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Monday, 22 June 1998
Page: 5085

Mr SERCOMBE (9:49 PM) —On a number of occasions in this House there have been calls on the government to establish an Australian embassy in Zagreb, Croatia. Most recently, a private member's motion was moved in May by the member for Moore (Mr Filing) and seconded very ably by my colleague at the table, the member for Reid (Mr Laurie Ferguson), calling on the government to give active consideration to establishing such a facility in Croatia and making the very obvious point that there was a very significant gap in Australian representation overseas. Government members in this chamber, on that occasion, as they have on other occasions, opposed that particular proposition.

The proposition comes back before the House through this medium because I have received—courtesy of the ALP's outstanding candidate in the seat of McMillan, Christian Zahra—a petition organised by the Gippsland Croatian Association calling for the government to establish an embassy to the Republic of Croatia. Unfortunately, the petition is not in a form suitable for formal presentation to the House, so I take this opportunity to speak on the matter.

Obviously and self-evidently, south-eastern Europe is not in Australia's prime sphere of strategic interest, but there are nonetheless vital interests for Australia in that region. It is the place of origin of tens of thousands of Australian citizens, and an estimated 10,000 Australian citizens are presently resident in Croatia. However, in that situation, to service that very significant social and cultural need, we only have one very under-resourced, overworked honorary consul to meet the vast array of duties that are required by the level of representation that the Croatian Australian community demands.

The needs not only relate to the Republic of Croatia but also to the adjoining Republic of Slovenia and to Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is an area from which tens of thousands of people have migrated to Australia. In that region of south-eastern Europe, the government continues to neglect the important functions that can be performed by an upgraded and enhanced Australian diplomatic and consular presence.

Because of its social and cultural contacts and because it is the place of origin for so many of our citizens, Australia has an oppor tunity to act as an honest broker from time to time and to play a role in resolving some of the outstanding issues that afflict that part of the world. Our failure to provide diplomatic representation there is a significant missed opportunity.

A very significant range of economic opportunities is also provided in that particular part of south-eastern Europe which Australia is simply not in a position to adequately explore, given the absence of effective representation, and we therefore place ourselves behind our competitors in that region in a situation where, hopefully, in the context of peace settlements emerging over time, rapid economic growth can be achieved.

Australian interests in that part of Europe are represented from the very charming city of Vienna. I can understand why some of our diplomats might well enjoy life in Vienna. There are important functions to carry out in Vienna, not least because it is the home of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nonetheless, that does not diminish the significant inconvenience and the significant missed opportunities that arise from Australia not taking up the opportunity from the call from the Australian-Croatian community for the government to advance this issue. The only reason in opposition advanced by government speakers on the occasion in May was the question of cost. The reality is that Australia is missing significant opportunities which are not costed into this. Australia does maintain representation in some places which, I would suggest, are somewhat less important to us socially and culturally than south-eastern Europe.

There is also a very important area of grievance in the Croatian community in Australia in relation to the failure of this government to adequately pursue social security agreements and health agreements with Croatia. Australia does have a significant number of social security agreements, but nowhere near enough, and a smaller number of international health agreements. These agreements are vital, particularly in aging communities, to ensure that Australian citizens, through their circumstances, are treated equally with other citizens. (Time expired)