Interview on 4CA Breakfast with Murray Jones
Construction commencing at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine; New Colombo Plan scholarships
07:47 AM AEST

Murray Jones: Well, we've got something – well, not really befitting to a minister that he's doing here in the tropical north today, but there is actually a very good reason behind it, and it is one of those traditional things that we do. It's called a sod turning ceremony, and in this wet weather it's likely to be a bit of a wet sod as well.

But joining me on the line this morning is Senator Simon Birmingham from South Australia, all the way from down south, the Minister for Education and Training. Good morning Simon, nice to have you along this morning, how are you?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Murray, great to be with you. I'm wonderful; enjoying the warmer climate up here in Cairns.

Murray Jones: I should imagine, compared to a very cold morning in Adelaide and Melbourne this morning. And I'm not meaning to belittle the process, I guess it's one of those traditional funny old things we do with a sod turning ceremony, but you've got an important act today, and I guess it's part of the ceremony. We have the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, which is established, there's nodes actually up north, there's also a node in Townsville as well. But you actually have a bit of a sod turning ceremony happening in Cairns today; tell me a little bit more about what's happening.

Simon Birmingham: That's right, Murray. This is a really significant investment in Cairns. It's a long term investment that the Coalition Government has delivered. It dates back all the way to 2013 when Warren Entsch and Ian Macdonald, good LNP senators up in this part of the world put together a policy that saw the Coalition commit more than $40 million to a new centre, focusing really on the opportunities in tropical health, medicine and research. That's seen a facility developed in Cairns and will see this facility here – sorry, there's been facility developed in Townsville, and will see this facility here in Cairns developed, with the sod turning happening today as well as a research node up on Thursday Island as well, and it's really about trying to work with James Cook University, these post(*) organisations, delivery to the enormous potential we have through globally recognised medical research capabilities in Australia, through of course the fact that we are an advanced and developed nation with a growing population in the tropical region, to be able to harness all of that to create both economic opportunities for Australia but also solutions for many problems of countries on our doorstep and right around the world to help address the challenges of tropical health needs and medical issues.

Murray Jones: Not only do we have a great track record in that particular area, but I guess we're so well placed to be able to offer so much, and it's a great opportunity, especially for the younger people, you know, when it comes to employment, when it comes to science research and ways for the future, it really is a great opportunity for some of the local kids and some of the up and coming as well as some of the established people to do some really solid stuff for the region, and more particularly globally as well, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Well these are significant jobs and opportunities that will be created in the local area. Across the research institute, more than 50 specialist researchers will be supported of course by other staff, and it creates therefore skilled jobs, high paying jobs, brings of course other experts from around the world to Cairns and Townsville to visit facilities such as this, but ultimately it's not just about what happens within the research centre, it's about what it contributes at a broader level, and we know that by 2050 around the half of the world's population will live in the tropical zone around the planet, and of course there are real challenges that are different from those that historically we've been very good at fronting in terms of diseases that exist uniquely to the tropical region. In 2015 there were still around 214 million malaria cases, and an estimated 438,000 deaths worldwide from malaria.

So really on those fronts we've got to focus our effort, harness the global expertise we have as a leading research nation. Australia is one of the nations in the world that has more of its research published and recognised globally than many, many others, and we want to make sure that we see the growth potential of the tropical region, the research knowledge and expertise of Australian researchers, and bring that together to create unique opportunities that Far North Queensland is particularly poised to be able to seize upon.

Murray Jones: And speaking economically, even the building process of this brand new Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, I believe that's going to employ around about 200 locals in that process as well.

Simon Birmingham: That's right. There's a big short term lift from the employment opportunities in the construction phase, and James Cook University I know is very committed to making sure that their use of taxpayer dollars supports local job creation, local businesses, local tradies to seize those opportunities, as well as then in the longer term ensuring ongoing operation supports local contractors and this really is about giving a good investment into the local community, short term plus from the construction effort that will be undertaken, but then of course really long term benefits from the existence of this research hub around tropical medicine here in Cairns that of course is delivery of an election promise that we made.

Murray Jones: I'm speaking to the Minister for Education and Training Senator Simon Birmingham, and I guess because he's doing a sod turning ceremony this morning I've been very casual and keep on calling him Simon. But Minister, we've also got the release in the last couple of days of quite a few people that have been involved with the Colombo Plan mobility grants, and I even know of a local girl who's going to be heading off to Papua New Guinea, her name's Mallory, she's actually doing her honours in anthropology, but it's something that dovetails into the centre as well, some great opportunities, especially with this grant that's coming up, and I believe quite a few people have actually taken advantage of – is it 7400 in this latest round?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, Murray, it's a really exciting program, the new Colombo Plan, that again was a 2013 election policy, this one well and truly up and running for a number of years now, and it was a great initiative of Julie Bishop's that I know she's incredibly passionate about as the Foreign Minister because it provides all sorts of diplomatic and foreign relations benefits to Australia, but to individuals it can transform their education and their career, because it supports Australian students to spend a period of time studying in the Indo-Pacific region. It supported thousands of students to do so already. The other day I had the pleasure of joining Julie to announce some 4700-odd new scholars who will be supported under the new Colombo Plan to go and study within the Indo-Pacific region, and that includes around 259 from James Cook University, which is about an $874,000 investment in their undertaking to really get out there, experience and build connections in the region that is growing so fast and is so critical to our trade and economic opportunities, and what we'll get from that are better trade and business opportunities in the future, better diplomatic ties in the future, better security relationships in the future, a whole range of different things that flow from having young Australians more internationalised in their outlook and better able to seize the opportunities that are before Australia in a period of huge growth across the Asia-Pacific and the Indonesian and Indo region.

Murray Jones: It's a great opportunity to grow some leaders. Hopefully not too much rain today otherwise it really will be a sod turning ceremony.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs].

Murray Jones: Senator Simon Birmingham, all the way from South Australia, our special guest here in the region today and the Minister for Education and Training, thank you so much for your time, it's been great to talk to you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Murray, it's a pleasure, and I look forward to being out there with Entschy and co to not just visit JCU but the local schools and other important educational facilities too.

Murray Jones: All the best. Have a wonderful day. Thanks for that, that was Senator Simon Birmingham, and a great opportunity for youth and of course for our existing researchers there at JCU.