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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 111

Senator TCHEN (5:16 PM) —I rise to support the comments made by Senator Hogg regarding the report, just tabled, of the parliamentary delegation to the 50th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Canada, and subsequently to the United States. I join with him in recording our thanks to the many people who contributed to the success—and the comfort—of the delegation.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Senator Hogg, Mrs Sue Hogg and Senator Buckland for the fellowship they showed my wife and me during our visit to Canada and the United States. Of course, our thanks go to James Catchpole, the secretary to the delegation and an excellent minder. I must also thank Senator Ferris for insisting that I should take part in this delegation—I think for the purpose of broadening my mind. I regret to say that so far there is no evidence that this has happened, but it might.

The report just tabled provides a summary of the delegation's participation in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Canada, which Senator Hogg has also succinctly referred to in his speech. I have no need to embellish his account. Suffice it to say that, while this conference serves the very worthwhile purpose of promoting the strengthening of democratic practices in all member nations of the Commonwealth, the participation of parliamentarians from countries with a well-established tradition of parliamentary democracy and a strong economy—countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—should be restricted, indeed self-consciously restricted, to providing an interested and supportive presence to the process of exchange rather than seeking to bring matters, which might seem important in their domestic politics but which are mere trifles on the global scale, to the discussion or evaluating everything on the basis of our own practices—tried and tested though they may be.

The United States leg of the delegation was again comprehensively covered in the delegation report just tabled. However, I would like to add a few comments in the following areas. The first concerns a visit to the United States Library of Congress. On Tuesday, 14 September, following the delegation's round of meetings with members of the US Congress and Senate, I visited the office of the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress, which is approximately the counterpart of our Parliamentary Library. The Library of Congress is, of course, a much larger organisation, comprising, in addition to its congressional service unit, the national copyright office, a law library, the national archive, and a public access library. The visit was arranged at very short notice—and I thank Miss Tanya Smith from the Australian embassy for arranging it—to enable me to find out how the US provides its legislators with research support, in comparison with the excellent support senators and members receive from the Parliamentary Library. If there is an opportunity at some future date, I would like to speak on that topic.

The next visit was to the Office of Family Assistance. On Monday, 13 September the delegation visited a number of US federal offices, and among them was the Office of Family Assistance. The office is responsible for administering the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, worth $US16.5 billion in the current year. The program is designed to promote employment amongst welfare recipients, on the basis that employment is the most effective way to help people rise out of poverty. This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom that increasing the level of education is the pathway out of poverty and welfare dependency. The approach is firmly based on the idea of mutual obligation. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act requires minimum levels of work participation in exchange for time-limited social security benefits. These benefits are often in kind—that is, food vouchers rather than cash.

At paragraph 3.85 of the report the delegation noted that its discussions with Dr Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Family of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Mr Grant Collins, Chief of Staff of the Office of Family Assistance, were `most thought provoking, particularly as elements of TANF'—the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program—`contrasted sharply with the Australian welfare system'. This contrast is true only insofar as the Australian system exists in its present form.

It is a matter of fact that since 1966 the Howard government has introduced a number of programs to assist welfare recipients to rejoin employment—often in the face of strident attacks by the opposition, especially over the concept of mutual obligation. I note also that the government has flagged necessary major reforms in the Australian welfare system, precisely in the direction indicated by the TANF program, again with strident criticism by the opposition. I am therefore particularly pleased with the reaction of my colleagues to Dr Horn's briefing, and hopeful that the Howard government's welfare reform program, when it is in due course introduced, will receive positive response from the opposition. It should be of particular interest to the opposition that the TANF program was an initiative of the Clinton administration.

The third issue I wish to comment on is the Australian diaspora. The large number of Australians working and living overseas has been much discussed recently, largely in the context, it seems to me, of this being a sad thing and the need for these lost children of Australia to be brought home—as the emotive tone of the word `diaspora' suggests. During the delegation's visit to San Francisco on Thursday, 16 September, through the good office of Mr Peter Frank, Australian Consul-General and Senior Trade Commissioner in that city, we had a number of opportunities to meet with Australians living and working in the United States. As the delegation's report notes in paragraph 3.47, we were extremely impressed and pleased by the enterprise and knowledge of these Australians and the success they have achieved in the United States. Indeed, these expatriates do credit to Australia and their achievements and acceptance by the United States community bode well for Australia's increased participation in the United States economy under the Australia-US free trade agreement. They are not just part of an Australian diaspora; they are Australia's colonisers.

I would like to conclude with the observation that now that I have visited the United States I can say that I was indeed impressed by the size, the variety, the energy, and indeed the greatness of that country. However, it is not the best country in the world. The best country in the world is the one I came home to. I commend the report to the Senate.