that commitment, because often for the families it is difficult when you do make that commitment. I am inspired by your stories wherever I have gone and the impact that you have had on the so many thousands of people around the world.

Can I encourage you all to share your experiences, and for those of you who do embark on this life-changing journey, please enjoy every second of it.

Whatever you do, however big, however small, it matters. It matters to Australia and we are very, very proud of the huge impact that you will have. I wish you every success for the future.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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