Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and Michael, thank you very much for your very warm introduction. I wasn't going to say 25, but you said quarter of a century, and that kind of wrapped it up. It is a resilient relationship, which, as you say, started around a table of the Australian Republican Movement – a mission to which I am still completely committed, if not perhaps just slightly distracted at the moment. Something to get back to, I think, in due course.
To those of my parliamentary colleagues who may be here; your Excellencies, and very many other distinguished guests, and it's always invidious to pick out one or two that I do see – the Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davis, and also, Angus, very nice to see you here also this morning; and a lot of other guests, including [indistinct] from the United States [indistinct] great to see you here.
Let me also acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting here this morning – the Ngunnawal people – and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.
I'm very pleased to be here this morning at this conference, and understand its focus is exploring the connection between security and resilience in the Pacific, and I commend Lowy very much for this focus. Indeed, Defence and Lowy have collaborated for two years on this valuable Pacific Project, and I'm very pleased to address today's event.
The Government's rationale or Defence's rationale for supporting the Lowy Project is pretty clear. At the geographic crossroads between the Indian Ocean, Asia and the Pacific lies Australia. As a focused and responsible regional government, Australia must embrace our strategic geography and we must work cooperatively and collegiately with other nations to address the challenges that confront us.
Michael acknowledged the Defence White Paper in his opening remarks, released just over two years ago, which made it clear that after the territorial defence of Australia, our highest priority is the civility and security of our immediate neighbourhood. Indeed, one of our three strategic Defence objectives is specifically to support the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Pacific Island countries to build and strengthen their security.
This priority is also reinforced in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. It has as one of its five major priorities the specific objective of stepping up support for a more resilient Pacific, and goes on to say that the Pacific is of fundamental importance to Australia, and that Australia will engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition.
Certainly, our region faces significant change in the years ahead. Our Defence and Foreign Policy White Papers both point to significant regional challenges, including climate change, shifts in regional and global strategic power, technological advancements, economic dynamism, maintaining a rules-based global order, and supporting each other in times of natural crises. Fundamentally, a secure Australia needs a secure, stable Pacific.
As an advanced and developed economy, we have a responsibility to support our neighbours when disaster strikes, and in less urgent or pressing times to share – share lessons and knowledge and skills that increase our collective resilience and capacity for a timely response in the future.
Across our Pacific neighbourhood, we share a number of challenges and, indeed, aspirations. We're a maritime community of nations, and we need collective maritime certainty. We depend on secure sea lines of communication that are governed by reliable and enforceable rules, and that are free from interference, coercion and intimidation. Our prosperity relies on economic stability, on open markets and free trade. We're entitled to rely on our exclusive economic zones, the sovereignty of our borders and boundaries, and to trade fairly, without predatory or unethical behaviour forced upon us.
We insist on a rules-based order as liberal democracies. We may, indeed, have different models of governance, but we are unified in exerting our rights, our freedoms and our liberties.
For all of our aspirations, we face some challenges. They include – and familiar to all of us – extreme weather events, unlawful foreign fisheries exploitation, drug trafficking, irregular people movements, the exploitation of so-called economic incentives, interference in domestic affairs, and as we look to the future, potentially sophisticated military risks. As the security and economic challenges that the region faces evolve, so must Australia's engagement and support. Our ambition is always to be the region's security partner of choice, and we aim to meet this through the provision of holistic, through-life support, which is driven by common interests in the future prosperity and security of the region.
Our support to the Pacific must remain adaptable and flexible to the needs and priorities facing our partners across the Pacific, and it must be done cooperatively. To do that effectively, we are adapting our bilateral programs and training and assistance. We're incorporating them in broader, whole-of-government efforts, and we're coordinating with other donor countries to ensure maximum benefits of engagement with the region.
I wanted to speak briefly about the Defence Cooperation Program, which will be familiar to many, if not all of you. In fact, since the 1960s, the Defence Cooperation Program has formed the core of Australia's international defence engagement in the region. The DCP aims to improve our ability to connect with our regional partners in response to common security challenges, and to build people-to-people networks across our region. The South Pacific is the beneficiary of Australia's most extensive and tailored defence and security cooperation program. There are about 58 Navy, Army, Air Force and Defence civilians posted across the Pacific. In the 2017-18 financial year, we'll spend almost $100 million on Pacific Defence Cooperation Program initiatives, such as training, infrastructure, gifted capabilities, and transferring national security and military skills between our countries.
Collective maritime security is a good example of how we're working with partners to deliver capability that they need, and how that is changing over time. The well-known Pacific Patrol Boat Program and its successor – the Pacific Maritime Security Program – continues to be the centrepiece in many ways of Australia's DCP in the South Pacific. However, both Pacific patrol boats are feeling their years, and the countries of the region have told us that they do need new capabilities with longer range and better seakeeping capabilities.
So, in 2014, the Australian Government announced the Pacific Maritime Security Program as a next generation renewal of the program. And in 2015, agreed to complement the gifting of larger and more capable patrol boats with integrated civilian aerial surveillance and enhanced regional coordination efforts.
Importantly, these vessels will continue to be sovereign assets of each country and enable participating nations to independently secure their own borders, assert their sovereign rights and protect their natural and economic resources. As a direct and tangible result of Australia's DCP support, Pacific Island nations have a capability to respond to natural crises in their own countries. For example, the RVS Tukoro was used by the Government of Vanuatu to evacuate communities from Ambae in November 2017 under that threat of volcanic eruption. And Pacific Island nations often offer to support their neighbours in humanitarian responses with the deployment of their Australian-given patrol boats with [indistinct] supplies. We saw that recently in the responses to tropical cyclones Winston in Fiji and Gita more recently in Tonga.
So, the new Guardian class patrol vessels will be larger and more capable than the previous generation. It has better response capacity for humanitarian disasters and, for the first time, supports a mixed-gender crew. I'll come back to that point in a moment. The first vessel is scheduled to be completed in October this year and will be gifted to Papua New Guinea.
Australia's $2 billion investment in the Pacific Maritime Security Program will complement the efforts we're already making in partnerships with organisations such as the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Pacific Transnational Crime Network, to strengthen regional information sharing and response coordination.
Defence funds the fill and food costs for the Pacific patrol boats who work together in the four annual maritime surveillance operations led by the Pacific Islands FFA. These operations are essential for regional and bilateral cooperation, for familiarity, for enhancing response efforts to security challenges in the region.
Further, in March this year, the new Pacific Maritime Security Program civilian aerial surveillance was able to contribute to one of the FFA operations in the Micronesian region. We're also on track to assess the regional air fields of the 15 participating Pacific Islands, and the FFA has tasked over 80 hours of regional flights to date.
Once it's fully implemented next year, the region-wide aerial surveillance will provide up to 1400 hours of annual aerial surveillance through two dedicated aircraft located in the Pacific, and provide the FFA and nations with surveillance product of illegal activity in the region.
The scale of that support, across the rest of the Pacific region, provides much-needed information to the island nations of illegal activity in their EEZs. It's an excellent example of Australia supporting a capability that is being provided to the Pacific Island peak surveillance body – the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency – to enable those nations to protect their own resources.
Across the region, we're also working bilaterally with our Pacific partners to support them as they face changing security priorities. As another pertinent example, given that I go from here later today to Brisbane to join in the ministerial bilateral meetings with our Papua New Guinea partners, our DCP with Papua New Guinea is our largest, at around $40 million in the current financial year. In PNG, the DCP acts to assist the ability of the PNG Defence organisation to face the challenges of increasingly complex national security issues in our region. With the agreement of the Papua New Guinea government, in 2018 the priorities we are pursuing with them include the Defence Force maritime element, strengthening our relationship with the PNG Department of Defence itself, and assisting PNG to further develop their security capabilities in preparation for hosting a safe and secure APEC during 2018.
Tonight, I'm also meeting again with my PNG counterpart, Minister Solan Mirisim, because we are in fact, as I said, attending the 26th ministerial forum. I'm on a promise to visit Telefomin with Minister Mirisim. His own constituency, a constituency which will be somewhat confronting to most Australian politicians, I think, given he advises me it's inaccessible except by helicopter or walking. I plan to put that to some of my colleagues. We'll see how we go.
As you're also very familiar with, elsewhere, examples like the long-term Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, was an outstanding representation of collective assistance and support from Pacific neighbours. A good example of how the smallest and the largest countries in the Pacific family came together to help the people of the Solomons in Operation Helpem Fren, built on consultation and respect and collaboration between our combined services.
The Defence contribution to RAMSI itself was significant, with over 7000 ADF members and Defence civilians employed to the Solomon Islands over the life of the operation. Our engagement has changed. It's adapted. We now aim contribute to the security of the Solomon Islands by promoting the development of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, primarily through Exercise Coastwatchers, which focuses on policing activities in the outer islands, including responses to natural disasters.
Also, in Vanuatu, Defence will contribute to the Vanuatu Police Force's humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capability through an annual program called Exercise Vanuatu Alliance, which will help to develop a sophisticated remote policing capability and foster both cooperation and regional interoperability.
In Tonga, our relationship continues to grow and Defence is actively building more connections. For instance, in October last year after the volcanic activity in Vanuatu, Royal Tongan Marine platoons embarked on HMAS Choules and assisted in the evacuation of Vanuatu's Ambae Island. Deployments like that are, I think, very pertinent evidence of the value of our shared efforts, and I also look forward to visiting Tonga myself later this year.
As many of you would know, we are working more closely with Fiji on a number of levels. We are currently repairing Fiji's two Pacific Patrol boats. Those repairs will ensure that Fiji continues to have an effective patrol boat capability in advance of the arrival of replacement vessels under the Pacific Maritime Security Program, which are due in 2020 and 2023 respectively.
In November last year, I visited Fiji – the first Australian Defence Minister to travel to Fiji in over 20 years. Met with my counterpart for the second or the third time, the Minister for National Security and Defence, The Honourable Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, and we were able there to reaffirm our two nation's commitment to strengthening our defence relationship. We agreed to elevate the Australia-Fiji defence relationship by establishing formal annual Australia and Fiji Defence Ministers Meeting. I also visited the Black Rock peacekeeping centre and met with its leadership, including some demonstrations of capability, and announced an Australian contribution to the centre: the construction of a humanitarian supplies warehouse and also the establishment of an ADF instructor position at Black Rock itself.
Ladies and gentlemen, while we can manage our strategic risks by working together to increase capacity and interoperability to some extent, nature, of course, and most particularly in our region, poses unpredictable challenges for us. The Pacific is one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world, and as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events changes, we do need to work together to do more to enhance resilience, recovery and survivability. Australia, New Zealand and France continue to work with regional neighbours by offering shared capabilities such as airborne damage surveys from P-3 Orions and air lift transport of emergency material via C-17s, C-130 aircraft. We also share heavy sea lift capabilities to complement the light military and [indistinct] civilian sea lift capabilities that are owned, often, by Pacific nations.
And Papua New Guinea is another good example. After the earthquake most recently, the ADF provided C-17 flights carrying humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies. And between them, a Hercules, a King Air, and three army Chinook helicopters, created an air bridge, transporting supplies and personnel between Port Moresby and the Southern Highlands. Through that process, over 310 tonnes of supplies were transported to where they were needed most in a timely way.
Preparation for disaster recovery is a key theme of the formal POVAI ENDEAVOUR exercise framework, which was endorsed at the 2015 South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting. Under that framework, regional militaries conduct a major multinational field training, command post and table top exercises, aimed at harnessing those core skills and maintaining and developing interoperability.
I want to briefly discuss the capability multiplier effect, if you like. Of including women in national security roles and outcomes, and that goes back to the observation I made in relation to the new patrol boats in the Pacific Maritime Security Program. Regional stability and disaster response operations that include women in leadership roles, in consultation forums, and security initiatives are measurably stronger, more resilient and more likely to succeed. Australia, as you know, is a strong and consistent advocate for the United Nations Women, Peace and Security agenda.
One very tangible and practical outcome of integrating the agenda perspective into military planning is demonstrated by the redesign of the new Guardian-class patrol boats. During consultations with Pacific Island nations, we learned that it was very difficult for some nations to send women to sea because of the typical accommodation layout. By identifying that in the planning phase, Defence was able to include the requirement for separate accommodation for men and women in the design of these new patrol boats from the get-go. That will allow women in those respective countries to have a fulfilling, sea-going career if they wish, to actively contribute to the national and economic security of their countries, and prepare them for higher ranks and for greater responsibilities.
As part of Australia's commitment to the region, we also hosted a forum in November last year, Women in the Pacific Defence Forces, as part of the South Pacific Defence Ministers meeting. Over 70 attendees from seven Pacific nations came together to support the efforts of the Pacific defence forces to integrate a gender perspective into peace and security efforts, to strengthen female military participation in conflict prevention, in management and in resolution. It is indeed very valuable work, and also reminds me to reiterate the importance of the South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting as a young but very important piece of the regional architecture that enables the key nations to engage.
Defence's deep and long-standing relationships with nations across the Pacific demonstrates how central regional stability and security is to Australia's strategic interests. This conference today and the opportunity to make some remarks this morning has given me a chance to do a stock take, if you like, of some of those key aspects. As I said in my opening remarks, our engagement is intended to make our country a preferred security partner for the region, precisely because we are of the region and we take our responsibility as an engaged and capable neighbour very seriously. So, that commitment to help Pacific Island nations build the resilience they need to respond to our shared future challenges is unwavering and is one to which I deliver a personal commitment and a long-term – as Michael said, long-held – interest in the security and stability in our own region.