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Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Page: 7947

Dr STONE (Murray) (18:25): I am also rising to speak on the inquiry into Australia's relationship with the countries of Africa. This was an inquiry undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The inquiry commenced in late October 2009. Elections obviously intervened and so we did not finally have this report until June 2011, but it has been delivered at a time when Australian-African relationships are even more important than they were more than two years ago. The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquired into the bilateral relations; economic, trade and investment issues; cultural, scientific and educational relations and exchanges; development assistance; cooperation; capacity building; defence cooperation; regional security and strategic issues; migration; and human rights issues.

It was an extraordinarily complex and wide-reaching inquiry. It did take a very long time. There were the submissions taken in Australia, and we need to acknowledge the generosity of members of the public, institutions and non-government organisations who came forward and very carefully forwarded their thoughts and made their recommendations in an inquiry like this. But, as well, in April 2011 a small committee delegation travelled to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Ethiopia. I was very fortunate to be amongst that small group. We were able to visit and be briefed on a number of Australian aid projects. We met with parliamentarians in those four countries. We heard firsthand of their challenges. We heard of their very keen interest in forming a friendship group, particularly with members of parliament in Ghana. We were briefed by our ambassadors, by our Australian NGOs, by youth ambassadors and by volunteers who were awe inspiring in their commitment and the work they were doing, often in extreme circumstances. I will never forget the Australian women who were some of the few working with the homeless on the streets of Addis Ababa; they were literally finding shelter and food for numbers of young boys and girls made homeless or becoming homeless in the capital city of Ethiopia. In Zimbabwe we were able to hear and observe firsthand the response to Australia's targeted sanctions, which were imposed on some politicians and senior officials of state owned corporations some years ago when the democratic evolution of Zimbabwe went seriously off the rails.

Africa was at one time in the late 1800s top of mind for a number of Australians who had relatives or friends who had gone off to fight in the so called Boer War of the day. Since then the issues of Africa have tended to slip from the minds of consecutive governments, but at no time were Africa and Africa's countries completely out of mind for many of Australia's faith based and other non-government organisations. So it came as no surprise to me to find that Australia's aid to Africa amounted to some $184 million—that is, AusAID managed aid—in 2008-09, while our Australia NGOs contributed more than that amount, $323 million, in that same period. We were able to commend those NGOs—the Australian NGOs—and also institutions like Monash University, who were putting a great deal of effort into building relationships, growing capacity and giving students from all around Africa an opportunity to have world-class education, in this case on a campus in South Africa. Africa has about one billion people, compared to Australia's 22 million or so. It consists of 53 countries, and over the last 10 years we have seen an average of five to six per cent growth per year over those 53 countries. At the same time, though, we need to be reminded that, while many of those African countries are rich in natural resources, it is most unlikely that they will achieve the Millennium Development Goal of eradication of extreme poverty. It is a sad thing to observe almost a feeding frenzy in parts of Africa as more developed nations, particularly those wanting to lock in their own food security for years to come, are buying up arable land and fisheries and exploiting the mineral wealth of Africa, sometimes without putting much effort into technology transfer or building the capacity of those who work for them in extracting that mineral wealth to be sent offshore.

When we were in Africa, we were able to visit an Australian owned goldmining company in Ghana, and I was impressed with their attempts to make sure that the village that the open-cut mining had displaced was being rebuilt, with an excellent school, good housing and health services to come. Their policy of employment in the goldmining company and processing works was to make sure, as much as possible, that they employed local people, trained those local people and were closely in touch with the local African leadership. We met with those men, and I was proud to think that this was an Australian owned goldmining company. But, not very far from their activity, there was an enormous amount of illegal mining activity being undertaken by, in this case, China nationals.

It is extraordinary to think that some 70 per cent of Africa's arable land is still underdeveloped. We were able to meet with a consortium consisting of CSIRO and local interests in Ghana who were working out how to improve the productivity of their dryland agriculture, particularly their cereal growing. It impressed me that there was also an enormous potential to develop irrigation, particularly irrigated agriculture, in that country. They have significant water resources and dammed water resources. So we have enormous potential, given our expertise in irrigation system building and irrigation management, to help some of these African nations to make sure they do not make the sorts of mistakes we have made over centuries in Australia with irrigation and water management. They need to maximise their own water resources and their arable land so they can better feed themselves.

In the committee's recommendations, we acknowledge that we need to do much more when it comes to Australia's diplomatic representation in Africa. We do not have any posts in francophone Africa at the moment. We recommend that honorary consuls should be appointed as a short- to medium-term measure. Honorary consuls can go a long way towards filling the gap and meeting the needs of Australia's representation in countries where it is still not possible to put formal or full-time diplomatic representation. A number of our very excellent ambassadors and high commissioners must cover a number of countries, and that means in some cases only visiting one of the countries they are responsible for once or twice a year. Clearly that is not very satisfactory.

We also were concerned that AusAID scholarship programs, which have been significantly expanded this year, should involve study at African universities but also at Australian universities with links to Africa. I have already referred to Monash South Africa.

In this inquiry we also observed that a very great problem exists for various countries of Africa with the loss of their professional people—their nurses, doctors, lawyers—who have been trained, often at vast expense, in their home country. These are the kinds of people who are likely to have migrated to Australia under our skilled migration categories, when of course their home countries need their professional training, their expertise, much more than we do, you could argue.

Dr Catherine Hamlin is an extraordinary woman who has inspired generations of midwives and surgeons. She works at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia. She now has mentored the establishment of a midwifery training college, again in Addis Ababa, called the Hamlin College of Midwives. At the college they are trying to ensure that their own country's young women, mostly those from regional parts of Ethiopia, are being trained in modern midwifery. When I talked to them about the opportunity for their coming to Australia for a time to do an exchange or to study, the Australian women managing that college were most concerned that it could be a distraction rather than a help. The women needed to train in their home country and develop their professional careers in their home country well before they took any trips out of that country and saw other conditions and opportunities.

At the Fistula Hospital I was impressed with the ongoing commitment of that marvellous woman, Dr Hamlin, who is now in her eighties and still doing some operations. She is an inspiration to all of us. Clearly, in countries like Ethiopia the poverty, the nutritional problems and the age at which young girls are having their first pregnancy all combine to make the rate of injury and deaths of young women during delivery, and of the babies themselves, a significant problem for that country.

I need to also refer to the visit we had to a South African company that has understood the problems of young children, not just in South Africa but in Mozambique, where often there is no furniture in the school classrooms and sometimes there is not even a classroom. The young children sit under a tree or in the shade somewhere. If you do not have a desk or a chair it becomes very difficult to manage paper when you are trying to learn to write. So, lap desks have been developed by a private South African country. They consist of a boomerang shaped plastic tray that sits on the knees of children as they sit on the ground or in a chair. The lap desks serve as a writing surface for the children. It means that they can in fact progress in the same way as other students throughout the world who have a desk or some furniture in their classroom. It is great that the Australian government has funded some 22,000 lap desks. They have been distributed to children in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is a very simple technology, but we do not understand the need until we go to these countries and see the lack of facilities that we take for granted. It becomes obvious that a small boomerang shaped plastic tray can mean the difference between a child easily being able to learn to write and not being able to learn at all.

We also went to see water aid projects in Accra, Ghana, where, after years of neglect, the sewerage system has become blocked with sand and detritus. The problem is that the households in those settlements wash their dishes with sand rather than washing detergent. The sand goes into the system and blocks up the works. There has been an enormous amount of effort to help the settlements in the Sabon Zongo urban slum in Accra to once again have running water and not have a system so contaminated and blocked that cholera is a problem. Even though the work was being done by a small fergie tractor—one we would not have seen in Australia for many years—it was still an inspiration to see how much progress was being made. We also saw the repairing of the city sewerage system by the city council in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

For me one of the most important things I saw was a school in a slum in Ghana that had 900 student places but had no toilets. Boys and girls were supposed to go to this school but, because there were no toilets at the school for the 900 students, girls did not attend. With Australian aid toilets were built for the school. Girls were then able to attend the school and have access to a toilet. It is a very simple thing—toilets for girls and boys—and suddenly you had 900 students able to access education whereas before only half the local school population attended. We went there on a school holiday and the students had turned out in their school uniforms to greet us, armed with their brushes and dusters to demonstrate how well they were minding and cleaning these new toilets. I have to say that it was a proud moment for me. Building toilets for a school might be a simple technology, but the need was great and Australia was able to step up and do the task. I think that a hand of friendship needs to be extended from Australia to the countries in Africa which are resource-rich and have enormous potential by developing their own human capital. We now have a number of African migrants but also many refugees, particularly in my own community in Murray. We have many Sudanese, Congolese and Somalians. They are all making a major contribution to our economy already but, more importantly, to our cultural life. We feel rich with the Angel Voices choir, a Congolese young adult and children's choir that dances and sings its way through so many of our festival occasions in Murray. That was a group who were first settled in a regional centre in Australia—Shepparton—some five years ago. One of their number, Immaculate, has already run for local council, although not successfully. That is the spirit of the people of Africa. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.