8 February 2023
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (19:34): Towards the end of last year I welcomed the opportunity to join the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Wong; the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Mr Conroy; and the shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, Mr McCormack, on a bipartisan delegation to the Pacific. In international affairs, Australia is at its strongest when we speak with one voice, and the bipartisan delegation to three Pacific island nations was a tangible demonstration that Australia’s friendship with Pacific island nations transcends domestic politics.
We visited Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. It was the first bipartisan visit to Pacific island countries since 2019, when such visits were disrupted, particularly by COVID. I welcome very much the resumption of those visits and I acknowledge and thank Senator Wong for the invitation to participate in them. I place on record particular thanks to all of the leaders—political, traditional and community—who we met with during our visit. I particularly acknowledge the work of leaders across nations for their partnership across the Pacific islands and note that that partnership is continuing to yield more dividends and success, with their individual and collective efforts helping in part to secure the return of Kiribati to the Pacific Islands Forum, which occurred shortly after our visit and has been, I know, an effort of many Pacific island leaders. As we all know, our region faces increased geostrategic pressure, and a united Pacific Islands Forum and family of nations is crucial to ensuring stability within our region and the resilience to withstand other pressures.
It was particularly pleasing to be in Vanuatu for the signing of the bilateral security agreement, the culmination of work which was instigated during the prime ministership of Mr Turnbull in 2018. The agreement, signed by Prime Minister Kalsakau of Vanuatu and Minister Wong, reaffirms Vanuatu’s commitment to Australia as its principal security partner. Our delegation participated in activities reflecting our deep partnership with Vanuatu, from contributing to environmental rehabilitation with mangrove plantings to opening a renewed wharf, inspecting a new police vessel and discussing Pacific labour mobility in Vanuatu’s largest village, Mele. We also had the honour of meeting Gloria Julia King, a new member of Vanuatu’s parliament and the first woman elected in 14 years. She is doing incredible work in providing new, thoughtful and powerful leadership and, I hope, inspiring many other women to follow in her footsteps in Vanuatu and elsewhere across the Pacific.
In the Federated States of Micronesia, we marked 35 years of diplomatic relations between our countries. Our engagement with President Panuelo highlighted how he is a key leader with a strong commitment to the security and stability of the Pacific. It was a delight also to see Australia’s education and health projects changing lives for the better at the Ohmine Elementary School, where our delegation was given a maths lesson by some of the students.
In Palau, Minister Wong and I were present for the official launch of a new e-health system being provided with Australian support. We also visited the massive construction of a solar farm supported by the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific. These are practical demonstrations of Australia’s friendship and commitment to Palau, and I thank President Whipps and his ministers for their generosity with their time with our delegation.
Last month I visited Papua New Guinea as part of a separate cross-parliamentary delegation, visiting Port Moresby and nearby towns Kuriva, Kerea and Pari as well as Goroka and Asaro. Australia is PNG’s largest trade and investment partner, and PNG is the largest destination for Australian development assistance. As we are the closest of neighbours and the deepest of partners, this visit was an invaluable opportunity—my first as shadow minister for foreign affairs—to better understand the relationship between our nations and how we can secure the best outcomes for our work together.
I particularly thank the Pacific Friends of Global Health and Save the Children for their support in undertaking this visit. Our delegation’s engagements spanned issues including maternal health, family and sexual violence, water safety and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. I pay tribute to the health and community workers whose constant and tireless efforts are making a difference, but equally I acknowledge that there is a need for continued support, continued vigilance and new effort to ensure the effectiveness of programs that can and will save lives, especially those of children and women across Papua New Guinea, and help to lift their development standards and progress.
My previous visit to Papua New Guinea had been as trade minister, and it was a very welcome opportunity on this visit to engage with Papua New Guinea’s new foreign minister, their deputy prime minister and other senior leaders and to discuss other aspects of our economic and security ties. The Pacific is a region we share, and together we all play an important role in its security and prosperity. I thank those who helped facilitate these visits, and, on behalf of the opposition, I pledge our continued friendship and support to all Pacific island nations.