Fiji Australia Business Council

  • Speech, check against delivery
19 October 2021

Minister Koya, friends and colleagues.

I'm delighted to join you virtually for this session.

I want to begin by recognising the fantastic work of the Fiji Australia Business Council and the Australia Fiji Business Council

These two Councils play a key role in helping us foster new ideas and networks to deepen trade and investment between Australia and Fiji, and so I thank Australia Fiji Business Council President Allison Haworth-West, and Fiji Australia Busines Council President Warwick Pleass for your work, and for bringing us together today.

I'd also like to make special mention of Minister Koya's leadership in this space.

Minister Koya has done much to encourage and bolster our trade and investment ties, and so I'm delighted that we're on this panel today and speaking to Australian and Fijian business leaders.

It's been an extraordinarily tough 18 months for our two countries.

No country – big or small – has been immune to this pandemic.

Australia has been proud to support our Fijian Vuvale during this difficult time to respond to the pandemic.

And it has been a genuine partnership with the Government and people of Fiji.

At the outset, I should acknowledge the response of the Fiji Government to this pandemic. It moved quickly to take tough decisions which meant Fiji is now emerging from the worst of the pandemic.  Fiji's vaccine rollout has been world class.

And the great news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel, my friends!

I'll come to this in more detail later in my remarks but we are so relieved and so excited that business and tourist travel will commence soon.

Friends and family will be reunited, tourists will be spending dollars, jobs will be created, business relationships will be rebuilt and reinvigorated.

Prior to the pandemic, Australian tourists poured $50 million a month into Fiji's economy – we want to see that return and exceeded.

And all this comes off the back of Fiji's remarkable efforts in responding successfully to the pandemic.

Australia is proud to have been there alongside Fiji every step of the way.

We've shared more than 860,000 vaccine doses so far – that's most of the total vaccines administered in Fiji.

We have been able to send testing machines, oxygen concentrators, three ambulances, and more than 91 tonnes of PPE, laboratory and medical supplies.

Three Australian and New Zealand Medical Assistance Teams (ANZMAT) were deployed to provide surge medical capacity, and we've funded 57 staff to bolster Fiji's own local health workforce.  A fourth Australian medical team is in Fiji now comprising personnel from the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre and the Royal Australian College of Surgeons.

And if you needed any further proof of the strength of the ties that bind Australia and Fiji, another 23 tonnes of medical supplies, PPE and equipment were all donated to Fiji by Australian businesses and foundations.

Australian businesses also provided other types of support – such as waiving remittance fees and extending loan repayment holidays. 

I also want to recognise and applaud the contribution of Fijian businesses, and Australian businesses based in Fiji, who have supported communities, including working with government to ensure open supply chains and delivery of important services.

I know that many of you on the line today have been part of this effort, and so I want to thank you for your contribution. 

Australians, like Fijians, are generous people.

We don't stand idly by when our neighbours are doing it tough.

But Australia's support for Fiji is not only the right thing to do – it's also the smart thing to do.

Because when Australia's closest partners are doing well, our region is doing well, and when our region is healthy, strong, secure and prosperous, then so too is Australia.

This is true when we're responding to a once-in-a-century pandemic.

It's true when we're navigating big geostrategic shifts, or threats to our peace and security.

It's especially true when we're dealing with global challenges such as climate change.

And, of course, it's true when we're talking about strengthening economic resilience, opportunity and innovation.

Back at the start of the pandemic, when Australia was looking at how we could reshape our development program to respond to COVID-19, we knew this crisis would be much more than a health challenge.

COVID-19 is as much an economic crisis, as it is a health crisis, and our Pacific region has been hit particularly hard.

When we look at the region as a whole, of the eleven Asian Development Bank member economies expected to contract for a second year in 2021, nine are in the Pacific. 

As an economy with strong foundations in tourism, I know Fiji has had a particularly difficult time.

A GDP contraction of 15.7 per cent in 2020; and expected GDP contraction in 2021-22 of 4.1 per cent.

More than 100,000 jobs have been lost.

The Fiji Government responded quickly to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic.  I want to acknowledge the leadership of the Prime Minister, Attorney General, as well as Minister Koya, by deftly managing the economy and delivering support to the private sector, including the new measures announced in the budget. 

Forecasts of a tourism-led recovery next year, with expected growth of 6 per cent, provide some cause for optimism – but there's still a way to go until Fiji's economy rebounds to pre-crisis levels.

The last 18 months have shown the importance of working together to protect development gains, boost our economic resilience, and grow our economies.

Working with the Fiji Government and the World Bank, Australia was pleased to provide a record $83.5 million in budget support grants last financial year, $20 million of which was directed at social protection payments for the most vulnerable.

The Australian-funded Market Development Facility (MDF) has worked with the Fiji Government to support Fijian exports and investment abroad during the pandemic.

With the MDF's support, the Fiji Government developed the Fiji Exporters Guide, which provided better information and assistance to help exporters grow and sell produce for export.

The Australia-New Zealand Partnership with the International Finance Corporation or 'IFC' has also helped Fijian businesses understand and adjust to the COVID shock.

In July last year, the IFC conducted a survey of over 3,500 businesses in Fiji, and its findings helped inform practical responses by the Fiji Government and development partners to promote and safeguard private sector recovery.

Our work isn't done though.

We're looking at what more we can do to support the Government of Fiji's efforts to assist those who are hardest hit, and to encourage investment and enable a private sector recovery.

As I mentioned at the beginning at the outset, a big part of the economic recovery story for Fiji – and for our region – will be getting international tourism back up and running.

Before the pandemic, tourism contributed around 40 per cent of Fiji's GDP, and Australians made up 40 per cent of all visitor arrivals.

Border closures have been a very difficult, but necessary, measure to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities and in our region, and there is no doubt that these have saved many lives.

With vaccines rolling out across the region, there are reasons to be very optimistic about what lies ahead.

Australia and Fiji have both outlined plans for reopening based on vaccination milestones, with the end goal of unrestricted quarantine-free travel.

I'm pleased to say we're on track to reopen our international borders.

Prime Minister Morrison has announced that Australia's international border closure will be lifted in November for fully vaccinated Australians.

This paves the way for Australians to travel overseas and return home with reduced or no quarantine arrangements.

And we welcome the announcement by Prime Minister Bainimarama that Fiji will reopen its borders to a select number of countries from 11 November.

I understand that the first tourist flight for fully vaccinated visitors from Australia — on Fiji Airways — is scheduled for 1 December, with Qantas and Virgin Australia resuming flights later that month.

Travel agents in Australia are reporting that they're receiving a huge number of inquiries for travel to Fiji – I hope you're ready for an influx!

And, of course, once we re-open our international borders, this will pave the way for a resumption of business travel which – as we know – is so important to building new networks, and finding new opportunities to grow. 

I'm sure that the next time we're speaking, it will be face to face.

Perhaps even on the sidelines of a Silktails game in the NSW Ron Massey Cup, or cheering on the Fijian Drua during next year's Super Rugby Pacific season.  As long as you go easy on my Brumbies, that is…

On the bilateral trade and investment front, we've got a solid agenda going forward.

As you know, Australia is one of Fiji's largest trade and investment partners.

Before the pandemic hit, two-way goods and services trade was increasing year-on-year by around 10 per cent.

To help spark economic recovery, we want to build on this and elevate our trade and investment relationship.

To do this, we're progressing economic commitments made under our Vuvale Partnership.

We've made headway on resolving issues around the commercial importation of Fijian Kava, with a trial on track to be piloted by the end of this year.

I know how important this pilot is not only for cultural reasons, but also for trade diversification.

And I was honoured to have my first taste of Kava as part of a traditional Fijian ceremony at the National Kava Forum in Canberra in June this year.

We're also looking at what more we can do to help make Fiji the economic hub of the Pacific post-COVID.

Australia's $2 billion Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific is just one example, and it will play a key role in stimulating growth.

The Facility's $68 million investment in Airports Fiji Limited, in partnership with ANZ, will help fund capital works at Nadi International Airport and other outer island airports.

On a final note, whether it is our response to COVID-19, our work to re-open borders, or strengthen trade and investment, I want to reiterate my own commitment, and that of the Australian Government, to partnering with business.

Australia is absolutely focused on a private sector-led recovery because we know that supporting and empowering business is one of the best ways to generate economic activity, incentivise innovation, and create jobs.

We cannot do this without the support and partnership of organisations like the Fiji-Australia Business Council, as well as the Australia-Fiji Business Council.

I know John Feakesand the team at the Australian High Commission in Suva, are working closely with the Council to boost our economic partnership.

We want to hear directly from business about how we can improve and better support you to trade and invest in Fiji and Australia.

So I look forward to hearing more from your discussions today, and to visiting Fiji, hopefully very soon!

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