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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7297

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (12:40): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade I present the committee's report entitled, Inquiry into Australia's relationship with the countries of Africaand I ask leave of the House to make a short statement in connection with the report.

Leave granted.

Mr FITZGIBBON: I was one of many MPs and senators who had the great opportunity over the course of more than 12 months to participate in the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade into our relation­ship with the countries of Africa. I pay tribute to the then Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, and the then foreign minister, Mr Smith, who showed great foresight in giving the reference to the committee for inquiry. I do not expect that this report will have an immediate big impact on this parliament, the executive government or, more broadly, the Australian people, but I think it is a watershed inquiry which will be referred to on a regular basis over the next decade as Australians generally rethink the importance of their relationship with Africa. I appeal to members generally and to the government to take great notice of the committee's recom­mendations and key commentary. We worked very hard—and I acknowledge the presence in the chamber of Mr Ruddock—on securing consensus on the recommendations. Some of the recommendations were not easy, but we think they are important, well-considered and appropriate for future deliberations on our relationship with the countries of Africa.

The report is the first comprehensive report by a parliamentary committee into our relationship with the countries of Africa. In my view, that says many things but, above all else, it says that as a nation we have paid too little attention to the countries of Africa. Yes, we provide substantial aid and that has been increasing, and over the forward estimates it will peak at some $218 million in the year 2011-12, but it remains relatively modest not only when compared to comparable donor nations but also as a proportion of Australia's total aid budget. Yes, we have a sound, strong and professional diplomatic presence, but those posts are only in eight countries out of a total of 53 nation states in Africa. Again, when compared to comparable nations our representation there is quite poor. I acknowledge that those eight posts cover many more countries than the eight capitals in which they are situated. Yes, we do important work on the security front and we are doing more. I am very proud that as defence minister I was instrumental in establishing a permanent defence attache on the African continent. So far it is just one for the 53 nations, but it is a good start. When I became defence minister, I could not believe it when I learned—and I suppose I should have known it earlier—that despite having more than 180 defence staff in our posts around the world we did not have one on the African continent. Of course, we are doing good work in peacekeeping, mine clearing and other things, but our engagement on the defence front is modest when compared with comparable nations.

When I look at Africa, I see a sleeping giant. It is a continent covering more than 30 million square kilometres—that is around four times the size of our vast continent. Africa is home to around a billion people and hosts 53 nation states—or maybe it is 54 now with Southern Sudan. It is a continent with enormous mineral resources—30 per cent of the world's resources, I think—and, in geopolitical terms, it is located in a critical part of the world.

There are those who say that Africa is far and remote from Australia—and some of those people sit on the committee—that we have very few strategic interests in Africa and therefore our focus should predom­inantly be on our immediate region: the South Pacific, South-East Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region. That is not a wrong view—and I will be very surprised if the member for Berowra does not have something to say about that—but it is contestable and it is a debate worth having. I would not argue for a moment that Africa is more important to Australia in strategic terms than the South Pacific, South-East Asia or the broader Asia-Pacific region. That, of course, would be foolish. But it is worth noting that the distance between Perth and Johannesburg is not much different than the distance between Sydney and Beijing and the distance between Sydney and Tokyo. We share the Indian Ocean. Australians have felt the brunt of instability in Africa; piracy is a good example. A strong, prosperous, growing and safe Africa is not only a good thing for Africans but a good thing for Australians.

As Africa emerges as an economic power­house, and it will, Australia will want to and should be part of the action. While Australia's trade with Africa is growing, particularly due to mining investment, it remains modest with exports totalling around $3 billion each year. Competition is strong amongst countries and companies looking to expand in Africa. China, not surprisingly, is particularly active. Australia needs to be part of that competition and to be successful it needs to be competitive. The committee made a range of recommendations designed to improve that competitiveness, including an enhanced Austrade presence, an increased and enhanced diplomatic presence more generally, the facilitation of greater contact between NGOs and the corporate world, the expansion of the e-visa system, the establish­ment of an Australia Africa council and a commitment to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

On the question of extractive industries, during our visit to Africa I was most keen to reassure myself that foreign mining comp­anies operating in Africa are providing a net benefit to indigenous Africans—that is, that indigenous communities in Africa are over­whelmingly benefiting from the presence of mining companies, that human rights are being upheld, that the environment is being sufficiently taken care of and that Africans are sharing in the wealth of the minerals they own. We visited a mine in western Ghana operated by an Australian company, Adamus Resources, and, in that instance at least, I left very encouraged by what mining companies are doing in Africa. We saw whole new villages being built, new schools being built, textbooks being provided, a very happy school community and a very happy broader community in that part of the world. I hope and pray that what we saw there reflects what is happening in mining in that country more generally.

I said that Africa's emergence from poverty and its growth as an economic powerhouse is inevitable, but its people will need some help. The committee chose not to make a range of recommendations on the aid front; rather we left it largely to the indep­endent panel doing a review of Australia's aid effort more generally. We look forward to the report. Of course, the committee did form some views. I have become more determined that the private sector has a role to play in the provision of aid funding and aid programs in developing nation states. Our NGOs do wonderful work and from what I have seen they do their work effectively and efficiently, and we saw plenty of examples of that during our visit. I also believe there are some things that the private sector can do better and where outcomes may be better—for example, where AusAID is partnering with private sector organisations. I have no difficulty with private sector profiting from the provision of that aid funding as long as, in cases where they are playing a role, the outcomes are greater than or exceed what might have been the outcomes if non-private sector agencies had been doing the work.

We saw a perfect example of that in Zimbabwe at the Ebenezer Agricultural Training Centre, located south of Harare. We saw a white South African farmer training young indigenous kids in farming methods. They had what we might describe as a TAFE facility, or training facility, on their land. Each of the kids have their own plot that they are responsible for clearing and farming. Some of those kids will never be seen again but many of those kids enter into joint venture arrangements with the principal of that training facility. I thought that was a great example of the private sector doing good work with indigenous communities for some very important and good outcomes. I want to acknowledge a number of other very impressive aid projects we saw: the water and sanitation work being done in partnership with Bulawayo City Council in Zimbabwe, the Hwange power station, also in Zimbabwe, the WaterAid project in the Sabon Zongo slum in urban Ghana, and of course Dr Catherine Hamlin's fistula clinic and midwifery school in Ethiopia, which is marvellous. I wish I had more time this morning to talk about it.

I also acknowledge the young Australian ambassadors we met in Ghana, who have given up a year or two of their lives, for very modest remuneration, to experience life in Africa but, more importantly, to do their bit for the African people. They are a wonderful young group and make us all proud everywhere they work.

Nothing will be more important in bringing Africa to its full potential than education. The higher education sector is now also a significant contributor to Australia's export earnings. The sector has a growing reputation for building links with academic institutions in developing coun­tries. It is in Australia's interest to further develop these valuable ties and similar relationships in research and higher educ­ation in Africa.

The committee recognises that there needs to be a balance with respect to the provision of scholarships to Africans. On the one hand, Africa will benefit through the transfer of skills if African students return to their country of origin after completing their studies, but we need to be concerned about and mindful of the brain drain in Africa. Madam Deputy Speaker, in my electorate I cry blue murder when my GP-to-resident ratio exceeds 1,500 to one, but I know that in communities in Africa those ratios are tens of thousands to one. We need to be very mindful of that.

The committee has recommended that AusAID's scholarships program include providing scholarships to African students to undertake tertiary education in Africa. We saw some very good work being done by Monash University just outside Johan­nesburg. This could involve study at African universities and at Australian universities with links with Africa. There is, within Australia, a substantial body of expertise on African issues. The committee believes that it is important to promote its coordination and further development. Therefore the committee has recommended that a centre for African studies be established, preferably within a university in Australia. A centre would facilitate a coordinated approach to education and training at both undergraduate and graduate level. Further, it would establish a focal point for coordinating expertise on African issues.

As I said, on the security front we are doing good work in Africa but the work is modest. We are doing good work on piracy and in peacekeeping. We visited a very good institution, just outside Addis Ababa, where people are being trained to clear mines. Ethiopia, I think, is one of the most mined countries in the world. There is very good work being done there with the support of Australian funding, but more needs to be done.

I was fortunate to lead a delegation to Africa for about 14 days. We visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Ethiopia, in that order. Of course, South Africa is a key trading nation of ours and the need for a visit there was obvious. In Zimbabwe we were very keen to assess Zimbabwe's progress towards a political settlement and its economic development. In Ghana we were very keen to have a look at the mining and extractive industries. In Ethiopia we were largely there to visit the African Union and to talk about, amongst other things, peace and security. It was very difficult to choose four nation states out of 53 or 54. We would have liked to travel more widely but time constraints meant we were unable to.

On Zimbabwe, I want to make quick note of a matter that is dwelt upon to some extent in the committee's report: sanctions on Zimbabwe. My personal view is that sanctions have been very effective but, as we move closer and closer to a political settlement, it might be time to adjust our approach to sanctions—that is, not to remove sanctions but to offer a carrot, a gesture of goodwill and a sign that we as much as anyone, including those who govern Zimbabwe, want sanctions removed at some point and are prepared to loosen sanctions when we see progress being made. I am confident progress is being made. I left Zimbabwe feeling quite confident about its future. Maybe it is time that we demon­strated our preparedness to lighten the sanctions as Zimbabwe continues to make progress. We could maybe benchmark them and further reduce them as those benchmarks are reached.

I should say there was no consensus about it in Zimbabwe, either among the committee members or the interlocutors we met with. Nor was there consensus among ZANU or members of the MDC. But I have come to the strong view that it is time to consider some slight lightening of those sanctions as a gesture of goodwill and a sign, as I said, that we are keener than anyone, if not as keen as those who govern Zimbabwe, including those in ZANU, to have sanctions slowly but surely reduced to the point where they are no longer necessary.

I will quickly pay tribute to all our heads of mission and those who work under them in each of our posts, in particular of course the posts we visited. They do an outstanding job, as do the representatives of AusAID and Austrade. Both those we met and those we did not meet are all doing outstanding work. All, I am sure, would agree that greater resources would be helpful and an approp­riate step for Australia to take. One of the key messages in the committee's report is to urge the government to review our diplom­atic presence in Africa with a view to strengthening that representation, in partic­ular in Francophone Africa, where we are very much underdone and where we have very keen interests, in particular economic interests. I also want to thank all those elected people we met while we were in Africa. I was surprised how very pleased they were to see us particularly, if my memory serves me correctly, in Ghana and Ethiopia. I remember very vividly our head of mission in Zimbabwe fretting when we arrived, explaining to us that we had been the first Australian members of parliament to visit Zimbabwe for at least three years, if not longer, although I do know that former Prime Minister John Howard whipped through for the cricket on one occasion post politics. But it is clear to me that those in Zimbabwe want us to show an interest and that we should be showing an interest—and that is also true of places like Ghana, Ethiopia and elsewhere. They are underloved and I think we could give them a little bit more love, and I think the benefits would be two way.

Very quickly I thank those who travelled on the visit to Africa with me. We were a good group and we worked very hard to find consensus on some of these very difficult issues. Finally, I thank Dr John Carter and his team on the secretariat of the committee. They include James Bunce, Dr Brian Lloyd, Rhys Merrett, Jessica Butler and Gillian Drew. I also thank Dr Margot Kerley, the secretary to the full committee who is leaving the parliament after some 20 years of service. I pay tribute to the wonderful work that she has done over those many years. So I think it was an excellent inquiry with an excellent visit by the delegation to Africa. I also pay tribute to now former Senator Michael Forshaw, who chaired the com­mittee for a long period of time and did an outstanding job and also oversaw the Africa inquiry. He was very disappointed not to make the trip to Africa as he had been very keen to do so but some family commitments arose and the election changed the timing of the visit. He would have made a great contribution on that visit. I was very lucky to be asked to stand in as leader in his absence and it was a great pleasure to do so. I take this opportunity to wish former Senator Forshaw and his wife, Jan, all the very best for many happy years in retirement.