6th Australia - Vanuatu Business Forum

Assistant Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment Mark Coulton.

Having experienced the mellowing effects of kava for the first time, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Mark Coulton joked that he is considering opening a kava bar in Canberra. “Maybe that will calm things down a bit,” he quipped.

He was speaking at the Australia – Vanuatu Business Forum, which began yesterday at the Ramada resort.

“I was only half joking” he told the Daily Post. In Australia, he said, “there is a fair degree of ignorance about the role of kava. I put my hand up as well.”

He expressed a newfound respect for the role of kava in kastom and in other Pacific island cultures.

A discussion paper was released Wednesday. “We’re encouraging in the region who has an interest in this to put in a submission.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Ralph Regenvanu has had discussions with Australian officials on this during a recent visit to Canberra, and is sure to participate in the process, he said.

In the short term, personal use will be the focus. It’s likely that the volume allowed will double, from 2 kilograms of dried powder per adult to 4 kilograms.

Nonetheless, he insisted, some concerns remain about domestic consumption of the drink.

“There are some issues in Australia, not so much with kava itself as with the way it’s used and, frankly, what it’s mixed with. That’s the sensitivity in Australia.

“I think the Prime Minister [Scott Morrison]’s announcement is a big step forward. I think this review will be good. One step at a time.

“It’s obviously a crop that does well here, and prospects around the globe are looking up.”

He cited rapid growth in demand in the US market, where kava bars are springing up in numerous cities, from Florida to New York.

Some issues can drag on long after the announcements are forgotten, he said. But he was adamant that kava import restrictions would not be neglected.

“We’re quite determined this time that the process is quite short, and we actually get to a point where a decision can be made.”

Mr Coulton’s speech to the Business Forum yesterday began with strong support for the PACER Plus trade agreement, which has been received mostly with bemusement by the business community in Vanuatu. While some have voiced opposition to the agreement, the majority have simply ignored it.

Australia’s parliament has just ratified the deal, said Mr Coulton, and he looked forward to Vanuatu’s ratification as soon as possible.

The Daily Post asked the Minister how confident he was that PACER Plus is going to derive benefits for Ni Vanuatu.

“It’s taken a while for the local population to understand that there are benefits. I think Prime Minister Morrison’s here about a month ago has been a good catalyst for moving PACER Plus forward.

“My personal view is the more open and free and the less restrictions we have trading amongst those in our neighbourhood… we all benefit.”

Global trade, he argued, is “more polarised and maybe not quite as secure as it was”.

He added, “The super powers are clashing. I think it’s more important that those of us in our own region have systems in place where we can trade with little or no restrictions.”

But trade regulation isn’t the only area that needs immediate attention, he said. Lowering the bar for agricultural exports to Australia is a matter of importance.

“A lot of the work we do is helping Vanuatu and other countries understand our biosecurity arrangements in Australia. We obviously protect very closely our status as a… clean, free area. And Vanuatu takes pride in that, too.

“We are making some progress, but there’s a long way to go. Probably some work in supply chain and logistics to make sure that the world class produce that’s produced here can actually get to us in that condition. There’s a lot of work in logistics as well.”

Mr Coulton emphasised his kinship with Vanuatu agriculturalists by talking up his own rural roots. He represents a rural area of New South Wales whose largest population centre is roughly the same size as Port Vila.

“I’m a great believer in relationships and really believe we can grow and prosper and partner when we know and understand each other. And I do that by going to visit. It’s a great privilege, and I’m really pleased to be here.”

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