Bula vinaka and good afternoon.

It is a pleasure to be with you all here in Brisbane as we kick off the 25th Australia-Fiji Business Forum. Today’s event stands as evidence of the intimate economic relationship between Fiji and Australia. A relationship whose strength is owed – in no small way — to the business communities of both countries’ commitment to strengthening this bond year after year.

My friends, I’m confident that history will already remember 2019 as a momentous year for the Fiji-Australian friendship. In January, I had the pleasure of hosting my counterpart, Scott Morrison, in his first official visit to Fiji –– the first-ever such visit by an Australian Prime Minister to our shores. Last month, we switched roles as I came to Australia for an official visit of my own. And just last week, Scott was again in Fiji to watch our rugby league teams go head-to-head in the 2019 PM’s XIII.

The frequency of these visits, and this direct line of communication we’ve established are unprecedented. Scott and I have formalised this new chapter in Fiji-Australia relations by putting ink to paper with the Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership. “Vuvale” means “family” in indigenous Fijian –– and this agreement seeks to significantly bolster our bilateral ties. I don’t just say that because Scott doubled the amount of kava I’m allowed to bring when I come to Australia, either. But there’s still room for the relationship to grow –– and Fiji is keen to work with Australia to keep up the momentum by updating our double taxation agreement.

Over the years, this Forum has evolved to become a hallmark event for Australian businesspeople who are looking to Fiji for investment and business opportunities. With over 120 companies as members, this Forum has become the perfect space for any business engaged in bilateral trade or looking to engage in the future. As we come together for this year’s event, joined by the highest levels of government from both Fiji and Australia, it’s clear now more than ever this Forum is a dynamic platform for exchanging ideas, engaging in networking, and exploring business opportunities between our two countries.

My government has always understood that, while government is a facilitator to economic activity, the real engine for growth is the private sector –– and we are dedicated to making sure that engine is well-oiled and humming. It’s why we’ve taken bold steps such as the divestment of shares in state-owned enterprises, and why we are actively forging public-private partnerships to transform public housing and improve our hospitals, the latter in partnership with Australia’s Aspen Medical.

Our corporate tax rate stands at 20 per cent –– one of the lowest rates in the region –– and for those foreign companies that establish their global and regional headquarters in Fiji, that rate drops even further to 17 per cent. And if you list your company on the South Pacific Stock Exchange, you pay only a corporate tax rate of ten per cent, with no tax on dividends. By the way, next year Fiji will, through the SPSE, host the World Exchange Congress.

The Fijian labour force is one of the most skilled and educated within the region; our people will prove to be a foreign company’s greatest asset when investing in Fiji. Fijians speak English with neutral accents ¬––– as we have been informed by experts in the call centre business – and we’ve made massive investments in ICT infrastructure, like the soon-to-be-upgraded Southern Cross Cable, that can support the growth of call centres and back-end business processing, allowing the natural charisma and talent of our people, in particular our youth, to be turned into new career paths and investment opportunities.

And that immense human capital is only set to increase in the years ahead, as we reap the first yields of our massive investment in education, including universal primary and secondary schooling and historic access and opportunities to tertiary institutions and training. With that new wave of educated young people comes a new, skilled workforce waiting to take your businesses to the next level.

Our tourism sector is thriving; 365,000 Australians visited our shores in 2018 alone. That’s a huge opportunity in itself for investment in the sector to augment different segments to capture the MICE market: Meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions.

Fiji has proven to be a secure and reliable business environment across a wide range of industries. Our agro-sector is ripe for opportunity. Not only in agricultural produce but in livestock and dairy – where Fiji has proved we can add serious value through agro-processing across the sector. And we’re making a serious move into the age-care space with generous tax incentives for the development of retirement villages. Which makes sense, as new retirees would be hard-pressed to find a better place, with better people, than Fiji.

From garment and textile production, to manufacturing, to mining, to film-making, and information technology and more, we are diversifying our economy in new and innovative ways, with each new door that is opened, we are witnessing lucrative opportunities found in previously-untapped potential.

We’ve emerged as a regional hub across multiple sectors, especially for businesses that want to tap into that perfect “Fijian formula” –– a mix of competitive advantages, from our air connections, our infrastructure, to the natural talents of our people. Your neighbours in New Zealand are currently beating you to this opportunity, as they increasingly take part in our outsourcing opportunities.

And over the years, Fiji has developed our banking and financial institutions to provide full financial services. We’re also expediting registration process for foreign investment projects. That streamlining has seriously picked up pace in recent months with digitalFIJI, a sweeping digitisation programme that we have undertaken in partnership with the Singaporean Government.

Recently, I had the privilege of launching the digitalFIJI platform. Those in this room will be excited to hear that initial initiatives under digitalFIJI have already brought a number of our company registration services online for the first time, including e-payment for registration under our new bizFIJI portal.

This new, online business portal has given users the ability to access a step-by-step guide and checklists to easily walk them through the registration process, and allows you to download application forms to start a business or obtain a construction permit. By providing this information in one-stop shop, we have drastically reduced the time required to seek out paperwork. This streamlining has been met with commitments by relevant agencies to quickly process applications improve their service delivery –– and we plan to hold them accountable to this raised bar. But this is just a preview of what’s ahead; over the course of the next 18 months, bizFIJI will evolve into a full online submission and approvals portal, allowing business licenses and construction permits to be issued entirely online.

When we speak of this type of business efficiency in Fiji, there are always murmurings of the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, and how Fiji has historically underperformed in its standing. While these rankings have their flaws and biases, they highlight a common cause that is shared by my government: cutting red tape and unwanted bureaucracy. We are wholly committed to improving service delivery and streamlining business efficiency, and with recent measures that have been taken, I’m confident that you’ll see a steady rise in Fiji’s ease of business ranking starting in 2020, when many of our new and planned reforms have fully come into effect and have been considered by the World Bank during their annual review process.

To ensure we stay on track, this year, my Cabinet approved the establishment of a new EODB Task Force under the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism. This Task Force will have my full backing to streamline procedures and processes, eliminate repetition and inconsistencies, and bring business transparency to new heights in Fiji.

With these goals in mind –– but also recognising that the best perspective comes from within the private sector itself –– we have recently established the Fiji Revenue and Customs Service Business Reform Committee, a group of business leaders representing sectors and industries, large and small. The Committee, which held its first meeting in August of this year, is charged with reviewing Fiji’s tax and customs services, improving stakeholder engagement strategies within FRCS, and building FRCS’s capacity to better accommodate businesses of all varieties, ensuring that all people, businesses and sectors receive professional services from FRCS – a critical step towards a more inclusive, agile and robust economy.

My friends, Fiji’s ten years of consecutive economic growth, alongside the host of incentives designed to make the Fijian market attractive for foreign investors, means that there is no better time to invest in our beloved country. Through our infrastructure investments and recent tax reforms, we’ve laid the groundwork for a host of new businesses to thrive –– from ICT, to roading companies, to consultancies and technical services, to retirement communities, and more, your potential is limitless.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I look forward to our discussions this evening. The resources at your disposal in this room are vast; our delegation includes my Minister for Industry, Trade, Tourism, Local Government, Housing and Community Development, Hon. Premila Kumar, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Disaster Management and Meteorological Services, Hon Jone Usamate, Minister for Agriculture, Waterways and Environment, Hon. Mahendra Reddy, Permanent Secretary for Industry, Trade and Tourism, Shaheen Ali and Daniel Stow from the Trade Commission, who will be able to provide you more information on recent reforms and assist you with any questions.

I would like to thank the Australia-Fiji Business Council for organizing this impressive event, and I wish all the participants of the 25th Australia-Fiji Business Forum a fruitful two days of networking and exchanges. I urge you to seize the opportunity at your feet here in Brisbane.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

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