Talking trade, peace process, and Miss Universe with Australia’s new ambassador to the Philippines

Annalisa Burgos

Posted at Jan 28 2019 10:32 PM | Updated as of Jan 28 2019 10:46 PM

For Filipinos, there’s no gray area when it comes to where this year’s Miss Universe comes from. Which is why diffusing any bad blood over the Australian media’s claim to Miss Universe Catriona Gray has become one of the more unique jobs of the new Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steve Robinson.

“We’d love to have a proportion of that, but we are leaving that to the Philippines,” the career diplomat told me in an exclusive interview before the embassy’s Australia Day celebration at the Makati Shangri-La on January 26.

The ambassador and his staff welcomed hundreds of guests from the business and diplomatic communities to what was essentially Robinson’s “coming out” party. After embassy postings in Bangkok, Yangon, and Jakarta, Robinson and his wife Rhonda have called Manila home for just two weeks.

Robinson displayed his sense of humor by referring to the recent Miss Universe controversy in his speech, while also touting the nations’ nearly 75-year relationship founded on security, trade and people-to-people links, noting more than 300,000 Filipinos live in Australia. Famous Fil-Aussies Anne Curtis and Ylona Garcia, as well as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Budget Secretary Ben Diokno, were among the VIP guests.

“What we’re going to do is promote our defense cooperation and our security work together, but also try and expand our trade and our commercial dealings, investment in Australia from the Philippines and investment from Australia into the Philippines,” Robinson said, expressing optimism for even closer ties, as Australia and the Philippines mark 75 years of formal diplomatic relations in 2021.

Robinson’s arrival also comes at a critical time in the Mindanao peace process, of which Australia is a key partner. The Bangsamoro Organic Law received a “yes” majority in the first plebiscite on Jan. 21, with the next one scheduled for Feb. 6. (Incidentally, Robinson’s first visit to the Philippines 40 years ago as a university student included a trip to Zamboanga, which he loved.)

“This sets the stage very, very well for a range of developments in the South that are most positive in terms of helping develop the South and in looking after the Muslim population that is down there,” Robinson said. “By the middle of 2019, over 50 percent of our aid will be focused on the South through a range of different areas, but particularly focused on education, on planning, on budget, lots of governance work with a range of different agencies and organizations to help the South develop. I think that’s very important in terms of the security of Southern Philippines but more broadly across Southeast Asia.”

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte receives the credentials of Ambassador-designate of Australia to the Philippines Steven James Robinson at the Malacañan Palace on January 15, 2019. Palace/PCOO handout photo

Aside from security, a business-friendly environment is a must for investors. Robinson said more than 300 Australian companies are already in the Philippines employing some 40,000 Filipinos, but more can be done. He hopes the Philippines’ strong economic growth rate between 6-7% and a palpable sense of market confidence will attract more Australian investors.

“That’s a real enticement in terms of where the government is going,” he said. “Innovation in particular in business and the high technology end of the market… that’s something that we’re really keen to push, because Australia is really giving a strong thrust to science and technology and IT.”

Education also offers growth opportunities, he said, with Australia working on K to 12 reforms with the Department of Education, and at least 11,000 Filipinos traveling to Australia each year to study.

Defense, trade, peace, education, people--all foundations of the broad and deep Philippine-Australia relationship, Robinson said, which has weathered disputes and differences, like the deportation of Sister Patricia Fox, a basketball brawl during a World Cup qualifier, and a beauty queen of joint descent.

“Long friends can talk directly and work collaboratively for the future,” he said.

The mark of a lasting friendship.