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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 28393

Mr HOLLIS (11:28 AM) —In this consideration in detail I would like to make some comments about Australia in the United Nations. I do this having been the Parliamentary Adviser to the General Assembly for the 55th Session of the United Nations. There seems an almost deliberate attempt to downplay the role Australia plays at the UN, the importance of the UN to our foreign policy initiatives, and Australia's participation in UN bodies addressing economic and social issues, and the human rights committees. The UN has been concerned about economic and social advancement since its establishment. Throughout the last 50 years these subjects have been the focus of discussion and activity.

At the millennium assembly held early in September last year, these were the principal issues discussed with many heads of state and government, concentrating on issues such as globalisation, development, poverty and inequality. It was clear that most governments take economic and social issues seriously. They consider that they have major international dimensions and that the forums of the UN General Assembly, and the Economic and Social Council and its commissions are useful in making decisions and planning actions to address them. It is irresponsible that Australia has played little or no role in some of these forums in recent years. The PM did attend the millennium assembly and the foreign minister took part in the general debate in the UN General Assembly—and these were certainly important occasions—but Australia has been relatively passive in economic and social bodies in recent years. For example, Australia did not even attend the second session of the preparatory committee for the special session of the General Assembly on social development, held in Geneva in June last year, and it was alone among developed countries, excluding Japan because of an election, in not sending a minister to head the delegation to the special session.

Australia was represented by five Geneva based diplomats; not even a public servant was sent from Canberra. This compares with Canada which had a delegation of 43, Germany with 33, the UK with 19 and the US with a delegation of 25 led by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Yet the initiatives focused on were of global significance. They related to each of the 10 commitments made at the World Summit for Social Development and included such issues as market access for the exports of developing countries; means of reducing international financial instability; a target, a strategy and programs for reducing global poverty; employment policy in both developed and developing countries; social protection; education and human services; ageing; affirmative action for gender equality; HIV AIDS; the price of pharmaceuticals; national taxpayers; and international cooperation.

About 40 substantial initiatives were agreed for implementation by national governments in the international system. Surely Australia has an interest in being effectively represented at such discussions. Some of these issues affect Australia directly, others involve evolution of global policy and yet others are issues of moral concern which force our involvement. It is neglectful of Australia's interests for this country to be unrepresented in these discussions. When every comparable country takes these events seriously, is it not reasonable to expect Australia to do the same?

In the human rights field Australia has given the perception of downgrading its interest. I do think it is unfortunate that comments made by the foreign minister, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and the Attorney-General have led many to believe Australia is downgrading its interest and is not prepared to cooperate on human rights issues. Surely Australia is resilient enough to take criticism. Governments always believe criticism is unfair and misguided, but if we are prepared to raise human rights issues elsewhere, especially with regard to Indonesia and China, we must be prepared to have our obligations and agreements subject to scrutiny.

Threats not to cooperate with UN fact-finding missions are misguided and send a wrong message. That is what we have been doing in relation to the United Nations over recent years: we have been sending the wrong message. I do believe that Australia should strengthen our representation at the UN. We should not be withdrawing from committees but be more active in committees, and hopefully go back to the day when Australia, like Canada, New Zealand and Sweden, punched above its weight—not as we are doing now. We are punching well below our weight. That is the tragedy of Australian representation at the United Nations through the policy of this government: instead of punching above our weight, as we have done for so many years, we are punching well and truly below our weight, and that is a tragedy. (Time expired)