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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 65

Mr BAIRD (1:24 PM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade I present the committee’s report entitled Australia’s aid program in the Pacific.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.

Mr BAIRD —by leave—A considerable proportion of Australia’s aid goes towards assisting our Pacific island neighbours. In the 2007-08 financial year, $872.5 million will be disbursed in the Pacific, with the majority directed to assist citizens of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Each of the Pacific island states has different development needs, some more complex than others, and the Australian aid program seeks to help address a wide range of these. The Australian government does so in partnership with, principally, national governments but also other donors, non-government organisations and local communities.

Australia has long had a special relationship and historical links with several Pacific countries, especially with Papua New Guinea. It is not just a case of it being in Australia’s national interest to intervene or to provide aid: Australians genuinely want to help their neighbours. That said, government-to-government assistance is not always the perfect way to deliver aid. It is therefore important that there be a mixture of interventions, including those from civil society, NGOs and the private sector.

In the course of the inquiry, the committee heard from a wide range of stakeholders with an interest in development in the Pacific, Australians and Pacific islanders alike. Witnesses included academics, consultants, government officials, and representatives from non-government organisations, think tanks and business. The committee invited Pacific high commissioners in Canberra to a roundtable discussion and enjoyed talking to a number of Pacific islander recipients of AusAID development scholarships studying at the Australian National University, as well as returned Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development.

Both the Australian government’s white paper on aid and AusAID’s Pacific 2020 report highlight major development challenges facing the Pacific region. In addition to low economic growth, these include rapid population growth, social and political instability and health and environmental issues such as HIV-AIDS and climate change. The committee wished to gauge the Australian community’s response to the ways forward presented in the white paper and Pacific 2020 report and to engage in the debates shaping the aid and development agenda in the region today in order to gain insights into the challenges and successes of our aid contributions. Our inquiry focused on strengthening law and justice; improving economic management and public accountability institutions; maintaining access to basic services, especially health, anticorruption and good governance measures; and supporting peace building and community and civil society development.

One of the main themes to emerge during the inquiry was the need to improve growth in Pacific island economies. Stimulating the private sector has not typically been the domain of aid agencies, for a range of reasons, and public funds are naturally directed to the public sector. However, the committee heard there is much that the Australian government, the Australia-Pacific business councils, the private sector and NGOs like Australian Business Volunteers are doing, and can do more of, to help promote economic reform. This includes working to improve the policy environment as advisers in line agencies, investing in infrastructure and human capital and supporting entrepreneurial activities. To these ends, the committee notes the importance of financial services in the development of Pacific island economies and recommends that the Australian government develop a focused strategy to encourage financial services development, including microfinance.

The committee was impressed with an innovative idea presented to it by Mr Roland Rich, who proposes that the Australian tax rules be amended to encourage companies to become directly involved in building private sector capacities in developing countries by allowing them to deduct from their taxable income the full costs incurred in providing such assistance. The committee recommends that the Australian Taxation Office, in conjunction with AusAID, consider and report on the merits and practicalities of Mr Rich’s proposal. The committee noted the evidence presented to it of the importance to Pacific island economies of access to developed economies for seasonal workers and recommends an active and serious evaluation by the Australian government of the possibility of such a scheme.

Another key theme to emerge throughout the inquiry was the need for strong people-to-people links between Australians and Pacific islanders, not only for development reasons but also to promote a deeper understanding and better appreciation of our respective cultures. Concerns were raised by some that the people-to-people links between our nations—be they government-to-government, business, civil society or educational—have reduced in recent years. However, the committee learnt that many opportunities for engagement exist and that these are increasing. For example, Australia is expanding its scholarship assistance through the Australian Scholarships Program and will double the total number of education awards offered to the region to over 19,000. Established schemes such as the AusAID Development Scholarships program and the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program are very highly regarded throughout the region.

It is with these benefits in mind that the committee recommends that the Australian government consider establishing a Pacific island youth ambassador scheme similar to and possibly linked with the Australian youth ambassadors scheme or AusAID Development Scholarships, whereby young, skilled Pacific islanders can apply for placements in an Australian host organisation’s workplace for the purpose of work experience and cultural exchange. It is the committee’s view that an exchange such as this will build further personal contacts and boost cooperative networks in Australia and the Pacific. The committee also recommends that the stipend rate for scholarship recipients be regularly reviewed to ensure that the scholarship remains commensurate with the cost of living and is adequate for students with accompanying dependants.

Aid and development is a complex area in which to work. The committee acknowledges the efforts of Australians seeking to make a difference in this field, be they AusAID officials or public servants seconded to the Pacific from other government departments and agencies such as the Attorney-General’s Department, Customs, Defence and the Australian Federal Police; church groups; non-government organisations; academics; volunteers; or private citizens. All are collaborating on a daily basis with counterparts in the Pacific, working towards common goals. In some parts of the region it is more a work in progress than in others, but their efforts to promote and enhance human rights and security in the region are something that Australians can be proud of and should continue to support.

The committee heard that interventions like the Australian led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands and the Enhanced Cooperation Program with PNG are welcomed, not just by the region’s representative bodies like the Pacific Islands Forum—and RAMSI is very much a regional cooperation effort—but also by the majority of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea citizens. This is testament to the good work that Australian personnel, particularly from the AFP, do at a local level to build trust and goodwill.

I am grateful to all those who provided evidence to the committee. I thank my colleagues on the Human Rights Subcommittee who undertook the inquiry on behalf of the committee and the secretariat for their assistance.

Mr Deputy Speaker, if I could have a moment’s indulgence, as this is absolutely my final speech in the House, despite many people accusing me of being Dame Nellie Melba and of having multiple farewells. I would like to make one comment which time prevented me from making at the end of the valedictory speech to recognise the contribution that my wife has made to me. She is a psychologist—she often needs to be! In 43 years of marriage she has been my rock and my great support and I want to acknowledge that here. I would also like to acknowledge my children: Michael, who is now the member for Manly in the New South Wales parliament; his wife, Kerryn; and my grandchildren, Laura, Kate and Luke. Michael is certainly carrying on the flag of the Baird period in politics. He is also a good moderate lad and we hope that he upholds the true small ‘l’ liberal traditions. I also acknowledge my daughter, Julia, who lives in New York with her husband, Josh, and their baby, Poppy; and my son Stephen and his partner, Anne Marie. Without them, it would not be possible to be here. They have been tremendous support. There is also my faith, which has been so important in these 20 years in politics. Thanks to all of you very much.