House debates

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Australian Civilian Corps Bill 2010

Second Reading

10:23 am

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I thank the shadow minister for her contribution to this debate. I have been looking forward to speaking on this bill, the Australian Civilian Corps Bill 2010, since the Australian Civilian Corps initiative was announced back in October 2009 because I know that there are many people in my community who have a very real interest in contributing to help the poor and people in appalling circumstances around the world. I know that many of them will welcome this initiative.

The Australian Civilian Corps will enable the rapid deployment of civilian specialists to countries affected by natural disasters or conflict. It will comprise a register of up to 500 civilian specialists. It will be a register of highly qualified professionals who can use their skills in challenging overseas environments. Such people will be sought from all levels of government and the broader Australian community and they will bring expertise in a range of areas, which will include security, justice, reconciliation, machinery of government, essential services, economic stability, community and social capacity building, and operational management. While the register will be built up over a period of about four years, it is expected that the initiative will be fully operational in 2011. This is very good news for the many people in this country who would seek to contribute through such a mechanism as this one.

The concept within Australia emerged from the Australian government’s 2020 Summit in April 2008, where the summit came up with an idea of a deployable public service and the government agreed to develop a framework to enable the rapid deployment of civilians. This bill very much deals with the framework for employing those people in an overseas environment and how the initiative interacts with their regular employment. It was announced by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, at the East Asia Summit in Thailand in October 2009 against a backdrop of some terrible disasters around the world, in Samoa, Tonga, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, in the weeks leading up to the summit, and of course the ongoing challenges and insecurity in Afghanistan. The Australian Civilian Corps will lay the foundations for recovery and future prosperity in countries affected by natural disaster and by conflict and it will advance our reputation and our influence in the international community.

The goal of the Australian Civilian Corps is to enable the Australian government to rapidly deploy civilian specialists to contribute to the stabilisation and recovery efforts in natural disaster or conflict affected areas. The Civilian Corps specialists will be drawn from a range of levels within the community and the public sector but they remain in their regular employment until offered deployment. So there is a similarity in the way it works with the reserves in the Armed Forces, people with civilian skills highly trained in working overseas who remain in their employment until needed and then spent periods of time overseas.

As the shadow minister said, we are not by any means the first country to do this. In fact, there is a long history in countries around the world of having one form or another of a civilian capacity to respond to disaster. Australia joins other members of the international community, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, in establishing the capability for deploying civilian specialists. The shadow minister has already talked at some length about the Peace Corps in the United States, which stimulated and inspired so many young Americans to contribute in lands far from home to people who were in great need. Deployable civilian capabilities have been used to good effect in a range of post-crisis situations around the world, including Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia, Iraq, Haiti, Chad, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

The Australian Civilian Corps will not just work alone; it will engage with international partners who also have deployable civilian capabilities to improve the cooperation and coordination in affected areas. The corps will form strategic partnerships with key international partners and provide better coordination and immediate outcomes on the ground. Again it is a great opportunity for Australia and Australians to cooperate with some of our international partners in this greater participation of civilians in areas of conflict and natural disaster.

The register will comprise about 500 civilian specialists, again personnel sought from all levels of development chosen for their skills in areas such as public administration and finance, law and justice, infrastructure, health administration and community development. We will build the register over four years but the range of expertise on the register will be based on emerging demand, so we can expect over time, as our sense of where we might need to place people changes, that the mix of people on that register will change. It will be flexible to meet demands and it will be regularly updated to reflect current and future needs.

I would expect, again given the number of people I know in my area who would have a great interest in contributing in this way, that it will be quite a competitive recruitment process. It would be a rigorous process anyway, but I suspect it will also be highly competitive. The process will underpin a selection of high-calibre and experienced individuals for the register. It will be based on technical knowledge, qualifications and demonstrated experience, but the participants will also be expected to demonstrate personal attributes appropriate for deployment into difficult environments, such as cross-cultural sensitivity, flexibility, self-reliance and resilience. They will also obviously be expected to meet medical and security checks.

In a recent visit of mine to Afghanistan I spoke at quite some length to our military and aid leaders about the difficulties of working in areas which have great cultural differences. I was aware at that stage that Australia has large numbers of people who have the on-the-ground knowledge of the culture and the language skills necessary to participate and a willingness to go there, as is the case for so many places of conflict or natural disaster around the world. You can see in recent history the number of Australian Pakistanis and Australian Sri Lankans, and Australians from various other places in Asia, who return home during times of conflict to lend their capacity to rebuild. We have great people who are, I know, well and truly looking forward to an opportunity to contribute within such a framework.

This is quite timely for us. It is probably something we could have done some time ago, but again I know that there are many who will be waiting to participate. In many ways this is a nice piece of legislation because it provides a framework for good people to do what good people want to do. So much of our legislation provides frameworks to stop people from doing bad things they want to do or to punish them for doing it. It is always a pleasure to see a piece of legislation that simply provides a mechanism for people to respond to their most noble elements and work with others in need.

In my community I find young people in particular are more and more aware of the circumstances in which people find themselves around the world and more and more aware of how lucky we are here, and they are spending more and more of their own time visiting places where people need great assistance and giving their time for weeks, months or even years. In fact for many young people in my community a period of time working with those in sometimes devastating circumstances in other places of the world very much forms part of their early world experiences. It no doubt contributes to their sense of gratitude for the many things we have in this country which were given to us by people who came before, but it also highlights for many of us just how much need there is. In a place like Australia, where we can be so separated from the world and where our news services do not cover world events to the same extent that many other news services around the world do, it is important that people within our community get a very real understanding of what is happening around the world.

The Civilian Corps will be managed from within AusAID. That was particularly well received in the only submission, which was from World Vision, to the Senate inquiry, which commenced in the last parliament and stopped again with the calling of the election. The general response has been quite positive. It is very important that this initiative works well with other agencies and that there is very good coordination between this initiative and those of other countries. AusAID will be responsible for recruiting the civilian specialists; ensuring that the registered personnel are prepared for deployment; strategic planning for deployments; managing deployments, including logistics, human services and security matters; implementing public communication strategies; and providing support for whole-of-government input and advice. There will be a high-level strategic guidance committee that has oversight of the corps, and representatives from national security, foreign policy and finance departments will play a role on that committee.

This is a wonderful initiative and, as I said, one that I have been looking forward to since 2009 and one that I am going to take great pleasure in announcing to my constituency. I actually announced it last year and made sure that people knew, if they were interested in this, that they could register their interest with AusAID, and they can do that on the AusAID website: One of the first things to do if you think this might be of interest to you is to go to the AusAID website and register your interest. I am looking forward to making sure that all of my community groups, and many groups in my electorate which have led the charge in ensuring that we keep our eyes on those in great need around the world, know how to get involved. There are many groups in my electorate—some churches, some associations of young people—that have come together particularly around issues such as global poverty. I am going to make sure that they absolutely know that they now have another mechanism by which they can contribute, because I know that the will is there in the community.

So I commend the bill to the House. I am incredibly pleased to have been able to speak on it and I am looking forward to seeing the growth of our Civilian Corps and its capacity to improve the lives of people who need our help perhaps more than anyone else. It is one of the great ironies in the world, I think, that the time when we most need the capacity to improve our own lives is quite often the time when that capacity has been ripped from us by disaster, by grief, by ill health, by poverty or by the grinding lives that people lead.

We in Australia are very generous with our money. We are generous with our things. We are generous with the provision of blankets, tents, rice, seed and wheelbarrows, but we are also generous with our capacity to make a difference. In a country like Australia, our belief in our capacity to make a different is heightened by the kinds of lives we have led—safe lives, well supported. It is absolutely appropriate that we loan to the most desperate people in the world not just our money and our things but our capacity to make a difference. This bill will allow many good people to do just that.


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