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Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Page: 63
Senator BILYK (Tasmania) [5:38 PM] —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report of the parliamentary delegation to European Parliaments and Institutions.

Leave granted.

Senator BILYK —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

During April this year an Australian parliamentary delegation undertook a biennial visit to certain parliamentary, commercial and international institutions in Europe which are of significance to Australia. This delegation was led by the President of the Senate, Senator the Hon. John Hogg. The Hon. Philip Ruddock MP was the deputy leader of the delegation, and Mr Andrew Laming MP and I were accompanying members. Although the delegation was originally scheduled to depart Australia on 16 April and spend two weeks visiting parliaments and institutions in Sweden, Denmark, France, Belgium and Germany, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, whose name I will not even attempt to say, and its subsequent emission of an ash cloud caused major disruption to European aviation and resulted in the cancellation of the Scandinavian component of the program. However, all was not lost. Following a few days of anxiety and much hard work by the organisers, the delegation was able to proceed on an amended program arriving in Paris on 24 April, where it was straight down to work.

On arrival we toured the Musee du quai Branly, which houses a wonderful collection of indigenous artwork from Africa, Asia, Oceania—including Australia—and America. Some members then visited the very ornate French Senate, and we all attended various First World War battle sites on the Western Front in preparation for commemoration services on Anzac Day. We visited Fromelles, where we inspected the Pheasant Wood site and received briefings concerning the recovery of the bodies of those Australian soldiers that have been reburied at the recently opened new cemetery.

The delegation moved on to Peronne and inspected the Historial de la Grande Guerre, or ‘Great War Museum’, which is built behind a medieval castle. We went to Villers-Bretonneux to inspect the cemetery and war memorial, where we were to return the next morning for the dawn service. We then visited Amiens.

As you know, Mr President, the Anzac Day dawn service was held at the Villers Bretonneux War Memorial and Military Cemetery. It is estimated that more than 3,000 people were in attendance, many of them Australians of all ages. The President of the Senate, Senator the Hon. John Hogg, laid a wreath on behalf of the Parliament of Australia. Following a very moving service, we attended a breakfast reception and a further wreath-laying ceremony at the village war memorial. We then moved on to Petite Croix for a further wreath-laying ceremony at a small roadside memorial overlooking the land where battles were held. Bullecourt was our next stop, with another ceremony and an address by Senator Hogg. We then walked to the Australian digger memorial, where I was asked to lay a wreath on behalf of the Australian government.

Later that day we travelled to Ypres, in Belgium, where we completed the Anzac Day formalities by attending the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate. This ceremony has been held every night since July 1928. The bugles fell silent during the years of German occupation in World War II. The bugle call rang out again on 6 September 1944, the day the Germans left town. There is a story that one of the locals, one of the old prewar buglers, was sought out and encouraged to sound the last post for the first time in a liberated Ypres. Afterwards, British soldiers who had heard the sound supposedly sought him out and got him roaring drunk. Another story has it that he was already pretty inebriated by the time he got to the Menin Gate and, once there, encouraged by British, Polish and Canadian servicemen, he sounded the last post no fewer than six times! This nightly memorial is run by volunteers. It was indeed a privilege to be asked to read The Ode at this event. Anzac Day 2010 is a day I know everyone on the delegation will remember for a long time.

Anzac Day is probably Australia’s most important national occasion. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War. It was a great honour to be part of the official ceremonies in France and Belgium. The heartfelt hospitality and friendship of the French and Belgian officials was truly appreciated by all members of the delegation.

During the following days, meetings were held at the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Belgian Senate. These meetings were both informal and formal, allowing delegation members the opportunity to meet with other members of the parliament and their staff. Over the next two days, we attended the first Australia-EU interparliamentary meeting as a guest of the Delegation for Relations with Australia and New Zealand. The agenda was quite broad. It included issues such as EU-Australian relations, including progress on implementation of the Partnership Framework; trade liberalisation and agriculture, including the WTO Doha round; FTAs and prospects for further reform of the common agricultural policy; the global financial crisis; integration of immigrants in the EU and Australia; minority issues; human rights; and foreign affairs.

Prior to leaving Australia, members of the delegation had been requested to prepare a presentation on one of the topics. My presentation was on the global financial crisis, including Australian and EU responses, economic difficulties in some of the Eurozone countries and the role of the G20. I was able to give a background on the strength of the Australian financial system and the government stimulus package which enabled Australia to weather the global financial crisis. As Europe is Australia’s largest trading partner—almost one-third of foreign direct investment in Australia is sourced from the EU—the discussions were of particular relevance. Wide-ranging discussions at these sessions were of great interest to all present.

One of the really important issues through these discussions was that the visit was a parliamentary delegation, as opposed to a government delegation, and it was bipartisan. Our visit and discussions brought to the fore the importance of parliamentary relationships and reciprocal visits and the need for face-to-face interaction.

While we were in Belgium we were also able to visit the Belgian Senate. Although they were in parliamentary recess, it was a useful opportunity to undertake discussions on matters of mutual interest, especially as we had spent the previous two days with the European Parliament and its members. In Germany the delegation met with a range of commercial and international organisations in Bonn and Cologne. Here the focus changed to research innovation, energy security, climate change, sustainable energy and smart technologies as well as strategies to combat desertification. The delegation visited a number of private sector companies and met with United Nations representatives.

We visited the offices of the European Commission—the executive arm of the European Union—and had discussion with staff from the office of the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. This is a relatively new position, established in November 2009, and has the aim of improving cooperation in science and innovation. There was an obvious spirit of goodwill, and the European Commission is eager to encourage greater cooperation in the areas of food science, information communication technology and health. There was also discussion around intellectual property and audit processes.

While in Bonn, the delegation visited a company manufacturing solar panels where a briefing was given by both our hosts and an overview provided on the growing use of solar power in Australia, in the context of readily available coal resources supplying traditional large power stations. Interestingly, the growing availability of solar panels, the problems associated with quality control in a global market and the need for development of standards were discussed. The next day we were able to inspect a solar testing laboratory in Cologne where we were also able to view panels being put through a range of tests to ensure compliance. While in Germany we also attended the German Aerospace Centre just outside Cologne. Here a wide range of energy research activities for civilian and military purposes are undertaken with the focus on linking research to practical applications. We were also able to tour a prototype solar furnace which is capable of cutting through steel.

The delegation visited the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change office, where a frank discussion was held on current perspectives on climate change, Australia’s approach and the global situation since the Copenhagen summit in December 2009. We also met with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification office. This office, funded by the World Bank, is developing a 10-year strategy which is already leading to reform processes. It is anticipated that approximately two billion people are affected by this issue, and it was noted that Australian expertise is highly regarded in areas such as agriculture.

In the short time I have left to speak, I would like to record my thanks to many people. Firstly, I thank the Parliamentary Library staff for their briefings, both oral and in writing. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were also of great help in providing advice on subjects related to their many areas of expertise. The Parliamentary Relations Office staff went to extraordinary lengths to rearrange travel plans and keep members of the delegation informed of the numerous changes following the eruption of the volcano in Iceland. Their hard work and good humour is greatly appreciated. To the parliaments, governments and dignitaries of the various countries, I would like to say thank you for your time and goodwill. I would also like to thank the staff of all the Australian posts who assisted us with briefings and our general day-to-day inquiries. Finally, can I say thank you to Ms Julia Clifford and Mr Brien Hallett for their great help throughout the tour; they accompanied us to assist us. Finally, to the President himself, the Hon. John Hogg: thank you for your company, friendship, advice and willingness to share knowledge and for facilitating in a most equitable manner a very successful mission. Without the generosity of spirit and hard work of all of those people and organisations the delegation would not have been the great success it was. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.