House debates

Monday, 24 June 2013

Private Members' Business

Australian Embassy in Hungary

12:57 pm

Photo of Alex SomlyayAlex Somlyay (Fairfax, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This motion was moved by my colleague and neighbour Peter Slipper, the member for Fisher. It is something that we both feel very strongly about. We are in total agreement on this issue. There are issues on which we work together because we have neighbouring electorates. If it is good for our joint electorates, we cooperate—and we are doing that on this occasion.

In the fine print of last month's budget was the decision by this government to close the Australian embassy in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Please do not mistake my highlighting of this issue simply as some sort of sentimentality about my family origins. From both a political and a diplomatic position, this official announcement within the budget is regrettably short-sighted. Why the embassy in Hungary has been caught in this foreign affairs austerity net is baffling.

The bilateral relationship between Australia and Hungary has traditionally been very strong; it has a compelling track record of cooperation and commonality. Hungary visibly backed our nation's bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and Australia has reciprocated by supporting Hungary's candidature. These seemingly unpretentious but important diplomatic bonds, which build our shared international endeavours, should not be undervalued or misjudged. But our relationship on the global stage is much more extensive than most may realise. The paths of Australia and Hungary have also converged, as we have contributed to peace-building efforts in international communities, including Afghanistan. In the uncertainty and tumult of Syria, Hungary has provided consular assistance to our Australian citizens. The planned closure of the Australian embassy belies our enduring convivial association with Hungary.

Geographically, Hungary is strategically located in the heart of Eastern Europe, and the Australian embassy in Budapest is both symbolically and diplomatically integral to the advancing of the economic and cultural relations between our countries for mutual benefit. For Australia, Hungary provides a gateway to central Europe. The embassy is an important part of a suite of diplomatic measures. It is also a conduit for business trade and investment. Similarly, Australia plays a part in presenting Hungary to Asian and Pacific neighbours. It is customary foreign affairs practice. Our ties with Hungary are tangible. Our bilateral relationship has been born from trust, integrity and belief in fellowship. Domestically, there have been a number of key developments—subtle and largely unnoticed as they may be—with social security agreements. There are currently negotiations underway on work and holiday visa arrangements.

Of course the government's assertion is that the closure of our embassy in Budapest will not unduly affect our relationship with Hungary. The planned closure comes at a time when the Hungarian government is opening a consular office in Melbourne to further promote cultural, economic and diplomatic relations. Consequently, my own assertion is that this embassy decision does little to venerate the finesse, the nuances and the courtesy that international relations demand and deserve. There are hundreds of thousands of Australians of Hungarian origin and heritage. They contribute to the diversity, the richness and the prosperity of our way of life. Our embassy presence in Budapest embraced the great Australian concept of mateship. We have an excellent relationship with Hungary and the embassy is symbolic of that. I appreciate the cutbacks are symptomatic of these very tight economic times and there will and must be casualties. Closing the embassy may deliver on this bottom line, but the true cost of this retrograde decision, economically, culturally and diplomatically, is one which I believe we should not pay.

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the honourable member for Fairfax. The question is that the motion be agreed to, and I call the honourable member for Fisher.

1:01 pm

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker McClelland—or should I more appropriately refer to you as Your Honour in waiting? I certainty hope that you receive the position that you are entitled to. I would also like you to pass along to your father my personal thanks for his letter of congratulations to me on my appointment as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The honourable member for Fairfax and I have not always agreed on everything. However, we strongly agree that the decision made in the budget to close the Australian embassy in Hungary was one of the most stupid decisions that any government in this country has made. Embassies have been closed by parties on both sides of government, and none of us support the fact that we are reducing Australia's diplomatic footprint throughout the world. We have a situation where we struggled to be elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and part of the reason for that was that we do not have representation in the countries which we expect to vote for us. The stupidest thing about this particular decision is that the embassy in Hungary costs Australia a relatively small amount of money and the government will not actually close the embassy until 14 days before the 14 September election. That obviously is going to have an amazing effect on the 250,000 people in Australia who have Hungarian origins. My colleague the member for Fairfax and his family fled from Hungary following the communist takeover in 1946, I think. But we have a situation where, as a nation, we do not have, for a country of our size, anywhere near enough overseas missions and embassies.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

It is a shame. But the honourable member for Kooyong would know that both parties are responsible for the fact that we have nowhere near enough representation throughout the world for a country of our size. Given the fact that I have five minutes to speak I obviously cannot go through all of the points of the motion. But I have to say: why was Hungary singled out? Hungary is a key country in central Europe. Hungary has supported us for our election to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member. Hungary is opening a further mission in Melbourne to highlight the relationship between our two countries. I must say that I believe that foreign ministers on both sides of politics must be extraordinarily frustrated by the fact that the department of finance and the Treasury insist on constantly reducing Australia's representation throughout the world.

I want to place on record my very high regard for Ms Anna Siko, the Hungarian ambassador here in Australia. She is doing a wonderful job representing her community and representing Hungary in Australia. I also want to thank His Excellency Mr John Burgess, the Australian Ambassador to Hungary.

This is a really stupid, dumb decision. Why on earth would any government want to burn 250,000 Australian-Hungarians 14 days before the government faces one of the more challenging elections that it has faced? It is unbelievable, it is totally unacceptable and I believe that the Australian community simply believes that it is wrong that we should be closing the Australian Embassy in Hungary.

We have, through Hungary, a conduit into Central Europe. Hungary, through Australia, has a conduit to the Asia-Pacific region. We are countries which now share democratic values. In fact, we have encouraged Hungary to be a democratic nation. As Speaker, last year, I lead a delegation to Hungary. I had access to the highest levels of the Hungarian government. I must say that I was particularly impressed with the way that Hungary regarded Australia and the way that Australian-Hungarians regarded the bilateral relationship between Hungary and Australia.

I do make a last-minute plea to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, as I have made many pleas to many ministers in this government, to reverse this retrograde decision. It is dumb politically for the government on 14 September but, more importantly, it is a very unwise decision from the point of view of the bilateral relationship.

1:07 pm

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion put by my colleague, Mr Slipper, for bringing this government to account for a most regrettable decision to close Australia's Embassy in Hungary. Hungary is an important country—it is a country of 10 million people and we have two-way trade of about $500 million annually.

After the 1956 uprising in Hungary against Soviet occupation, thousands of Hungarians made their way to Australia. In the most recent census, there were more than 70,000 Australians with Hungarian ancestry and perhaps a couple of hundred thousand—

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It is 250,000.

Photo of Josh FrydenbergJosh Frydenberg (Kooyong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

or 250,000, as the member for Fisher says, with some form of Hungarian relationship. In fact, my mother was born in Hungary, and my father-in-law, Mr Nich Saunders, was also born in Hungary, so I have a close relationship with Hungary through them.

Hungary has been an important bilateral partner for Australia. We have been able to use it as a conduit as we have tried to protect Australian citizens in Syria, as we do not have an up-and-running embassy there at present. Hungary supported us in our campaign for the UN Security Council. As an EU member, it is a particularly important country in the world.

This is a most regrettable decision. The government says that it is doing this because of budgetary constraints. It says that it will need to invest $52.6 million on new residential accommodation in Kabul, as well as $50.6 million for new secure facilities in Kenya. How much is the government saving by closing the embassy in Hungary? According to Dr Emerson, the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness, savings from the closure will be $0.3 million in 2013-14 and around $1.7 million thereafter—virtually nothing in the scheme of things.

In fact, the minister for trade has said, in relation to Hungary, 'This is a decision that, with a very large amount of money and no limits on money, we would not have made.' Rubbish! You are saving $1.7 million and you are spending more than $100 million on new facilities. It is absolute rubbish to say that you need to close this embassy! Because you cannot run your own budget, because you cannot run the finances of this country, you have to make a most regrettable decision like this. Australian companies like Cochlear, Macquarie and AMP Capital are all present in Hungary in one way or another, and we are closing an embassy and ending our representation there.

DFAT have said in a Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade inquiry:

… closing a mission saves very little. The reason being, once you have got a mission up and running, your running costs are quite low. It might cost you $25 million over three or four years to open a post but, if 10 years later you were to close that post, you would probably only save about $2 million a year.

So you cannot even close a post properly! This is absolutely ridiculous.

The member for Fisher said that the government's presence overseas is low. This is what Greg Sheridan said when he was interviewing the Minister for Foreign Affairs on Sky on 2 June:

But how is it that the overall budget for Australian diplomacy is so pathetically low? We run a foreign service about the size of Slovenia. We run the smallest per capita foreign service of any OECD country in the world. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is smaller today than either the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of Trade were when they were amalgamated in 1986. Yet their consular workload has increased by hundreds and hundreds of per cent.

The embassy in Beijing has not had an increase in resources in 12 years. This Budget we closed another embassy, Budapest, we have a smaller public diplomacy budget in Indonesia than Germany, France and Britain do. We have a smaller Asian diplomatic representation than Germany, France or Britain do, and yet we claim this is our core business.

This is a joke. If we get the chance to form government on 14 September we will run the budget and the finances of this country properly. We will be in a position to finance our posts around the world and expand the footprint of Australia's foreign policy. I have great confidence in Tony Abbott, and great confidence in Julie Bishop, as my colleagues who will ensure that Australia has a proper presence. And what is more, we will not close embassies like this government has done on Hungary with no consultation whatsoever to the detriment of the Australian economy and the Australian people.

1:12 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In a perfect world I would have embassies in Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius and every European post, but we do not live in a perfect world—and, quite frankly, a lot of this emotion we just heard might be better targeted towards the cause of Ukrainians in this country: a nation of 50 million people, for which the Ukrainian diaspora has been campaigning for an embassy. Decisions have to be made. It is all right for those opposite to put on the histrionics here today, put on the screaming and shouting, and threaten that there is going to be some electoral impact of this.

We heard a few figures from over there. The first point is that the census shows 67,000, not 70,000—and certainly not a quarter of a million—of people of Hungarian extraction in this country. As I say, I am a person who would support enhanced expenditure in the foreign affairs department. But we have an opposition which is slanderously conducting itself with regard to budgetary management in this country, which constantly calls for cutbacks, which says that the government must go into balance. This $1.7 million cannot be isolated from the general cutbacks in the foreign affairs department—each and every one of them can probably have champions to ask the government to go back to its earlier start. I am not for one moment denying the Hungarian contribution in this country, from Frank Lowy to, in the contemporary world, Les Murray, whose family is a good model of language retention in this country. I heard him on ABC radio years ago noting how his parents insisted that Hungarian only be spoken in the house, while the parents went off and learned English very effectively.

It is worth noting that on 13 May the Hungarian government—the Fidesz Party, a very conservative regime—put on the public record their analysis of this closure. They noted that Hungary itself had had to close a number of foreign missions. They further noted that Hungary was convinced that bilateral relations would be maintained at their current excellent level. We have had to have other priorities, I am afraid. We cannot just ignore major requirements of this country, such as building a more secure purpose-built residential accommodation in Kabul. Would they condemn our diplomats to the threat of violence and murder instead of this closure? We have the situation of constructing a more secure High Commission in Kenya. Once again, Nairobi is a target of terrorist activity. Would they say that our diplomats' protection is less important than this embassy? We also, of course, sought to re-establish our international focus with the 2013 moves towards establishing new missions in Chengdu in China and Dakar in Senegal, West Africa. I actually think they are probably, on balance, more important priorities. As I say, I would be the last person to decry the need for embassies in more countries around the world, but in strange circumstances—and with a cutback in government taxation revenues—we have decisions to make. This kind of pathetic appeal to electoral constituencies is to be condemned.

I want to in some ways distance myself from some aspects of the motion on another front. Yes, Hungary, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has historically moved towards democratic measures. However, all is not rosy. The European Commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, has said recently that measures in Hungary 'raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law and Council of Europe standards.' The Council of Europe itself has asked Hungary to postpone constitutional changes. The US State Department has said that changes in Hungary 'threaten to undermine democratic government.' In recent years, we have seen constitutional changes to lower the age of judges, to limit the powers of the Constitutional Court and to restrict election campaigning to only state media.

When I was there, on a study tour, I saw how the Jobbik party, which is a fascist anti-Semitic and anti-Roma group, had grown. It was getting up to 14 per cent of the vote in national elections. One of the more worrying proposals by the government—I am not sure whether they brought this in in the end—was that they were going to appoint a government financial-economic committee for a 10-year duration. If there was to be an election defeat for the current government, that three-person commission could have forced a new election if they did not agree to the budgetary moves of the new government. There are concerns about the growth of anti-Semitism and the way in which Roma are being excluded in society. Hilary Clinton presented an award to a Roma female deputy for her campaigning for Roma rights in Hungary.

Yes, in a perfect world I would like to see a post in Hungary. Hungary is a central nation in the Central and Eastern Europe bloc of nations and it has historical measures that are quite important to world culture. But decisions have to made and, on balance, I think this decision was correct.

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.