Australian Ambassador Barry O’Farrell AO who was in Thimphu recently to present his credentials to His Majesty The King talks to Kuensel Editor, Tshering Palden about the Bhutan-Australia relationship. Excerpts.
We are observing the 20th anniversary of Australia-Bhutan diplomatic relations. What makes it different and how has it evolved?
I wish my former friend Tim Fischer was still alive because I am astounded at the strength, depth and breadth of the relationship and how it has gone to higher levels. Of course, we were delighted to see the opening of the embassy in Canberra which is a further sign of the closeness of the work that is going on. There is no doubt that education and skills remain at the centre of it. But I think it is also a relationship over the decades that has shown that where Bhutan has particular needs Australia is happy to step in to assist.
What are some of the milestones in this relationship?
Clearly at the heart of any relationship is economics because unless a country has a sound economy it can’t meet the needs of its citizens and can’t provide the living standards that they want. So that’s why education and skills will continue to be a central pillar of the relationship. Because being able to return to not only skilled or educated individuals but those who, because of the post-study work rights, have the capacity to work in Australia after their studies, it means you have job-ready people. So this is not a brain drain. This is about capitalising on the innate skills and talent that exists in Bhutan and ensuring that it can provide even greater service to this nation.
We have seen major reforms in tourism. What is your view on the USD 200-a-day sustainable development Fee?
Firstly, the lesson of government that has been brought into stark contrast post-Covid or in the events of Covid is that no government or country can rest on their laurels. We need to continue to work as countries, governments, and individuals to improve ourselves and improve what we are delivering to our people.
I am a fan of what Bhutan is doing in terms of tourism. You have, sometimes I suspect it is taken for granted here in Bhutan, a very special part of the world. You should not discount it. The fact is, as you saw pre-Covid, there is no holding people back. The uniqueness of your country, the system of government, culture, your ethos, but more importantly, your geography will always be attractive to the people, particularly at a time when so many other countries are suffering and have been suffering for some time the consequences of climate change.
I know when it gets to price points in all countries it is sensitive but maximising the returns from ecotourism to benefit the people of Bhutan, I think, is a no-brainer. I am sure there are probably other countries with strong tourism industries, who wish to replicate the same thing.
There have been criticisms of this change saying it is aimed at only rich tourists. Do you agree?
There are two things. Firstly, no one is forced to take holidays in a particular place. It is a matter of choice. Having lived in this region of the world for the past two and a half years, there is no shortage of choices. Nor there is a shortage of price points that you can choose. The flip side is why should people, who have more resources than most of us will ever see in our lifetime, be able to come to a country as magnificent as this and not make some significant return to its economy?
Australian annual scholarships have been very helpful to the Bhutanese. What would it be like hereafter?
Well, ambassadors are by nature very optimistic. Over the last decade or so, the numbers sat at around 10 to 12. In Covid times, it went down. But in Covid times, all economies even Australia, because of the enormous amount of money the government, state and federal, spent to look after people including the students in-country, have suffered. However, my team and I will always be arguing for more of those (scholarships).
The good news is that we are now seeing a number of universities offering scholarships as well. I think the suite of options is now beyond what the Australian government is offering. Many of our universities are seeking to capitalise on the work that the Australian government has done to encourage people from this region to study in Australia.
Hopefully, we will see the 10 to 12 resume on the 12-side and see that increase in the future.
We had a change of government earlier this year. The good news is that there is no sign that the change of government is other than enthusiastic for continuing engagement here.
We have a foreign minister who is of Asian descent and she continues to make the point that this is our neighbourhood. We have 25.5 million people and the census tells us that one in two of those Australians was born overseas or had a parent born overseas. So even the Bhutanese community is growing (around 12,000).
What else do we look forward to in this relationship?
Clearly, I think all governments around the world are trying to lift skill sets and the productivity of their public sectors because we know that governments make decisions but it is the public sector that translates them into reality for the citizens. And to do that you want the best possible people and lifelong learning has been with us for probably a generation and I just see it continuing.
There are things that we probably take for granted in Australia in relation to sectors that are increasingly important and obviously intrinsic to this country in relation to renewable energy. We are the largest users of solar panels in the world. Our institutions are very good at developing renewable power or this power. There are things in this space that we can help with and technology generally.
Senior officials would be talking about gender inequalities and that would also be an opportunity to refresh the objectives. And I am confident that any objectives and asks from Bhutan will continue to be considered favourably by the Australian government as the Australian governments in the past. The great thing about our relationship with this part of the world is none of them changes when governments change in Australia.
There are probably things in the digital health area that we can assist with. We are struggling to deliver good health services to people in remote areas.
I was keeping an eye on things in Bhutan and the leadership provided by His Majesty the King was just extraordinary to read about. There are many types of leaders but those who are committed to service are amongst the best and His treks across the country to see first-hand what had happened and what was being done to ensure that citizens got the care and support they deserve was truly phenomenal. This is a country that is blessed in many ways and it is blessed clearly with great leadership.