Thursday, 28 October 2010
Australian Civilian Corps Bill 2010
Fifty years ago, on 14 October, US presidential candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, campaigning for the 1960 election, stopped by the University of Michigan. History records that it was at 2 am or thereabouts, so obviously candidates for high office have been known to campaign through the night. Kennedy is said to have spoken to about 5,000 students. It was said to be an impromptu speech of just a few minutes duration, but those few minutes launched an inspiring initiative for the United States and ultimately the wider world.
The students were challenged by Kennedy to contribute to an international effort ‘far greater than we have ever made in the past’. This was a call that was transformed into the Peace Corps. According to a report I read last week on the 50th anniversary of that event, within days of Kennedy’s speech a thousand students from the University of Michigan signed up to serve as volunteers. Since the Peace Corps was formally established by the Kennedy administration in 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps in 139 countries. According to the President of the University of Michigan, in an article dated 21 October 2010:
The Peace Corps was a grand experiment that continues to capture the imagination of Americans, with nearly 9,000 volunteers serving in 77 countries around the world. It is rooted in an idealism that for 50 years has transformed both Americans and the global communities they serve …
Many nations around the world have been inspired by the concept of the Peace Corps and it is seems that this grand experiment continues to inspire 50 years on.
The Australian Civilian Corps Bill 2010 establishes the Australian Civilian Corps, which will be used to assist countries in need that are experiencing or emerging from disaster or conflict. The coalition supports this measure with enthusiasm, subject to two reservations being scrutinised by a brief Senate inquiry. The proposed Australian Civilian Corps differs from the Peace Corps in that it has a primary focus on support in the wake of disaster or conflict. Tragically, in recent times, there have been many instances where the work of another civilian corps would have been greatly valued had it existed. Relief efforts following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which claimed the lives of an estimated 230,000 people, principally in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, would have been enhanced by the work of an organised Australian civilian corps, although the scale of that tragedy brought unthinkable challenges. More recently the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and a spate of natural disasters including tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and storms in various nations could potentially have attracted members of an Australian civilian corps. As we have seen in Pakistan with its floods, large-scale disasters in developing countries can quickly overwhelm the capacity of local authorities. During the crucial aftermath and rebuilding phase, the support of experts can greatly reduce the time it takes for people to repair the damage and start the arduous process of rebuilding communities and infrastructure in their lives.
Importantly, there is also the potential for members of a civilian corps to effect long-term change for the better. For example, agricultural experts may be able to support the development of more efficient farming practices that could lead to greater productivity and economic prosperity in the longer term. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs noted in his speech, it is not the intention of the Civilian Corps to replace the work of emergency response teams but to supplement and build on their initial work. There is bipartisan commitment to increase Australia’s foreign aid budget to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, in support of the Millennium Development Goals, which will mean an effective doubling of the aid budget. A specialist corps of 500 people which would be in place by 2014 has the potential to play an important role, particularly in nations of our region situated along the so-called ‘ring of fire’.
While the coalition is strongly supportive of the Australian Civilian Corps, I do have a couple of concerns. The explanatory memorandum states that there are no direct financial impacts from the bill. However, AusAID’s Focus Online, under the heading ‘New Australian Civilian Corps to assist in disaster and conflict zones’, states that:
The Australian government will provide $52 million to enable the rapid deployment of Australian civilians into overseas disaster or conflict affected countries.
So this figure needs clarification with regard to the training of corps members as well.
I also seek reassurance from the government regarding the costs of supporting and protecting members of the corps who may be deployed to potentially hostile or dangerous environments. For example, how will security be ensured for civilians operating in post-conflict environments? This is a longstanding issue, but there has been no specific information provided either in the explanatory memorandum or in the speech on this issue by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I think that is a concern for people thinking about volunteering for the Australian Civilian Corps.
My second concern relates to the potential for a conflict of interest involving government employees. The minister’s second reading speech stated that the Director-General of AusAID will be responsible for managing the Australian Civilian Corps and will have the power to engage people to the corps, including the authority to determine remuneration and other terms and conditions. The minister also said that members:
… will be drawn from a register of civilian specialists selected for their technical skills and ability to work in challenging environments overseas.
Given that many of the eligible public sector employees could well be existing staff of AusAID, I believe that this could create potential for a conflict of interest. The Director-General and, through him or her, the staff of AusAID will be responsible for establishing the register of civilian specialists, some of whom may be AusAID employees themselves. Additionally, if AusAID staff were on the register, who would determine whether they were deployed as AusAID staff or as Australian Civilian Corps and what are the implications for AusAID of such an arrangement?
I believe this raises a number of questions that should be addressed prior to the passage of the legislation, so prior to supporting the bill the coalition will seek to refer the bill to a brief Senate inquiry to establish that safeguards will be in place to avoid such conflicts of interest or the potential for them and, obviously, to scrutinise the funding arrangements not only in relation to the $52 million that has been mentioned in AusAID’s online piece but also given that the explanatory memorandum states that there is no financial impact. Therefore, the coalition reserves the right to make amendments to this bill in the Senate, subject to the outcomes of the Senate inquiry. I otherwise applaud the government for this initiative to establish an Australian Civilian Corps in the manner and spirit of the Peace Corps, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.