Keynote address to the 12th Australia Solomon Islands Business Forum
I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand today, the Jagera and Turrbal peoples, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
I’d like to thank Uncle Shannon for his Welcome to Country. 65,000 years of continuous culture of our First Nations Peoples in Australia.
Can I begin by thanking Deputy Prime Minister the Honourable Manasseh Maelanga for his speech.
I’d like to also acknowledge senior officials and business leaders present.
And thank the organisers of the Forum – the Australian Pacific Islands Business Council and the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry…
…for bringing like-minded businesses from Solomon Islands and Australia together, to deepen our economic and social ties...
I’d like to acknowledge the theme ‘Open for Business Again’.
It is true that the private sector plays an important role in economic growth and development…
…particularly in sectors spanning forestry, fishery, tourism and agriculture.
It is also true that governments have a vital role in driving economic growth and development that is consistent with our national and regional interests.
Australia values our position as Solomon Islands’ security and development partner of choice.
Our economic, trade and investment ties are also strong but do have the potential to deepen and grow as we work together on our shared challenges and opportunities, including in the security, health and education sectors.
Economic growth and development are crucial to the stability, security and prosperity of the Pacific.
At the heart of that sits a focus on good jobs and growing sustainable economic opportunity.
Through our Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, or PALM, we’re providing more and more Solomon Islanders with the skills they need to set up business and make products on shore.
Earlier this year, the Albanese Government reached a significant milestone six months ahead of schedule, reaching 35,000 workers from across the Pacific and Timor Leste by December last year.
With the income they’re earning in Australia, many of these workers are building new homes, putting their kids through school and setting up businesses in their home countries.
Currently, around 5,000 Solomon Islanders are working in Australia under the PALM scheme in sectors like horticulture and tourism.
The Central Bank of Solomon Islands estimates PALM Scheme workers remitted $111 million Solomons Islands dollars in 2021, and $182 million Solomon Islands dollars in 2022 (a 64% increase from 2021).
On average, $15.2 million Solomon Islands dollars were sent home each month by Solomon Islander workers.
The scheme is vital for filling workplace shortages in regional Australia and providing workers with the skills required to set up businesses back in their home countries, and valuable remittance flows home.
But something we don’t talk about enough is the why.
Of course, Australia is interested in engaging with our regional partners, to ensure greater economic prosperity and regional security.
We want to have a stable region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated…
…where the sovereignty of each nation is respected…
…and where we can work with our likeminded partners towards shared goals, in ways that respect each other’s national interests.
But sitting stalwartly alongside the national security argument is the moral argument.
22 of Australia’s 26 nearest neighbours are developing countries.
We have a moral obligation to act responsibly to help grow economic opportunity for the region while at the same time respecting the sovereignty of our neighbours.
The approach of the Albanese Government to our Pacific neighbours involves a clear-eyed focus on human development policy as well as trade and investment policy.
As my colleague Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, said, “[we’re] putting humans back at the heart of development. Listening and acting on the priorities of our development partners.”
Australia has a deep and longstanding relationship with Solomon Islands based on mutual respect and shared interests.
At a time of increased geopolitical competition, we can modernise the strategic framework for our relationship, cooperating on our shared priorities including climate and clean energy, economic security and rural development.
Our relationship has shifted over time from the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 to the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands more recently.
The Australian Government remains committed to building respectful relationships with our Pacific neighbours.
And as part of that, building a stronger Pacific family is only possible if we recognise the mistakes of the past.
In 1994, the Australian Government recognised Australian born South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic group in Australia with its own history and culture.
And the current government appreciates the contributions from associations like the Queensland United Australian South Sea Islander Council, many members of whom have had family from the Solomon Islands working in the Gatton area for some time.
Australia values the contribution of Australian South Sea Islanders to our country and their support in developing the agricultural sector.
As a government we don’t often talk about the strong historical family connections that exist between the Australian South Sea Islander and diaspora communities.
But it is something we should recognise and pay tribute to, an ever-present connection forged in communities.
More broadly, through the partnership between Australia and Solomon Islands, we are delivering improvements to infrastructure and connectivity – both important drivers of jobs and economic opportunity.
Since 2019, Australia has invested just over $5 billion Solomon Islands dollars in infrastructure in Solomon Islands, across all nine provinces.
This makes Australia the largest funder of infrastructure in Solomon Islands.
This includes Australia’s $60 million Australian-dollar investment in the Tina River Hydropower Development Project.
… which when completed will dramatically reduce the cost of electricity from over 70 cents per kilowatt down to under 20 cents. Bringing input costs down significantly for all businesses and households, and supporting our climate change efforts in the Pacific.
Likewise, Australia’s funding of the $200 million Coral Sea Cable has rapidly improved internet speeds and made internet connectivity more affordable for users in Solomon Islands.
With the 4,700 km fibre optic submarine cable linking Sydney, Port Moresby and Honiara, and a domestic network linking Honiara with Auki, Noro and Taro, Government and business are rapidly digitising – making education and healthcare more accessible and affordable.
Australia funded this crucial project because we want to contribute to a stable and prosperous region.
This enhances Solomon Island’s sovereignty, resilience and independence, makes industry more competitive, creating more jobs and stronger development pathways.
It is critical we continue to streamline communications.
And that is why, in response to a Solomon Islands Government request, Australia moved quickly to provide $6.6 million in funding for six telecommunications towers to improve connectivity in the remote parts of the country.
The towers are on track to be completed by mid-2023. On time, fully funded and delivering significant security and economic outcomes.
Faster internet, more affordable electricity and greater connectivity is transformative, particularly for those remote and regional communities, and will lay the foundation for Solomon Islands businesses and investment to grow.
Australia continues to invest through the Solomon Islands Infrastructure Program, including:
- upgrading two regional airports in Choiseul Bay and Taro Island,
- designing the redevelopment of Noro International Port,
- building a 34-bed birthing and urban health centre, and
- building six markets in five provinces
Thousands of Solomon Islanders right across the country are employed through these projects. More than any other infrastructure investor. Using our infrastructure investment in this way – to also drive local jobs and local procurement – delivers a double dividend for Solomon Islands.
Our $18 million private sector development program Strongim Bisnis (Pidjin for ‘improving business’) has worked with businesses to turn Solomon Islands high-quality cocoa beans into chocolate products, to add value to the economy and to create good jobs.
A positive step in the trade relationship is, of course, PACER Plus – the Pacific Agreement for Closer Economic Relations Plus.
This development-centred trade agreement, came into force in December 2020 in eight Pacific Island countries, including Solomon Islands.
It provides a platform to deepen economic integration and boost trade and investment in the Pacific.
I am pleased to see that because of PACER Plus Australia has become a market for Solomon Islands exports, such as canned tuna from Soltuna.
Regional agreements like PACER Plus are an important development and economic tool for lifting the resilience and capability of economies in the Pacific.
They deepen our work to identify opportunities to strengthen trade and cooperation, by more careful listening and open dialogue.
In my role as Assistant Trade Minister and working with Trade Minister Don Farrell and Minister Conroy, I am personally committed to making PACER Plus a stronger, more effective basis for trade and economic cooperation.
It will also pay dividends in terms of protecting sovereignty and regional security.
Australian businesses already investing in Solomon Islands have delivered secure jobs and genuine economic opportunities for Solomon Islanders.
For example, SunRice’s local subsidiary SolRice used their expertise distributing food to the remotest areas of the country to help deliver Covid-19 information pamphlets alongside bags of rice across the country.
SolRice is making a positive impact in communities across the country.
It sponsored the Women’s Premier League season and the 2022 Grand Premier Rugby Competition.
It invested in the Solomon Islands National Institute of Sport to help athletes prepare for the Pacific Games.
Similarly, Kokonut Pacific’s joint venture in Solomon Islands has developed a strong network of farmers who provide coconut oil for export using the company’s unique technology, creating jobs across the archipelago.
By matching investment and sustainable practices with the skills and knowledge of the country’s farmers, Kokonut Pacific is part of the story of a growing agricultural sector.
These examples demonstrate the investments Australian businesses are making in Solomon Islands that contribute to the public good.
Friends, there are exciting opportunities for Australian businesses in Solomon Islands.
The Australian Government, sees Solomon Islands as a long-term partner…
…and I know the Australian business sector does too.
The opportunities are there waiting to be seized but can only be realised if we listen deeply and act cooperatively on our shared interests and values.
- Minister’s office: (02) 6277 3469
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