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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 3690

Senator TROOD (Queensland) (13:04): I would like to take the opportunity of this report being tabled in the parliament to make some remarks in relation to the report. Before I do that I want to acknowledge Senator Forshaw's distinguished contribution to the parliament through his leadership of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and indeed his enthusiastic support for the inquiry in relation to Africa. It was unfortunate that he was unable to visit Africa with the delegation, but he was determined that this report proceed and that it be completed prior to him leaving the parliament, which I am delighted about because it means that the report has been completed before I leave the parliament as well. So that worked out rather nicely.

It is an important report as Senator Forshaw has said. I think it is a report that has been a long time coming. We have not as a parliament examined our relations with Africa or indeed any significant part of Africa for a great many years. I think that we have undertaken this inquiry is an indicator of the way in which perceptions about Africa are changing. There is a perception of Africa in the Western consciousness I can perhaps say. In many ways it is not a particularly flattering perception of Africa. It is a perception that rests on a place of enormous conflict, a place of tumult and a place of turbulence in political terms. It is also perception of a place of considerable underdevelopment where poverty is rife throughout the continent and not much changes over a long period of time.

One of the significant findings of this report—although it is not indicated as the basis of a recommendation—has to do with the very significant ways in which Africa is changing. It is changing in ways that ought to attract our significant attention. One indicator of this is merely by looking at some of the economic growth rates across the continent. In some respects I think people would be surprised about these growth rates. The growth rate for Angola in 2010 was 7.37 per cent; Ethiopia, 9.6 per cent; Ghana, 6.4 per cent; Rwanda, 5.2 per cent; the Republic of Tanzania, 5.7 per cent and Uganda, 7.4 per cent. These are not insignificant growth rates for a continent which for such a long period of time has been perceived as, to put it colloquially and unflatteringly, 'a basket case'. Of course these are growth rates off a very low base, which we all recognise, but they are a reflection of the fact that, fortunately for Africans, they were not as severely affected by the global financial crisis as many other countries were. But they tell a story about the promise of Africa. I think that is a story to which we should all be paying close attention.

I was fortunate that I was able to visit Africa with the parliamentary delegation which went there. We visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Ethiopia, and in each of these places I think we found a measure of opportunity and optimism. In fact, there were three general themes from the many insights and useful things that I learnt during my visit to Africa with the delegation. The three that strike me and which I think are important indicators of Africa's future are, firstly, the fact that there is now a tremendous optimism across Africa. Notwithstanding the fact that places like Zimbabwe and the whole of North Africa remain in a measure of political turmoil and turbulence, in the places we visited there was a great deal of optimism. When I say that, I say it even in the context of Zimbabwe, which of course has had a catastrophic period of time politically and, indeed, economically. But even amongst the Zimbabweans we met there was a degree of optimism about its future.

In my view that optimism has to be finely calibrated against the possible downside of what could happen there in the near future, but there is optimism. The context of that optimism leads to the second broad observation I would make, which is that in the context of optimism there is great opportunity in Africa. There is great opportunity, not for exploitation but to become more actively and effectively engaged with Africa. That is one of the themes that I think underlines the report as much as any.

The third observation I would make about it is that Australians seem to be welcomed across Africa. Unlike some countries that are actively involved there and which are larger—and I refer to the Chinese, who many see as a rather threatening presence in parts of Africa—Australians are welcomed for their aid expertise, their expertise in mining and the contribution that it is widely seen they are able to make to Africa's future and to its promise.

In Senator Forshaw's remarks he referred specifically to the state of our diplomatic representation. This is, indeed, rather lamentable. We have only eight missions across Africa, and I acknowledge that the Labor government has opened a new mission in Addis Ababa. That is an important mission, and I am delighted that it has actually taken place. We are underweight in Africa, diplomatically, compared to some other comparable countries. As Senator Forshaw said, Canada, Malaysia and Korea all have a significantly large number of embassies. Canada, for example, has 18 embassies and high commissions, Malaysia has 13 and the Republic of Korea has 16. We need to do better than that, and the point that Senator Forshaw made—a point that is made in the report by the committee—is that we particularly need greater representation in Francophone Africa—perhaps in Senegal. We have limited representation.

The other thing that strikes one when one looks at the representation in Africa is that many of our embassies and high com­missions are very small, particularly where there is multiple representation and accreditation to other countries beyond the residence of the embassy or the high commission. It is a real stretch for the staff to undertake the work that is demanded of them. I particularly underscore the point that is made in the report that the Austrade representation in Africa is, essentially, inadequate. We need greater Austrade representation. There are tremendous opportunities for Australian business in Africa. Again, as Senator Forshaw observed, there is something in the vicinity of $27 billion of Australian investment in Africa now, but the potential for greater investment for expanding Australia's trade is significant. I think we certainly need to improve Austrade's representation in the context of those opportunities.

In the final moments that are left to me I would like to make the point that there is educational opportunity in Africa. There are resources in relation to Africa spread across the country, but they are rather disaggregated. The expertise we have in Africa is growing but it is not well con­centrated, and I think the recommendation in the report for the creation of an African studies centre is one that deserves particularly close attention because we do need to find some aggregation of resources which will allow us to work effectively in understanding Africa a great deal more thoroughly than we are able to do at the moment.

In concluding I acknowledge the tremendous contribution that the committee secretariat made to the preparation of the report—in particular Dr John Carter, who accompanied the delegation to Africa. From my perspective, his notes were sometimes difficult to read but were immensely valuable in reminding me of some of the meetings we undertook. He did a tremendous job in making sure the delegation did not lose itself and I acknowledge the work that he did on the inquiry and that, indeed, of the rest of his staff.

Question agreed to.