Thanks Susan [Pascoe, AM, ACFID President ].

Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Can I also acknowledge

  • Susan Pascoe, President of ACFID
  • members of the ACFID Board and CEO Mr Marc Purcell,
  • Australia Award Scholars,
  • and other speakers at this conference.

Firstly, thank you so much for your understanding in accommodating my last minute change in travel plans.

Thank you, ACFID, for allowing me this opportunity to share my thoughts on the relationship between the Australian Government and the international development sector and on how we are and can continue to work together to build long-term stability and prosperity in our region.

Can I acknowledge and thank ACFID and your member organisations for the amazing job you do in delivering o many of our international development programmes.

The fact that so many Australians reach into their pockets to support the work you do bears testimony to your success.

The experience and expertise in this room is immense and I can't hope to have anywhere near the understanding of the details of international development that you all have.

But what I do know is that we are living in interesting times.

Much of what we have previously taken for granted is being challenged, making nations and their leaders more defensive and questioning of motive.

I also know that we don't have unlimited budgets which means actions and initiatives must be strategic, targeted and relevant.

And you don't need to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that our region is receiving more and more attention making the need for a regional focus and solidarity ever more important.

In many ways, Australia's development assistance programs will need to be responsive to this new world we are living in, especially as we work together towards achieving a world without poverty, a world where women and girls are safe and have equal opportunity, a world where SDGs are taken for granted because they are being achieved.

Eight weeks into this job, I've been tremendously energised, by the progress we are making as a nation in playing our part in achieving these goals – but there is a long way to go.

In this time three things have struck me as fundamental in our work together.

First, Australian development assistance is doing good work in our region – and it's fundamentally in our national interest to do it.

Secondly and sadly, too few Australians understand the work we do, why we do it and the enormous benefits realised by everyone.

That is, in my opinion, a problem, and it's a problem we must fix.

Which leads me to my third observation – that it is my  role to strengthening partnerships and relationships, both here in Australia and overseas.

It is my role to sell the message so Australians about what we do and ensure the countries we work with know that we are there for the long haul – that we share values and we believe that economic empowerment, sovereignty and playing by the rules is the only way forward.

This is where I see my work linking to human rights, your theme for this conference and a time to reflect on the role of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over the last 70 years.

The Government set out our strong commitment to human rights in last year's Foreign Policy White Paper.

I see my role as delivering the enabling conditions for human rights. The most basic of which is the right not to live in poverty.

In the famous words of Nelson Mandela

Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right. The right to dignity and a decent life.

Despite my newness to this role, there's been some very useful overlap between this job and my previous one.

As Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, I represented Australia for three years on the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, two of them as the chair.

Undoubtedly fisheries and fisheries management is absolutely fundamental to the economic prosperity and health and well-being of the Pacific.

Tropical tuna are a significant resource for Pacific Island Nations and improved fisheries management and stamping out illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are critical to these nations.

Australia is a trusted partner in fisheries management as we are in so many areas.

So in concluding my comments on my first observation – I think Australia's development assistance is achieving good things in our region, we are well regarded as a trusted partner and there is much to be proud of.

But here's the second thing: too many Australians know too little about this good work in their name.

The misconceptions in the Australian community about the facts on foreign aid are profound.

The Lowy Institutes research that suggests that on average Australians think that 14% of our budget is spent on aid is case in point.

Only this week I met with, Alice Faulks, an Australian National Internship Recipient at ANU. Alice's research topic is Regional Public Opinion and Foreign Aid : Developing a Communications Strategy for Australia's Regions.

Alice contends that the current drought vs foreign aid discussion means that it is extremely important that we focus on improving regional attitudes to foreign aid but her findings are equally as relevant to all Australians.

Here's what Alice found and her recommendations for a communications strategy:-

  • Australians largely support giving foreign aid for humanitarian reasons. In current communications of Australian ODA these values are dwarfed by the national interest argument. Alice recommends that we balance out the argument with a stronger emphasis on the humanitarian aspects of our aid programmes and tie humanitarian values to the Australian identity.
  • Public opinion about aid in Australia is not inflexible. Alice recommends that communications frame Australian ODA within the international norm of aid giving.
  • Countries where foreign aid debate is prevalent are able to maintain much higher levels of public acceptance for expenditure on foreign aid. Alice recommends an increase in aid discussions in the media because she believes it will increase the salience of aid policy for the public and lead to increased support for aid.

So is it time to make a serious effort to engage a wider Australian public in a conversation about how and why we work with other countries.

Because in a world with easy access to communications, where within seconds of a misplaced comment, it is broadcast on the twittersphere to every corner of the globe.

It's like doing business with the handbrake on when friends and neighbours hear comments like "Why are we giving overseas aid when our farmers are in drought".

We all know it's not the same thing – they're not mutually exclusive – we can help our farmers and at the same time continue the important work that you do.

We need to convince Australians that our investment overseas is money spent for them, not money taken from them.

Australians – even drought-struck Australians – don't worry unduly about the amount governments spend on police, or defence, or health.

Those things are just common sense.

I want Australian spending on development assistance to be seen as just plain common sense.

However, as much as we might wish otherwise, we can't be everywhere.

So we concentrate our efforts where we can make the biggest difference, and where we have the most at stake.

That's our own region, the Indo-Pacific.

Can I say that the current politicisation of our regional partnerships is unhelpful.

It is the bipartisan approach to foreign affairs that has allowed Australia to build strong and enduing relationships with nations around the world.

But it's not just politicians, along with the media, who have a role in ensuring unbiased, independent and facts based debate.

It is actually civil society leaders, such as many of you in this room, who have the greatest power.

Those who act, independent of the Australian Government but also independent of mass media.

This independence is your strength.

You don't seek power for yourselves, but you empower others.

At times, our opinions or approaches may differ, but often this merely reflects out different vantage points.

The power of democracy rests in how we engage with one another, in the space between our vantage points. To find lasting solutions, we need to engage respectfully in the space where tension sits. To distil politicised spin, from facts.

Nauru is a case in point. Much of the debate around Nauru, is politicised and routinely not grounded in facts. Much of the commentary in the media is speaking out against a sovereign nation, and a friend of Australia's, in the absence of hard facts.

I want to share just a few of these facts that often don't make it into the media:

  • There are no children in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, and all children are with their families within community accommodation.
  • Service providers are contracted to provide age-appropriate health, education, recreational and cultural services.
  • All transferees on Nauru are free to move around the island are not detained.
  • Through the Australian Government's contracted health services provider, international health and medical services, general practitioner, nursing and mental health care clinics are available seven days a week, with after-hours medical staff available to respond. 

Like our ACFID partners, the Australian Government is a fierce advocate for rules based order.

This position means we respect Nauru's sovereignty and work in partnership to find regional solutions.

This has included working with Nauru and PNG, to successfully negotiate with the United States to resettle refugees from PNG and Nauru which has already resulted in over 400 refugees resettled in the US.

What we can't do is go back to the bad old days – where people smuggling syndicates opening pipelines up into Australia resulting in at least 1,200 people dying at sea and they are just the ones we know about.

We are learning from our past. We are always looking to improve.

But more generally, we have a wicked problem.

With 21 million registered refugees and an estimated 65 million displaced people worldwide we cannot hope to resettle our way out of this problem.

Australia can and does play our part being the second largest recipient country for refugees per capita.

But the issue is bigger than resettlement and any solutions will be complex and difficult.

As civil leaders, I welcome the chance to work with you to deal with these challenges together.

Together, we must focus on the huge job ahead of us because all Australians benefit when others have similar opportunities to those we enjoy.

Australian development assistance empowers people economically.  

All Australians benefit when our neighbours have similar opportunities to those we enjoy.

Partnerships are the key to stepping up our engagement in the Pacific.

As the Foreign Minister, my colleague Marise Payne said at the ANU last month, "we don't just live in the Pacific — we live with each other in the Pacific".

Australia and the Pacific Islands have worked well together for decades to overcome the challenges of our region.

We share a common heritage, many institutions of government – and a love of sport.

I've met a wide variety of Australians during my time in public life, including some pretty hard nuts.

Even the hardest of them would have been impressed, I'm sure, by what I saw in Port Moresby a few weeks ago.

Two rugby games, the Prime Ministers' women's VIII and the Prime Ministers' men's VIII, aroused intense passions.

I saw Australian players astonished and humbled by the impact of their visit.

I think they were also inspired – I certainly was – by the strength of the bonds that our nations' shared love of sport created.
To some this might seem like the lighter side of our partnership, but that's not how I see it.

Our sports partnership contributes to social cohesion, inclusion and health outcomes.

More generally, and just as importantly, shared passion can make a great contribution to friendships, trust and understanding.

Australia's development assistance is guided by the agreements we strike with partner countries.

And it depends on the quality of our relationships: between governments, communities, businesses, universities, people.

I'm very focused on delivering on the goals that Pacific Island countries have made clear, and I'll mention two of them.

Resilience in the face of climate change and natural disasters is a high priority.

We have moved quickly to make roads, markets, schools and health clinics withstand the impact of natural events such as cyclones.

This kind of work will remain a priority as the Pacific responds to the challenges of a climate vavriability.

Another priority for our Pacific partners is to create jobs, skills, income and opportunity.

I am a very strong advocate for the Seasonal Worker Programme, and the Pacific Labour Scheme.

It's good for us, and it's good for the Pacific islands.

This is a partnership that increases labour mobility for Pacific workers, so that skills and remittances flow back into Pacific economies.

It also assists businesses in rural and regional Australia under pressure from labour shortages.

Meanwhile, PACER Plus – a very different type of trade agreement – is as much about supporting development as it is about reducing barriers to market access.

Designed to boost regional economic integration and to lower trade and investment costs, the agreement will deliver economic growth, more jobs, and rising living standards.

These examples are but a few of the many programmes that we are committed to in the region – many of which you are delivering.

Conclusion

To conclude, three final thoughts.

Our work is so important because we empower people to build the kind of lives, the families, communities, nations and region that we all want.

Economic empowerment, for women and for men, is the great driver of opportunity, and this is the central enabler in achieving human rights and the delivery of SDGs.

To do our best, over the long term, we need to make sure the Australian public understands the value of a strong and effective development assistance program, but that they are champions for the cause.

And in all our work, let's be conscious that we are building friendships and partnerships that will serve Australia well for many years to come.

Media enquiries

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