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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1804

Mr LEE —-Is the Minister for Trade and Overseas Development aware of calls by the Leader of the Opposition to slash foreign aid and other calls by the Leader of the National Party in support of tree planting projects in Nepal and other countries that he has visited? Can the Minister advise the House of recent significant developments in Australia's aid program to Indo-China? What are the benefits to the people of Indo-China and Australia of that program?

Dr BLEWETT —-I thank the honourable member for Dobell for his question. Far be it for me to try to resolve the contradictions of the Opposition; indeed, I suspect that is beyond the wit of man or woman.

I have noted the calls by the Leader of the Opposition to slash the aid budget, and that has been rightly and roundly condemned throughout the Australian community. I notice at the same time that, though the Leader of the Opposition calls for these cuts, members of the Opposition, like the Leader of the National Party, run around the country supporting each and every conceivable aid project. So I can only leave it to the Australian people to make a judgment about those kinds of contradictions.

On a more positive note, I am pleased to advise the House that I will be going to Indo-China next month to improve further the growing links between Australia and the region. During that visit I will participate with the Prime Ministers of Thailand and Laos in the inauguration ceremony for the construction of the Mekong Bridge. Throughout the region that bridge is regarded as both a visionary and a significant project.

Our support for the construction of the $40m Mekong Bridge between Laos and Thailand is expected to return about $20m to the Australian economy through the procurement of consultancy and engineering services as well as construction materials in Australia. The final contract negotiations have commenced with the Melbourne based engineering firm John Holland Constructions Pty Ltd for constructing the bridge. There is also a separate contract, which is a joint venture proposal of the Australian firms Maunsell and Partners Pty Ltd and Sinclair Knight and Partners Pty Ltd, to supervise the construction.

Turning to Vietnam, the Government's decision to resume direct aid restores a very important element in the relationship between Australia and Vietnam. Vietnam is, of course, one of the poorest countries in the world and there is a clear need for aid on both developmental and humanitarian grounds.

No decision has yet been made about the size of the direct bilateral aid program. The first step will be for an Australian programming mission to visit Vietnam, and that will take place later this month, to consult with Vietnamese officials on the development needs and possible projects for early implementation. This programming mission will finalise its report prior to my visit to Vietnam in November, when I will be able to hold further discussions with the Vietnamese Government on questions of both aid and trade.

We have also pledged some $5m towards a multilateral initiative aimed at helping Vietnam resume normal membership of the International Monetary Fund. At the IMF meeting in Bangkok this week Australia will take part in discussions with other donors aimed at finalising this package. I have been asked what Australia will get in return from Vietnam--a typical question from members of the Opposition. Let me respond to that in two ways.

Firstly, we believe that we have a responsibility to this region irrespective of the returns this country gets. Secondly, if the honourable member had any notion of the economic potential of Vietnam and the interest of the Australian business community in growing trade with Vietnam, that would at least help to calm his fears.