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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 5911


Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (4:07 PM) —This ministerial statement from the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government is fundamentally just a repeat of a press release made on 12 June. The minister’s leaving the chamber demonstrates that he is also not too interested in any kind of response to his statement and is, therefore, taking a further step in devaluing the importance of ministerial statements to the chamber. This statement is about a grant of $500,000. Many important things happen in the parliament and many important things happen in our country, and it is appropriate that there be ministerial statements to deal with these issues; but, when the minister does not even think it is necessary to remain in the chamber to listen to the reply to his statement, it is quite clear that he does not give this matter very high priority.

That is disappointing because the issue of piracy on the high seas is an important issue. Whether this government’s contribution will make a significant difference to the level of piracy around the world remains to be seen, but the issue of piracy itself is an important one and deserving of parliamentary debating time. It is a dangerous threat to global maritime security. It threatens the livelihood of ship-borne commerce, which is the backbone of world trade. The overwhelming majority, by volume, of Australia’s trade is carried by ships and, therefore, it is important to us as a nation that shipping trade be safe and secure. The risk of piracy means that ships are sometimes forced to take longer routes around dangerous zones and it certainly slows down the delivery and reliability of delivery of sea carried goods.

The activities of pirates in the Gulf of Aden are of considerable concern threatening, as they do, Australia’s merchant trade and threatening Australian sailors and tourists passing through the gulf and the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is, of course, an important funnel for international trade. A very large proportion of maritime traffic moves through that canal and therefore ships moving up the Gulf of Aden are particularly vulnerable to attack from pirates. It is perhaps a commentary on the audacity of some of the piracy activity that is occurring at the present time that it is happening under the nose of a considerable naval presence and despite the fact that the presence of these pirates from Somalia is well known to the maritime community. The very presence of these pirates, particularly those coming from some of the countries in Africa where there is an acute shortage of food and other supplies, is a particular irony because the pirate activities threaten the delivery of food and aid to some of the poorest countries in Africa. This was illustrated with the seizure of the Maersk Alabama in April this year. That ship was carrying 5,000 metric tonnes of relief supplies for Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. Those who felt that intercepting this trade was in some way acceptable behaviour were not thinking of the impact on their fellow citizens in Somalia and other impoverished people in Kenya and Uganda.

I understand that Somali pirates received over US$150 million in ransom in the 12 months prior to November 2008. Pirates operating from Somalia have attacked more than 100 vessels in waters off the African coast in the past year, including cruise liners, a fully laden supertanker and a ship laden with Russian tanks. As the minister pointed out, much is already being done by the international community to address this scourge. According to public reports, the European Union has a task force of six warships and three surveillance aircraft from eight countries patrolling one million square kilometres of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. The United States is making a contribution with its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. India, Russia, Malaysia and others are also providing warships. Australia, too, is making its contribution. The recent successful assistance provided by HMAS Sydney and HMAS Ballarat in protecting MV Dubai Princess south of Yemen from an attack by pirates is an example. The deployment of the Anzac frigate with the assistance of the RAAF AP3C Orion maritime aircraft is a welcome contribution to this international effort. This effort will have to continue, as the success of the international task force is driving the activities of the pirates further south, increasing the threat to sea lanes and expanding the area of ocean that will need to be patrolled.

A policy of effective interdiction provided by a substantial and robust international naval presence in the waters east of Africa is an essential part of the strategy to deal with the threat of Somalia based piracy. This is a plus. It will require a concerted effort to rebuild the shattered national institutions of Somalia if there is to be a long-term solution. Unfortunately, this hastily cobbled together effort from the government in dealing with this complex problem raises more questions than it answers. The ministerial statement provides very little additional information on what this money is going to be spent on, where it is coming from and what the objectives of this assistance actually are. We are told it is going to provide $500,000, as well as skills and expertise, to the joint European Commission and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Counter Piracy Program to assist Kenyan authorities in receiving and apprehending piracy suspects. Australia is to provide an official through the Office of the Inspector of Transport Security and the Australian Federal Police to work with the UNODC in the Nairobi office in Kenya dealing with piracy in the region. We are not provided with any information as to how this money is going to be spent beyond that it is going to provide some kind of judicial support for Kenyan authorities. The minister has not explained how this money will reduce the threat of piracy. Likewise, we do not know what the Australian government official will do. The government has not even made it clear where the official will come from, whether from the Office of the Inspector of Transport Security or from the Australian Federal Police. The details are not there.

Frankly, this statement has all the hallmarks of another piece of spin supporting the Prime Minister’s ego driven bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. We have seen far too much of this extraordinary focus of the Prime Minister on securing this particular seat, a campaign that is consuming the resources of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and distracting the government from its requirement to advance and protect the interest of Australians overseas. It is not even clear from the minister’s statement whether the funding for this announcement is going to come from his own department, the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which of course had some significant increases in its budget in the appropriations currently before the parliament.

I would be concerned, in light of all the cutbacks that have occurred in the department of regional development under the auspices of the current minister, if in fact grants were now going to be provided to Kenya to deal with Somali pirates, rather than to provide assistance to Australian regional communities for which this minister and this department should take primary responsibility. It would be a disappointment, at this time when he is cutting back road funding and other expenditure for the regions, if in fact funding were going to be provided towards an anti-piracy program in Somalia. That does not mean that we should not be involved in seeking to combat piracy in Somalia. But, clearly, the funding provided should come from the foreign aid budget or under the activities of Defence, who can play a useful role in helping to protect shipping, Australian and international, in that area. Also, the minister made some reference to the working group on piracy in the Malacca straits, a very worthwhile initiative initiated and undertaken during the term of the previous government. I am pleased that the current minister is continuing to ensure that Australia devotes resources to and takes a keen interest in its activities. That area is a particularly important waterway for Australian shipping. A very large proportion of our trade passes through the straits and in dealing with piracy issues we should be concentrating, as a priority, on ensuring that they remain safe.