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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 181


Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (12:03): The International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD, was first established in 1977 and Australia was one of the founding nations. Before we withdrew from IFAD in 2004, we had contributed more than $50 billion. IFAD was founded to help the rural poor overcome poverty. That is a very important role. Indeed, it is impossible for countries of the Third World to pull themselves up into the First World unless, of course, agriculture pays the primary bills in those economies. In poor farming families, the ability to fund children's education is normally generated by whatever agricultural assets the families have. So this role is important and Australia should be involved with agricultural development in nations within our sphere of influence.

After 27 years of involvement, in 2004 Australia pulled out of IFAD primarily for three reasons—the lack of activity in our area of interest, other organisations doing a far better job than IFAD and, most importantly, the culture of sloppy management and wastefulness permeating IFAD. So in Australia the Howard government decided that it was no longer good use of taxpayers' money to be investing in this organisation and that the resources could be better used in other places in our foreign aid budget.

I support foreign aid and I support the aim to increase the quantity of foreign aid that Australia provides. At times you, Mr Deputy Speaker Leigh, would have to field arguments within your electorate from people who believe that charity begins at home and that we should be concentrating on issues in Australia before we concentrate on issues overseas. I argue with this point of view. I think there are very good reasons for Australia to continue to have a strong foreign aid budget. For instance, look at countries in our sphere of influence, like Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, right on our doorstep, our second closest neighbour, with 160 million people and, most importantly from our point of view, a developing democracy. There are very good reasons to ensure that modern Indonesia is a success, and our role there is important.

It is very important that we continue to involve ourselves with our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. We have a long-term moral commitment to PNG. It is in our interests to see a stable democracy continue there and that any altercations which may happen on their shores do not bleed into Australia.

We have also had involvement with a country a little bit further away—Sri Lanka. Along with Indonesia, it is at the moment the biggest source of asylum seekers coming to Australia. So it is in Australia's interests to be involved and spend some dollars in these countries to try to make them better places so people do not wish to leave. Foreign aid is primarily about helping people, but it is also about promoting Australia's interests. Peaceful, prosperous nations in the Asia-Pacific region are definitely in Australia's interests.

Just for the record, of those three countries I mentioned, Indonesia is the biggest recipient of foreign aid at $578 million, PNG receives $491 million, and Sri Lanka—I think, a little surprisingly—receives $47 million, not a huge sum in this context. That makes a total not just in those three countries but in the East Asia-Pacific region, that direct area of influence for Australia, of $2.49 billion, or roughly half of the total foreign aid budget. It brings into question what we are doing with the other half, because I am not a great supporter, for instance, of Australia being heavily involved in Africa. I think there are other nations that have primary responsibility for Africa, particularly in Europe. We do not see the Europeans being heavily involved in the Asia-Pacific region. Africa is on their doorstep, so we should be concentrating on those countries that have a direct influence on us.

I have been fortunate enough in the last year or two to have visited Sri Lanka and a number of aid projects that Australia is involved with there. I saw some schools we have erected, most notably a two- and three-storey brand new school for 1,400 students for $750,000. That would not have gone far in the BER project, I might point out—not far at all. But it was good enough to house—

Mr Hartsuyker: A library, I think.

Mr RAMSEY: Barely half a library—more likely a COLA, if you cast your mind back. I was witness to the mine-clearing operation which is so important to northern Sri Lanka. I might point out that Minelab, a company based in Adelaide, is actually the supplier of the best equipment in the world in this case. There was a housing project where we were restoring houses that had been lying derelict for 10 years or more. And importantly there was a project helping farmers re-establish themselves back on their land. We were providing one dairy cow and dairy shelter. That does not sound much in Australia, but it was making an enormous difference there. It was the ability for a Sri Lankan farmer to feed and start to educate their children.

In Indonesia I was able to visit an earthquake zone where Australia had been involved in restoring or implementing clean water supplies, building schools, once again, and a housing project teaching local tradesmen how to build housing which will not fall over in the next earthquake, because they are naturally drawn to the cheapest form of construction.

They are important projects, but the important difference between those projects and IFAD is that they are projects over which we have control. We have control over where they are and what country they are in, and we have control over project management. Should we reinvest in IFAD we will give up our control. We will cede it to someone else, and the record is not great.

One of the reasons we withdrew from our commitment to IFAD in 2004, along with that specific nature I have already covered, was the shortcomings in management and the failure to respond to concerns raised by the Australian government with IFAD. Basically, as I said in my opening remarks, there was sloppy management and waste. So, if we rejoin and resume our funding commitment to IFAD, we would want a cast-iron guarantee that we are not wasting our money.

I cannot stress enough how committed we on this side of the chamber in the coalition are to stopping government waste and making sure the taxpayers get value for their dollars. The government has had a very poor record in this area. I mentioned a few programs, but there was also pink batts, Green Loans and $900 cheques. One of the latest was the nationwide survey and consultation period over how we should celebrate 100 years of Anzac tradition. What a glorious waste of money. I am aware of gatherings that had been organised at huge cost to the taxpayer that two people rolled up to. Australians know how to celebrate Anzac Day. We should know that as a matter of instinct.

To come back to IFAD, in 2011 the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade revisited the decision of 2004 and found that it was justified. In fact, the desktop analysis by the Multilateral Development Banks' Common Performance Assessment System in 2008 found that IFAD had one of the lowest disbursement ratios and one of the least satisfactory variances between planned and actual project duration. If we are to rejoin this program, we would want to know that is no longer the case. I have not seen anything in the government's assessment and argument for rejoining this organisation telling us they could guarantee that is no longer the case. In fact, the Office of Audit and Oversight of IFAD had an increase in allegations of fraud and corruption from five to 41 cases in the years from 2004 to 2011. That is quite a cause for concern, yet still the government wishes to rejoin. In 2011, IFAD's annual report said reduced staffing had led to a very high investigation case load due to the 59 active cases compared with 49 in 2010 and 33 in 2009. Those statistics are going the wrong way.

Now the government plans to give $126 million to IFAD—$120 million, interestingly, in the first year, 2013-14. It is worthwhile comparing that with what some other nations around the world are giving to IFAD in 2013-14. Canada, a very comparable nation, is committed to providing $76 million, New Zealand is committed to zero, the UK is committed to $83 million, Germany is committed to $70 million and the US is committed to $90 million. It would seem that Australia is intent on leading the pack and the government has discovered a great enthusiasm for investing in agriculture. My good friend the shadow minister for agriculture, the member for Calare, highlighted some of these concerns.

The government speaks publicly of the global food challenge, of innovation, of Australia's role and of the importance of the farmer. Those types of statements would justify a commitment to agriculture and may well justify Australia's interest in being re-involved with IFAD, but actions speak much louder than words. Here in Australia the cuts to agriculture have been deep. The member for Calare mentioned these figures just moments ago, but in 2007 the budget for agriculture was $3.8 billion and in 2012 it is $1.7 billion—and much of that money is provided by industry levies. It seems that the government does not actually believe its own rhetoric.

Late last year in this place I spoke about Australia's commitment to agricultural research. Australia has one of the lowest levels of government support for agriculture in the world. The US, for instance, spends over $20 billion a year on agricultural support, while Europe spends more than 50 billion euros a year. I am not one who would argue that we should be returning to the days of subsidies and support for agriculture—I think we have gone past that point, and Australian farmers know that, and our economy is ill-structured to afford such expensive support. But as a person who has farmed for most of my life and been involved in agricultural research I continually insist that we provide the tools to our coming generation of farmers to equip them to compete in this increasingly competitive world. The most important tools we can give them are modern methods of growing better, higher quality crops, with more niche marketing, and doing that at a lower cost. That needs significant research.

We have a proud history of leading the world in agricultural research—dryland agricultural research, at least—but so many of our research institutions are staffed by people who are the product of the 1970s and 1980s. There has been a long and steady decline in the number of people committing to study in agricultural fields. We need some help out there. When the government withdraws from funding organisations like CSIRO Land and Water, it adds to the problems of Australian agriculture. While the government is now talking about giving to an international organisation money to spend as they wish anywhere in the world with no control from us, it is withdrawing help for Australian agriculture to be the best it can and to provide important food sources not only for Australia but for the world.