The Honourable Fijian Minister for Industry Trade and Tourism,
Your Excellency, the Fijian High Commissioner to Australia.
The Chairman and Chief Executive of Investment Fiji,
The Fijian Trade Commissioner in Sydney.
Members of our respective business communities,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all, Almost a year ago, I came to Sydney for the first time in nine years to attend the 22nd Australia-Fiji Business Forum. And to marvel at how things had changed – the so-called “pariah” finally a welcome guest and parading along the Manly Esplanade with the surfers and seagulls.
Twelve months on, Fiji’s official relationship with Australia has improved even further. And I’m delighted to be here in Sydney once again to address this important Trade and Investment Symposium, that is part of my Government’s concerted effort to take our trade with the rest of the world to another level.
We come together at a time when our bilateral relationship has never been healthier or more dynamic. Just over three weeks ago and wearing my new hat as Foreign Minister as well as Prime Minister, I enjoyed a very cordial meeting in New York with the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. I regard Mr Turnbull as an outstanding individual with a very clear and enlightened understanding of regional and global issues. And especially the most pressing issue that we face in the Pacific Islands – the threat posed to our very existence by the extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by climate change.
He also has some very talented ministers. And I especially want to single out Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, and Steve’s successor as Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
I will have the honour to be joined by the Senator and her husband, John, at our celebration in Liverpool tomorrow, when thousands of Fijians living in New South Wales gather to celebrate Fiji Day. John Wells is a former commander in the Royal Australian Navy so he and I already have a lot in common. But the point I want to make about his equally distinguished wife – the Minister – is that she and other members of the current Australian Government are showing a much better understanding of Fiji’s challenges and aspirations than some of their predecessors.
They are certainly people with whom we feel we can not only do business, but can work together in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. To finally match – at government-to- government level – the quality of the personal friendship Fijians have always had with Australians. And take that friendship to another level.
I told Prime Minister Turnbull in New York that I wanted to work closely with him and his team to reset the direction of our relationship and work together to confront our many challenges in the region and the world. And I am very gratified that he responded in such a positive way.
Some of you who read a certain Sydney newspaper may have seen the delighted look on the Prime Minister’s face when I presented him with a bottle of our new Fiji Coconut Vodka. I just hope he didn’t drink it all at once.
But seriously, Ladies and Gentlemen, we have definitely embarked on a new era in Fiji’s relations with Australia. Not only letting bygones be bygones after we fulfilled our promise to return Fiji to parliamentary rule in 2014. But exploring new avenues of collaboration in these deeply uncertain times for the region and the world.
Indeed, I place the highest importance on developing a close relationship with Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers. Just as I do with Prime Minister John Key and his ministers in New Zealand, to which I will be making an official visit next week.
Of course, we will always have our differences, such as on the Pacer Plus trade negotiations. But I personally believe that these differences can be worked through much more readily in this new era of goodwill. Because now more than ever – given the rather gloomy global outlook – nations with shared histories and values must stick together.
We must never allow those things that divide us to take precedence over the things that bind us together. And especially when Fiji and Australia and New Zealand share our particular corner of the world and share the warm personal links between our peoples.
Let me just briefly say something about Pacer Plus before I move on to other things. Because I know many of you in the room are seeking clarification on Fiji’s position in relation to these important negotiations.
Fiji has emphatically not withdrawn from Pacer Plus. We are still at the table. Yet neither are we prepared to sign the current document – endorse the current legal text – because we simply don’t believe that it is in our interests to do so.
On two critical issues – Infant Industry Development and Most Favoured Nation status – we believe the agreement in its current form not only fails to meet our requirements. If implemented, it would have an adverse impact on our development and the development of our Pacific Island neighbours.
Fiji wants an enduring, predictable and sustainable trade agreement between Australia and New Zealand on the one hand and the Pacific Islands on the other. And in our view we still haven’t got one in these negotiations thus far. The current document is too one sided, too restrictive, places too many obligations on us that we cannot afford to meet. We need more flexibility and more concessions to enable us to have trading relationships with others.
So I repeat: we cannot sign the current document. We will, however, keep talking. Keep seeking an outcome that suits all parties. And only if Australia and New Zealand ultimately refuse to be flexible on the key concerns of Fiji and other Pacific island nations – only then will we walk away.
I personally hope that day never comes. That in this instance, the Australian Government and the Australian Parliament will come to see the justice of our position. And I ask you all in the Australian business community to support us. Because what we are asking for is reasonable. And it is fair.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I especially come to you today with an appeal to take a fresh look at the trade and investment opportunities in Fiji. And to play your own part in the economic reinvigoration of our relationship to match the new political and diplomatic re-engagement between our nations.
Today, you will hear a great deal about the many benefits of investing in Fiji – our position as Hub of the Pacific; our rapidly improving infrastructure – better roads, better airports, more efficient ports; our general connectivity and world class telecommunications; our investment incentives, including duty concessions, investment allowances and some of the lowest corporate and personal taxes in the region.
As I keep saying at every opportunity: Fiji is open for business. And our people here today are keen to show you the benefits. Whether it is my Industry, Trade and Tourism Minister, Faiyaz Koya; his Permanent Secretary, Shaheen Ali, and our Director of Trade, Seema Sharma; the Chairman of Investment Fiji, Truman Bradley and his CEO, Godo Mueller-Teut; our Trade Commissioner in Sydney, Zarak Khan or our High Commissioner in Canberra, Yogesh Punja.
All of these people are keen to explain the benefits of investing in Fiji or expanding your investment in Fiji and I urge you all to take advantage of their expertise. Because I know that personal engagement matters a great deal in business and you will find them all approachable and eager to assist.
Above all, Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to use this opportunity myself to highlight the one thing that I guarantee you will never find anywhere else but Fiji. And that is the quality of our people.
As you know, Fijians are famous the world over for their friendliness and hospitality. That’s why we can advertise ourselves to the world with a completely straight face that Fiji is “the place where happiness finds you”. Because quite simply, it is true.
As I’m fond of saying, you can find a nice beach or a cool drink in any number of places. But only in Fiji will you find the Fijian people. And I cannot tell you how proud I am to be their elected leader.
We showed our character to the world back in August when our Rugby Sevens World Champions brought back our first medals ever from a summer Olympics. Gold against Great Britain. And the whole country went wild.
We showed our character to the world back in February when we were hit by the biggest cyclone ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere. Cyclone Winston killed 44 of our people and destroyed thousands of homes and schools. Yet even Winston wasn’t enough to wipe the smiles off the faces of the Fijian people. And I was deeply moved as I visited the affected areas to witness the Fijian spirit of resilience and teamwork.
As the rebuilding effort continues with all its challenges, I know that every Fijian will want me to thank you all today for Australia’s magnificent response to helping us back on our feet. The Australian business community, along with the Australian Government and the Australian people generally, came to our aid in a way that we will never forget. And for which we will always be grateful.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as well as our hospitality and friendship, there’s another side to the Fijian people that I want to share with you today as business people. And that is our work ethic, loyalty and eagerness to learn. To improve ourselves and to work as a team for the common good, whether it is as a nation, a rugby team or a company.
For all our investment incentives, for all our attractive tax rates, I believe that it is the quality of our people that is the best reason to invest in Fiji or to grow your existing business. With a literacy rate approaching 94 per cent, our people are educated,
English speaking and becoming smarter all the time. My Government’s education revolution is the cornerstone of our nation’s development. For the first time, we have introduced free schooling at primary and secondary level. Along with more scholarships for higher education and our first tertiary loans scheme.
As well as our three universities, we have established a network of technical colleges throughout the country to provide Fiji with the skills base it needs to prosper. And to provide you – as employers – with a workforce that is more formally qualified than at any other time in Fijian history.
As I keep saying, I regard our education revolution as my Government’s proudest achievement. So we have the people. And we have the policies. And we also have the most stable period in Fijian history to enable investment to flourish.
We have put behind us the lost years. The years in which we argued about who among us deserved more rather than working together as one people to take our nation forward. With everyone now enjoying the common identity of being Fijian, there is a new sense of belonging. A new sense of unity. A new sense of purpose. And with that feeling of inclusiveness – of taking everyone with us on our journey forward – we have entered a new era of confidence and sustained growth in the Fijian economy.
We have had seven straight years of economic expansion, more than at any time in Fijian history. And despite the setback of Winston, our economy has been resilient enough for us to expect close to three per cent growth this year.
Just as important, we are using our relative wealth not to prop up recurrent expenditure – as previous governments did – but to invest in new infrastructure. And to do much more to improve the lives of disadvantaged Fijians by providing them with such things as free water and medicine, along with the nation’s first ever social security pensions.
All this has been possible because of my Government’s sound management of the economy and business friendly policies. In contrast to many other developing countries, we regard the private sector as vital partners in national development.
And those pro-business policies will continue, along with the zero tolerance for corruption that has always been a hallmark of my Government. Because corruption is the enemy of development and examples of that abound, including in our own region.
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, I urge you all to view the investment opportunities that Fiji offers with fresh eyes. Whether you are looking for a new manufacturing base, to develop a tourism venture or an agricultural project. To take advantage of the growing opportunities in ICT, mining, food processing or any number of other areas.
Fiji is where happiness can find you too. Fiji is the place to be. With its easy access to surrounding countries, well developed banking and financial institutions, state-of- the-art telecommunications and above all, our educated workforce. The wonderful Fijian people, who are finally working together as one nation with their eyes firmly set on excellence.
On transforming our developing country into a modern nation state. On achieving the greatness that we all know awaits us if we remain united and focused.
Thank you all for your attendance and providing us with the opportunity to showcase Fiji. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible. And now have great pleasure in declaring this Fiji Trade and Investment Symposium open.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.