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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9040

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (10:09): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, it gives me great pleasure to present the committee's report on Australia's human rights dialogues with China and Vietnam.

Many submissions and witnesses to this inquiry expressed concern about the perceived lack of progress achieved by Australia's human rights dialogues so far, but overall the consensus in the community seems to be that it is constructive to be talking to other countries about Australia's perspective on human rights. This support notwithstanding, there were many suggestions made on how the dialogues could be improved, including taking steps to measure the effectiveness of the dialogues, actively engaging NGOs in the dialogue process, strengthening the participation of parliamentarians, and more detailed reporting of the dialogues.

In order to address the concerns about evaluating the effectiveness of the dialogues, the committee recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade convene a panel of experts to consult widely in order to produce a report outlining a set of principles and aims for Australia's dialogues, as well as a set of benchmarks so that progress towards these aims can be effectively measured. That was a matter very much raised by a number of members of the committee—the inadequacy, or nonexistence in many cases, of benchmarks.

To increase the role of NGOs in the dialogues process, the committee makes two recommendations. Firstly, we recommend the construction of a human rights web portal to act as a central access point for all Australian government human rights information and activity. This web portal will also enable NGOs and other concerned groups and individuals to engage in an ongoing online interactive dialogue, and will allow them to receive more regular feedback on what happens in the dialogues. That is part of the problem we face: whilst there was widespread interest in this process by the diasporas of Vietnam in particular and, to a lesser extent, China, and from other communities that thought there should be dialogues with their own homelands, the wider response to the inquiry by the Australian public was not overwhelming. It is important that there is more information out there for people.

Secondly, as an additional way to engage NGOs in the dialogue process, the committee calls for biennial meetings between the participating agencies and interested NG0s, ethnic community groups and individuals devoted to discussion of the dialogues. We recommend that these meetings be held alternately in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne so as to make it easier for community groups with limited resources to participate. That is obviously very important. The committee has raised with the minister the lack of resources of members to participate in these dialogues, let alone the general public's lack of finance to play a role.

The committee also calls for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide prompt reports after each round of dialogue, and furthermore for the department to work to facilitate the participation of parliamentarians in the dialogues themselves. These two recommendations are crucial for strengthening parliamentary oversight of the dialogues.

In addition to the human rights web portal's obvious additional benefits of increasing the transparency and reporting on the dialogues, the committee also makes another recommendation to enhance the reporting of the dialogues. The committee recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade expand the reporting of the dialogues currently contained in its annual report to include at least a list of participants, the issues raised by each dialogue partner and a list of the key outcomes of the dialogues.

The community groups also suggested that Australia adopt bilateral dialogues with a number of other countries where there were concerns, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Burma, Cambodia, Iran and Sri Lanka. The committee formed the view that it is an appropriate time to consider re-establishing its human rights dialogue with Iran as well as making representations to the Sri Lankan government to open a formal human rights dialogue. I note that the committee received many submissions and heard from many witnesses on that issue over the past year. In addition to establishing these dialogues, we think it is important to continually monitor and evaluate the human rights situations of the countries in Australia's region, including an assessment of whether Australia should adopt a human rights dialogue with these countries.

I would like to sincerely thank everyone who participated in this inquiry. One of the most pleasing aspects of this inquiry was the high level of participation by NG0s, ethnic community groups and concerned individuals. These groups and individuals have generously donated their time, effort and limited resources to make thoughtful submissions and to appear at public hearings to voice their support for, and concerns about, Australia's human rights dialogues.

I would also like to commend the secretariat for their work. This report was much agreed upon, virtually without any division. That reflects on the work done by the committee secretariat. I commend this report to the House.

In accordance with standing order 39(f) the report was made a parliamentary paper.