Keynote speech: Australian Alumni lunch celebrating 20 years of Australia-Bhutan relations, Bhutan

  • Speech

Good afternoon and kuzu zangpo la to the Hon Mr Loknath Sharma, Minister for Energy and Natural Resources and Secretaries, Commissioners, distinguished guests.

I was very pleasantly surprised to hear there was a café in Thimphu run by an Australian-Bhutanese couple. It seemed a perfect venue to mark this occasion and I'm very glad Stana and Toby are able to host us today. Thank you.

I wanted to start today by going back a few decades – to 1969.

…a human walked on the moon for the first time.

Jimi Hendrix performed at Woodstock.

And five boys from Bhutan arrived on the west coast of Australia.

It had been a long journey: crossing the border into India by road; taking the train from the border town to Delhi; and then boarding the plane that would take them to Australia.

Just before Christmas, they arrived at Hale School, in Western Australia.

Seven minutes west of the school lie long stretches of beaches that look out across the vast Indian Ocean.

Everything was different and new.

But their host families – chosen out of hundreds of interested families – welcomed them to the community and to the country.

Those five boys were some of the first Bhutanese people to receive scholarships under the Colombo Plan.

And today, Western Australia is home to the largest population of Bhutanese people outside Bhutan.

We're here today to celebrate twenty years of diplomatic relations between our two nations.

But of course, our relationship – and the relationship between our peoples – goes back much further than 2002.

It goes back to the 1960s, when those five boys travelled 7,000 kilometres by road and train and aeroplane to get to Western Australia…

… among the first of hundreds of Bhutanese who have since taken up their studies in Australia through the Colombo Plan and Australia Awards…

…Including all of you here today

…as well as Prime Minister Tshering...

…and many others across the Indo-Pacific, including for example the family of Australia's own Foreign Minister, Penny Wong.

In fact, our relationship goes back even further to the early 1960s, when Princess Ashi Tashi Dorji led an all-woman delegation to observe the Colombo Plan meeting in Melbourne.

The process to join the Colombo Plan normally took two years.

But the Princess made such a compelling argument that, with Australia's support, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan that very meeting.

From the planting of those seeds, a true friendship has grown.

In 2002, of course, we established formal diplomatic relations.

And in 2021, Australia became one of only six countries in the world to host a Bhutanese embassy.

We don't take that honour lightly.

Incidentally, the Ambassador to Australia Sonam Tobgay is an alumnus of an Australian university. And in that way, embodies the fact that education has been, and continues to be, the cornerstone of our relationship.

I am very proud of the significant contribution the Australia Awards and its precursors have made to Bhutan-Australia relations.

This contribution is apparent today. The significant number of Bhutanese alumni from Australian universities who have gone on to achieve impressive roles in politics, government, the private sector and civil society – epitomised by all of you present today – is unmatched anywhere in the world.

The granting of an Australia Award marks a recognition of potential. You are the leaders and change agents who took the opportunity to realise potential, and ran with it. All of you making important contributions to Bhutan's transformation and development. I am very proud of the small role Australia has played in this journey.

Today, the Australia Awards numbers represent only a modest proportion of the more than 3,000 Bhutanese students currently studying in Australia.

We're proud to be the education destination of choice for young Bhutanese.

Young people from Bhutan who come to Australia to study have the opportunity to forge lifetime friendships.

These Bhutanese students, and their Australian classmates, learn from each other at a formative time in their lives. 
We will continue to work with Bhutan to ensure our education cooperation benefits both our nations.

We're fostering connections between Australian and Bhutanese education institutions and businesses…

…Including developing a new Recognition of Prior Learning pathway which will help Bhutanese students gain joint qualifications at Bhutanese and Australian unis.

Once these students graduate, they will be able to return to Bhutan as doctors, politicians, lawyers, teachers or engineers.

With over 13,000 Bhutanese currently living, studying and working in Australia, Bhutan's unique culture, values and traditions are also now woven into Australia's rich multicultural tapestry, like a beautiful kira.

As Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong recently said:

“Australia is a land that is home to the oldest continuous culture on the planet, and to people from more than 300 ancestries… When Australians look out to the world, we see ourselves reflected in it – just as the world can see itself reflected in us”.

Bhutan is no exception to this.

Last year, the Cottage and Small Industry Market opened a 'Bhutan Store' in Perth, which both serves the Bhutanese community and showcases Bhutanese food and crafts to Australians.

In fact, I have just come from the CSI Market in Thimphu earlier this morning.

There are also plans to build a Buddhist temple in Perth, which will serve as a spiritual and cultural centre for the Bhutanese community…

Helping the diaspora maintain their connection with Bhutan.

And the Australian Government will continue to work with you to deliver useful, equitable and sustainable economic outcomes for Bhutan…

…To build opportunity and living standards for all Bhutanese people.

Through the South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity initiative, Australia has supported the Bhutan sustainable Hydropower Development project.

We're proud that through our development program, our Water for Women Fund contributed to Bhutan's achievement of 100 per cent improved water, sanitation and hygiene services.

And we're continuing to work with you to improve gender equality, social inclusion, and community resilience to climate change.

There's a lot that we can do in this space together – in climate, as well as in the interconnected issues of food security, water security and energy security.

Bhutan is one of just three carbon negative countries in the world.

Over the last ten years, Australia dragged its feet in tackling climate change.

But our government is working hard to catch up.

Urgent, effective action on climate change is a priority for the Australian Government.

We've enshrined into legislation targets to reduce carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050.

And in line with our ambition to become a global renewable energy superpower within this decade, 83 per cent of Australia's energy supply will be renewable.

I think there's a lot Australia can learn from Bhutan – especially the way in which environmental protection and conservation of culture is enshrined in your Gross National Happiness philosophy.

Bhutan and Australia have common interests and common values – despite our very different histories.

Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world which has been independent throughout its history.

You have never been conquered, occupied, or governed by an outside power.

Australia, on the other hand, has a colonial history.

One which we are continually reckoning with – including through an upcoming referendum.

A referendum in which we will seek to amend our constitution to give Indigenous Australians a Voice to Parliament.

The Voice is one step towards reconciliation and full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a proposal from First Nations Australians for substantive recognition in Australian history…

…a proposal which Australia's Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese described as “a generous, gracious hand outstretched” from Australia's First Nations people.

A hand outstretched, which Australians have a chance to grasp later this year.

Our countries have different histories.

But we both know that a world that operates based on strength and size – a world in which “might makes right” – is not a world that we want to live in.

As Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said, Australia wants to live in a region and a world that is open, stable, and prosperous.

A predictable region, operating by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated. A region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.”

We are committed to working towards shaping a region in which countries are able to decide their own destinies.

And we will continue to work with you to expand and deepen our strategic and economic cooperation.

We were proud to host Dr Dorji in Australia last year in his first international visit as Foreign Minister.

I hope that it is the first of many.

And we are proud to be celebrating twenty years of diplomatic relations with Bhutan…

…And more than sixty years of friendship.

Here's to the next twenty, sixty, and one hundred years.

Thank you.

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