Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Tonight I rise to share a story about the generosity of Australians and the warmth of our Pacific neighbours. The story starts when I was a delegate at the Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnerships Forum in Suva, Fiji, in April 2015. At dinner on the first night I met the Deputy Mayor of Port Vila, Mrs Leimara Malachi. Leimara had been elected Deputy Mayor just a year earlier.
The forum was just a month after Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu and the South Pacific—the most powerful cyclone to hit the region. Cyclone Pam killed at least fifteen people in Vanuatu, and decimated housing, agriculture, schools, hospitals and infrastructure. Councillor Leimara and I talked briefly about the destruction. I queried her particularly on the damage to schools, and Leimara responded that there had been terrible damage to schools. I asked further about the damage to books and resources that the students relied upon. Again, Leimara emotionally responded that the majority had all been ruined. At this point, I made a commitment that when I was back home in north-west Tasmania I would write to the schools in the region to ask if they would donate books and resources to Vanuatu schools. I received a strong response from schools across the region, both public and private. While a number had already donated, eight schools from the west coast to Latrobe committed to making contributions. I want to say thank you to: Devonport Christian School; East Ulverstone Primary School; Latrobe Primary School; Ridgley Primary School; Sacred Heart Catholic School, Ulverstone; St Patrick's Catholic School, Latrobe; Wilmot Primary School; and Zeehan Primary School. Each school's methods were different. At some, an individual teacher led the charge, while at others a group of student leaders set about collecting books, pencils, exercise books and other stationery to send over. By October, I had visited each school and collected around 60 archive boxes full of goods to send to Vanuatu. Virgin Australia had offered to fly the boxes from Tasmania to Brisbane free of charge and then on to Vanuatu at fifty per cent of the cost.
Unfortunately, by mid-November that year, when I had secured the boxes and catalogued it all, the flights had been suspended due to the state of the runway in Vanuatu. Luckily, at around the same time, I met a number of Ni-Vans who had come to Tasmania under the Pacific island Seasonal Worker Program and who were hoping to share the cost of a container to send much-needed furniture and other goods home to replace those damaged in the cyclone. It was just perfect. I personally paid for space in the container and, despite the delay, the books were on their way. The boxes arrived in Port Vila in August last year, and Councillor Leimara insisted that I must come to Vanuatu to assist her to distribute the books. So, in October last year I managed to squeeze in four days in Vanuatu, by self-funding my travel and associated costs.
On my arrival in Port Vila, I was met by Councillor Leimara, Kathy Solomon from the Vanuatu Department of Women's Affairs, and a group of officials. Joining the welcoming party were relatives of the officials, who greeted me with shell necklaces, frangipani leis and beautiful welcome songs. I was also happy to see one of the seasonal workers, Dimitri, who had helped me with a lot of the sorting and lifting of the books while he was back in Tasmania. On the Sunday, I met with Dorosday Watson, the Director of the Department of Women's Affairs, who gave me an informative briefing on the department's plans to work with the Port Vila municipality to boost the political and economic empowerment of women.
Dorosday highlighted that, despite the country's political independence over 36 years ago, women's major roles are dictated by traditional customs that have not moved with the times. The pressure on women to take on the roles of child bearing and rearing, taking care of the family's domestic needs, attending to the garden and livestock, and other 'housewife' duties has been a perpetual hindrance for women to participate fully in the development of their country in politics, business and the community. Dorosday explained that, like women across the Pacific, Ni-Van women are a very vulnerable group and often considered second-class citizens. Critically, women are the major victims of rapid development yet continue to remain silent and accept issues as normal.
The department's plans with the council were developed from a five-day forum that brought together over 600 women from diverse backgrounds across Port Vila. The outcomes and activities proposed include: political empowerment relating to the 2018 Port Vila elections and 2020 Vanuatu elections; economic empowerment comprising business training, production of handicrafts, carving and garments; and capacity building, including specific education and support programs for young girls and single mothers. Dorosday noted that the forum was the first of its kind to bring together women from across the five wards of Port Vila to discuss their community's development on their terms. The participants also found hearing from the five women councillors a great learning experience and an eye-opener into political decision making in the country. The councillors were elected in 2014 under a temporary special measure to ensure each of the five wards was represented by at least one woman. The reforms were introduced across the country in time for that year's council elections. Two years on, it is interesting to learn from a Pacific Leadership Program study that the experience of regional councillors in Luganville province varied markedly from that of the women in Port Vila.
The one-size-fits-all approach worked in the capital, but the political context for women in rural areas is so different that much more work is needed to improve political education that equips women to think and act politically from the moment they are elected. In parliaments and assemblies across the world, political affiliation may be stronger than the desire to work as a part of a women's caucus, regardless of the abject disadvantage women face in a community. Addressing gender equality and the associated policy challenges are so important for our sisters in Vanuatu and across the Pacific, and for their wider communities. We need Australian aid to continue to provide funding and support for women's political and economic empowerment across the developing world.
As I mentioned at the start of my speech, I met Councillor Leimara at the Pacific Women's Parliamentary Forum in Fiji. It was the third Pacific Women's event that I have been privileged to attend, after Cook Islands and Palau. I remain in contact with many female politicians and candidates from across the region. I ended the meeting that day energised and determined to continue to promote women's political participation in the Pacific in Australia and highlight tremendous initiatives such as the highly successful women's forum in Vila.
On the Monday and Tuesday, and even the Wednesday morning before my flight, Councillor Leimara, Kathy and I visited 10 cyclone-affected schools across Port Vila. Each school was delivered a number of boxes of books and supplies. The students and teachers were extremely grateful to the people of Tasmania for their generous donations. At each school, I was treated to thankyou songs from the children and many traditional greetings. Of course, I did not coordinate the donations for any thanks, and often I felt more grateful for the generosity and warmth of the ni-Vans I was meeting—they were taking the time to sing, dance and greet an Australian politician at the same time as they were rebuilding their schools and their communities. However, it was a true blessing to be able to spend the time with the students and teachers, for whom a few boxes of books and supplies meant so much—new ideas, bright colours and new words, to help them learn English, to inspire their imaginations and to fill their days with more fun.
A number of the teachers remarked that it was the first time someone from the Parliament of Australia had visited their school. As the people of Port Vila continue to rebuild after Cyclone Pam, it was an honour to visit and make a small contribution to their efforts. I believe that by building connections with our near neighbours, through learning about each other's cultures, language and traditions, and with strong, well-researched, targeted support both through the Australian aid program and through private donations, we will improve the lives of Pacific Islanders and, indeed, people right across the world. To the schools and students from across northwest Tasmania for your generous contributions, and to the people of Vanuatu for your warmth and hospitality, thank you all.