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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 115

Senator BARTLETT (9:27 PM) —I spoke a couple of times last week on behalf of the Australian Democrats on matters relating to the tsunami financial assistance package and overseas aid and development assistance in general, so I will not go on at length tonight—I refer people to the Hansard from last week. It is appropriate to acknowledge our support for the government’s package of assistance, predominantly to Indonesia but also to other nations affected by what in any language is simply an incomprehensible and appalling disaster. At the time, and repeatedly since then, I and other Democrats have voiced our support for the scale of the assistance that the government is providing.

To really emphasise the scale of the disaster it should be mentioned again that there tends to be a focus on the death toll. That in itself is very hard to comprehend. But of course in most ways the measures we are talking about here tonight are for the survivors—for the living. They are for the millions that have to go on despite having been severely affected. All of those hundreds of thousands of people who have died would have had loved ones who would have survived and who have to continue living with that loss. As Senator Sherry mentioned, there are around 1.6 million who have been displaced by this disaster across the Indian Ocean region. That is an enormous number of people affected in such a fundamental way. Clearly there is an enormous amount of work to be done and it is going to take a very long time to rebuild. But, as we all know, these things can be done—they have to start with the confidence that the resources will be there to enable it to happen. For that reason, this sort of package is welcome.

The wide recognition that this package will receive, particularly the Australia-Indonesia partnership, should very significantly improve the relationship between Australia and Indonesia at the government level and the sense of connection between our two nations. I make that point not in any way to suggest that there is some base sense of self-interest in providing this support but simply to make the obvious point that there is clearly benefit to Australia in providing appropriate and adequate levels of development assistance or disaster assistance to people who need it. Given the widespread recognition of that clear-cut fact, with this package of measures I would hope that we could recognise that the same benefits can be brought to our country and to others by increasing our development assistance more significantly, again particularly for countries in our own region, although not solely. There is a natural degree of benefit to our nation by providing support for others who need help, whether it is with immediate reconstruction following a disaster, broader economic development assistance or assistance with improving systems of governance. Of course, we provide other support in our region but clearly more is needed.

It is a strange quirk of our history and our place on the planet that, in most respects, psychologically a lot of Australians still feel connected to countries and cultures that are on the other side of the world rather than countries and nations that are closest to us. As we move into the next century, that is something that we will need to change and evolve in reasonably significant ways if we are going to reach our full potential as a nation. That is not to discard and discount our history and links with other countries further afield but to recognise the links we naturally share in being neighbours. There is still a significant lack of awareness on both sides—on the Australian side and on the side of other countries in our region, including Indonesia—about each other’s societies and cultures. That is something that needs to change, and measures like this can assist in that regard as well as, of course, with the more immediate and pressing need of providing assistance to people who in many cases have absolutely nothing.

The broader value of development assistance and aid should be recognised. The Democrats have been saying for many years that we must do much better with our aid and assistance, particularly to countries in our region. These bills are a welcome sign of our ability as a nation, and this government’s ability, to do better, as is the very significant amount of donations and contributions that the Australian community provided both as individuals and through the corporate sector. It is doable; we can improve our efforts.

The value and benefit to us and to the people we are trying to assist is clear to everybody. I hope this can be a starting point for a significant longer term improvement in the overall amount of assistance that Australia provides at a government level, a corporate level and an individual level to other countries in our region that are far less prosperous than Australia. Certainly Pacific island nations need ongoing assistance, as do many South-East Asian nations. I do not deny that other mechanisms that enable economic development can be equally, if not more, valuable to ensure prosperity for those countries, but that should not negate the benefit that development assistance and aid can provide.

There is one criticism I would make: the fact that half of the $1 billion package that is provided is in the form of a loan, which will increase Indonesia’s foreign debt. Obviously, it is a loan on very good conditions—a long-term interest-free loan—but it is nonetheless a loan. In the sense of the broader economic impact of that, I think it is a bit short of what we could reasonably have done.

The other aspect, which I pointed out in comments last week, is the need to ensure that the aid is spent effectively. If there is one thing that would dramatically damage the goodwill and the benefit that everyone can see, both from this package and from the donations people have provided privately, it would be if people were given the impression down the track that the money was wasted. I asked some questions at estimates hearings about what mechanism would be put in place to determine the expenditure of the money and ensure that it is as effective as possible: what criteria would be used to ensure that it is not just a de facto way of subsidising Australian companies, for example. Those details have not been worked out yet, primarily because the Australia-Indonesia partnership group have not actually had a meeting yet, as I understand. I believe that will happen very soon—some time in the next week or so, but certainly by the end of this month. That is certainly important.

It is now close to three months since the disaster and certainly the time is now right to get on with working out the details of how this money is spent. It is a very important task to make sure that it is spent effectively and that we are able to demonstrate to the communities in Australia and the communities in Indonesia that it will be spent effectively to get maximum benefit—not just financial benefit but also all the other broader human benefits that can come from this package.

This is a welcome measure. I hope it serves as a sign of broader long-term improvement in this government’s efforts with aid to countries in our region and overseas development assistance more broadly. We certainly need to do better. I urge the government to do everything it can to ensure that the money is seen to be spent as effectively as possible. Millions of lives need to be rebuilt. Economies, societies, communities, environments and infrastructures need to be rebuilt. This will not happen just through money, but it sure will help. I join in not just supporting the appropriation of these funds but also, along with all in this chamber and Australian community, continuing to send sympathy to all of those who were affected by this disaster and support for them as they seek to rebuild their communities.