Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia Michelle Hopkins Roberts, who visited Bhutan last week, talks with Kuensel’s Choki Wangmo on the Australia-Bhutan relationship and future collaborations. Excerpts. 

What is the purpose of your visit? 

Our purpose here is to build on our partnership between Western Australia (WA) and Bhutan. It is a partnership that goes back very many years. Since the 1960s, Bhutanese people have been studying in WA. In fact, WA is home to more Bhutanese people than anywhere else on earth, more than any other state in Australia or any other country. So, it is a strong partnership we have and it is the partnership post-Covid we want to build on and strengthen. We see lots of opportunities of working together for the benefit of WA, but more importantly for the benefit of Bhutan and Bhutanese.

What are some of the important highlights of your visit?

We had excellent meetings with Bhutanese officials. We were warmly welcomed by the speaker of the National Assembly and the parliamentarians, from which many studied in Australia and have children currently studying there, and indeed many of them in Perth. It was great to talk to them about their experience. We attended the opening of the Bhutanese Parliament, which was a big honour for myself and the delegation. To have the special holy blessing, the chanting from the monks, and to see the beautiful legislative assembly in session. We had the opportunity afterwards to network over morning tea with the members of the Parliament. I also met with the Foreign Minister and talked about many opportunities going forward. He led high-level meetings with Australian officials visit last year.

In the afternoon, we met The King, which I think is the highlight of this journey. What an enlightened and wise man, who has got the wellbeing of the Bhutanese in mind. He is very intelligent, wise, warm, and welcoming. We were so impressed. He engaged with all of the delegates. He made the whole delegation feel positive. Indeed, he thanked WA for what we have done for the Bhutanese who have come to our country. We are deeply honoured that Bhutanese people have particularly chosen to study in WA. We have a beautiful safe place and excellent education institutions working together. We are looking forward to welcoming many more to WA later this year and the next year.

What are some of the potential areas of collaboration besides education?

We have significant skill shortages in WA. It is an opportunity for people from Bhutan to come and work in WA in a whole variety of areas. We have a shortage of nurses and people in medical and age care and that is a critical area we need more people to work. we have a shortage of workers in the construction industries and there might be opportunities for people to either come and work in these industries or come and learn about it through vocational studies. We have been keen to learn about issues, if any, with Bhutanese experience in WA. It might have been good as more Bhutanese keep coming. I think word of mouth has worked towards WA’s advantage because it is important to us that every Bhutanese who comes to WA had good experience and return home sharing their experiences. That is our aim.

Bhutanese students are reportedly facing housing shortages and unemployment issues in the city. How is the Australian government working towards resolving these issues? 

We are keen to further support the Bhutanese community. Currently, my colleagues are working on having a Bhutanese house, so, we can bring people together. We are pleased to hear that apart from having an ambassador, there are plans to appoint an honorary consul to WA. I think that will be a key to representing the Bhutanese interests to our government so that we can resolve these issues. We came to know from the StudyPerth group that there is a whole range of financial assistance available, including, AUD 1,500 towards accommodation. Each of the university delegates today with me has dedicated welfare teams to work with Bhutanese students who come to WA.

Some students there say the education and living cost is comparatively higher for Bhutanese students in WA. Are there any opportunities for concessions and scholarships for Bhutanese students?

Our accommodation cost has gone up and we are working on providing more accommodation and trying to reduce those costs. Our costs of accommodation and living cost are much lower compared with those around the East Coast. By comparison, within Australia, WA is the most affordable destination. We wanted to do more. We also wanted to offer some scholarships up to AUD 50,000 for outstanding students in Perth. In the first instance, it is being offered to Indian students. By 2024, those scholarships will be open to Bhutan. There are other forms of scholarships and assistance. We are very keen to support the Bhutanese community and students in Perth. It is part of our mission here too and we are here to listen. We will further listen to Bhutanese communities in Perth about what they need. We want WA to be a welcoming destination of choice.

There are talks about major immigration policy changes in Australia. Should Bhutanese be worried?

Not at all. We are working towards making conditions much better. We had a change of government at the federal level one year ago and the new government has been reviewing the immigration policies, with regard to enhancing the experience and allowing people to stay longer and potentially work more and have a better experience. We are, if anything, relaxing the immigration conditions. But that is for the federal government to announce. As the WA government, we are keen to work with them and encourage them to make it so that Bhutanese students can stay longer and work after completing their studies.

Any further comments?

Thank you. You have the most beautiful country and the environment here is second to none. We had high expectations of our visit and Bhutan has well and truly exceeded our expectations.