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Canberra Networking Day - Address by H.E Ambassador Pedro Pablo Villagra-Delgado

Address by H.E. Ambassador Pedro Villagra-Delgado to the ALABC 2013 Heads of Mission Networking Day Parliament House, Canberra  - November 26, 2013

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At the outset I would like, on behalf of all my colleagues, the heads of mission of the Latin American countries accredited to Australia, to thank ALABC and particularly its Chairman, José Blanco, for organizing this event of great importance to establish a substantive link between the stakeholders in the relations with our region, including the Embassies, and the new Australian Government.   This is a most timely initiative and we commend ALABC for it. ALABC has played a crucial role in the development of better and deeper economic relations between Australia and Latin America over the years and it is good to see that it will continue to do so. The participation of Ministers with portfolios crucial for relationships with our region is most welcome and an encouraging sign towards the strengthening and broadening of Australia links with our countries.

Our thanks go also to COALAR, represented by its Chair, Chris Gale, another strong advocate for Australian relations with Latin America, the new members of the Board, our colleagues from DFAT, led by Brendon Hammer, Richard Neumann and his team, the speakers who will lead us in the discussions which we will have today.

We are honored by having the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, opening this event. The Latin American group of heads of mission has established a close working relationship with Ms. Bishop over several years and we acknowledge that her doors have always been open to us as a group or as individual countries when we have needed her, be that in her capacity as Shadow Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader of the opposition in the last few years or, for those who like me have been a long time in Australia, in her previous capacity as Minister for Education, Science and Training. Working with her has always been a privilege for the substance of the matters discussed and a pleasure for her kindness and good natured spirit. We pledge our best endeavors to ensure that this good working relation will continue and indeed expand for the mutual benefit of Australia and all of our countries. The message that she will deliver to us today will be of great importance for our work.

We also look forward to the presentation that the Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon. Andrew Robb MP will make this afternoon. The two areas of his portfolio are at the center of the relationship with our region and of our mutual interests with Australia. Trade and investment between our countries and yours has been steadily increasing but more, much more could and should be done. The scope for growth is there and we should all work together to make sure it happens.

We have to remember that it was under the previous coalition government that a study on Latin America was conducted and from its recommendations the creation of the Council on Australian Latin American Relations (COALAR), was decided. The fact that COALAR grew and became a consolidated platform for engagement with our region under the labor government is proof that it is part of a policy which transcends the differences in approach of the two major Australian parties.   COALAR brings to the equation a wide range of fields where relations have grown, from culture to education, from tourism to economy, and has proved to be a very useful tool for engaging with our region. The support it lends to the Latin American Film Festival is proof of that and we all appreciate it. With a relatively small budget it has done great things and we hope that under the new government COALAR will be stronger and continue to thrive.

Latin America is a very diverse region not only because each country has its distinctive traits but also because regions within each country have their own. At the same time, our countries have an essential and deep commonality, shared agendas in a wide spectrum of issues, face similar challenges and a sense of common culture and history. The integration processes which link several of our countries have their own characteristics each responding to the priorities and objectives of their member States. They constitute a variable geometry of agreements, as some countries are associated to more than one of them. This creates also different platforms for engaging with our region.

That diversity and varied geometry with unity and common elements represents an area of about 21 million square kilometres, almost 600 million people, with a GDP of about U$S 6 .8 trillion, with vast riches in natural resources be minerals, energy, agriculture or fisheries but also sophisticated technology, services and culture. From the planes you board when you flight Virgin Australia or the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, to Nobel winners in hard sciences, literature or peace. The exhibition of the Gold of the Incas to be opened in just a few days at the National Gallery of Australia is an outstanding example of the culture of our region. Having Robyn Archer in the Board of COALAR bodes well for a deeper cultural engagement with our region.

It is a region that has withstood well the GFC, like Australia, with its economy growing even in the most difficult periods of the crisis, exports increasing to reach U$S 793 billion in 2012, almost half of those in manufactured products and many on the high tech niche. FDI has been steadily increasing and the ratio of servicing public debt to GDP steadily declining. The reason why the region did relatively well during the crisis is because there were a diversification of production and exports in the Americas in the last two decades, which converted our countries in global traders, thus benefiting from the increased demand in Asian markets which gave sustainability to growth and, at the s ame time, keeping our traditional markets well served. It is not just that our share of trade with Asia has grown but that it has done so without reducing the volumes exported to our traditional markets. Simply, our exports have increased several fold in the last few years and, at the same time, our internal markets have also grown. We have also significantly diversified our markets. Asian ones increased three fold in about a decade and are now about 19%, trade with our own region is slightly larger. Trade  with the European Union had a small growth in percentage points, and that with the rest of the world (Africa, Middle East, Central Asia and Oceania, reached 11 in 2012).

As happens with any other region of the world today and Australia is by no means and exception, China played an essential role in this picture of improvements in both in exports and imports from and to Latin America. In the last decade exports to China grew by around 40% and exports from that country by about 25%.

The importance of these figures is that our region has managed for the most part to have a diversified trade pattern and we do no longer depend on one or two customers or on one or two goods. The case of Argentina could illustrate this as 2012 was one of the best ever for Argentine exports to Australia and one of the highest figures for trade between our two countries ever.

But one of the features we are most proud in Latin America in the last decade has been a substantial reduction  in  poverty  levels.  That  is  both  good  policy  and  fair  policy  at  the  same  time.  We  have  solid democratic societies, highly politicized and conscious of the importance of keeping our freedoms and that this must be accompanied by social justice and a better distribution of income. Poverty and inequality have substantially declined and social indicators significantly improved, including gender equality, education at all levels, including access to university, and political participation.

Opportunities to increase trade, investment  and other forms of exchanges between  Australia and Latin America are plentiful. But we have traditionally looked to other shores rather than to each other. We both considered the other far away geographically and in the case of some of us, like my own coun try, competitors.

Australia has its priorities in the Asia-Pacific region, as it should. We could say that our region also gives priority to our neighbours, but we also look to Asia as anybody else does today. But it is not a matter of  either-or. We are convinced that  the growth and prosperity of  Asia  is not  incompatible with paying attention to other regions as well. We are interested in Australia and are convinced that much more could be done with this country in a vast number of fields. We also think th at Australia should look more to Latin America  for  mutually  beneficial  opportunities  which  are  waiting  to  be  tapped.  Trade  and  investment between the two regions have been growing, but the pace should and could increase significantly.

A variety of areas offer good opportunities, such as mining, agriculture, education, energy, infrastructure, biotechnology, tourism, specific areas of scientific research, events organization, sports (provided you do not become too good at soccer  but we become better at rugby ), food security, urban design and planning. Many others could also be identified. One area where Australia excels is in the quality and  processes  of  its  public  service.  This  is  a  sector  where  we  could  benefit  from  your  experience  and expertise.

Agriculture and the high technologies involved in it nowadays is an area where Australia and Latin America can share experiences as in both sides we find examples of the most advanced research put into application in the fields for producing more and better food to feed the growing demand from an increased and more demanding population in the decades to come. Countries like my own have increased dramatically the yield of our crops in the last couple of decades by using biotechnology and better farming methods.

We have traditionally competed with Australia but the logic today is different. The demand will continue being high as improvement in the quality of life of hundreds of millions of people around the world will seek better nutrition and we all have the duty to satisfy that demand. We can share best practices and legitimately benefit from that need for more food. That means that even if we are competitors, we still have plenty of room for cooperation in ensuring that our best technologies and best practices coalesce to bring to the world the foodstuff that it needs and that will much more desperately need in the years and decades to come.

Education has been one of the cornerstones of the relations between Latin America and Australia and the excellent relations established with universities in this country is something we value specially. Some universities in this country have a devoted program of engagement with our region which is commendable. At the risk of being undiplomatic I must mention in this c ontext the University of Queensland which is an outstanding example of this. It is not by coincidence that the previous Vice -Chancellor for International Matters at UQ, Dr. Anna Ciccarelli, has joined the board of COALAR. We are delighted and we know and value her commitment to Latin America. We thank also Alan Lawson with us today.

People to people contacts should also be promoted as they may constitute the future backbone of long term relations between Australia and our region. Exchanges in which not only Latin American students and visitors come to Australia but also that Australians go to spend time in our region can go a long way in fostering strong and durable links.

We have seen with interest the new Colombo Plan  in reverse,  by which the possibility  for young Australians to study and spend time in Asia will be promoted to create a reciprocity link to the one that already  exists  between  thousands  of  young  Asians  doing  just  that  in  Australia.  Why  not  include  Latin America in this program? It could star t with a pilot program and it could serve well both this country and our region. It could also include Australian teachers.

The number of Latin American students coming to Australia has been increasing significantly in the last few years. They represent a good source of income to the Australian education system. However, the number of Australians studying in our region  is negligible. There is an imbalance there which should be addressed.

Teaching of our languages can contribute a great deal towards that g oal. There are several programs for the teaching of Spanish in Australian universities but much more needs to be done, particularly at the primary and secondary level of education. The number of countries and peoples speaking Spanish in the world, including around 50 million in the US, justify nothing less. Portuguese courses have also started in some universities and we welcome that development .

There  have  been  advances  in  facilitating  electronic  visas  for  some  of  our  nationals  and  working - holidays visas programs with some of our countries. Further simplification on these matters will surely help to  increase people to  people contacts and therefore mutual knowledge about each other. It should be promoted.

In this context let me pay homage to the thousands of immigrants from Latin America which came to Australia and were generously received and have contributed to the growth of prosperity of this country, becoming  proud  true  blue  aussies  and  at  the  same  time   keeping  their  Latin  American  hearts  and connexions, not only them but also their Australian off spring. They are the best example of the good things which can be achieved by fostering people to people links.

Political engagement is also crucial. High lev el visits can go a long way to forge and expand relations between countries. Prime Minister Abbott, Ministers Bishop and Robb, as well as others will be more than welcome and we hope they will able to visit the region. In the past, Australian Prime Ministers have travel to the region only in the context of multilateral meetings, taking advantage of conducting bilateral visits while there. I understand that the only exception to this pattern was a visit by Prime Minister Whitlam to Perú in 1975. The establishment of personal contacts at high level is important to create trust, familiarity and to advance the positive agenda that exists between Australia and Latin America. We should keep in mind that besides offering a promising economic agenda, Latin America is a region of peace, with vibrant democracies, committed to the promotion and upholding of human rights and fundamental freedoms, non - proliferation and the rule of law in international relations.  There is a wide agenda where commonalities with Australia are many as we have seeing at the United Nations, the Cairns Group, APEC, G -20 and its outreach activities, and so many fora where we have traditionally worked very well together. Th ere is a common ground that should be paid more attention to.

The role and importance of the States in the Australian political and economic structure is another factor  that  we  Latin  Americans  acknowledge  and  that  is  why  we  have  engaged  with  the  different jurisdictions of the federation both collectively and bilatera lly. We appreciate the warm response that we have received over the years in various States. Queensland and Victoria have a particular engagement with our region, even having trade commissioner devoted specially to it . Queensland has them based in Chile and Brazil. We just had a very successful Colloquium in Brisbane at the end of October, an event which UQ organizes every year since 2007 , and very productive meetings with the Queensland Government, including its Treasurer. Rob Whiddon, and his  team from Trade Queensland and represented today by Stephen Biggs , have played a crucial role in this engagement with the State over the years. We thank you very much for it. We have also had good contacts with New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.  We are planning to organize seminars on our region in universities in these States in 2014. The participation of Ministers and of colleagues from DFAT in these events will be most welcome. The coordination of these activities with those of ALABC in the States has proved to be a winner for both and we hope it will continue.

Both Australia and Latin America have gained in importance since 2000, the year that the study on the region was conducted and which led to COALAR. Perhaps it is time to conduct a new  study, a sort of White Paper, which could indicate where are we in the relationship and where we should and could go. It could help setting benchmarks and signposts to move forward.

I look forward to the discussions and I am sure that they will identify new concrete actions to take in the next few months. Me and my colleagues are ready to join in the fray and pitch our own ideas, both from the collective and country specifics point of view.

Thank you

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