[Check against delivery]
Bula Vinaka Prime Minister, Ministers, High Commissioners, other officials, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a privilege to be here this evening to talk to you all.
Let me begin by acknowledging and celebrating the traditional owners on whose land we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
Let me also preface my address by saying that while I am an Australian I do not represent the Australian government. And while I am Director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute – Australia’s leading independent non-partisan foreign policy think-tank – I also do not represent the views of the Institute. These views are my own. If you have any issue with them, please take them up with me. But if you like what I have to say, make sure you pass that on to my boss back in Sydney.
Ladies and gentlemen, there has been no better time to be a Pacific analyst at the Lowy Institute. Too often our immediate region, with Fiji at its heart, is overlooked by senior Australian policymakers. In the last two years this dynamic has dramatically shifted. The Pacific has roared back into the centre of Australian foreign policy decision-making. The Morrison Government’s Pacific step-up is putting the region more in focus than any time in my living memory. We’ll hear more about the step-up from James Gilling tomorrow morning and I don’t want to tread on his toes but for my two-cents this renewed engagement is not at all tokenistic, it’s in fact profound. The depth of commitment to the step-up is most manifest in the time Prime Minister Morrison has paid to the region, and in particular Fiji.
Prime Minister, you recently participated in your third bilateral engagement with our Prime Minister this year – two in Fiji and one in Australia. Prime Minister Morrison decided to focus this trip around sport, and that’s only natural – we are both sporting mad nations. I know you're a big rugby union fan Mr Prime Minister, but unfortunately the Wallabies were caught up on other business in Japan, so Mr Morrison had to bring along the PM's Thirteen rugby league team to Suva instead. You showed herculean patience in sitting through five hours of not seeing one proper scrum. But you did get to see our PM act as a water-boy for the team, not a sight his colleagues in Parliament have ever been privy to. Jokes aside, I am still very excited to see a Fiji team in next year’s NSW Rugby League comp, my home state, in 2020.
The step up is also already paying dividends for the bilateral relationship. The increased kava limit from 2kg to 4kg will mean that we all have 2 nights on the grog sorted after a trip to Fiji rather than just one. As personally a diehard kava lover, let’s hope this is only the start.
But of course, the bilateral relationship must go further.
And that’s what I’m here to talk about this evening. The present and future of Fiji and Australia’s relationship. Now when Frank asked me – that’s the less important Frank, Prime Minister, Frank Yourn – when Frank asked me to speak about what the relationship would look like in 25 years it gave me pause. I’m no futurist. I can barely keep track of what I’m doing in a week’s time, let alone a month or a year. If I could predict trends like that I would be making a heck of a lot more money than I do as a foreign policy analyst.
But it did make me reflect. Reflect upon where the relationship has been, where I see it being today, and where I hope it will go in the future.
It’s no secret that the formal relationship has been through a tough few decades. Fortunately, it seems, the relationship has turned a new page, and all barriers to a complete normalisation on the economic, diplomatic and security fronts have been lifted. Just last month Prime Ministers Morrison and Bainimarama signed the Vuvale declaration, a one-page framework laying out the key pillars that this new relationship will be built on, and the principles that it will adhere to.
The declaration focuses on five key pillars: strengthening people-to-people links, enhancing security cooperation, deepening our economic relationship, building our cooperation on international and regional issues, and fostering closer institutional linkages. This is a great foundation on which to build, but what are some practical steps to actually building upon them? I have a few ideas that might contribute towards an even closer, more integrated, and prosperous bilateral relationship in 25 years’ time founded on the principles laid out in the Vuvale declaration.
The starting point here for me is that we need to have a much greater recognition within the Australian bureaucracy that while Fiji is of course a Pacific nation culturally, environmentally and geographically, it is also distinct from the Pacific in a number of ways.
Its robust institutions, sound legislation, solid economic performance, and standings on economic and human development indicators set it apart from its peers. Since 2010, the Fijian economy has maintained an average annualised growth rate of above 3%, only slowed down by the devastating impact of 2016 cyclone Winston. Per capita GDP has almost doubled this century, placing Fiji in upper middle-income status. The prospects for Fiji are bright. I think Australia’s ambition on the bilateral relationship suffers because we too often lump Fiji in with the rest of the Pacific region. Scott Morrison clearly gets this, as do those working directly on Fiji within the bureaucracy. We’re off to a good start in changing that mindset, but more work is certainly needed.
This starts with a greater focus on the economic relationship. We have already heard from the Prime Minister and Minister today about how important our economies are to one another.
And I know there has already been a lot of work behind the scenes through a joint trade and economic scoping study looking at ways to enhance this partnership, spearheaded by esteemed academics Satish Chand and Ron Duncan. Ron and Satish are giants in the Pacific economic community and I have learnt more from both of them over my years as both an analyst and economist working on the region than any other two individuals. While I have not seen the study, I am sure that it is filled with advice worth endorsing.
I think it’s beyond time to elevate the relationship even further by Australia and Fiji engaging in negotiating a comprehensive bilateral trade and investment agreement. For many years Australia was putting all of its eggs into the PACER-Plus basket, and while I am personally disappointed the government hasn’t to date been able to get it over the line, and I do hope Fiji and PNG eventually sign on, the bilateral economic relationship should not have to wait any longer.
A comprehensive trade and investment agreement would help the relationship in a number of ways. It would give regulatory certainty to investors in both directions. It would reduce barriers to entry for new traders and investors. It would minimise risk by setting out mutually agreed upon legal and regulatory frameworks.
Fiji has a number of free trade agreements. The outdated PACER agreement. PICTA. The Melanesian Spearhead Group. The Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU.
Australia loves free trade agreements. I feel like if our Trade Minister doesn’t sign at least one a year he’s out of the job. With Brexit keeping trade negotiators both in Australia and Fiji busily biting their nails, I think now is the time for us to get in line to put a bilateral investment and trade agreement in the pipeline. Such an agreement would be a perfect starting point for a broader conversation about how to deepen and thicken the bilateral economic relationship – conversations this business council has already been having for some time.
On people-to-people links and institutional links, I think this is critically important and the two pillars go hand in hand. There are a number of ways in which this is already taking place – the new Colombo plan, volunteers, scholarships. There are 100,000 people living in Australia that identify as Fijian according to the 2016 census. 340,000 Australians visit Fiji every year.
Tourism is always going to be a primary export for Fiji, and so it should, the country’s natural beauty is unparalleled. Taking a look at the World Cup currently underway in Japan though I don’t think it will be long before Fiji’s wingers give tourism a run for its money.
But sport is one area in which the people-to-people and institutional links can naturally be strengthened. To paraphrase our Prime Minister, ‘how good is Fijian rugby’? Australia could be doing a lot more to get Fiji’s best talent the training and exposure to elite competition at an early age so that Fiji can soon not only be flogging us in the 7s but also in the World Cup. We should be working with Fiji to get the Fiji 7s circuit to come to Suva just as it does to Sydney. Youth cadetship programs. Linkages with the Australian Institute of Sport. There is a lot of fertile ground, and not just with rugby.
Our bureaucracies can also do more to deepen their institutional links. DFAT’s Office of the Pacific naturally leads this work from Australia, but the institutional links should be much broader than just our foreign affairs agencies. Twinning relationships with Australian state education and health agencies and Fijian equivalents is a concept that could be discussed. The Reserve Banks of Australia and Fiji should partner on cadetship exchanges. The RBA could even consider taking on some FBF graduates for a rotation or two. We should have more parliamentary exchanges and more special visitor programs in both directions.
The Institutional and people-to-people links will also be critical for another pillar of the Vuvale partnership, that of enhanced security cooperation. Australia has already pledged its support to help upgrade the Blackrock training facility in Fiji. Fiji is also a partner in Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat Program. At any given time, there are also dozens of Fijian soldiers and officers embedded with the Australian military. But even more can be done to solidify the relationship with the ADF and Fiji Military Forces, from training to joint exercises to shared humanitarian deployments. The most heartening images for me that came out of the heartbreaking devastation of cyclone Winston in 2016 was following the rapid deployment of HMAS Canberra. Australian military working shoulder-to-shoulder, and under the guidance of, their peers in the Fijian military. My favourite picture was one of a big mix of RFMF and ADF personnel circling a huge kava bowl, filled with smiles and thumbs up. I’m sure some Australian personnel enjoyed the kava more than others, but you could feel the mutual warmth, respect and affection shared between these uniformed personnel. That kind of engagement underpins in my mind the spirit of Vuvale and should be taking place not just in times of humanitarian crisis.
There is one major hurdle that I see for facilitating broader people-to-people links outside of the formal institutions, and that’s of migration policy. It’s quite frankly still too hard for Fijians to get into Australia, for short or long periods. There are legitimate reasons for having such strict border and customs protections guarding Australia from all nations, but here I think Australia must do better.
Australia is trying to increase opportunities for Fijians from all walks of life to come to Australia through our temporary Seasonal Worker and Pacific Labour Schemes, both important initiatives that should be fully supported. It’s time to go beyond these schemes. Australia could consider a preferential bilateral labour agreement with regards to our skilled migration schemes. We could strengthen our institutional ties between immigration and customs to harmonise our immigration systems to make things work more smoothly. That may be easier said than done, but maybe Peter Dutton could be warmed up to the idea after a few shells of Fiji’s finest.
Regardless of the difficulties, eventually I would like to see a situation whereby Australians and Fijians share the same freedom of movement as that enjoyed between Australia and New Zealand through the Trans-Tasman Travel arrangement whereby no visa is required at all for people moving in either direction. While we may wish it with some members of our family, for a true Vuvale relationship we should not need a piece of paper before we decide to come and visit.
Australia’s relationship with New Zealand is one that I have particularly dwelled on while thinking out our future relationship with Fiji. And I must admit here as a legitimate ANZAC myself – mum’s a kiwi, dad’s an Aussie, but I grew up here. Go the green and gold! So I may be a bit biased here. But there is a lot to like about the very intimate relationship Australia shares with New Zealand.
Over the last century Australia and New Zealand have gradually worked to integrate our economies, customs, regulation and migration pathways while at the same time fiercely protecting our sovereignty and competitiveness on the sporting pitch. As we have come closer together I don’t think anyone could argue that we have given anything away. Our cultures and identities are as distinct today as they were a century ago.
This kind of relationship, one of intimacy and independence, is what I imagine for Australia and Fiji in 25 years. Tourism will of course remain the backbone, but I see the economic relationship broadening. Call centres, back-end financial services, retirement and care facilities should flow into Fiji. I was planning on retiring there already, but now that I know it’s actively encouraged, Prime Minister, watch out I might have to consider retiring a little early. On the flip side more Fijians can come and enjoy the economic and education opportunities afforded in Australia, and bring these skills and remittances back home to benefit the Fiji economy even more. Some people may dismiss it as a pipedream, but I say there’s no better time to be ambitious about where Australia’s relationship with the region could go.
When I talked to my colleagues back at the Lowy Institute about how to deliver a successful after-dinner speech there was broad consensus – be funny, be concise, and be forgettable. I hope at the very least that I have been concise tonight.
Vinaka vakalevu and have a good evening.