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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6894

Senator RICE (Victoria) (20:25): At a time in history when the world has never been more connected, it can sometimes seem that our politics and leaders have never been more disconnected. But, although the greatest challenges threaten to divide us, locally and globally, there has never been more of an opportunity to unite. This was made clear to me on a recent parliamentary delegation visiting the Pacific. On 10 days through Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji, our cross-party delegation witnessed firsthand what our neighbours are up against. But underlying the entire trip was a sense of hope—hope that, with decent education, health care and care for the earth, the future is bright.

I want to share just a few of their stories and how what we do in this place impacts every day on their lives and livelihood. We must not forget that this is our corner of the world. Their problems are our problems. And when they benefit, we all benefit—like in Papua New Guinea, a country with which we share an intertwined history and which continues to be our biggest aid recipient.

Visiting the Bomana War Cemetery, where a large number of Australians are buried, was a moving reminder of the incredible efforts of Australian soldiers—supported by PNG locals—in fighting the Japanese forces in World War II. I have pledged to myself to return and walk the whole Kokoda Track.

In the 1980s, PNG's maternal morbidity rates dramatically increased after midwifery training was reduced, and the consequences are being felt around the country. In rural areas, there is little to no access to pre- and post-natal care, leading to tragically high levels of deaths of women and babies in childbirth. With the help of Australian foreign aid, midwifery programs like that at Goroka university have increased the numbers of midwives in PNG, and it is having a powerful impact. The program leaders we met at Goroka were passionate, and so proud of their students and alumni. They have heard that their funding may be discontinued at the end of the year, so they made it clear to us how vital this funding is.

There is an epidemic of sexual and gender based violence in PNG. Two-thirds of PNG women will experience such violence in their lives. But there are some amazing people doing amazing work to tackle the issue through support services and education programs, like Rita Kare, who is supporting a women's economic empowerment program run by a local Goroka organisation called Susu Halvim Susu—sisters helping sisters. With her restaurant and food business, Rita and the Susu Halvim Susu women are helping women establish small businesses and become financially independent.

We met the straight-talking Naomi, who has been working to establish the Goroka Safe Haus. She told us of the essential need to tackle the underlying gender inequality in PNG society, because encouraging women to become financially independent risks making husbands feel that their wives are no longer under their control, making life much less safe.

We also met an inspiring, energetic woman, Selene, who runs a coffee farm with her family. After we were greeted with an impressive 'sing sing', Selene and her husband showed off their farm, which has come about because of a program run by Care International that trains local farmers in best-practice coffee growing. The program has a particular focus on building women's skills and encouraging the treatment of women as equals on the farm. One of the male training participants, Steven, told us it had made him realise that men so often treat women like their wheelbarrows, and how wrong this was. These programs—and these women—are powerful.

We cannot be under the impression that we are immune from these issues. A woman is killed every week in Australia by their partner or ex-partner. We need to share our challenges and successes in the areas of gender based and sexual violence.

Vanuatu is another place where our histories are linked, with the 'blackbirding' of ni-Vanuatu. The Vanuatu National Archives highlight the kidnapping and slavery of people to work in the sugarcane fields in Queensland in the late 1800s. The injustice was compounded a decade or two later when many that had remained, post slavery, were forcibly deported under the White Australia policy. The connections that managed to remain in Australia between ni-Vanuatu and their home islands remain strong.

In Vanuatu, we visited a fabulous multifaceted youth and community centre called Wan Smolbag. Since it was started by an English couple in 1989, it has grown to employ 120 staff and to provide much needed services for the community—from being a drop-in and education centre for kids and teenagers not attending school to a theatre and drama program, including a theatre group for disabled people, to a sports centre, to running a nutrition program and to a reproductive and sexual health clinic, which in recent months has expanded to treat people suffering after Cyclone Pam. Wan Smolbag is largely funded by foreign aid, including $1 million a year from Australia. It is worth every cent.

The devastation of Cyclone Pam is still palpable in villages across the country. The storm stole family and friends and destroyed their homes. Science tells us that there are going to be more of these storms and they are going to be more intense because of the pollution we keep pumping into the atmosphere. We have a responsibility to take urgent action to reduce the impacts of climate change. Failure to do so will result in more suffering within these communities, and the repair bill will keep going up and up. In the wake of Cyclone Pam, Australia gave millions in aid to help the estimated 132,000 people affected. Can we afford to take action on climate change? We cannot afford not to.

As we moved on to Fiji, we saw the direct benefits of education programs funded by our aid. We visited one particularly impressive school, with passionate teachers, articulate kids and a productive farm, which was funded through the Australian quality education program. Our aid funds things such as the renovation of the dormitory bunks and provisions for kids who have to walk three hours to and from their villages on weekends. These measures have lifted their attendance rates to 96 per cent. Young people from the village tend the school farm and excess produce is sold to the community. With beans, radishes, carrots, lettuce, corn and cassava, the farm also provides the basis of nutritious meals. Prior to the farm being operational, the kids who boarded had to carry their own food to school each week, which usually consisted of lots of cassava and not much else.

We also saw the devastating loss of nature across Fiji, with large areas of cleared and burnt land and waste strewn everywhere. I was struck that the only birds I saw there were Indian mynas, which were in plague proportions. There was plastic waste on every beach, entangled around every mangrove, in every creek and river bed. Electricity was largely diesel generated, and pristine environments were few and far between.

Imagine the opportunities for well-managed recycling programs and for powering communities with energy from the wind and sun. Imagine the possibilities of focusing our foreign aid program on sustainability measures. It would create employment, enable private enterprise, build technical skills, reduce reliance on imported oil and gas, clean up the air and water, and tackle climate change.

Imagine helping these countries change the way their people get around. The roads are clogged, and building more and more of them—like we have—is a costly path to go down that will only worsen the situation. Buses are already widely used. They have the opportunity to replace ageing bus fleets with electric buses. They have the opportunity to revolutionise the way their government, police and support services operate, with a fleet of electric vehicles. It would decrease fuel costs and pollution levels and stop the appalling situation where police cannot reach victims of family violence in far-flung villages because they cannot afford the fuel. These could be built by Australian suppliers and funded by Australian aid, but they would benefit the local economy and the local people. On the trip, I saw a total of three people on bikes. We could change this by supporting walking and cycling. It would bust congestion and have massive health benefits and benefits to small businesses.

And we could support the rollout of serious broadband—connect every school and health centre, and reap the educational, social and economic benefits, allowing young people, in particular, to engage in the modern society and economy from their home villages. In this way, we could further connect our people.

Yes, there are barriers. The political instability in the region is real, and corruption is always a risk. But it is a manageable risk, and the benefits far outweigh these other considerations. These are our neighbours—only a flight of a couple of hours from Australia. Their cultures are generous, but so are we. We have much to learn from each other. When our friends and neighbours benefit, so do we.