Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, the Honourable Manasseh Sogavare, thank you very much for joining us here today.
First let me say that after our recent election, I am really pleased to have been reappointed to the portfolio of International Development and the Pacific and to be able to focus on those important issues that matter to our region.
I want to thank our hosts, the Australia Pacific Islands Business Council, for bringing together today so many of the main players in trade and investment between Australia and the Solomon Islands.
And I wish to thank the board, management and members of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry for supporting this event.
But most of all, I want to thank you, the business leaders from Solomon Islands and Australia, who are creating jobs and opportunities every day.
It is a privilege to be here with you at the 8th Australia-Solomon Islands Business Forum.
It is, in fact, my first official engagement since my reappointment to this position.
And it is fitting that we are here to share Australia’s vision for our economic links with the Solomon Islands, one of our closest neighbours.
Before I start my formal remarks today, I would just like to acknowledge Prime Minister Sogavare’s outstanding leadership on some difficult challenges facing the Solomon Islands.
Prime Minister, thank you for listening to the business community’s concerns during the recent challenges at the Solomon Islands Ports Authority and for taking such decisive action to get that vital piece of economic infrastructure back on track.
Likewise, Prime Minister can I congratulate you on your determination to tackle corruption.
We all know that corruption undermines investment, it weakens government services and corrodes living standards and so we stand with all Solomon Islanders who refuse to tolerate corruption.
Prime Minister, your optimistic words this morning about sustainable prosperity and your actions and those of your government demonstrate your ongoing commitment to the long-term stability and prosperity of the Solomon Islands. Australia stands with you in this committed.
But good friendships grow and change over time, and so the relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands is set to change over the coming year.
Indeed, it is now less than a year until the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is expected to depart.
Since RAMSI arrived in 2003, it has been helping to lay the foundations for long-term stability, security and prosperity.
It has come to be regarded as a success story not just for Solomon Islands, but also for the Pacific and internationally more broadly.
Indeed it is a great example of what can be achieved with committed international partners and regional collaboration.
Law and order have been restored, national institutions have been rebuilt and the Solomon Islands economy has been reformed.
The presence of so many leading businesses here today, engaging in two-way trade and investment, is a testament to how far the country has come.
It is because of this progress that RAMSI has been solely a policing mission for the past three years.
The task has been to work with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) to develop a modern, effective and independent police force, which has the full confidence and support of the community.
As a result of RAMSI’s work, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has been policing with very little operational support over the last two years.
When we look at the Police Force today, we can see that is a very different police force from the one that existed when RAMSI intervened.
As Police Commissioner Frank Prendergast noted just last month; the police force has good people, good training, good infrastructure and assets, and compares well against other police forces in the Pacific region.
To me, this all paints a picture of a police force that is ready to take its rightful place as the single police force in the country.
I am singling out these achievements because I believe the quality of a nation’s police force has a direct link to the country’s reputation as a safe and vibrant place to work, to visit and to do business.
In the case of Solomon Islands, I think that link has been made very clear.
So the end of RAMSI should be seen as a vote of confidence in the security and stability of Solomon Islands – by the Solomon Islands Government, the Australian Government and all of RAMSI’s contributing countries.
I have been involved in discussions in Canberra lately to ensure that Australia continues to support Solomon Islands after RAMSI.
While RAMSI may be leaving Solomon Islands next year, Australia is not going anywhere. In short Prime Minister, we are here to stay and to be with you and beside you.
Over the course of this year, the Australian Government – in close consultation with Prime Minister Sogavare’s Government in Honiara – has been carefully considering the kinds of support Solomon Islands will continue to need after RAMSI departs.
First and foremost, we want to ensure that the Police Force has the help it needs to continue improving. To that end, we are currently designing a new bilateral policing program, in close consultation with the Solomon Islands Government.
While the details are still being finalised, it will almost certainly involve a contingent of Australian Federal Police, based in Honiara under the umbrella of the Australian High Commission, working closely with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force counterparts.
We have also commenced discussions with the Solomon Islands Government about a mechanism that would enable Solomon Islands to seek urgent operational assistance from Australia if an emergency arose in the future.
And we have proposed the establishment of a regular bilateral security dialogue, which would enable senior officials to meet to discuss regional and global security issues of relevance to both countries.
These new initiatives will enable Australia to continue to support peace and security in Solomon Islands and ensure that the gains made under RAMSI are not just protected, but built upon.
So the business community can be confident that although RAMSI is leaving, Australia is committed to helping Solomon Islands remain a stable and secure place to do business.
It is important that there be effective transitioning from stability to growth. Supporting stability lies at the heart of Australia’s commitment to Solomon Islands.
But our development goals for the country stretch much further.
Consistent with the shift in focus of the Australian Government’s development program, as announced by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop two years ago, we are redoubling our efforts to accelerate economic growth in Solomon Islands.
Of course, we know that governments alone do not create economic growth. It is done by people like you here today creating goods, delivering services and expanding supply chains.
But you do need some very basic things from government to help you create wealth and jobs:
- You need good infrastructure.
- You need reliable water and electricity supplies.
- You need skilled workers.
- You need a quick entry of goods at the border.
- You need a stable macroeconomic environment.
And, you need access to markets through special trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and others, such as those being negotiated right now under PACER Plus.
And can I take the opportunity Prime Minister, to thank you for your efforts as part of these negotiations and for your support for these negotiations.
These are all issues that we have been tackling together with the Solomon Islands Government for a number of years through the Australian aid program.
Two very concrete examples of Australia supporting private sector led growth in Solomon Islands have been in the transport and telecommunications sectors.
Australia’s support for the Government’s telecommunications reforms back in 2009 led to extraordinary growth in the sector, which continues to this day.
Competition has improved the efficiency and reliability of mobile phone services, significantly increasing employment and injecting substantial investment into the economy.
For example, mobile phone subscriptions jumped from 8% to 66% between 2010 and 2015 and the price of a local phone call more than halved in the same period.
The World Bank estimates that the telecommunications sector directly added 3.3 per cent to real GDP growth between 2008 and 2012.
The investment continues, with Our Telekom and B-mobile continuing to expand mobile phone services across the nation.
In the transport sector, the record is equally impressive.
Since 2011, Australia’s partnership with the Solomon Islands Government and the Asian Development Bank has contributed to the growth of the local contracting industry.
There are now approximately 20 contractors that can undertake machine-based road works compared to only six in 2011.
This in turn creates new employment opportunities for men and women – in 2015, 60 per cent of labour-based road works were taken up by women.
But I know so much more needs to happen to help businesses in Solomon Islands survive and thrive.
So I am thrilled that Australia is working on a new $50 million program, which has as its main focus boosting economic growth in Solomon Islands.
The program will aim to catalyse private sector investment and increase opportunities for inclusive growth. It will also aim to reduce costs to business by addressing systemic constraints to growth such as infrastructure.
In addition, it will address barriers to women’s economic participation and you will hear more from me about this later on.
It will also be clear about identifying the industries with the highest growth potential, such as tourism and agriculture, and working strategically to strengthen them.
Speaking of growth, and I cannot stress this point enough - for Solomon Islands to thrive, growth has to be inclusive.
It has to involve a path in which all people participate and benefit – including women.
The cold numbers of GDP alone is a very narrow measure of progress.
There is little point chasing GDP growth if the benefits exclude a portion of the population, or if the productivity of the whole population is not realised.
Indeed, only 54 per cent of women currently participate in the Solomon Islands labour market compared to almost 80 per cent of men.
Many women have great business ideas but lack access to finance and markets.
This means Solomon Islands is missing out on a huge number of opportunities to create wealth.
We also know that domestic violence remains a huge barrier.
Women who hold a paying job are just as likely to have experienced domestic violence as those who do not.
63 per cent of Solomon Islands women who earn an income report that they have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives.
For these reasons, the Government is committed to ensuring the empowerment of women and girls is a key priority for Australia’s foreign, trade and aid agenda in Solomon Islands and across the Indo-Pacific.
We are investing in initiatives to enhance women’s leadership, to support women in business and to end violence against women and girls.
The evidence is clear, investing in women is a good thing to do, both morally and economically. For Australia, like many Pacific Islands, domestic violence is a major issue and there is much to be done to address it.
I know the Australian Government, from Prime Minister Turnbull down, are committed to addressing this issue.
I know that women in Solomon Islands are already making their mark in the private sector and making substantial contributions to the economy and their communities.
There is a generation of talented women rising through the ranks of major companies in Solomon Islands like GPPOL SolTuna, BSP, Our Telekom and ANZ.
In fact, I am pleased that the Australian High Commission has sponsored three up-and-coming women executives from ANZ, GPPOL and the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry to attend today’s Forum.
I hope we will see many more businesswomen in the room in future years.
But we also know there is still much more to be done to advance women’s economic participation in Solomon Islands.
This is why I am pleased to announce today a new $2 million investment in women’s economic empowerment in Solomon Islands.
The new program with the International Finance Corporation will partner directly with large employers, starting with SolTuna, to address barriers to women’s participation in the workplace.
It will provide tools and support for businesses to recruit, retain and promote women as employees, business leaders and partners, including in non-traditional roles.
It will help businesses implement gender smart work policies that benefit women employees as well as a company’s bottom line.
And it will help businesses share examples of best practice in supporting women to succeed in the workplace.
I am pleased that you will be hearing more about this exciting new program from our High Commissioner and the International Finance Corporation later in the program.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I feel very fortunate to be here before you as Minister for International Development and the Pacific at what feels like a critical moment in the history of Solomon Islands.
In the years immediately following the tensions, Australia’s assistance rightly focussed on maintaining stability.
But after 13 years, RAMSI has met its objectives. The time is right for a change as the Solomon Islands Government takes full responsibility for its nation’s security.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force is ready to take its place as the sole police force in the country.
The economy has returned to a natural equilibrium, revenue flows are steady and the country’s public debt is enviably low by world standards, Prime Minister.
Solomon Islands is once again a safe, stable and vibrant place to live, work, visit and do business.
Having made great gains in stability, it is now time to focus, as you rightly said Prime Minister, on sustainable prosperity, in the form of inclusive economic growth.
But this is not something that governments alone can deliver. It requires a partnership between government and business, with each playing their role.
So Prime Minister Sogavare, friends in the business community, Australian stands firmly beside you as we work together to bring inclusive growth, prosperity and economic opportunity to Solomon Islands.
Thank you very much and enjoy the program.
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