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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 577

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (10:40 AM) —I present the report on the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to Indonesia, Brunei and Laos, 11 to 24 April 2010.

Each year, the Australian parliament supports a delegation to three member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. As part of this program, I, along with my colleagues Mr Duncan Kerr and Dr Mal Washer, travelled to Indonesia, Brunei and Laos in April last year. The delegation’s activities and visits centred around three themes: environmental challenges, strategies to reduce poverty, and the importance of strengthening links between parliaments and people. In each of the host countries, the delegation learned of the environmental challenges faced and the programs developed to deal with those challenges as well as their hopes for the future.

In Central Kalimantan in Indonesia, the delegation witnessed the work taking place in rehabilitating degraded peat lands and the sustainable management of peat swamp forests in an effort to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment. The catastrophic impact that deforestation has on wildlife was also seen during our visit to a rehabilitation centre for wild orangutans in the same area, and the link between land degradation, increasing population levels and the impact of natural disasters was highlighted again during a visit to the Australia-Indonesia Facility for Disaster Reduction.

In Laos, significant environmental issues confront the Mekong region. Seventy million people live in the Mekong Basin and future projections indicate increases in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns and more frequent, severe and longer periods of drought. The delegation witnessed how Australia is working closely with Mekong governments to try to manage these critical water resources. At the same time as we saw the tragic consequences of environmental degradation, the delegation was encouraged by the extraordinary achievements the small country of Brunei has been able to make in managing its pristine rainforests, which cover 70 per cent of its landmass, through the Heart of Borneo initiative. Each of these visits reinforced in the minds of delegation members not only the fragility of the planet but the commonality of issues in this region.

Poverty in both Indonesia and Laos is widespread. The delegation was pleased to be able to see the positive impact Australian aid has in a number of communities. We got a fantastic welcome when we visited a village health clinic and a junior secondary school in Central Kalimantan, both of which have benefited from Australian aid dollars. We have been having a bit of a debate about overseas aid recently and I wish some of the aid sceptics could visit these projects and see how much goodwill they generate. People there like us. It is a much better way to spend taxpayers’ dollars. Ramping up the defence budget breeds a circle of suspicion, mistrust and arms races, whereas aid fosters a virtuous circle of trust and goodwill.

In Laos, 25 per cent of villages are contaminated by unexploded ordnances that remain as a result of the extensive US bombing during the Indochina conflict. These UXOs not only render land inaccessible but create perpetual insecurity for these communities: villagers are sometimes forced to choose between acute poverty or risking injury and death by cultivating contaminated land. The delegation was appalled by the experiences the people of Laos endure as a result of these UXOs. It is the view of the delegation that the United States should match its responsibility for the horror caused by the UXOs with financial support to reduce the human toll and render the land useable in order to reduce poverty in this region.

The delegation was also pleased to visit Brunei, this being the first Australian parliamentary delegation to have travelled to that country. The meetings held there and, indeed, in each host country reiterated the value of strengthening the friendship and links between parliaments and people. On behalf of the delegation, I would like to thank the many individuals and organisations in all the host countries who were generous with their hospitality, insights and knowledge. I would also like to thank the delegation secretary, Dr Kris Veenstra, for her support. I commend the report to the House.