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Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Page: 5444

Ms JULIE BISHOP (CurtinDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (20:40): I welcome the opportunity to speak tonight on the appropriation bills currently before the parliament. Australia is in a period of relative economic strength with the rise of our close neighbours lifting our terms of trade to record highs. Most analysts predict the hunger for our mineral resources is likely to continue to drive our economic prosperity into the future, with Australia's real GDP growth forecast to reach four per cent in 2011-12.

The strength of the Western Australian economy is the bedrock of our growing relationship with the emerging economic powerhouses of Asia. Western Australia not only accounts for 70 per cent of Australia's total exports to China; it attracts 80 per cent of Chinese investment into our country. All up, Western Australia accounts for 44 per cent of our country's exports—a figure greater than the total combined exports of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Yet, despite all this, the people of Western Australia find themselves under regular attack from the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the rest of this hapless Labor government. I suspect that it may well be a clumsy attempt at a diversion, a distraction, from the state of this budget.

This government inherited the strongest set of books of any incoming government in our history with zero government debt, a budget surplus of more than $20 billion and tens of billions of dollars in savings. In four short but catastrophic years this Labor government has effectively destroyed the budget bottom line with billions upon billions wasted on cash splashes, overpriced school halls, a disastrous Home Insulation Scheme, bungled Green Loan schemes and much, much more. There is now more than $100 billion in government debt and a budget deficit of almost $50 billion, and most of the savings have been frittered away on blatant pork-barrelling. In four budgets this Treasurer has delivered cumulative deficits of $150 billion.

Worse still, in the dead of budget night after the Treasurer had completed his budget presentation, when the spotlight was off, the cameras had moved on and the media was focused on the budget speech, the Assistant Treasurer scuttled into the House and introduced a bill to increase the government's borrowing limit, to increase the debt ceiling by a further $50 billion to $250 billion. The government clearly intends to spend even more taxpayers' money while telling the public it was giving up on its wasteful ways. This sly and cynical act reveals the level of embarrassment felt by this government about its shameful record. The attack on Western Australia is a mere diversion.

Many of my colleagues have already spoken at length, including the member for Aston just now, about the financial incompetence of this Labor government. It has an unrelenting determination to relieve the Whitlam government of its well-deserved reputation as the worst government in Australia's history, until now. The Gillard government has come along and is proving every day to be more reckless than even the Whitlam government.

I will focus on a number of aspects in the foreign affairs portfolio. In his media release following the announcement of the budget Foreign Minister Rudd highlighted the government's commitment to delivering consular services for Australians abroad. However, what the government has presented as a one-off increase to consular assistance hides what is really going on. According to Appropriation Bill No. 1 government funding for outcome 2, which provides assistance for the protection and welfare of Australians abroad, will decrease by $23.8 million in 2011-12. This cut comes at a time of immense insecurity throughout the world. We have witnessed the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, with violence in many of the countries, including Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, as old regimes have sought to cling desperately to power.

The budget cuts also come at a time when natural disasters have shattered parts of our region. Each of these events has placed immense strain on Australia's consular officials, who provide vital assistance to Australians, some of whom find themselves in great distress and need while caught up in circumstances overseas. The government's decision to cut $23.8 million stands in stark contrast to the coalition policy, which we took to the last election. It was a promise to strengthen Australia's overseas consular services by reversing previous cuts introduced by the then Rudd government. The Gillard government's cuts are short-sighted and ill conceived and indicate a lack of understanding on the part of the government of the increased number of Australians travelling overseas and the demands on our consular posts.

Of considerable interest is the fact that according to the budget papers the government has committed a further $10.5 million to the final phase of its campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2013-14. Details obtained under freedom of information show that back in 2002 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimated the cost of running a campaign to win a temporary seat to be $55 million. The government now wants us to believe that, almost a decade later, it will cost only a fraction of that. It was $55 million in 2002 and that is a far cry from the $13 million over three years that the government has previously committed. Senate estimates will seek to uncover the true cost, as massive resources are being directed to this campaign, but under the guise of general DFAT expenditure.

Importantly, the freedom of information documents also revealed that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade considered a bid for a temporary seat on the security council in 2018 to be the preferred option on the grounds that a successful campaign would require long-term strategic thinking, which is not something that this government is renowned for. Having received this advice upon coming into office as the then Prime Minister, the advice was promptly ignored by Minister Rudd. The year 2018 would be beyond Mr Rudd's likely hold on the top job, so he launched into the current bid for a seat in 2013. I make it clear that I am not opposed in principle to Australia holding a temporary, two-year seat on the security council, but I am concerned that millions of dollars could be wasted on what will turn out to be Rudd's folly. The official advice was to aim for 2018. Then Prime Minister Rudd went against that advice and took the least preferred option. According to reports, the now foreign minister's cabinet colleagues would also prefer him to postpone the bid to 2018 but, as the media report noted:

For the foreign minister to delay the bid would be unthinkable and sure to put him offside.

Given the precarious nature of the current parliament and the Prime Minister's desperation to cling to power, we can be sure that the foreign minister's cabinet colleagues will not be pushing back too hard on this issue. They would not want to incur the wrath of the foreign minister.

DFAT noted in further documents, which were obtained under freedom of information, the need to:

… prosecute an increasingly active, dynamic and well resourced campaign, including ministerial and prime ministerial attendance at multilateral meetings and an active program of visits by special envoy. Whole of government efforts to address bilateral issues remain essential.

That sounds pretty expensive to me. DFAT also suggests 'a high-level travel plan for the foreign minister'. Well, there is absolutely no doubt that the foreign minister's high-level travel plan is underway.

But this international crusade for votes recently led one of the two other contenders, Luxembourg, a nation with no major strategic interests in the Pacific, to attend a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, involving Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. There can be no doubt of the motives behind its attendance. That Luxembourg considers the votes of these countries in play is a sad indictment of the state of the Gillard government's relationship with our closest neighbours. When Australia's standing in the region falters, so too does our influence with our close friends and allies in the United States and Europe. A temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2013 will not automatically enhance Australia's standing nor recover the lost momentum amongst our close neighbours. It will not help to restore democracy in Fiji, or slow the spread of HIV-AIDS in Papua New Guinea or strengthen democratic institutions in East Timor. It was also interesting to note in the DFAT budget statement the government's continued intention to 'promote and actively support international pressure on Fiji's military regime to return the country to democracy and the rule of law'. It is obvious to everyone but current members of the government that the present strategy is not working. The government's intransigence with progressing a return to democracy in Fiji will potentially drive a wedge between Australia and our closest allies, most of whom have now conceded that a new approach is needed.

According to the United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, the United States is planning to:

… seek more direct engagement with Prime Minister Bainimarama to encourage his government to take steps to restore democracy and freedom that would allow movement towards normalisation of Fiji's relations with other countries in the region.

New Zealand has also expressed concern and wants to find a way out of the diplomatic deadlock with Fiji. According to foreign minister Murray McCully, New Zealand needs to 'be prepared to engage and to try and find constructive solutions'. Japan, too, has stressed the importance of continuous dialogue with Fiji. It seems that it is only diplomatic courtesy that has stopped these countries from speaking out more firmly on this issue, saving the Gillard government from an embarrassing retreat. Or, as the CEO of Civil Liberties Australia testified before the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 'There is no clear mission or vision where we are going with Fiji, yet we are going to continue doing whatever it is we are doing.'

Rather than encourage reform, all the government strategy has done is drive Fiji further into the arms of others. China's growing presence in the Pacific has been noted by many over the past five years and more recently by the United States, with Secretary Clinton specifically expressing concern at China's close ties with Commodore Bainimarama. According to the Lowy Institute, China's interests in Fiji:

... at the expense of Australian influence as the Fiji government convinces itself it does not need Australia while it has a friend in China.

I am aware that Commodore Bainimarama may well seek to exploit any change and Australia should not be panicked into a response. And that is a big call for a government that is in constant panic mode.

The drift that has beset Australia's foreign policy in the Pacific was acknowledged by the government's own former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Duncan Kerr. As revealed in a US diplomatic cable, Kerr reportedly sought out the United States for advice as Australia was 'close to exhausting its diplomatic options on Fiji to little apparent effect'. That the then parliamentary secretary was forced to go to the United States for leadership on this issue reflects poorly on Australia. As foreign editor Greg Sheridan wrote in the Australian in November 2009, 'The Rudd government has mishandled the Fiji situation from the start.' He referred to the fact that Australian no longer had a high commissioner in Fiji and Fiji no longer had one in Australia. 'Congratulations, Canberra: a brilliant result,' he wrote, heavy with sarcasm.

The coalition believes that it is time for the Australian government to review its stance on Fiji. I stated in my National Press Club address prior to the last election that the coalition would open negotiations with Commodore Bainimarama in order to promote electoral reform. I believe that this is important if elections are to be held by 2014 at the very latest and for there to be a return to democracy and the rule of law in Fiji.

I have also voiced my concerns that the Gillard government has taken its eye off the Pacific region and particularly the development needs in that area. Australia's foreign policy must focus primarily on our immediate region. While there are many pressing issues throughout the world, it is the area in which Australia has the most influence and can do the most good. As the portfolio budget statement reveals, Australia's foreign policy under the present government is a one-man show. This Prime Minister appears both unable and unwilling to stamp her authority on this crucial portfolio. Given the Prime Minister's disastrous attempts to shape the direction of Australia's important relationships in the region—and I note particularly the disastrous engagement with East Timor over the East Timor processing centre—this Prime Minister should no be permitted to shape the direction of Australia's relationships.

The other significant issue in the budget papers related to the increase in Australia's foreign aid and overseas development assistance budget. Prior to the last election during my National Press Club address I indicated that, given the size and significance of our foreign aid budget, the coalition would appoint a minister for international development to work with the Minister for Foreign Affairs to oversee our aid budget and have responsibility for AusAID and the delivery of aid through non-government channels. I called for an inquiry into our aid budget because the Australian National Audit Office had raised serious concerns about AusAID's ability to effectively manage the large increases in aid required to meet the 0.5 per cent of GNI target. There have been deep criticisms of AusAID's overreliance on technical assistance, questionable priorities, waste and mismanagement. I am pleased that the government has adopted our policy and a review has been held. I understand that the government has a report into aid and the coalition will respond to the recommendations from that report when it is made public, including in relation to the priorities identified in the budget papers. The fact is that Australia must investigate the allegations of waste and mismanagement and provide clear direction as to how we can increase effectiveness and transparency in our aid delivery.