Address to the Pacific Water and Wastewater Conference & Expo Ministerial Forum

  • Speech, check against delivery
Port Vila, Vanuatu

Firstly, thank you Minister Maoh for that wonderful introduction. I have to say Minister Maoh has hosted a fabulous conference. You've been an exceptional host. So I say to Vanuatu, thank you so much for the warm welcome we've received as a delegation. I think all ministers here would agree you're running a very, very good conference, and I appreciate that.

Out of your introduction to me, though, there is only one thing that I would say to this room, especially to fellow ministers: it was a little bit impolite to read out my age.


But Minister Maoh I just want to say for the whole audience here you are actually younger than me – just because you raised it. A very young minister, Minister Maoh, doing a fantastic job in the Government, for water.

I would like to acknowledge everyone here: my fellow ministers from the Pacific, those of you who I had the chance to meet, and those I haven't yet; the Board and the executive of the Pacific Waste Water Association; CEOs and executives of the region's water utilities; and of course all of the officials that we bring, doing all of the hard work for water, infrastructure and resources ministries of the Pacific

And to the representatives of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the regional organisations here, and all of the young water professionals and the future leaders in the sector. I think it's fabulous that we have young professionals and young leaders at these conferences, thinking about the future.

And to all the colleagues and friends. Again I want to say Minister Maoh, thank you to the Government, thank you to Vanuatu for hosting this conference and the very warm reception you've given to all of us, and of course thank you to the association for the invitation for me to be here.

On behalf of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who visited here in January, this is the first time Australia has sent a Minister to this important water conference and I am glad to be here as the first one. I can't believe that we have not been here before at ministerial level, and Minister Maoh, you've asked that we come again and I've said to the Government that we should always be represented at this conference in the future.

I am pleased to be here on one of my first official visits here to Vanuatu, given that water is so important to all of us in the Pacific, including to Australia and I think I made some remarks the other night at the High Commission, but I just want to say again we understand, from Australia's point of view, how important water is – water is important to us in another way and that is because we have one of the worst droughts on record going on in our country at the moment, and in my home state of New South Wales we have had over a decade of drought. Water is a top of mind issue for farmers and our rural communities, who are losing their livelihoods after ten years with no forecasts of rain in sight. We struggle very much with the issue of water. We have great expertise in our country in terms of managing water and using water and reusing water – governments are looking at salinity, they're looking at desalination, they're looking at all kinds of new ways of generating and reusing water, including wastewater, so it's timely that we're here to discuss issues of water, and I think with our food security, our water security, and security more globally, it's an issue that we have to truly work on, together as a region, sharing knowledge and information across the region, I think, will be of great use to Australia, of great use to every Pacific Island country, and help us work together on issues facing us on water and waste water.

I think we all know the risks that Pacific nations face. Water pollution is generating great health concerns. Seawater certainly can spoil groundwater supplies, we understand fresh water is lost without the adequate infrastructure.

For many of your countries and our country, providing clean water and sanitation to isolated populations is a big challenge, across thousands of islands in many cases, and it provides great economic and development challenges as well.

Climate change exacerbates water insecurity, it increases the uncertainty around water supply, intensifying weather events such as cyclones, it creates additional burdens for low and middle-income countries. It creates huge burdens for our country in terms of drought.

Each Pacific island country has its own set of development challenges. Through the issue of freshwater security, we understand this is one of the top priorities across the Blue Pacific.

I want to record for Minister Maoh and the conference that we are all committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular sustainable water and sanitation for all, Goal 6.

The Australian Government is here to listen. We've learnt a lot already about how to work with you, about what your goals are, what that will be, what collaboration we might have.

I think we are here also to see and understand how the investments we have made in water infrastructure are working, the governance that's needed to make further water infrastructure happen, and some of the development challenges from my portfolio, where we can unlock more development assistance, and some of our partnerships, and I'll speak about that in a minute.

I am here today also to support this valuable institution, the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association, and regional cooperation more broadly. I want to take just a short moment, with regional issues top of mind heading into the Pacific Islands Forum, just to update you on Australia's Pacific Step-up and what we're doing, and where we think we can help.

Given our shared history and our shared approach to issues, the common home that we have in the Pacific, the fact that we'll always share this place together, we obviously continue to have a lot to offer one another.

We see the Boe Declaration, and the common vision that has been set out by our leaders for peace, harmony, social inclusion and importantly, prosperity, as very important to implement.

Our Prime Minister has made a personal commitment to the Pacific very clearly, and you'll hear a lot about our Prime Minister speaking about the Pacific, as he has for a year now and in coming years. I can tell you personally, being very close to him, that it's an issue in his top two or three priorities from the Australian Government's perspective.

You might have seen we've been busy visiting Pacific Island countries since our last election – we've been to Solomon Islands, I've been up to Micronesia, we're here in Vanuatu, we're going to Tuvalu in another week, PNG sent one of their biggest ever delegations, and we're back up to PNG very shortly. You'll see our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne obviously – she's also been in PNG, New Caledonia, Fiji, Cook Islands and Port Vila just since the election.

We see this as renewing many of the substantial partnerships that we have with countries in the region, including Vanuatu, importantly.

As a close friend and partner for many years, sometimes 40 years, like here in Vanuatu, you can see we're dedicated here for the long-haul.

In Pacific countries we get asked all the time how can we create more opportunities, and how can we share more economic prosperity, and the Prime Minister is very focused on how to share economic prosperity, learning what has worked in Pacific Island countries and has worked between us.

It is crucial that we keep listening, from my perspective, it's crucial that we make progress and it's crucial that we also think about new ways of doing things so that we don't get stuck in the same conversations.

So, conscious of our unique challenges, and especially the history, the culture, the importance of sovereignty, we are stepping up our efforts in the Pacific.

Our development cooperation this year is about $1.4 billion – it's the highest that Australia has ever spent – in health, education, governance, infrastructure, agriculture, water and other sectors.

But the Step-up goes beyond development cooperation. It includes strengthening our security partnerships, our economic cooperation, prosperity, and personal links – the very important personal links that we have.

I think linking up schools, universities, churches, sporting organisations, and our leaders of the future, like the water leaders that we've had here at this conference – the young water leaders of the future – is very, very important, and something we will prioritise.

But also labour mobility – another issue that we are working on is to unlock more access to the Australian market, more ability for people to work, and gain relevant skills to Australian trade and industry, and it's no different in the water sector as well – there's great companies, great skills, great training that will be provided in water. We want to see more emphasis from all of our economic partners and government partners on skills development, skills training, and we'll be prioritising giving more skills to young people and people who need to find work in the Pacific over coming years.

We've got a long history of successful infrastructure, many of you will know, including major road upgrades here in Port Vila, climate-resilient infrastructure of course being an emphasis now, and of course the Kumul Highway upgrade the Prime Minister announced here in January.

While we will continue to support infrastructure through bilateral partnerships, we are also developing a major new pathway for infrastructure investment that I am going to also talk about today.

After many months of extensive consultations with governments, academics, NGOs and other stakeholders, we're pleased that the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific opened on the 1st of July this year.

This is a very important new partnership. Australia has put aside a very large amount of money for this – this is a $2 billion infrastructure financing facility. And $2 billion is a lot of money for us to put aside. It's for loans, it's for grants, it's to help build projects that will help deliver on Pacific Island governments' economic priorities and environmental aspirations.

So while it opened on 1 July, through our officials we're looking for partner countries to bring forward infrastructure needs in all sectors, including in the water sector, energy, transport, and telecommunications.

We see this financing facility as unlocking more partners' involvement as well, because through finance we can also encourage other partners who want to help in the Pacific, deliver even more than the $2 billion. We see that $2 billion as leveraging even more support for Pacific Island countries in the infrastructure space.

So it's a good opportunity for ministers and countries to think about water infrastructure projects that can be submitted to the financing facility in coming years.

On water in particular I want to say a few things today, given the scale of the challenges I mentioned at the outset. I commend the call at last year's forum, of ministers in New Caledonia, for accelerated action. Australia welcomes more concerted efforts to improve access to safe water and sanitation coverage in particular. Many of our businesses and many of our efforts, will be towards safe water and safe sanitation coverage.

I am very conscious of the urgency, and I think hearing from some of you at this conference, the urgency in terms of getting better outcomes with water and sanitation, and delivering in others areas – health and education – obviously speaks to the priority that water has.

The plans that we need to make together ahead, in terms of laying the pipes and doing all the work, requires a long-term vision and we think our infrastructure financing facility will be part of the solution to get some of that bigger infrastructure works planned and underway.

So I look forward to your projects and seeing what kind of projects we can partner on together, in water.

I think we all know that following increased disaster and climate issues that we're all facing, including here in Vanuatu, Australia will continue its long history of supporting Pacific Island governments and communities as they adapt to natural disasters and a changing climate.

We, in our role here creating a new portfolio combing Defence and International Development and the Pacific, part of the thinking is to ensure that our Defence assets, which are very capable in helping with disaster and humanitarian relief, will be more available and more able to be deployed when we do face disasters like Cyclone Pam here in Vanuatu.

As Minister Maoh would know, after Cyclone Pam we restored fresh water systems across Vanuatu and provided safe drinking water to 5,000 people. Our own discussions now, many years on from the cyclone, now revolve around how we provide more permanent solutions to water infrastructure, rather than temporary ones following disasters.

So the conversation is now to move on to how we can provide better and more sustainable, more long-term water infrastructure from our development work.

But we also know that when it comes to climate action, prevention is better than cure.

So I want to thank everyone here for the work that they're doing in that, and I think you'll know back home in terms of disaster resilience and climate change, we work very hard on meeting our Paris Agreement commitments. Our government is on track to meet them and we are taking action through our climate solutions fund in Australia – it's a $3.5 billion package the Government put forward at our recent election, that we will now carry out. A lot of that is transitioning successfully into renewable energy.

Our Renewable Energy Target will lift the share of renewables in Australia to about 23 per cent of our electricity generation in Australia by 2020. We're also on track to meet that commitment as well.

One of the big successes of course is our Clean Energy Finance Corporation – the largest green bank in the world at the moment. It has over $6.6 billion committed to about 115 projects worth over $23 billion. It's a very successful model of a finance corporation in that the returns are successful, the finance model has worked, and the projects are underway. So we're very proud of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Of course, we want to continue to work with our partner countries on the issues impacting the Pacific from climate change. We'll be having many of those discussions in Tuvalu and we look forward to making further announcements about climate change and what we can do to support Pacific countries in this area.

Here in this conference, we're going to keep supporting Pacific regionalism and the PWWA, we think the partnership is very important and has many moving parts.

We recognise the importance of strong regional networks that bring us all together, and I want to congratulate the PWWA on its achievement in bringing together everyone at this forum – the utilities, the providers, the policy makers, and the young leaders together. That is great work. I think it's a model for other areas to bring together all the sectors in one conversation, so well done on that. I am glad that we could be here to participate in this year's conference.

We think that there's a lot of scope from an Australian perspective to have more of our utilities across our region, your utilities, our utilities, work with each other, learn from each other, and improve service delivery. There are more water utilities in Australia than represented here at this conference, and there's scope for us to continue to see more water utilities working here at this conference, and I recommend indeed, to continue to encourage Australian utilities to participate. We're happy to help from a national government level to get that participation here.

I want to commend the Association for the very practical work that you facilitate, the benefits of networking, and obviously the work and the progress you are making, but recognising that much still has to be done to achieve SDG 6 in the Pacific, but with the foundations that you're building, I think with all of us participating together, with us participating as well, we can do a lot more to progress SDG 6 and made some more progress.

We're here, we're willing to help. Part of our Step-up is being here more often and making sure we're listening, and learning with you. We know we've got a lot to learn about water management and a lot to share about water management. Our drought is top of mind from the Australian perspective. I think more drought will mean more investment from the Australian Government's perspective, with water technology and using scarce water resources, and I think some of that investment will lead to more learning and more ability to share information and technology, and our research and development with the Pacific.

I think you might know our businesses leaders are among the world's best in terms of managing water issues and water supplies and climate. We're very proud of our business sector in terms of the investment they make and the approach that they're taking here in the Pacific, of being involved and engaged, looking for opportunities. We're encouraging our business sector to be more proactive in getting into the region and looking for the opportunities of telling the government what we can do to help between countries, enabling business to be more accessible and able to put forward projects, not just from a financing perspective but also from a service delivery perspective.

I should also mention our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, working with our power utilities in risk reduction, is also here today. You'll notice our DFAT is here in the room. I encourage you to speak with them about working, obviously, PWWA to prepare for natural or man-made disasters. We're developing great expertise in this area and it's an ongoing requirement for our Government to make sure that our utilities work closely with the Association and members work closely with the Association to get as much sharing as possible in relation to knowledge.

Today I just want to record, through our new infrastructure financing facility, we think that we'll bring on more water projects in the Pacific, we think that there's a great opportunity there to unlock more partner countries, partner associations, international partners, to develop more projects and bring forward more development assistance in the Pacific. We're certainly going to make sure our utilities continue to provide ongoing assistance and advice and sharing of knowledge and information and obviously work together on water and sanitation and how we can better deliver it in the Pacific.

I'd encourage all of you with responsibilities for infrastructure investment to get in touch through our High Commission, our High Commissioners anywhere in the region, our Ambassadors in the region, or directly through our new website (although through the [diplomatic] Posts can often be a lot better than the website), to discuss what projects you can bring forward, and since we've really just announced in July the operation of our financing facility, it's a good time. The next six months will be a very good time to bring forward some projects and speak with our High Commissions and Posts about what those projects might look like.

So thank you for your time and patience today. Looking forward, I just want to say our history and our geography, our commitment to one another as a Pacific region, means that we will continue to work together in the long term. We're very committed to working together in the long term with all of you.

As I said, I think we will be here at this conference from now on, we'll be participants. We'll be there to help share the burden of developing better water infrastructure for the Pacific.

I want to reiterate that the PWWA does a great job here, and it's a good model for other associations to follow and the bringing on the youth is something I think will have great dividends for the future.

The Australian Water Partnership and the Young Water Professionals program are a perfect fit, and I encourage you all to make the most of the connection and everyone that's here, to engage the young leaders, engage our business sector. There are many passionate people in Australia that want to do more, that want to do more business in the Pacific, that want to do more helping in the Pacific, volunteering in the Pacific, they also just want to be good neighbours and be good family members and be present to help from the experiences they had in their own businesses. So I encourage you to engage everybody here as you have been.

I am also delighted by the strong participation of women in the leadership of the water sector in the Pacific, and of course, drawing on all of our strengths in all of our sectors is very important.

Australia supports the PWWA. Ministers, we support what you're doing here. Minister Maoh, we support you in the work you're doing here in Vanuatu, and it's been great to have some excellent conversations about water here in Vanuatu, so I appreciate you being so forthright about the things that you need, and the achievements that you've had.

We want to see Pacific solutions for Pacific issues, and we think the financing facility we're bringing forward, the exciting time that we live in in the Pacific where all of us will be talking a lot more often, and about more important things, means we can deliver some great action through strong partnerships.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here today. It's a privilege to give the first address as a Minster here to this important forum. Water is such an essential for all of us, and such an essential for our countries as well. It's a real privilege to be able to speak with you today about some of the issues.

Thank you.

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