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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2733

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (8:39 PM) —I present the report of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to Egypt and Israel from 31 October to 6 November 2008 and seek leave to make a statement in connection with the report.

Leave granted.

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS —I present this report with great pride. The delegation visited Egypt and Israel in October and November last year and also made a brief visit to the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. I was accompanied by my colleagues the member for Maranoa, who was the deputy leader of the delegation; the member for Fisher, yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker Slipper; as well as a Senators Colbeck, Marshall and Sterle. I thank all of them for their active and constructive contributions. All members engaged in discussions, visits and inspections with great enthusiasm and in a really good spirit of bipartisanship.

Australia has a significant involvement in the Middle East, as a trading partner and also through the continuing efforts of our Australian Defence Force. It is important that Australia’s parliamentarians maintain an interest and continue to develop relationships in this very important region. The visit provided us with a valuable opportunity to gain a better understanding of the Middle East peace process. We also explored opportunities for expanding relationships, particularly in the areas of trade and investment. We learnt more about Australia’s wheat and live meat exports to the region as well: two very important trade points for us.

It was very pleasing to meet with members of the ADF serving in key peacekeeping roles. We have men and women in the region as part of the Multinational Force and Observers and also the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation. All Australians can be justifiably proud of their commitment and their service. There is a significant level of goodwill generated from our contribution to these operations. We also valued the opportunity to pay tribute to Australia’s war dead in both countries, and I commend the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for its care of the graves of Australians and others buried in the Middle East and in fact elsewhere in the world.

The delegation was encouraged by statements of optimism made during the visit about the peace process. We were, of course, extremely concerned about the breakdown of the ceasefire arrangement in December 2008 and the resulting conflict between Israel and Hamas. The delegation supports continuing diplomatic efforts to halt all violence and to find a path forward towards a lasting and stable solution. In 2008, $45 million of development assistance was provided to the Palestinian people by the Australian government, doubling the amount of the previous year. I note the recent announcements of a further allocation of $10 million towards humanitarian assistance to the people of the Gaza Strip and, just last week, of an additional $20 million to meet the recovery and reconstruction needs of the Palestinian people.

The delegation received briefing from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East and visited the Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem. A significant level of Australia’s assistance is provided through the agency. It aims to improve governance reform, health care and food security for refugees. We also had the pleasure of visiting a project supported by Australia’s direct aid program. The Australian Embassy in Egypt provides funding to support the KidsBake vocational training centre in one of the squatter communities in Old Cairo. It provides valuable skills training for young girls with a view to assisting them to find employment and a future livelihood.

Delegation members joined me in expressing sincere appreciation to the government, parliamentary, business and other representatives who met with us during this visit. We were grateful for the welcome and hospitality extended to us, for the time that was made available for meetings and for the useful and interesting exchange of information and views. We also express appreciation to those who assisted with the arrangements made for the visit and, in particular, staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade both here and overseas. To Ambassador Larsen in Israel and to Ambassador Shwabsky in Egypt: our thanks for their assistance and that of their officials, who were of enormous assistance to us on the ground during our visit. I also want to acknowledge the work of delegation secretary Lyn Witheridge and thank her for her support both before and during the visit.

In conclusion, it was a really enriching process for all of us on the delegation to visit this very important part of the world where a lot of us wish to see peace progress. I know that we came away with the strong feeling that we also would like to see that happen, and I am sure we all wish that for the region concerned.