Ideas Exchange 2020 – Keynote Address

Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange 2020 – New Ideas, New Connections

Thursday, 10 September 2020, 10:00am-10:30am


Keynote Address by Hon Christopher Pyne,

Director of the International Centre for Democratic Partnerships (ICDP),

Industry Professor, University of South Australia Business School,

Chairman, Pyne & Partners, Principal, GC Advisory



The Hon. Christopher Pyne opened his speech by acknowledging his former parliamentary colleague the Hon. John Ajaka MLC, President of the NSW Legislative Council, Dr Ian Watt AC, ICDP Chairman, and his fellow ICDP Directors. He also thanked representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as sponsors of Pacific Connect, and welcomed the Dialogue’s Pacific host, Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, and all the participants from across the Pacific.

The ongoing pandemic has made 2020 one of the most challenging years in living memory. Mr Pyne expressed hope that the virtual format of the Ideas Exchange will help participants reconnect, exchange ideas and collectively plan for the post-COVID future.

Australia-Pacific Relations

Mutual respect is the most important theme of Australia’s Pacific relations, and the value of regional dialogues such as the Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange lies in their ability to bring people together to listen and learn from each other. Australia may have the region’s largest economy, but it must still be a good neighbour to its Pacific friends, hence its increasing efforts in aid, military and police support, and diplomatic relations.

The Indo-Pacific faces a range of challenges. The geopolitical situation has changed rapidly over the last two years, and the impact of the ongoing pandemic and forthcoming US election will also be significant. Pacific countries, including Australia, need to constantly review their position and policies to cope. ICDP and Pacific Connect can help maintain relations through the pandemic until face-to-face contact can be resumed.

The United States

The result of the US election will affect the world over the next four years. The tumultuous Trump administration has proved unstable, inconsistent and unpredictable, with damaging consequences for Australia and the Pacific as well as Europe and NATO.[1] Trump fostered economic growth before the pandemic, but his dismissal of traditional alliances means that America has reduced its long-standing role as guarantor of security and democracy. Trump pursues policies of division rather than unity in both domestic and foreign affairs to ‘fire up his base’ at the ballot box, but as Jim Mattis, the former US Secretary of Defense, noted a few months ago, President Trump is now reaping the whirlwind of his policy approach.

Joe Biden is a more traditional and consistent politician, but his 47 years of experience is both a strength and a weakness. He is an old-fashioned Democrat who would give government a larger role in the domestic economy while returning to traditional alliances in foreign affairs. Predictability, stability and respect for alliances is critically important for Australia, and so the outcome in November will be crucial for the next four years.

Australia and the South Pacific need a collaborative White House which is respectful, open to dialogue, and trusts its allies. While the Trump White House has not taken dramatically different directions in terms of alliances, growing tension with Russia and China, and frayed relationships with NATO partners, have affected the Indo-Pacific.


China and the US are the world’s only super-powers, and so any discussion of public policy must include both. Australia’s relationship with China is actually less fraught than the media portrays, although there are clearly tensions.

The period between the 1850s and the 1980s can be seen as an aberration in Chinese history, and is perceived by the Chinese as a century of humiliation at the hands of the West. China is looking to restore the power it enjoyed for 2,000 years before the Opium Wars of the 19th century. It already has the world’s largest economy, and while the West should not acquiesce to its claims over the South China Sea or Taiwan, it should respect China’s history and ambitions to resume its historical role as a global power.

China benefits from the rules-based international order as well as the West, but while these mutual interests should encourage China to become a good global citizen, its internal policies, including President Xi’s removal of term limits, as well as external issues will continue to affect the region.

Australia and the Indo-Pacific

Australia’s Pacific Step-up[2] policy, launched in 2016, combined elements of defence, foreign affairs and home affairs. It is largely funded by the Department of Defence, although DFAT houses the new Office of the Pacific and manages the process through the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, the Hon. Alex Hawke MP. Australia is now the only nation with diplomatic representation in every South Pacific capital, and our efforts have produced a range of benefits, including the Seasonal Worker Program, scholarships, and infrastructure investment in many Pacific Island nations in defence, policing, and civil and communications infrastructure. These schemes will boost regional economic development, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and improve disaster and climate resilience. A new, large naval ship for humanitarian operations and disaster response has been built in Western Australia, for example.

Australia has always prioritised the South Pacific, but, driven by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s lifelong interest in the region, the Pacific Step-Up has encouraged more military and sporting connections, as well as help with aerial surveillance, police training, law enforcement, and legal and governance arrangements. Progress depends on building closer relationships, and COVID-19 has only increased the importance – and challenges – of staying connected.

One large-scale alternative was outlined in a submission by ANU Professor John Blaxland to a recent parliamentary enquiry.[3] He urged Australia to offer several Pacific nations close partnering arrangements over territorial maritime domains and help with areas of administration, management security and governance where Australia already has capacity, expertise and experience.

This ‘Grand Compact’ with the Pacific could see Australia offer residency rights and potentially citizenship to over 244,000 people, with Tonga, Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati joining forces with Australia, just as the Cook Islands and Nui are linked with New Zealand, and Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia have relationships with the United States.

The ‘Youth Bulge’

Pacific Connect stands at the opposite end of the policy scale but also fosters constructive engagement in matters of mutual interest to Pacific Islanders and Australians. The ‘youth bulge’ in Pacific populations is one issue to address, as outlined in a piece by Catherine Wilson for the Lowy Institute[4].

A ‘youth bulge’ is defined as 20% of the population being between 18 and 24, and more than half the Pacific’s population is under 23 today. Indeed, the population of the South Pacific may reach 20 million by 2050. This demographic change can be grasped as an opportunity to create economic growth, connections and strength, or it can become a failure of public policy, with marginalised young people alienated from the social and economic mainstream.

Catherine Wilson argues the youth bulge can produce a demographic divided in developing countries if the increasing numbers of working age people are “occupied in productive remunerated, economic activities”. Pacific Connect and ICDP should therefore work closely with their friends in the Pacific to maximise employment opportunities in sustainable industries.

The region has rich natural resources, including resources and fisheries which could, if sustainably managed, fuel economic growth, fund education, health and housing, and secure a prosperous future.

Digital technology and the communications infrastructure that Australia is helping to install will reduce the barriers of geographic isolation to economic activity. People will be able to participate in digital trade whether they are in Micronesia or Melbourne. Ms Wilson emphasises the importance of education to unlock this potential, and the need to tackle chronic health issues caused by diet change.

Better education will also support the aim of Pacific Connect to build civil society and increase the cohort of people in every country who support democracy and good governance to improve social outcomes and reduce corruption.

Ms Wilson argues that a commitment to new structures and architecture will bring young people in the Pacific into the public policy discussion. The Pacific Plan, developed by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in 2005,[5] calls for a sustainable Pacific in which all young people are safe, respected, empowered and resilient. The Pacific Youth Development Framework for 2014-23[6] outlines ways in which Pacific island states can integrate youth development, international policies and programs, and advocates for investment through a multi-sectoral approach.

Pacific Island nations are aware of these issues. Fiji has established a National Youth Parliament, the Solomon Islands has a Youth Parliament, there is a youth committee in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, and there is a National Youth Authority Bill in Vanuatu, for example. The Pacific Community’s Youth at Work program[7] helps inexperienced and disadvantaged young people find internships, while the PNG government has a National Youth Development Authority to forge partnerships and collaboration with non-government organisations, churches and donors. The Solomon Islands National Youth Policy 2017-2030 prioritises young people’s educational and economic empowerment to improve their health and wellbeing, boost their contributions to sustainable development, and make them agents of political change and leadership in the country.

Youth development will not be a new area of public policy for Pacific Island nations, but the issue does offer an example of where ICDP, Pacific Connect and DFAT can make a real difference. Supporting women and young people will address inequalities, build civil society, and turn the youth bulge into an asset rather than a liability.

Most of the Pacific people involved in Pacific Connect activities are young, and if all stakeholders continue to listen to each other and undertake this journey together, they can turn the ‘youth bulge’ into the engine room that drives better economic, educational and health outcomes in the future.

[1]        The North Atlantic Treaty Organization