Interview with Radio Vanuatu

05 August 2019

REPORTER: Minister, because we've only got a short amount of time, thank you for agreeing to have this interview with me on radio...Since being made Minister, okay, in charge of international development, especially for the Pacific in May, have you had previous engagements, previous work with the Pacific prior to being made Minister?

ALEX HAWKE: Yes. So, as elected Member of Parliament for about 12 years, I've obviously worked closely with the Pacific in the past. I chaired the economic ministers' forum meeting, the PIF, in the Cook Islands actually when I was in the Treasury portfolio. I heard a lot of the issues and many of the issues in the Pacific remain over a long period of time, whether it's remittances or whether it's other economic development issues. So, you do get exposure over time in Parliament in Australia to a lot of Pacific issues, and we're looking to see more issues over time as well.

REPORTER: Right. Thank you. So, you're, of course, well aware of a lot of the issues that have been raised in the Pacific, and we're going to be talking in relation to Vanuatu.

So far, Australia has been Vanuatu's main aid donor, and supporter, financially, and also with technical support. Over the years, in terms of the Step-up program, how do you see Australia stepping up further in terms of development inside of Vanuatu, in terms of infrastructure, so far, that you've been engaged in. You've also been engaged in education, health in helping to upgrade Vila Central Hospital and- yes, let's start off with that. Stepping up.

ALEX HAWKE: Yes, it's a good question. So, Australia's Step-up is about of course building on a great relationship that Australia and Vanuatu has - a long standing relationship. And as you say, Australia has been a development partner for Vanuatu for a long time now, and we see that continuing in a lot of ways. As part of the Step-up, we're doing the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility, which is a $2 billion fund for the Pacific. But for Vanuatu, we think they'll bring on some projects, and today I've had some great meetings with ministers. We've had some great discussions about the opportunities. Some of those projects will be, education-related or climate-related or economic-related. So, we're not just putting more development on the table, but other ways of delivering development for Vanuatu, and that means that fund can engage partners, other partners. Australia also wants to help bring on other big partners that want to help in the Pacific, whether it's one of the large international banks or NGOs or partner countries like New Zealand or Japan or the US or China, other countries. We're looking to help make sure people can enter and help Vanuatu through Australian development.

REPORTER: Thank you. We're going to talk about labour mobility. SWP has overtaken the RSE Program in the past year. Does Australia envision maintaining that or growing that even further?

ALEX HAWKE: Labour mobility is one of the things that we're most pleased about with Vanuatu because Vanuatu has actually the highest amount of people coming from a Pacific country to Australia, and we think that's wonderful. Prime Minister Morrison visited here in January and part of the key announcements between the two Prime Ministers, of course, was ensuring that labour mobility continues to expand. So, today, I had the opportunity to visit the Department of Labour and hear directly from some employers, people who participate in the scheme over many years now, some of them have gone many, many times, and what I'm most pleased about is that people are getting great value out of it. The wages are good. The money's returning to communities, people are spending it here, and they want to go back and do more work. So, we see that expanding. We've had discussions with ministers about that. We have to have the supporting infrastructure, so we've had some good conversations about that as well, how to get more supporting infrastructure so we have more movement of people between our economies.

And look, we think the skills partnerships are very important as well – making sure people are skilled up. We have more people getting skills training and there's some good fields, agriculture and other fields, where we think more skills partnerships will help.

REPORTER: Good, and that leads me to the other program, which is the Pacific Labour Scheme, which is more into the skilled labourers, and probably professionals, I'm not quite sure, but it's been quite small, do you think that that could grow in numbers over the next few years?

ALEX HAWKE: Yes, and look, that's a very good question. So, that's a consideration for the Australian end; we've got to get more employers enabled to obviously be ready, so one of the things I've heard here is that there are plenty of people that would like to get into the scheme, and make sure they could get more skills. So we have to get more Australian employers accredited and ready to go with the training and the skills needed, so some very interesting fields on, as you say.

Not everyone knows a lot about it, but there is some very good work being done on a bee farm, for example, which is a new area, and only a small group of people. But obviously, I understand in Vanuatu at the moment, honey is very expensive. So people come back having some great skills in bee farming once they've finished a few years there, getting skills with bee farms. And that will help, obviously, here, you know, with bee farming.

So I think these are the opportunities we've got to look for, and keep expanding. And so the government in Australia is looking to get more people accredited, and that's the conversation we had today with the Government; how to expand even more, get more people skills training.

REPORTER: In terms of, as I mentioned, the professionals - the teachers, maybe the lawyers, probably not the lawyers, but the teachers, the nurses. Any program, could that be included in that?

ALEX HAWKE: Yes, it's a good question, it's something we'd look at. Education obviously has a lot of its own programs, and we focus on helping schools be ready in an infrastructure sense. But obviously teachers are very important professionally. There is scope, especially in health for skills to be translated. And you know, we have a lot of Australian volunteers here, obviously working through our High Commission helping with some of those skills, and some of those programs do great work in health and mental health and youth services. I met some of our volunteers today working in those fields.

But as part of our skills training, we certainly look at where we can. Some of the challenges, like in a sector like aged care, we have to make sure we get accredited schemes up so that people can easily train in one system and work in another system. So there's a conversation we're having between governments so that people can be accredited and work in these schemes.

REPORTER: One more question - so, stepping up in the Pacific in terms of women; any support for women in terms of - a lot of schemes have already gone towards helping economic empowerment, but political empowerment of women. Do you envision any development, because you're in charge of international development? What about development for women in politics?

ALEX HAWKE: It's a really important question, and Australia obviously wants to support women's empowerment; women and girls in the Pacific. Our Foreign Minister Marise Payne at the election was also given the portfolio of Minister for Women, so she's been very proactive across the Pacific in supporting women in sport, women in politics, obviously, and the empowerment of girls as well. And as you know, we're here for the Water and Wastewater Conference, and that's one of the reasons I'm here as a minister – the first time Australia has sent a minister to one of these conferences, and we're hearing, for example, about the importance of sanitation for girls, in schools.

And so I think it's good for ministers, even at the Water Conference, the focus is turning more and more to women, and in the Pacific how to make sure that all the basic things are thought about, because one of the reasons women may not stay in school is because of sanitation. And I think that's being taken seriously; at the ministerial level, these discussions are now being had. So Australia supports that. We have plenty of programs to help and we're going to keep investing in women.

REPORTER: Okay, super quick. Australia invests a lot in the defence, okay, in terms of Vanuatu. Do you see it as being money well spent, walking around today and visiting? Are you satisfied with the work Vanuatu's been doing to help with defence?

ALEX HAWKE: Yes, we do. Vanuatu obviously is a principal security partner, and we see that relationship as very important. The money we invest through the police and the policing schemes is, we think, only what families should be doing, and our Pacific families are very important to us; Vanuatu and Australia are neighbours, we're family, we're both our backyards, we've got shared interests in the region in terms of security, whether it's physical security or climate security or economic security.

The money we invest there is to help with the basics of policing and we think that it's been very well spent. You're seeing all the new recruits graduating, the training that we can help provide. And also the experience, the cultural experience, and exchanges between our officers, both ways, gives good understanding of our new neighbours in our Pacific family.

REPORTER: Thank you from us.

ALEX HAWKE: Thank you.

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