Looking West The City of Perth and the Indian Ocean Region


The unprecedented economic growth that is occurring in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a matter of growing interest to Australia. During her term thus far, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has emphasised greater engagement with countries off Australia's West Coast.

The unprecedented economic growth that is occurring in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a matter of growing interest to Australia. During her term thus far, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has emphasised greater engagement with countries off Australia’s West Coast. This has also precipitated interest among business chambers and local government, as seen by the City of Perth, which has taken the lead to launch its Looking West policy initiative. Lisa Scaffidi, The Right Honourable Lord Mayor for the City of Perth, was interviewed by Serge DeSilva-Ranasinghe and explained what it means for Perth to be Australia's Indian Ocean capital.

Tell us why you see Perth as being more uniquely positioned as a ‘Gateway to Australia’ given that there are other Australian capital cities that also offer credible competition? What strengths can Perth showcase internationally that give it a competitive advantage over rival cities?

Lisa Scaffidi: The answer to both questions is quite simple: geography. Perth is so uniquely positioned compared to other major cities in Australia. First of all, we are Australia’s only capital city in the same time zone (GMT+8) as 60 percent of the world’s population and the countries with the most promising economic growth of the 21th century. For example, Perth shares the same time with Singapore and China; and Japan and Korea are only one hour ahead. Work is being done to modernise and upgrade our international airport, and business travellers can get to any of these cities in a matter of hours. We are also Australia’s only capital city on the Indian Ocean Rim, where half of the world’s container ships, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and about two-thirds of global oil shipments now pass through. This region is also home to about one-third of the world’s population and represents a wonderful spectrum of cultures, religions, and landscapes. The fact that Australia’s last two foreign ministers are from Perth, and that Australia’s largest naval base is in Western Australia, illustrates the importance of our geographic position.

The City of Perth has been involved in international engagement activities since 1974, when it formalised its first Sister City relationship. What tangible benefits have these ‘Sister City’ relationships actually provided to Perth?

Lisa Scaffidi: We do not view our Sister City relationships from a purely economic perspective as some of the main benefits they have brought to our city have been through long-term cultural and people-to-people connections. For example, I recently visited Kagoshima, Japan to commemorate the 40th anniversary of our relationship. While I was there, I met a man who did a student exchange to Perth in 1974. He had such a good experience that he has been an informal student ambassador ever since, singing the praises of our wonderful city in Japan for the last 40 years. Educational exchanges through our Sister City relationships also bring some of the most tangible economic benefits to our rate payers and to greater Western Australia. International education to WA in 2013/14 alone was valued at $1.28 billion. Historically, Sister City relationships were based principally on population and cultural ties. For example, Perth’s relationships with Kastellorizo, Greece and Vasto, Italy were created as a result of our strong Italian and Greek communities. Our younger relationships were formed with more focus on economic synergies and shared areas of interest. For example, our most recent Sister City relationship signed with Chengdu, China in 2012 has been very active and partnerships in medical research, fashion, and education are already well underway. All of our Sister City relationships, old and new, provide avenues and opportunities for us to connect people, groups, and companies; and facilitate the creation of mutually beneficial partnerships. The city formally recognised the overlap between international engagement and economic development in 2013 when our International Engagement team was moved into the City of Perth’s Economic Development Unit. Our International Engagement officers work very closely with our domestic, economic and commercial officers to identify potential areas for collaboration through all of our international relationships, with a focus always on creating economic benefits for the City of Perth.

Why has the City of Perth recently produced the ‘Looking West’ policy with a strong focus on the Indian Ocean Region? Given that Perth has always been an Indian Ocean city by geography, why is the Looking West policy only coming out now?

Lisa Scaffidi: The Council first recognised the need for a more strategic approach for the City’s international engagement in June 2009. It was around this time that the State and Federal Governments and Australian policy bodies and think tanks started to shift their focus to the Indian Ocean Rim. We recognised that Perth’s unique geographic position has the potential to provide significant, long-term benefits to our residents so it imperative for us to take full advantage of our position. After a long consultation process, many hours of research and a realignment of priorities, our Looking West strategy was produced and endorsed by Council in 2014. As you may have already heard, the City of Perth is undergoing a major internal restructure in 2015/16. Our plan is to launch the strategy later in the year once the director of our newly created Economic Development and Activation Directorate is appointed and settled in. Stay tuned!

Which are the Indian Ocean region countries and cities that are of particular interest and why? How will ties be strengthened on a practical level, and what economic benefits can Perth anticipate?

Lisa Scaffidi: We see the Looking West strategy as a platform to explore economic synergies, opportunities for collaboration, and shared interests for future partnerships throughout our region. Our aim is to create closer ties with all of WA’s major trading partners in the Indo-Pacific region. We work very closely with State and Federal government agencies such as the Department of State Development and Austrade to ensure that our work is complimenting the great work that is already being done. I believe that we need to be doing a lot more with countries like Indonesia, which is expected to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050; and India, which under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership is rapidly opening up for business. We are also assessing our current Sister City relationships to see what else can be done to maximise the benefits from existing partnerships through an economic development lens.

To what extent will there be coordination with the State and Federal governments on the Looking West policy, considering that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has begun to shift focus towards developing closer ties with the Indian Ocean Region. For example, how will the City of Perth work with the Indian Ocean Region Association (IORA)?

Lisa Scaffidi: In creating the Looking West strategy, input was sought from the State and Federal governments and their agencies. Since the City of Perth Council adopted the strategy in 2014, we have also had detailed discussions with stakeholders, government agencies, and businesses on a State and Federal level to ensure our efforts are value-adding and best placed. We all recognise the benefits that can be reaped from working together rather than working independently. There is no need to reinvent the wheel! So it is imperative to identify gaps where we can add value and compliment the great work already being done. The City has already built a very close relationship with the Indian Ocean Region Association. City of Perth representatives attended the IORA Council of Ministers Meeting held in Perth the last two years while Australia was the Chair. We were also extremely supportive of the creation of the Indian Ocean Business Alliance (IOBA) that was launched at IORA in 2014. We have been working and will continue to work with IOBA to forge stronger ties at the city-to-city level within IORA communities.

There are 11 cities that have either a Sister City agreement or a Charter of Mutual Friendship Agreement with the City of Perth. None of these cities are located within the Indian Ocean region, and only five of the 11 cities are within Asia. How will the City of Perth prioritise its existing Sister City relationships while seeking to foster new such relationships with Indian Ocean region countries?

Lisa Scaffidi: We do not see balancing our existing Sister Cities and forming new relationships as an 'either-or' situation. I strongly believe that we can do both. Through maintaining our current relationships, we are working hard to identify new opportunities and synergies to maximise the benefits for both sides. We hope to expand our current relationships outside of just civic and ceremonial ties, into more economic-focussed relationships. In the future, relationships could be multilateral or structured as economic memorandums of understanding rather than traditional Sister City relationships. I think it is less about competing interests and more about having our finger on the pulse and the relationships in place, so we can identify and act on opportunities as they arise. Our officers are very actively attending events, networking, researching and creating collaborations so this can happen.

The Looking West policy states that the City of Perth shall 'adapt and respond to changing global circumstances'. What do you see as being Perth’s strengths in the international context, and to what particular global circumstances does the City of Perth need to adapt and respond to both now, and into the future?

Lisa Scaffidi: Aside from Perth's advantageous geographic position that I mentioned earlier, as a City we have much to offer. We have excellent infrastructure, clean air, rivers and oceans, and internationally recognised natural beauty. For the past 10 years, Perth has been ranked in the top 10 of the world’s most liveable cities by The Economist and the latest Mercer Quality of Life Survey also ranked Perth in the top 10% of world cities. Just last year, BBC Travel rated Perth as one of the top five healthiest cities worldwide. We are politically stable, although because of politics I will admit that it is not always smooth sailing! But generally, we are lucky to have a fair political system, a great quality of life, and abundant opportunities. We not only offer great investment opportunities but a great lifestyle as well, which makes us extremely appealing. One of our main challenges is also our main focus, which is attracting capital into the city. We must retain workers who are highly skilled, or find a way to train them. Another challenge will be accommodating a growing population by ensuring we have appropriate infrastructure, housing, and a diversified economy to ensure low unemployment. Our main priority is to service the needs of our residents, but we also understand that it is our responsibility, as Western Australia’s capital city, to also ensure that our regional cities are taken care of. Our aim is to secure the long-term prosperity and vitality of our city, our state and our country.

Thank you Lord Mayor for the opportunity.

Serge DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, consultant and a Research Fellow with the Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia, and a non-resident Fellow with the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.

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