Canberra Pacific Forum

  • Speech, check against delivery
15 October 2021

As Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and Senator for the ACT, I am very pleased to address you today, alongside many of our Pacific Heads of Mission.

I have no doubt their excellencies, and others present, will provide many engaging and thoughtful contributions throughout the day.

The Pacific and Canberra

The Pacific matters to Canberra.

Nearly 2,500 people born in the Pacific live in the ACT, according to ABS data.

But when you include second and third generations, as well as students, business leaders, and of course the diplomatic community, that number is much larger.

Thank you for the wonderful contribution you all make to the ACT.

Perhaps most visibly in Canberra, Pacific players are a vital part of our Canberra Raiders and ACT Brumbies teams.

And isn’t it great to see a Tongan born MLA, Elizabeth Kikkert, in our local parliament.

I’d also like to acknowledge the Canberran business owners and education leaders attending this forum today.

Your attendance is an important signal that Canberra is looking forward to the future – and that the Pacific is an important part of that future.

This is the second Canberra Pacific Forum, following the inaugural forum in 2019.

I have no doubt that two years ago, many great connections and exciting plans were made, only to be paused due to COVID-19.

I hope that today many of those relationships and plans can not only be renewed, but enhanced, as we move towards recovery from COVID-19.

Impacts of COVID-19

There is no doubt that our region has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Fortunately, through most of 2020, the Pacific and Timor Leste were spared the worst of the health toll. Quick, evidence-based decision-making by regional leaders to close borders helped. Many Pacific countries remained COVID-19 free. Even here in the ACT, we had just over a year without COVID-19 cases.

But Pacific economies, jobs and livelihoods took a hit as key sectors, especially tourism, were forced into hibernation.

Now in 2021, with the Delta variant, many Pacific societies – like Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea – have had the more infectious strain catch up with us.

Over the past two years, we’ve pivoted a huge proportion of our development investments to support Pacific countries struggling with COVID – not only with vaccinations, but in other support measures in health care, in family settings, and at the national economic level.

At the core of Australia’s economic support to the Pacific during these challenging times is the $304.7 million Pacific COVID-19 Response Package.

This package of support to Pacific governments is helping the Pacific and Timor‑Leste to maintain essential services and increase social spending to protect the most vulnerable and contribute to economic recovery.

It is also supporting the re-establishment of safe, reliable and financially sustainable air connectivity in the region.

This has helped to keep food on the table and essential services going while Pacific countries protected their communities, and that now there is capacity to support a steady and safe reopening of the region.

Vaccine rollout and reopening

When it comes to reopening, there is much cause for optimism.

In Australia, we are looking forward to the next few months with excitement.

Our vaccination campaign has gone well, with over 98 per cent of Canberrans over 12 years old having received at least one dose.

The National Roadmap for reopening our economies is leading us out of the last phase of lockdown.

Many Pacific countries are also rolling out successful vaccination campaigns.

Australia has stepped up to support our neighbours in the Pacific access and distribute COVID immunisations, whether through:

  • our $130 million contribution to the COVAX facility,
  • our commitment to share 40 million doses from our supplies with the Indo-Pacific, of which we’ve delivered over 3.5 million so far,
  • or through end-to-end bilateral support, ensuring we support the capacity to administer these doses – as we’ve done across the Pacific.

These efforts have contributed to highly successful vaccine rollouts by several Pacific nations. To name a few:

  • Australia donated 861,000 doses to Fiji, who have reached 80% fully vaccinated 3 weeks ahead of their target [84.1%], and 96% of Fijians have now had a first dose.
  • Australia donated nearly 580,000 doses to Timor Leste, who now have over 67 per cent of their adult population with a first dose, and 43 per cent fully vaccinated.
  • Australia donated 50,000 doses to Samoa, who have achieved nearly 95 per cent first dose, and 65 per cent fully vaccinated.

The Cook Islands, Palau and Niue have also run excellent vaccination campaigns, with their adult populations now fully vaccinated.

We still have some way to go – Papua New Guinea, which I visited in July, is facing some serious challenges– but we are committed to continuing to work with our Pacific partners to roll out vaccinations and reopen borders.

Vaccine hesitancy is a significant challenge in some countries, and I encourage everyone here today to help address this issue by providing reliable information sources to your families and business partners.

I know many Canberrans of Pacific heritage are already doing their part – for example, Mal Meninga rolled up his sleeves with me for a campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy for PNG.

Our National Plan commits to reopening international borders by the end of the year, as all states and territories reach over 80 per cent full vaccination rates.

NSW has committed to opening borders on 1 November to Australian residents, with others to follow.

This is happening in the Pacific too – I was very excited when the Fiji Government announced that they will reopen on 11 November.  Prior to the pandemic, Australian tourists poured $50 million a month into Fiji’s economy – and I’m sure that will be met and exceeded in future, based on the thousands of flight bookings to visit Fiji since the announced reopening.

We hope to see airlines in Australia starting to recommence travel to other Pacific countries as Australia reopens, and when Pacific countries and our Government feel it is safe and appropriate to do so.

Business connections

In my view, business is best done in person.

While we’ve adapted well during COVID-19, using virtual communication as I am today, I know that borders reopening will give many businesses and education providers renewed confidence in their future.

Australia has wonderful business links with the Pacific and Timor Leste.

Here in Canberra, that is no different.

Earlier this year, the Australian Government and two Canberra based organisations – Australian green bean sourcing company Project Origin and Australian profit‑for‑purpose consultancy 1LM – committed $1.7 million towards coffee growth and exports in Timor Leste.

Coffee is Timor Leste’s largest non-oil export and the business growth through this investment is expected to see increased incomes across 1,000 households.

I also had the pleasure of speaking at a kava forum in Canberra earlier this year. The Australian Government is committed to launching Phase 2 of the kava pilot, allowing the commercial importation of kava into Australia, by the end of the year. I understand that many locals are interested in bringing in kava, and regulations permitting, we may even see Australia’s first kava bar set up here in Canberra!

All this important Australia-Pacific trade and economic engagement is underpinned by the entry into force of the PACER Plus free trade agreement.

PACER Plus is a development focused free trade agreement which offers a platform to deepen economic integration in the Pacific and support trade and investment in the region, even more important in the context of economic recovery from COVID-19.

Australian and Pacific businesses are benefitting from an increased ease of forming partnerships and doing business in the PACER region, through more certainty, transparency, and openness under the agreement.

I welcome businesses here today to contact my Department and office to learn more.


The education sector is critical to the Pacific, and to the Canberra economy.

I want to start with education in Pacific countries.

Good education for Pacific islanders begins in the Pacific.

That is why Australia’s education spending in the Pacific will increase in 2021-22 to $277.9 million, or 19 per cent of total Pacific aid, up from $240.7 million in 2020‑21.

This increase is also in recognition of the disruption COVID has caused.

Many have had to stay away from school. This hasn’t been easy for any parent or child – and it’s been impossible for some – especially where there is poor access to the internet and learning materials. This financial year, much of our effort is going into enhancing local education capacity to make up for time lost during the pandemic.

Another important aspect of our education program is bringing students from the Pacific into Australia, through programs like the Australia Awards.

I understand there are currently 26 Australia Award students in universities in Canberra, and I’m sure the number of Pacific students in Canberra is much larger.

I am working closely with the Department to develop more pathways, for Canberra and the rest of Australia.

These opportunities change the lives of Pacific Islanders and provide lifelong friendships and connections between Australia and the Pacific.

They are also critical to keeping our thriving education sector going.

Canberra is home to some of the best educational institutions in Australia, at all levels, and I look forward to working with you to return international students from the Pacific and elsewhere to your classrooms.

Concluding remarks

Canberra’s local community – especially our businesses and educators - are very much alive to the opportunities that stem from working with the Pacific.

That’s obvious through your attendance today.

As we look ahead into 2022, Australia, and especially Canberra, will continue to build and enhance our already deep relationships with the Pacific and Timor Leste at all levels – through business, education, sport, church, government and more.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak, and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the future.

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