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Monday, 23 June 2003
Page: 17144


Ms VAMVAKINOU (12:37 PM) —Mr Speaker, as you have already informed the House, this was my very first overseas delegation. I must say it was an informative and rewarding experience but one that was far more intense than I had anticipated. Just before we embarked on this visit to Canada and to the IPU conference in Chile, my colleague the member for Bowman, the senior ALP member on this delegation, assured me that this would be a relatively easy task as he, as the deputy leader of the delegation, would take `a lot of the running' during bilateral meetings and the conference in Chile. Well, things did not turn out that way. I was somewhat taken aback when, at our first briefing in Ottawa, you, Mr Speaker, advised me that I was now deputy leader of the delegation, as the member for Bowman was incapacitated and therefore unable to join us.

Before going on this delegation, I was told that overseas delegations work hard. I can assure the House that overseas delegations led by Mr Speaker work very hard, but they also work with goodwill and cooperation because of the inclusive leadership provided by the Speaker. So my first and important task is to thank you, Mr Speaker, and also the other members of the delegation who were very generous and supportive of me—the `first-timer', as I came to be known during that period.

It is important to recall that this delegation undertook its visits as the events in Iraq were unfolding. Given the position adopted by the Australian government on Iraq, the delegation operated, as Mr Speaker has suggested, on a higher plane and at a greater level of intensity than other delegations. Every day and almost at every meeting, it is true to say that Australia's position on Iraq was raised.

Australia and Canada have had parallel paths of development but this visit confirmed to me just how much the two countries have in common and how much we should learn from each other. The delegation's report rightly records that about 20 similarities exist between the two countries. The one that interests me the most and that should challenge all of us is that both Canada and Australia are huge, sparsely populated countries inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous people, were colonised by Europeans, obtained independence by evolution and not revolution and, most significantly, have recently added vibrant multicultural communities to their indigenous heritage and cousin European immigrants' frontier spirit—which today sees 18 per cent of Canada's population born overseas compared to Australia's 21 per cent.

The delegation visited Canada during the SARS outbreak and was in Toronto on those critical days when procedures were being put in place to contain the outbreak. Despite these happenings, the delegation was able to receive an excellent briefing on the situation from the Ontario health minister. During this briefing the minister also referred the delegation to the Ontario Hospital Report Centre, which gauges patient satisfaction with the services offered by the 172 hospitals in the province. I recommend this part of the delegation's report to honourable members with an interest in the efficient and effective provision of health services.

I would also like to make some observations in relation to the IPU in Chile. As you have said, Mr Speaker, the Australian delegation worked very hard at the IPU conference, and I was privileged to be a part of that team effort. I was pleased to attend the meeting of women parliamentarians, together with Senator Jeannie Ferris. I was very impressed to meet other female colleagues from the various world parliaments, in particular my very dynamic female counterparts from the African countries.

These women are fighting very hard to improve the lives of their people—the people of Africa—who have suffered greatly over the years through the effects of natural catastrophes, famine, poverty and the horrors of dictatorial regimes that have led to massacres on a large scale. Of particular interest to me was the fight against the practice of female genital mutilation. This barbaric practice continues in countries today, and efforts to bring sanctions on the practice must be supported by all of us here in this parliament. I also recall my colleague from Kenya who was very vocal against what he and many of his colleagues from the developing countries see as the unacceptable practices of the Western powers to attach `strings' and make conditional the aid that is given to Third World countries through the IMF. This is a problem that is affecting trade development in the Third World as well as having the potential to affect the development of democracy in these countries.

Mr Speaker, as you mentioned in your presentation, I was also elected to a 12-member committee to draft a final resolution for the IPU on `Parliament's role in strengthening democratic institutions and human development in a fragmented world'. This was a formidable task in itself and, after five hours of deliberations in at least three languages, you realise how linguistically imprecise and confusing the English language can be. However, with much patience and goodwill, the committee drafted a resolution that was unanimously adopted by the IPU. Australia was instrumental in initiating the sucessful inclusion of a special clause on the importance of volunteers in strengthening and developing democracy. I can tell the House that the UN representative for volunteers was deeply grateful to us for that contribution.

I was also privileged to be elected as a substitute member of the IPU Committee on Middle East Questions—an issue in which I have a deep interest. So much of the world's attention is dominated by the conflict in the Middle East at the moment that I consider my involvement in this committee a timely one. The world community has a responsibility to deal with this crisis as a matter of urgency, and I was particularly pleased to meet the Palestinian representative to the IPU, Mr Abdullah Abdullah, and members of the Israeli delegation.

I also met with representatives from the Burmese opposition, who expressed their deep concern for the wellbeing of Aung San Suu Kyi and who were keen to impress upon the international community the need for us to pressure the generals in Burma to make good on their promises to implement some sort of democratic process. They were concerned that the world, in particular the Australian government, was perhaps being hoodwinked by the generals, who in actual fact had no real commitment to complying with the expectations we have of them. Of course, as we watch events unfold in Burma, what I was told two months ago has now been happening.

In conclusion, I take the opportunity to again thank all the delegates for the kindness and support they gave to me. I enjoyed the challenge and am pleased to have been able to participate in what was a very successful delegation. I too would very quickly like to make special mention of the wonderful support given to us by Neil Bessell, Phillip Allars and Chris Paterson. I would also like to thank Dennis Gifford from your office, Mr Speaker, in particular for his dry sense of humour. May I also thank Mr Speaker's better half, Caroline, and Senator Chapman's better half, Sally, for their support. We discovered that we had a number of shared interests and ideas about how we could best contribute to the Chilean economy. Finally, at another time I will be happy to report to the parliament about the night the Canadian Secretary of State for the Asia-Pacific region whisked—I will not say kidnapped—Mr Speaker, Caroline and me away from the delegation to show us the ugliest house in Ottawa.