Senate debates

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Delegation Reports

Parliamentary Delegation to Vanuatu and New Zealand

4:03 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I table and present the report of the Australian parliamentary delegation to Vanuatu and New Zealand by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, which took place from 30 April to 9 May 2014. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This report outlines the activities, observations and conclusions arising from the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee exchange visit to Vanuatu and New Zealand between 30 April and 9 May 2014. I was honoured to lead the delegation. The other delegation members were Senator David Fawcett from South Australia, Senator Helen Kroger from Victoria and Senator Anne McEwen from South Australia. We were accompanied by Mr David Sullivan as the delegation secretary.

The Australian and New Zealand national parliaments have, for a number of years, operated an annual parliamentary committee exchange program. The purpose is to enable Australian and New Zealand parliamentarians working on committees to explore issues of common interest that are the subject of consideration by their committees.

Each year, one New Zealand parliamentary committee visits Australia and one Australian parliamentary committee visits New Zealand. As the Australian parliament has Senate, House of Representatives and joint committees, with joint committees comprising both senators and members, the Australian parliament conducts the exchange program on a rotational basis over a three-year cycle, with a Senate committee selected one year, a House committee the second year and a joint committee in the third year.

Each visit is focused on the particular subject field of the committee selected for the visit. Meetings, roundtables and inspections are arranged that allow the committee members to exchange views and information with their parliamentary counterparts, as well as with public servants, senior private enterprise personnel, academics and experts working in the subject field of the committee.

For Australia, each year the Presiding Officers call for nominations from committees to participate in the program, with committees required to outline the reasons they wish to be considered in that particular year. The Presiding Officers select the committee they consider has put forward the most compelling reasons for undertaking the visit.

In 2014, the committee visit to New Zealand was adjusted to include a visit to one other Pacific region country. Another annual committee visit, the parliamentary committee visit to the Asia-Pacific, was adjusted at the same time to simply become a parliamentary committee visit to Asia. Of course it was the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee which put forward an excellent proposal and was therefore selected by the Presiding Officers to participate in that 2014 committee exchange program. The committee nominated Vanuatu as the Pacific country of its choice.

The committee's visit to Vanuatu and New Zealand was timely in the light of its inquiry into Australia's overseas development assistance program, the report of which was tabled here in March 2014. The inquiry's terms of reference focused on the broad policy settings for the delivery of Australia's overseas aid, including its international development priorities and the integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and including the freeze in international development assistance funding.

A number of aspects of the inquiry's report are relevant to the committee's visit to Vanuatu and New Zealand. For example, the report noted that more than 80 per cent of Australia's ODA is directed to its nearest neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are the two largest beneficiaries of Australia's support. It noted, too, that the allocation of development priorities in the Australian aid program for 2013-14 was education, 22 per cent; economic development, 20 per cent; health, 19 per cent; humanitarian, 16 per cent; governance, 16 per cent; and general development support, 7 per cent.

Australian aid should be allocated to the most effective mechanism for delivery, including non-government organisations, private-sector contractors, bilateral agreements and multilateral organisations. Finally, the report found that, while integrating AusAID into DFAT has created opportunities to improve Australia's aid program, there are also risks associated with the merger, including that DFAT may lose key personnel, skills, procedures and specialist staff needed to effectively administer Australia's aid program.

However, the main objective of the visit was for the committee to investigate three key issues within the committee's portfolio responsibility: defence partnerships, tourism and overseas aid. The committee was particularly interested in exploring the priorities, effectiveness and delivery of Australian aid to Vanuatu, as well as Australia's contribution to Vanuatu's tourism sector and infrastructure projects. The committee also explored the reforms to New Zealand's aid program that paralleled recent developments in Australia, including the reintegration of aid into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in 2009, New Zealand's tourism sector and its contribution to the national economy, focusing on Queenstown as a national and international tourism hotspot; and the reconstruction of Christchurch following the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, including the city's economy and tourism prospects. Finally, the committee also explored Australia's defence and security cooperation with Vanuatu and New Zealand, and the current and emerging security environment in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many people assisted the committee's visit to Vanuatu and New Zealand. The committee expresses its appreciation to all those involved in making the visit a success. In particular, the committee would really like to thank the International and Community Relations Office, which facilitated the committee's travelling arrangements and development of the program for the official visits; the officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence who briefed the committee before and after the official visit; the officers from the Australian high commission in Vanuatu and New Zealand who met with the committee; and particularly Ms Tanya Parkin, the deputy high commissioner at the Australian high commission in Vanuatu, the staff at the Australian high commission; Mr Remo Moretta, the deputy high commissioner at the Australian high commission in New Zealand; Ms Liz Kitto, of the Department of Internal Affairs of New Zealand; Mr Darryl Stevens, of the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives of New Zealand, for facilitating all aspects of the New Zealand program. The committee also records its appreciation to everyone who took the time to discuss their work and for the hospitality and courtesy extended to the committee during its visit to Vanuatu and New Zealand. The committee would particularly like to thank the Hon. Philip Boedoro, Speaker of the parliament of Vanuatu, the Hon. Moana Carcasses Kalosil, the former prime minister of Vanuatu and now leader of the opposition, and the Hon, David Carter, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the parliament of New Zealand.

The report is well worth reading. I mention two brief chapters, one of which provides an introduction to Vanuatu and outlines the key issues that were canvassed by the committee during its two-day program there, and the other that goes to issues in New Zealand, following an outline of the key issues canvassed by the committee during its five-day program.

In conclusion can I say that what really impressed the committee most on our trip to New Zealand was the extraordinary resilience in the recovery efforts that have been going on in Christchurch around the earthquake recovery. We had only great feedback from New Zealand officials about the contribution of Australia in all facets of the recovery, from the immediate disaster relief response, to continuing support with skilled personnel and advisers. It was an amazing challenge for New Zealand. The committee was overwhelmed by what they are facing. We are good friends with New Zealand. Our relationship is very close. Australia's response to the disaster they experienced is deeply appreciated and has gone a long way to strengthening the relationship between our two countries.

4:12 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, would like to make some comments about this report of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee's recent delegation to Vanuatu and New Zealand. Before I get to the details of that delegation, of which I was privileged to be part, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the departing members of the Senate Foreign Affairs and Trade Committees, in particular Senator Stephens, who was and still is the chair of the Senator Foreign Affairs and Trade References Committee, Senator Alan Eggleston, who is the chair of the Senator Foreign Affairs and Trade Legislation Committee, and Senator Helen Kroger, who, like me, is a member of those committees. I also acknowledge Senator Mark Bishop, who was a long-term member of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Committees of this parliament, and who is also retiring.

It is one of the most interesting committees of the federal parliament. In my few years on that committee I have been involved, as have those retiring senators, in numerous inquiries into aspects of Australia's foreign affairs and defence portfolios. Some of those areas of investigation have included monitoring Australia's engagement in Iraq—a topical issue right at this moment, and also our engagement in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of our troops from that country.

We have been involved, as well, in numerous inquiries into allegations and findings of sexual and other abuse in Australia's Defence forces. There were some harrowing inquiries and evidence there that the parliament has had to deal with. The flow-on effects from those inquiries have seen substantial changes to the way Defence handles the issues that arise not just from ADFA but from deployments overseas and activities on naval ships et cetera. It has been one of the more interesting things for the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee to be part of that change of culture, if you like, within the Defence forces.

The committee has also been engaged in military justice and the implementation of military justice. That is a very significant inquiry that was undertaken with significant outcomes. That committee deals with the Defence Materiel Organisation, which is an organisation that plans, budgets for and schedules replacement or refurbishment of Australia's Defence estate and capabilities. Again, it is a committee that has to grapple with significant issues, as that is one of the biggest budget spends in the Australian government budget every year. The committee pays careful attention to where Australian governments, of all persuasions, are spending money in the area of Defence materiel.

The committee has dealt a lot with recruitment in the Defence forces. Over a number of years, they have worked with the ADF to ensure that there is some focus on the recruitment of women into the Australian Defence Force. A number of senators on the committee have paid particular attention to that. This committee also deals with the Australian War Memorial, an iconic institution much loved by most Australians. At every Senate estimates, we are always pleased to hear about the plans for that institution from whoever the director of the War Memorial is at the time.

The committee deals with the foreign affairs portfolio of the federal parliament. One of the more current issues that has been dealt with in the foreign affairs portfolio is the rolling of what was AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A significant difference to the way that overseas development aid is rolled out in Australia is being monitored and considered by that committee. Overseas development aid is very topical at the moment with the Minister for Foreign Affairs' recent statement on the delivery of overseas development aid. Discussions between members of the committee about what would be an appropriate funding allocation for the overseas development aid budget is something that we probably disagree about a fair bit on the committee. Overall, I would have to say there is a commitment on that committee to continue our overseas development aid and, in particular, to ensure that overseas development aid in our nearby regions goes to support women in developing countries.

Those are just some of the many things that the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee has dealt with. I would like to commend Senators Kroger, Eggleston, Stephens and Bishop for their extraordinary work. It is a very hardworking committee with a lot of responsibilities. I have been privileged to work with all of those retiring senators on those issues that I have just outlined. In terms of the most recent delegation that I was privileged to be on with Senators Kroger, Fawcett and Stephens, it was and always is inspiring to go to the Pacific Islands and the Pacific nations in our region, like Vanuatu, to see the very real benefits of Australia's overseas development aid being rolled out on the ground.

The delegation was given many opportunities to see the value of Australia's overseas development aid. We had a look at numerous projects. One that sticks in my mind is the midwifery course at Port Vila in Vanuatu, where both women and men were being trained in midwifery by Australian doctors so that they could go out—not just into Port Vila but also into regional areas—and assist women to give birth safely. We understand and appreciate the importance of their work. It was great to see the Australian and New Zealand doctors and nurses there in Vanuatu training men and women to become effective midwives.

We were also privileged to visit a training facility that is similar to one of our TAFEs, where there was VET training for people in Vanuatu to work, in particular, in the tourism industry. They learned important skills like how to manage a small business and how to take advantage of the few advantages that there are in Vanuatu. That includes the massive cruise industry, which Australians make great use of. It is really important that the value-add from the cruise industry goes to the people of Vanuatu and not necessarily just to the big cruise liner ships. Again, it is great to see Australian initiatives there, which are assisting the people of Vanuatu to make the most of whatever opportunities come their way.

In New Zealand, we were very privileged to meet with the Ministry of Defence there, as well as the Minister of Defence. I appreciated his frank discussions about issues within their defence force about recruitment and, in particular, the recruitment of women into the defence force. I appreciated his frank comments about the difficulties they have had recruiting women, but the important steps that they have taken to ensure that their defence force is a welcoming place for women who see that as a potential career.

As always with New Zealand, there is a lot that we can learn because of our shared histories, let alone our shared tourism opportunities. The people of New Zealand were very welcoming of us. Like Senator Stephens, I too acknowledge the incredible efforts of New Zealanders and, indeed, Australians who went to work in New Zealand on the reconstruction of Christchurch. The devastation of Christchurch from the earthquakes has been phenomenal, but even more phenomenal has been the reconstruction efforts and the way in which that has been coordinated. It was a great lesson for those of us from Australia to learn about disaster response activities and how we can do better in that space. Again, I would like to thank my departing colleagues for the opportunity to work with them on the Senate Foreign, Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee.

4:22 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge your longstanding work on the Senate Foreign, Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee. This afternoon, Senator Stephens, you have earned: you have made a speech, you are now in the chair and you are about to make a final contribution. It is a good chance to say that.

I also want to take this opportunity to make a short statement about the value of the parliamentary delegation program, which celebrates the work of committees in this place and which reinforces the valuable work that parliamentarians do in a committee focus. This program goes out to the committees of the Senate and encourages them to bid for the opportunity to visit other countries and to work with other parliamentarians to develop their skills. Over the years, this has provided amazing value to so many committees in this place. I acknowledge the work that we have heard about this afternoon by the foreign affairs, defence and trade committees. They beat out a very strong bid from the community affairs committee.

In terms of this process, several years ago, as a community affairs committee, we were able to benefit from going to New Zealand and looking at the issues around mental health. The work which we have heard about this afternoon from both you, Senator Stephens, and Senator McEwen looked at what you were able to do as members of the committee, working with parliamentarians in both New Zealand and Vanuatu, through this process. Again, this was reinforcing the sharing of skills and experience and, most particularly, reinforcing the role of committees—parliamentarians across parties looking at issues of value, not just to the Senate but to the wider community. So I felt this was a fine opportunity to say that.

In terms of the process, we will hear much more over the years about the way this program operates. I think it is something that must be retained. We learn so much from it. I look forward to other strongly competitive bids amongst the committees of the Senate to ensure that this knowledge is effectively used and that the kinds of issues we have heard about are taken outside parliamentary debate into aspects of learning and working together.

Question agreed to.