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Top End ties

One of the things I love about being a diplomat is that I get to live in other countries and gain a deeper understanding than is possible through fleeting visits. However, a diplomat also has to know their own country well, which can be particularly challenging with a big and diverse country like Australia. Recently, I visited Darwin in the Northern Territory, my first ever visit to Australia’s so-called Top End where I learned much about the ties between the Philippines and northern Australia.

This year we are celebrating 70 years of formal diplomatic relations between Australia and the Philippines, but our ties extend back much further. As long ago as 1860, Filipinos travelled to Northern Australia to work in the pearl diving and shelling industry. Many of them made Australia their home and married into local families.

In Darwin, I met people who are researching this largely undocumented aspect of Filipino Australian history. I learned of Filipinos who signed up to the Australian defence forces and fought in various conflicts, and those who established successful businesses. At the Darwin Military Museum I visited the memorial to Filipino merchant seamen killed in the bombing of Darwin during WWII. I visited Spain Street named after a prominent Filipino family who ran a barber shop and whose descendants are still in Darwin today.

There have been waves of Filipino immigration to Darwin from the early settlers to today’s migrants, who also often come in search of work. Today, Filipinos represent the largest ASEAN group in Darwin numbering up to 6,000.

There are also a growing number of Filipino students studying in Darwin. Around 150 are at Charles Darwin University, ranked in the top two percent in World University rankings. CDU is actively building its links with universities in the Philippines. Students have good job prospects and can work for 20 hours per week while studying.

The Australian Governme000000nt launched last year its Northern Australia Initiative to foster infrastructure and economic growth at the Top End. It struck me that there may be some synergies with the Philippine  government’s focus on the development of Mindanao. I was surprised by how many Darwinians are regular visitors to Davao and are well informed about developments in the Philippines.

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One avenue for potential collaboration between Northern Australia and the Southern Philippines is the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). Darwin has long participated in activities of this group and has recently reinvigorated its involvement.

Wherever Filipinos make their homes, they bring with them their rich cultural and culinary traditions and Darwin is no exception. I met a number of members of Darwin’s Filipino community including the Honorary Consul John Rivas, who migrated to Australia 45 years ago. John told me about some of the cultural activities the community supports including a very active basketball league.

My visit coincided with the Darwin Festival and I saw one of the Filipino acts, Quezon City ensemble, Sipat Lawin, who performed their interactive piece Gobyerno, where theatre goers create their ideal government. With an upcoming Northern Territory election, it was certainly a rousing experience demonstrating that most political issues are universal.

The thing that surprised me most was how easy it is to get to Darwin from Manila on a direct four-hour flight. In fact, Darwin is around 1000kms closer to Manila than to the Australian capital, Canberra. Darwin is the northern gateway to Australia and the perfect base to explore the UNESCO listed Kakadu national park and the spectacular Katherine Gorge.

I didn’t get to those places on this trip but they are on my must-see list now that I know how easy Darwin is to get to from Manila. And what better way for me to learn more about my own country and the intrepid Filipino migrants who have made such a vibrant contribution to the melting pot of Darwin.

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(Amanda Gorely is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter @AusAmbPH.)

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