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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 106


Mr SERCOMBE (8:16 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Quick, like your good self and our mate sitting next to me, the member for Port Adelaide, I am not intending to recontest the rapidly forthcoming election, so I want to take the opportunity of the Water Bill 2007 to make a few valedictory remarks as we approach the date of the federal election. There were some people unkind enough to suggest that, given that there is a water debate, I might take the opportunity to pass a bit of water, but I assured them that my liver is in fairly good form; so, by and large, I intend to be fairly generous in my remarks.

I think all members understand that it is an honour to serve the Australian people and constituents in the national parliament. That is certainly how I have felt since 1996 when I arrived in this parliament to take over from my friend a former minister, Alan Griffiths, in the electorate of Maribyrnong. Prior to that, as you know, I served in the Victorian state parliament. 1996 was not a great year for members of the Australian Labor Party to arrive in this federal parliament; nonetheless, I have thoroughly enjoyed it and hope I have made some modest contribution to the life of this parliament, albeit as a member of the opposition.

I particularly found valuable the work that members, including me, do on a variety of committees—certainly in this parliament, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; with the minister at the table in earlier parliaments, the Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission; the Joint Committee on Corporations and Securities; the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation; the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Information Technology and the Arts; and the Privileges Committee—and, for one particular term in the parliament, I was also an Opposition Whip. For the bulk of the life of this particular parliament, I have had the honour and privilege to have been the opposition spokesperson in areas of policy that I regard as extremely important, which include our relationship with our Pacific neighbours and overseas aid issues. I will say a little bit more about that if time permits during this contribution.

All members of parliament, including me, rely very heavily on other people. I thought it was appropriate on this occasion to acknowledge a number of people, particularly the significant number of electorate staff members whose services have been provided to me: Jan Chantry, Peter Zabrdac, Ange Kenos, Leonie Nardo, Dave Peebles, Sue Cant and, in earlier manifestations, Carol Sewart and the ever-colourful Robert Mammarella. Of course, there are many volunteers, many fine people, who have made a substantial contribution to my time in parliament—Rod Holesgrove in particular, whom I want to single out in acknowledgement of his excellent services.

As members, I think we all significantly appreciate the support we get from the staff of this parliament. There is a multitude of staff: committee staff, clerks, drivers and attendants. There are two that I want to make particular reference to: one is my friend up there in the box, Lupco Jonceski, who has tried over time to improve my capacity in the Macedonian language. I think Lupco was mistaken about my talents in that respect, because I am probably the only person in this parliament who has ever spoken the Macedonian language in the chamber, and that was on the occasion of the tragic death, by plane accident, of the former President of that country. I probably misled Lupco in that process. I also want to particularly acknowledge Ian Harris, the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Ian and I go back a long way. Ian and I joined the Commonwealth Public Service on the same day in 1971 and, needless to say, he has had a significantly more distinguished career than I. He does an excellent job indeed.

Of course it would be absolutely inappropriate to not mention others who provide fantastic support—my immediate family: my wife, Carmen; my children, Nadine and Rory; my daughter-in-law, Melissa; and two wonderfully time-consuming but delightful grandchildren that we have now acquired, Harper and Milla. They make political life and some of the contingencies and difficulties of political life somewhat more bearable.

It has been a very great honour to serve the electorate of Maribyrnong. I am very grateful for the extensive support I have had within that electorate. Maribyrnong is an interesting electorate. I am continually impressed by the significant number of people who want to make a difference to the life of the community by contributing. It is also an extraordinarily culturally and socially diverse electorate. There are probably in excess of 100 different cultural groups in the electorate. It is rich and diverse.

I particularly enjoyed working in that part of Melbourne with organisations that are interested in building bridges. I want to single out a few—which is always difficult but there are a few—that I think ought to be mentioned. One particular organisation, the Vojvodina Club, is a club of people from the former Yugoslavia led by Rada and her husband, John Ovuka. Given the tragedies of the former Yugoslavia, particularly in the 1990s, it is great to be able to work with an organisation that is not interested in dividing people; it is interested in uniting them. This is an organisation that is particularly impressive in involving people from almost all the nationalities of the old Yugoslavia. There are the Maltese soccer clubs George Cross and Green Gully—fine organisations. Whilst they have a Maltese heart they bring together people from that rich mosaic of cultures that are the western suburbs of Melbourne. The Italian Community of Keilor Association is another fine organisation.

My interest in interethnic and interfaith communication and dialogue was reflected in some modest way in this place when I was able, a few years ago, to co-sponsor, along with the member for Farrer from the other side of the chamber, the first Ramadan event held in the federal parliament, as an exercise in promoting interfaith connections between Australians of different backgrounds.

I have enjoyed working with organisations like the Keilor East RSL in my electorate. That is a particularly fine organisation that just last weekend hosted a fantastic function to honour Australian peacekeepers—a growing and important component of our veteran community and one that perhaps sometimes does not get the attention and acknowledgement it deserves. I also take this opportunity to refer to another organisation in the electorate with which I have a particularly strong emotional bond, and that is the Holloway Aged Care Services. I have a particular emotional bond with that organisation because it is named after my maternal grandmother. It is therefore an organisation that I have a particularly strong feeling for.

The debate on the Water Bill really reflects the increasing importance in Australia of a sustainable environmental and economic future. In this election year, those issues are clearly going to become much more important in the debate. I am very confident that, under the superb leadership of Kevin Rudd, Australia will have presented to it real and vibrant alternatives to achieve those outcomes for the benefit of all Australians.

My main interest, however, over recent times in this parliament has been our own immediate region—the Pacific and particularly Melanesia. It is a region of substantial challenges—challenges of achieving sustainable development, challenges of integrating the region into global development and challenges in relation to social and health indicators. Just last week I had the opportunity to spend the best part of a fortnight in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. I took the opportunity in the Solomon Islands to meet a very wide range of people associated with the Solomon Islands government—in particular Prime Minister Sogavare—and RAMSI. I took that opportunity to reinforce to the Prime Minister and a number of his officials the important elements of the bipartisanship that has characterised the broad thrust of the Australian approach to the RAMSI operation. In fact, I reminded him that the principal criticism to date that this side of parliament has made of the present government in relation to RAMSI is that it took them three years too long to get off their backsides and respond to the pressing needs of the Solomon Islands and to provide support. I emphasised to the Prime Minister the importance of a prompt resolution of outstanding issues in relation to Julian Moti.

I did reinforce that, if there is a change of government in Australia as we hope, whilst the substance of those issues is likely to be still vigorously taken up by an incoming Australian Labor government, they can expect the style to move away from the megaphone diplomacy, the overhyped reaction and the failure to engage on a genuine basis with regional leaders, which has really underpinned more than anything else the failings of this government’s policies in the Pacific and has really made Australia’s strategic position in the region increasingly difficult. In my view, substantial issues of style, a failure to engage and a perception of arrogance underpin these sorts of problems, but there are ways forward. A fresh start in dealings with the region, particularly with Melanesia, presents an outstanding opportunity and a movement away from the sorts of counterproductive actions that are regularly taken by the Australian government. We do have poisonous relationships in the region. That is not in Australia’s interests, and it is certainly not in the interests of our neighbourhood.

I came across a particularly silly example of how this poison is in fact exacerbated. I had some discussions about what is called the ‘fifth freedom rights’ for Solomon Airlines. Solomon Airlines wants to fly to Brisbane via Vanuatu. There is no reason on earth that affects any Australian interest why that ought not to occur, but for some reason the Australian government—presumably to tighten the noose—has decided to decline that permission. In the process, the Australian government is dramatically undermining the commercial viability of the airline at a time when Australia has an interest in viable civil aviation in the region. More to the point, it is actually significantly damaging Australian commercial interests that have a stake in the successful operations of that airline. We have a case here of politics by hissy fit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the way he conducts his relationships in the region and contributes to the poison in the relationships.

I also had the opportunity to go to Papua New Guinea. It is a particularly fascinating time for that country, given the immense majority that the Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare, amassed in the PNG parliament in his election yesterday as Prime Minister. Once again, there are real challenges in this crucial relationship, which is so important to Australia and its strategic interests. We had a case study just the other day of our foreign minister’s diplomatic success, when he provoked the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea to tell him to ‘go to hell’. That shows the high regard in which our foreign minister’s diplomacy is held in Port Moresby. It is indicative, once again, of a fairly poisonous relationship. We need a circuit-breaker in that relationship. We need a new administration in Australia to tackle the issues productively, not counterproductively as the present Australian government insists on doing.

There are crucial issues in the Pacific that require the vigour and vision that a Rudd Labor government will bring to them. In this context, I want to pay particular tribute to the absolutely seminal work carried out by the late Senator Peter Cook, who, in 2003, chaired a Senate committee that set the strategic framework for the development over time of a Pacific economic and political community. This community would enable some of the core challenges of the region to be undertaken in a spirit of genuine partnership and genuine engagement. Those challenges include the extraordinary environmental challenges of the region: the rising sea levels, and the impacts on whole countries, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, of those rising sea levels; the effects of coral bleaching; and other things that are impacted by climate change.

There is an opportunity to deal with the key challenges of the youth bulge, particularly in Melanesia, where substantially increased numbers of alienated young people are very much at the heart of so much of the social tension. There is an opportunity for Australia to consider some serious programs designed to provide opportunities on a cooperative basis for those young people, such as those that New Zealand has just implemented. There are challenges of sustainable development, including taking forward Labor’s concept of establishing a Pacific Development Trust. The vision that a Rudd government will bring to bear on this gives me great inspiration for the future. I look forward to that event occurring later this year, in Australia’s interests as well as the region’s interests.

Australian foreign policy is not just about the Pacific; it is about a range of other issues as well. One of the great benefits I have had as a member of parliament has been a limited engagement with some aspects of that from opposition. However, I think we need as a parliament—across the board but particularly in the context of a new government, hopefully—to re-engage much more effectively at the multilateral level. We need to take the United Nations much more seriously. We need to look at a range of other multilateral institutions, including in our own region—the Pacific Islands Forum, for example. We also need to look more seriously at the opportunities that the Commonwealth presents.

We need to be cognisant of the opportunities that arise from the growth of China as an increasingly important power in the region and indeed the world. It is now Australia’s major trading partner. As a humble backbencher, I have had some opportunities for very limited connections there. I was invited in May this year to deliver a lecture at Beijing university, for example. I have had a longstanding association with China, particularly through Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the National People’s Congress and No. 2 in the hierarchy. As a somewhat younger man, I escorted him when he visited Australia as a party official from Shanghai.

I have also had opportunities to have some limited engagement in Middle East issues. Once again, these are crucial issues for Australia to take an active interest in. One of the spin-offs of having been a member of the Australian National University Council is that I have served for a number of years on the board of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the ANU, which is the premier body in Australia for teaching and research in Middle Eastern studies. Through that process it has some opportunity to make a contribution, particularly in the development of Australia’s relationship to the Gulf States and, perhaps on a more difficult basis, to promote some limited second-track diplomatic efforts in relation to Iran. Australia is one of the Western countries that continues to have reasonably normal diplomatic relations with Iran. On a second-track basis, there are some opportunities for us to play a useful role.

I referred earlier to former Yugoslavs in my electorate. I must say that I have been quite impressed with the limited niche opportunities that come up from time to time for Australia to play an honest broker role in south-eastern Europe. One place where that has occurred—and it happened in part under a former Liberal Party member of the national parliament, Jim Short—is Cyprus. It seems to me that, in relation to south-eastern Europe, there may well be interesting opportunities for Australian diplomacy to supply good officers to provide some capacity to assist in the resolution of issues there. That would enhance our international prestige in the process. But, on the basis that this country has significant populations whose cultural roots go back to those areas—as is the case with Cyprus—and that people in Australia have a capacity to live in peace amongst themselves, Australia, with no axe to grind, can play a very useful role.

I come back to the point that it is in our dealings with our own region that we need to make dramatic improvements. I believe that, ultimately, the circuit-breaker that can be provided to enhance Australia’s strategic dealings in that region will come about from the election of a Rudd government. I look forward to that day with great anticipation.