Economy // International affairs

South West Pacific poses challenges and opportunities for Australia

Australia is poised to reap the benefits of a growing Pacific region, with Queensland in particular identified as having the potential to develop closer economic links, according to DFAT First Assistant Secretary.

Speaking at CEDA’s ‘The Neighbourhood: Australian influence and investment’ event, DFAT First Assistant Secretary, Philip Green, said that Queensland not only had connections to the region through trade, but through large Pacific Islander populations living in the state and political ties.

“This state has merchandised trade worth in the order of $3.6 billion a year in the Pacific, even if you exclude trade with the other major developed nation in the neighbourhood, New Zealand, Queensland’s Pacific trade is close to $1.5 billion, so a significant economic connection,” Mr Green said.

“Half of all those people who are here in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme are here in Queensland.

“Several Pacific nations have missions here in Queensland, Papua New Guinea has both a consulate in Brisbane and Cairns, while Nauru has a consulate general in Brisbane, effectively their embassy to Australia.”

Mr Green said that while Pacific nations are rapidly developing their capacity to export value added goods such as Fiji Water and Samoan Coconut Oil, Pacific Island nations also face challenges.

“They are far from the biggest global markets, they have small population bases, lower levels of education attainment and in many cases, narrow industrial prospects,” he said.

“We are very conscious that we are a Pacific nation and that as the Prime Minister has said, Pacific peoples are our family.

“Although their circumstances are unique, as are their challenges, the Pacific also stands to gain from this new phase in our wider region.”

Oxfam Australia CEO, Dr Helen Szoke, said that the private sector will have a big role to play in developing the region and alleviating poverty, with benefits to both Australia and the Pacific.

“Oxfam is often seen as being a bit of an attacker of the private sector which is not the case at all,” she said.

“What we try to do is work with the private sector to understand what impact they can make that might be different.

“If we look at a $10 t-shirt, about 40 cents of that goes towards the wages of workers and if you wanted to pass on the cost to get a living wage, then it really only adds another 10 cents to the cost of the garment.

“The private sector with very little impact on its actual bottom line in terms of margins of cost, can really look at the ethical sourcing where it’s working in countries where people are living in poverty.”

Dr Szoke said that she was disappointed with recent successive cuts to the Australian aid budget, with less than one per cent of government expenditure spent on aid.

“We are concerned that what happens is that an ever diminished pool of money that is used for Australian aid is reshuffled rather than expanded,” she said.

“We could get to some sort of respectable level in terms of what Australia’s contribution as a relatively rich country is, not only to the region but to some of the trouble spots in the world.”

TAFE Queensland Executive Director, Denise O’Brien, said that education in the region had been an export industry incredibly important to Queensland.

“By far the biggest program that TAFE Queensland manages is the Australia Pacific Training Coalition (APTC),” she said.

“We have campuses in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and we work in partnership in some of the most vulnerable countries in the world, in desperate need to gain skills to address their local industries but also as a way of getting out of that country to gain employment and residency elsewhere.

“The areas in demand across the region are in traditional trades and technologies, as well as hospitality, big tourism and a growing demand for community services and health.”

Ms O’Brien said that TAFE Queensland was delivering two kinds of training, one for citizens that are wanting to migrate to Australia for a short or longer-term experience and those that are wanting to continue to work domestically.

She said this kind of opportunity was beneficial to not only individuals but the broader economic prosperity of the region.

“We know that skills do promote economic prosperity for individuals and for their communities.

“We now have great visibility across the Pacific and it’s because of the relevance of what we do, the results that we have, the partnerships that we have.”

Event presentations

Philip Green OAM, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade MP3

Dr Helen Szoke AO, Oxfam Australia MP3

Denise O'Brien, TAFE Queensland MP3 | PDF

Panel discussion MP3

Delegate handout PDF

State of the Neighbourhood 2018 (Griffith University Report)  PDF