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Wednesday, 26 March 2003
Page: 13574

Mrs GALLUS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs) (3:36 PM) —The opposition has failed to hold a consistent position on the removal of Saddam Hussein and Australia's role in the current conflict. In a regrettable move—

Ms Macklin —What about the humanitarian effort?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Jagajaga had her opportunity.

Mrs GALLUS —they now seem to be trying to make political capital out of the peace. Let me assure the opposition that Australia will more than fulfil our humanitarian obligations to the people of Iraq. The Australian people have the right to expect that their humanitarian efforts are not belittled nor minimised. The member for Lalor referred to a cut in the costs of the core budget to UNHCR last year.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Lalor!

Mrs GALLUS —However, a little homework may reveal that—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Lalor!

Mrs GALLUS —in accessing funds from a new program that was created last year—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Lalor is warned!

Mrs GALLUS —the UNHCR received funds greater than their previous core funds. In her address to the parliament, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition said that following the conflict in Iraq the need will be enormous, and I can only concur. Saddam Hussein's regime has corrupted Iraqi institutions and stunted Iraq's civil administration and its economy. Sixty per cent of the population are reliant on the UN oil for food program. Under Saddam's regime, many people in Iraq did not get that food. He had refused to allow many NGOs into Iraq, and sometimes he impeded UN workers trying to oversee the oil for food program. In fact, in the early 1990s he launched a series of terrorist attacks against NGO and UN workers in northern Iraq. Under this despicable regime, one in three Iraqi children in the south and in the centre of the country suffer from chronic malnutrition. Poor water supplies, in terms of both quality and quantity, and inadequate sanitation services have contributed to frequent and repeated diarrhoeal infections amongst children. Currently, 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage is discharged directly into freshwater bodies each day which, as you would know, contributes very much to illness in children.

Unfortunately, during the conflict the oil for food program has been suspended. The World Food Program estimates that food supplies to those most vulnerable are unlikely to last beyond May. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition will join with me in hoping that the conflict is well over by May so that we can resume the program. This government are working closely with our allies to secure the resumption of the program as soon as possible. We are deeply concerned about the water treatment plants in Basra. We have heard that they have been non-functional since Friday due to the damage to the power supply system, as the deputy leader mentioned. The Red Cross, which has received Australian government funding, has so far restored supplies to 40 per cent of Basra's population. It has also accessed the Wafa al-Quaid water plant north of Basra that provides most of the city's water to carry out essential repairs. The Red Cross is also working to ensure access by technicians to repair the city's power supply system, which is critical to the re-establishment of clean water supplies. UNICEF, another agency to which Australia has already committed funds, is working hard to provide assistance, including the provision of water and medicines, to Basra and to get them to the people of Basra as soon as security permits. There are a number of internally displaced people in northern Iraq. Many of them are being cared for by other family members in that area, but there are others who have to be looked after by local authorities and UN national staff.

Australia's contribution is going to be significant. After hostilities cease, rehabilitating Iraq will be an enormous and pressing task. Given the devastation wrought by the years of repression under Saddam Hussein, the international community must join together to support the Iraqi people as they rebuild their country's political, economic and social institutions. It is encouraging that some 50 countries have joined the international coalition in supporting the disarmament of Iraq. As the Prime Minister said yesterday:

We see our role as not only enforcing the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, but also in making a contribution to the alleviation of the suffering of the Iraqi people.

I hope the opposition will join in that sentiment. Australia will do all it can to support the Iraqi people's efforts to establish sound political and economic institutions based on the rule of law, as well as democratic and free market principles. The government has already committed $17.5 million to the United Nations and international humanitarian agencies—$6 million has gone to the UN Central Emergency Revolving Fund, $2 million to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, $2 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross, $2 million to UNICEF and $1.5 million to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, while $2 million is to be allocated to Australian NGOs, who will be identified based on established capacities within Iraq and the Middle East region.

We have also purchased 100,000 tonnes of wheat for urgent humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq. The cost of that has not finally been arrived at, as the Prime Minister earlier said in question time. But it is a significant amount and will probably be worth more than double the amount that has already been committed by way of $17.5 million. Currently, we have two ships full of wheat in the area, and they can move very quickly to Iraq. Each ship is carrying 50,000 tonnes of wheat. The nearest ship is three days away. Australian and coalition clearance divers are currently working round the clock to clear the port of Umm Qasr, which is where the wheat will be unloaded. Unfortunately, the waterways are full of mines, and it will take a few days before we are able to dock and unload our ships at the port. Fortunately, the port has now been liberated and the only remaining question is the removal of those mines so that Australian wheat can be moved into Umm Qasr to give relief to the people of Iraq.

The Prime Minister has said that Australia will play a significant and constructive role in the reconstruction of Iraq. Agriculture is clearly a sector where Australia can make an effective contribution. Australia will mobilise a senior agricultural team to assist in the reconstruction of the sector and to support food security. The Australian aid agency AusAID is well known for its ability, together with ACIAR, to deliver assistance to developing countries in the construction of an agricultural base. In this case, it will help Iraq reconstitute its agricultural base.

Australia and Iraq have more than 50 years of agricultural links through the supply of wheat, meat, dairy products and dryland farming expertise. Australia is also well placed to provide assistance to support the development of an appropriate macroeconomic framework for Iraq. We are identifying a team of experts to support this work as appropriate. Australia will also explore areas where it can support the reconstruction of the health and water supply sectors.

Australia remains committed to providing humanitarian assistance in post-conflict situations. For example, Australia has spent $49 million in assisting the reconstruction of Afghanistan. You may remember that recently the foreign minister for Afghanistan visited Australia. He was extremely pleased with what we had managed to offer to Afghanistan and was also pleased that we are able to commit a further $10 million. I emphasise the importance of that contribution to Afghanistan: $59 million is an extraordinarily large humanitarian contribution from this country to a country outside our area, but it is in keeping with the responsibilities that we shoulder as part of this world to make sure that all countries have a future and can contribute to both the safety and the welfare of their people.

Currently, we are actively involved in post-conflict planning on Iraq with the US, the UK, the United Nations and others. Our focus is on priority areas where we can add value and which engage Australian interests—for example, as I mentioned before, the rehabilitation of the Iraqi agricultural sector. We are focusing on assisting Iraqis to build the capacity to govern themselves. For those in the opposition who are not familiar with Australia's aid program, may I say that one of the key planks of our program is assisting countries that have been in conflict or developing countries to build their own capacity. So we are not just providing services; we are building the skills and abilities of the people on the ground so that they can take over the services in their own countries. We help provide the sound policies, stable institutions and accountable systems that are a prerequisite for sustained growth and reduced poverty. We also, through our aid program, hope to create an environment conducive to private sector growth and investments in infrastructure and human capital.

We are working actively with the United Nations and our coalition allies to achieve the swift resumption of the UN oil for food program. I cannot emphasise enough how important the resumption of that program is. You will remember that earlier in the speech I referred to the fact that 60 per cent of Iraqis are dependent on the oil for food program. It is with deep regret that I say that the oil for food program did not work as well as it should. In those areas over which Saddam Hussein had control, the food did not reach many of the people that it was supposed to reach. We know from the billions of dollars that Saddam Hussein has amassed in foreign bank accounts that some of the proceeds from the oil for food program went not to the starving people of Iraq but into the coffers of the Butcher of Baghdad.

In question time today, in answering a question from the opposition, I believe, the Prime Minister said, `Australia will be very generous in the provision of humanitarian assistance to Iraq.' Our whole record backs that up, as does the commitment that we have already made—the $17.5 million to various UN agencies and other humanitarian agencies and the 100,000 tonnes of wheat, which are worth well in excess of double the amount of $17.5 million. Australia has an extremely proud record of providing emergency aid not only to our own Asia-Pacific region, where two-thirds of the world's poor are, but to other areas of the world where there has been severe conflict and where the people are suffering as a result. We will not walk away from our obligations to meet the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, and my hope is that the opposition will join with me in being extremely proud of Australia's humanitarian program following the conflict.