Senator the Honourable Linda Reynolds, Minister for Defence;
The Honourable Melissa Price, Minister for Defence Industry;
General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Defence Force;
His Excellency John Feakes, High Commissioner for Australia to the Republic of Fiji;
Mr. Paddy Gregg, Austal Australia Chief Operating Officer;
Invited Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;
It’s an honour to be here this morning as we add the RFNS Savenaca – a brand-new Guardian Class Patrol Boat – to the ranks of the Fijian Navy. With room for 23 crew and a 3,000 nautical range, it’s a beautiful and technologically advanced addition to our fleet.
I’ve arrived in Australia on the heels of 54 Republic of Fiji Military Forces Engineers – known across New South Wales as the ‘Bula Force’ – who just wrapped up five weeks of service in regions devastated by the bushfire crisis.
I know just about every one of our Aussie friends here today either was impacted personally by the fires, or knows someone who was.
From the moment the devastating scale of the bushfires became clear, the thoughts of your Fijian brothers and sisters were with you and your loved ones. And we were proud to offer our troops to the rebuilding effort, not only by providing hard labour, but by sharing songs, kinship and a few laughs as well – whatever it took to lift the spirits of affected communities. When the rains finally broke through last month, it was an answer to countless prayers from across Fiji and the entire Pacific, including my own.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In 1970, at the dawn of Fijian independence, Fiji’s economic sovereignty extended over some 50,000 square miles of ocean. But in the 1980s, our exclusive economic zone swelled more than twenty-fold to cover over one million square miles of our planet’s surface.
Securing Fiji’s status as a large ocean state didn’t require a conquering armada to seize new swaths of sea.
All it took was smart diplomacy. Specifically, years of consensus-building from Fijian Ambassador Satya Nandan – who successfully championed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. My dear friend Satya passed away last week, and I’ve expressed my deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and all those who – like myself – have leaned on his wise counsel over the years. I know he would be proud to stand here in this moment as we strengthen Fiji’s ability to safeguard our seas.
It was following Fiji’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that the Fijian Navy was first formed and, shortly thereafter, the Australian-Pacific Patrol Boat Program came to be. In the decades since, the program has been a pillar of regional security, showing that secure Fijian waters mean secure waters for every nation in our patch of the Pacific.
I entered the Fijian Navy as a seaman in 1975 and eventually rose to the rank of commander.
I owe that life of service to the bravery of the Fijians before me who paved the way for the Republic of Fiji Military Forces and the Fijian Navy we know today.
One of those Fijians was a young man named Savenaca Naulutuma who served in World War Two’s Pacific theatre. At that time, the Royal New Zealand Navy was charged with Fiji’s defence, and Savenaca served on board the HM NZS Leander. An ocean way from his home, in the vicious fighting at the Battle of Kolombangara in the Solomons, he was killed in action. Today, we honour his courage and sacrifice as the RFNS Savenaca carries his name and carries on his mission of service to the Fijian people, and all people who call the Pacific their home.
This new vessel could not enter the ranks of our Navy at a more pressing time. International criminal networks are hitting the Pacific hard – particularly with the drug trade.
Most of the narcotics passing through our waters are bound for lucrative markets – Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, and other hubs in Australia and New Zealand – but the inevitable spillover makes this an issue far larger than any one market or nation.
It’s on all of us to band together to keep these criminals out of our waters and keep hard drugs out of our people’s hands – particularly young folks. With the RFNS Savenca in the ranks of our fleet, our capacity to combat drug smugglers will be futher bolstered for the benefit of our people and our society at large.
But it’s not only drug traders we’re worried about. The crew of this vessel, alongside the Fijian Navy Fleet, will combat illegal fishing, dumping, and human trafficking as well. None of these are Fijian threats alone. In fact, the one thing criminal operators, massive piles of trash, and swimming schools of tuna all have in common is a disregard for national oceanic boundaries.
The lines divvying up our seas exist only in our minds – in reality, the reckless abuse of any one square kilometre of ocean impacts us all.
Fiji stands ready to put our fleet to work to secure a safer Pacific. But we can’t limit our ambition to our region and lose sight of the larger, global challenges to oceans health and security. This June is the second UN Oceans Conference. And as a region home to some of the world’s largest ocean states, it’s vital that Pacific nations – along with Australia and New Zealand – press our campaign to save our oceans from the devastation of overfishing, climate change and pollution.
This vessel departs for its Fijian berth next month after its crew wrap up over two years of training. That’s all well and good. If this ship were departing tomorrow, I’d have half a mind to jump on board myself. You know, I actually took part in Fiji’s first-ever Naval deployment to Seattle some decades back and – to this day – I’ll always take a few days at sea over a few hours in a plane.
Nonetheless, we look forward to giving this ship a warm welcome when it does arrive home to Fiji.
In memory of patriots like my friend Satya, the brave seaman Savenaca, and all others who strive for a stronger and safer Fiji, may this vessel defend our oceans, our people, and the Pacific at-large. Thank you again to our vuvale, the Australian people, for their support of a strong Pacific.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.