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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1488

Senator PAYNE (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Faulkner, representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Given the devastating events in Burma which have left over 1.5 million Burmese homeless and resulted in a death toll likely to exceed 100,000, can the minister inform the Senate as to how Australia’s initial commitment of $3 million of funding support was assessed and then the subsequent commitment of $25 million in total was arrived at to assist the victims of Cyclone Nargis? Can the minister also advise whether it is expected that that funding figure will increase?

Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) —I thank Senator Payne for her question about this very tragic circumstance of Cyclone Nargis. Of course, all senators are very deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life and the great deal of suffering and enormous devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis. Of course, Australia and the international community stand by the Burmese people at this time. Reports of casualties are still coming in but it is clear that the toll there will be very high. Burmese official figures put the death toll at over 23,000, with over 37,000 missing, and the number of homeless at around 1½ million, but these figures are almost certainly understated. The cyclone has also caused massive damage to property and vital infrastructure and has disrupted communications.

I can say specifically in response to the questions that Senator Payne asks me that Australia is providing $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma following Cyclone Nargis. This consists of the initial $3 million the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced on 7 May plus a further $22 million that was announced on 11 May. Of that $22 million, a total of $12.5 million will be made to the United Nations’ flash appeal. That appeal will help address the most urgent of the life saving needs in Burma. The remaining $12.5 million is being provided directly to international agencies and non-government organisations with the ability to deliver assistance quickly and effectively on the ground in the worst affected areas. Australia’s already extensive involvement on the ground in Burma has made us well placed to deliver this assistance quickly to those in need.

AusAID is ensuring that Australian assistance is reaching affected populations through UN disaster response mechanisms. This assistance is in the form of food, water, water purification, sanitation, health kits and tarpaulins. I can also say to the Senate that, separate from the flash appeal, Australia is one of the largest donors to the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund. Ten million dollars has been provided in this financial year, and the UN has announced that part of that particular fund will also be used to respond to the needs that have arisen as a result of Cyclone Nargis.

In answer to the other element of Senator Payne’s question—she asked me about further consideration by the government—options for further assistance over the medium to long term do remain under close consideration as UN assessments of the situation in Burma are made.

Senator PAYNE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his assurance of the Australian government and community standing by the people of Burma in this tragic situation. Given the significant reports of barriers to the delivery of assistance and aid, can the minister please advise the Senate in the context of his response how AusAID is actually going about ensuring that aid is delivered? What guarantees and assurances do we have that the significant funding that the minister has referred to there is actually meeting its target?

Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) —There is no doubt, in response to Senator Payne’s supplementary question, that access into Burma for aid workers really remains the greatest challenge in relation to relief efforts for Cyclone Nargis. While the international community is, I think, responding generously to what the immense needs are there, if the Burmese government were prepared to fully open its doors there would be a massive increase in delivery of humanitarian assistance. That would certainly be possible. I think senators would be aware that the Australian government, led by the Prime Minister, have expressed very deep concern and dismay at the attitude of the Burmese regime, and I can assure the Senate that we are using every diplomatic channel available to urge the Burmese regime to allow access for humanitarian assistance to the affected areas.