High Commissioner's Keynote Address on the Australia-Bhutan Education Partnership
Royal University of Bhutan Auditorium
21 November 2017
Thank you Vice Chancellor for that warm introduction.
Ladies and gentlemen
It is very exciting to be here in Thimpu, to meet with you all, to engage with Bhutanese culture and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Bhutan.
This is my third official visit to Bhutan. I am particularly pleased about this visit, as I have come to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries.
But our relationship dates much further - more than 55 years in fact. Allow me to briefly trace the early beginnings of our engagement.
Bilateral relations: more than diplomacy
We can trace our friendship to 1962 when Australia’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, invited Bhutan to be an Observer to the Colombo Plan meeting in Melbourne.
The Colombo Plan was a major part of Australian foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century, supporting the education of students in the region and building mutual understanding between Australia and its neighbourhood.
In 1962, Ashi Tashi Dorji led Bhutan’s all-women delegation to observe the meeting.
The Princess artfully lobbied then Australian Senator John Gorton and other delegates to admit Bhutan as a member of the Colombo Plan.
While such a process would normally take two years, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan during that very meeting.
I am so proud that Australia could play a small role in supporting Bhutan’s entry to its first international organisation.
Princess Tashi Dorji is the Grand Aunt of His Majesty the King and is now 94 years of age. Unfortunately she could not be with us this afternoon but I would like to acknowledge the lasting contribution that she has made to Australia-Bhutan relations.
From Melbourne, the delegation then travelled to Canberra to meet the Governor General – Richard Casey. Casey, who had previously served as the Governor of Bengal from 1944 to 1946, knew Ashi Tashi Dorji’s father.
So it appears that our relationship has a much earlier provenance, to Casey’s time in Bengal in the 1940s.
By 2002, when then Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that we would establish formal diplomatic ties with Bhutan, hundreds of Bhutanese students had already studied in Australia.
The establishment of diplomatic relations was as much a recognition of growing ties between our communities as it was a commitment to building on these foundations.
In 2008, as Bhutan underwent the biggest change in its modern history, and transitioned to a parliamentary democracy, we were proud to stand ready to assist.
Australia supported Bhutan’s newly developed electoral authority through training with our own election commission.
Many of the leaders who guided Bhutan under a new system of governance were educated in Australia.
That includes today’s politicians like the Eminent Member of the National Council, the Honourable Tashi Wangmo, and judges of the Supreme Court of Bhutan, such as Justice Tashi Chhozom, whose job it is to interpret the new constitution.
Last year, it was the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchen Tshering Tobgay, who visited our country.
The Prime Minister spoke eloquently and at length about the challenge for Bhutan to engage its youth, create jobs and build a workforce equipped for Bhutan’s growing economy.
During his visit to Australia, the Prime Minister sought out institutions that could partner with Bhutan to help to address this challenge. From this discussion blossomed a partnership with TAFE NSW. I am very pleased that around 40 Bhutanese have now participated in training programs both in Bhutan and in Australia. They have learned skills and lessons that can be applied here to strengthen Bhutan’s vocational education system.
So you see, education has always been a central pillar to our relationship.
Australia and Bhutan’s education partnership
Today we remain just as focused on working with Bhutan to strengthen its human resource capacity.
This includes our support to the Royal Institute of Management, and our long-standing scholarships programs – the Australia Awards and Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships.
This year alone, we will offer 28 Australia Awards and 12 Endeavour Fellowships. In 2018, there will be 15 more Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships offered to Bhutanese students.
Australia is also a destination for Bhutanese students outside of these programs. Australia’s universities are considered some of the world’s highest performing tertiary institutions. It is the second most popular foreign destination for Bhutanese students, after India. There are currently 1,450 Bhutanese students in Australia, a number which continues to increase each year.
We are incredibly proud of our alumni.
Through their successes, I feel we have contributed to Bhutan’s national development in ways that we could never have anticipated. Our Alumni are doctors, politicians, judges, and teachers. They are also leaders in many aspects of business and civil society.
So today, I am delighted to be part of the launch of An Alumni Perspective: Celebrating 15 years of Bhutan-Australia diplomatic relations. This publication tells the stories of 15 Australian alumni and the way that their experience in Australia helped shape their life journey.
I want to acknowledge the initiative of the Bhutan Australia Alumni Association in producing this publication, about which we will her more shortly. Their warm memories of Australia and passion for sharing their experiences back here in Bhutan ensure that the network of Australian alumni continues to grow.
I also want to express great appreciation to the Australia awards office in Bhutan for its contribution to making this happen.
Through education exchanges, deep links and understanding have been built between the people of Bhutan and Australia.
It helps that we already share similar attitudes and approaches. I am always struck by it when I come here. The relaxed approach to enjoying life, the openness and friendliness of Bhutanese people, that makes me feel like I am home in Australia.
It also helps that Bhutanese students are such hard workers and so well regarded in Australian universities. The success of Bhutan’s students is clear by the sheer number of successful applicants we have each year for Australia Awards and Endeavour Fellowships. Bhutan punches well above its weight.
The results can be impressive. A PhD student in biology, immunity and vaccines can build networks in Australian universities and institutes and can continue collaborative research from here in Bhutan.
And an MBA student can identify the value of an Australian firm to train executives at the Bhutanese companies he works with.
Education is a powerful tool to place in the hands of young people. An education benefits not only the individual, but their community and their nation.
Education can contribute directly to poverty reduction, economic growth and stability. The acquisition of knowledge and skills through education improves individuals’ earning potential and ability to invest wisely in their future and those of their families.
Educating women and girls is particularly transformative; every additional year of schooling makes a difference to marriage age, fertility rates and health outcomes for women and their children.
Education is a two-way exchange and Bhutan has a lot to teach us in Australia as well.
Gross National Happiness is a model to other countries, including Australia, to ensure sustainable, holistic development.
Bhutan is a champion for progressive environmental policy – we are inspired by the fact that Bhutan is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative.
And globally, Bhutan is a role model for transitioning peacefully to democracy.
So I am very pleased that Australian students now have the opportunity to study here in Bhutan under the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan. There have already been 88 students that have undertaken study programs in Bhutan, including here at the Royal University of Bhutan, and 120 more will come in 2018.
I am sure that our Australian students will do us proud and themselves will make lifelong connections that will make our bilateral friendship even stronger.
Increasingly, as these examples show, the Australia-Bhutan relationship is a story of connections and networks.
Australian aid has and continues to look at ways we can make a positive contribution to Bhutan’s development.
Today, I announced that Australia will allocate $400,000 to support the UNDP in Bhutan under the UN Partnership to Promote the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Funding under this program will contribute to broader efforts in promoting solutions that will assist Bhutan to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
Around the world, we are increasingly acknowledging the importance of inclusion. By empowering all sections of society and ensure their full and equal participation, society can reach its full potential.
I also announced a $120 000 extension of support for the WFP school feeding program. With this support we will continue to ensure children have access to nutritious meals, contributing to higher enrolment and attendance rates and higher performance in the classroom.
As Australians and Bhutanese spend time deeply immersed in each other’s country, greater mutual understanding will open opportunities for new partnerships —inside and outside of government.
Last month, I came to learn that an Australian organisation, Interplast, which specialises in providing health services and surgery overseas made its sixth visit to Bhutan. The team assisted over 200 patients during their visit and worked closely with local medical staff to provide training and skill development.
Tourism presents another opportunity for stronger and richer ties between our communities. The number of Australians travelling abroad has doubled over the past ten years. Bhutan, as a global leader in sustainable eco-tourism stands well placed to benefit from Australians’ love for travel, exploration and the environment.
Innovation is another area where our two countries can benefit from partnership.
Extraordinary technological change is transforming how we live, work, communicate and pursue good ideas. The Australian Government is embracing innovation in every sector of our economy - from ICT to healthcare, education to agriculture, and defence to transport.
The Australian aid program is also fast becoming a recognised leader in innovation, delivering new and cost-effective solutions to pressing development challenges.
Earlier this month, three teams of Bhutanese Australian Alumni, selected from among 81 teams across the world, pitched their ideas at the Australian Alumni Innovation Challenge in Bangladesh. I am told that the real success of the Bhutanese proposals was how they recognised the need to integrate the ideas with government policy, and took the seed funding they received to develop innovative ideas that could do just that.
Partnerships like these show the opportunities we can generate by building on our connections, taking new paths and embracing innovation.
As we look back on 55 years of friendship, I am elated by what we have achieved together, the connections that have formed, and the new opportunities that this presents.
I am very confident that our relationship will continue to go from strength to strength.