Thursday, 28 June 2012
Parliamentary Delegation to Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore
I rise to speak in relation to the Report of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore: 6 to 16 November 2011. Can I say at the outset that it was quite an extraordinary experience, both at a professional level and certainly at a personal level. I congratulate the other members of the delegation, which was very ably led by the member for Braddon, Sid Sidebottom. I also note in the chamber today the member for Reid, the member for Cowper and the member for Swan. All members of the delegation took part in this trip with a great deal of bipartisan spirit. They were certainly terrific travelling companions but also very well informed. Without blowing our own trumpets too much, I think that we represented the parliament well in all of the functions we attended and in the briefings that we also attended. It was an outstanding experience, I think, for all the members involved in the delegation.
I strongly believe in the importance of such delegations, particularly because they provide newer members of the House such as me with the opportunity to participate in dialogue at a level that would not normally be available to me in another way. I certainly appreciate the opportunity provided to me by the parliament to go to Asia and to get involved in an exchange of ideas, to experience some of the cultural differences and also to explore some of the trade links which are obviously so critical to our nation's future. For an area like Gippsland, there are ongoing opportunities for its agricultural products in particular to be exported into the Asian region. I think it is important that I fulfil my role as the member for Gippsland in exploring what those opportunities may be and, wherever possible, helping to link my community and its outstanding products with the markets which exist in the growing Asian region, so I believe that such delegations are enormously important.
I congratulate everyone involved at the Australian end of the delegation for organising our schedule, but I also particularly pay my compliments to our embassy staff at each of the posts in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore for the support they provided. Without exception, the embassy staff provided us with extraordinary hospitality, but also their professionalism, their enthusiasm and the thoroughness of their preparation was something we can be very proud of here in Australia. They certainly represent our nation very well in their foreign posts.
I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the host nations. They were very warm and friendly in their welcome. They certainly appreciated the fact that our delegation was visiting their country, and we were able to participate in some very frank and open discussions which we simply would not have had the opportunity to do in any other fashion. You can read all the reports in the world but to actually sit down with people and gain a better understanding of the issues facing their nations and the opportunities that exist for Australian businesses and the Australian government to work in close partnership with their nations can only come about through face-to-face dialogue. That was certainly the highlight of the trip, from my perspective.
I refer to the member for Braddon's comments in the House earlier in relation to this report that the opportunity to build better links within Asia and to build trust within the Asian region is something that we need to continually explore as a nation. One issue that came up quite strongly during our discussions was the fact that a lot of Asian young people have had the opportunity to come to Australia and study, but it has not necessarily been a two-way street. I think the opportunity to explore more links at an education level for young people from Australia to go to Asia, further their studies and build a better understanding is a real opportunity for us as a nation. That was one of the issues that came through in each of the places we visited: that the young Asian students who have the opportunity to come to Australia were going back to their country and making an enormous contribution. I am not sure we are taking full advantage of that yet here in Australia. I think there is an opportunity for us to explore at a state and federal level how we build more links the other way: make it a two-way street where young Australian students can go to Asia, study there and get a real appreciation of their culture and build those links for the future.
I would just like to make a few observations about each of the destinations we attended. We started our delegation with a visit to Hanoi. There is no question that Vietnam is going through a very exciting stage in its development as a nation. It is emerging as another giant in the Asian region. The opportunities that exist there for future trade development are quite extraordinary. There was a constant theme throughout all of our meetings in Hanoi that Vietnam was looking for more capital investment in the nation, more opportunities to help it develop, to have an economic relationship prosper in partnership with other countries. There was a willingness to open up opportunities in Vietnam region.
One of the challenges that did come through, though, is how to do that in an environmentally sustainable way. The Vietnamese, obviously coming from a lower standard of living than we experience in Australia right now, are grappling with some of the issues we grapple with in terms of sustainability: how that development will occur, particularly in the agricultural regions, in a way that is environmentally sustainable. So our discussions there were very interesting. It was important for our delegation to understand that some of the challenges we face here in Australia are being experienced by the Vietnamese, perhaps at a more basic stage, with regard to issues like water quality and maintaining the sustainability of their agricultural land.
We then visited Thailand. In fact, it was an issue of some contention at the time as to whether we would actually go to Thailand, given that most of the nation was experiencing some quite horrific flooding. As we flew into Bangkok we flew over the second airport and we could see large aircraft with water up to the undercarriage. It was a severe flooding event that impacted very heavily on the people of Bangkok and, as a delegation, we were quite reluctant to go there. We had some discussions in Hanoi about whether we would proceed with that part of the journey. But we were reassured by the Thai government and by our post on the ground that they were very anxious for us to come, so we went but we were very specific in our dialogue that we did not want to put anyone out, we did not want to divert any attention from the recovery effort that was underway. In the end, it was good that we did go but certainly at the time we were a bit concerned about whether we would be an unnecessary distraction from some more serious business that was occurring in and around Bangkok at the time. Again, the visit there included some important meetings from a trade and economic development perspective. But, from a personal perspective, the highlight of our time in Thailand was our trip to Hellfire Pass. Australia is certainly greatly honoured by the Thai government in that they have worked with our government to allow such an extraordinary monument and museum to exist on their soil. It is something that I think every Australian who has the opportunity should go and experience. To walk along Hellfire Pass and get a sense of what it must have been like—and only a very small sense, I hasten to add—for those prisoners of war on the Thai Burma Railway is something that any Australian who has the opportunity should do as soon as possible. Obviously we were there to pay our respects to the POWs, who suffered enormously and died at the hands of the Japanese during that campaign. We were very fortunate to be joined at the museum by a delegation of British POWs, some of whom were in their early 90s. It was a real treat for us to talk to them. They had experienced extraordinary hardship during World War II. We met them just by coincidence; we were there at the same time. To be able to talk to them and exchange some pleasantries, and to get an understanding of what they had experienced, was something that I felt very privileged to be a part of.
There was not a member of our delegation who was not touched by the Hellfire Pass Memorial. It is very well developed. You get the opportunity to guide yourself through the museum, and also down to Hellfire Pass, with an MP3 player which gives you direct commentary from survivors of that experience. It gives you a real sense of what it must have been like. I would defy anyone to walk through Hellfire Pass and not be absolutely overawed by the hardship that our soldiers endured. It was a very grounding experience and something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Finally, we also had the opportunity to visit our good friends in Singapore. Again, we were very warmly received there, particularly by the high commissioner. It was to some extent a family reunion. Doug Chester is a relative of mine, which, I must say, caused the other members of the delegation a great deal of merriment. They thought I was going to take over his role. They saw D Chester on the itinerary, and all sorts of assumptions were made about my future career plans. Doug is a member of my extended family. He was a terrific host and also gave us some great insights into the relationship between Australia and Singapore. In Singapore I was struck most of all by the extraordinary innovation that goes on in managing the country's water needs. We also had the opportunity to visit Marina Bay Sands, one of the largest developments I have ever had the opportunity to have a look through. It is quite an extraordinary building, and anyone who has been there would be struck by the enormity of the task and the ingenuity of Singaporeans. Nothing seems to be too hard for them. They are very creative and innovative. We certainly enjoyed their hospitality. We also had a meeting with the Singaporean defence minister, which gave all members of our delegation a greater appreciation of the important link between Australia and Singapore and how we fit into the defence structure of both nations.
In closing, may I simply say that I was greatly honoured by the parliament in having the opportunity to participate in the delegation. We had a terrific team: the member for Braddon, the member for Reid, the member for Cowper and the member for Swan. We participated in a very bipartisan way. Every member of the delegation not only enjoyed the experience but certainly learnt an enormous amount. I commend the parliament for providing for such delegations and I look forward to utilising the information I have received and capitalising on that experience as I do my work as the member for Gippsland.
As a member of the parliamentary delegation to Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore in November 2011, I join with my friend and colleague the member for Gippsland and support his remarks in the chamber today. It was a great honour for all of us to have the privilege of representing our country on a delegation such as the one we experienced. As the member for Gippsland said, it certainly is a privilege and an honour to engage with people at a very senior level in other countries and get a better understanding in a bipartisan way with fellow parliamentary colleagues of the trade and investment opportunities, and bring closer links between our countries. I, too, thank our host nations for the very warm hospitality extended to us and our partners, and I support the comments in their entirety made by the member for Gippsland about the importance of improving our relations with these ASEAN countries.
On the subject of ASEAN it is important to record that Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam comprise three of the 10 countries, the others including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Dar es Salaam, Lao PDR and Myanmar. When we think about that it comprises a total population in excess of 600 million people—little wonder it is a very important market for Australia. In fact, the ASEAN region is around the ninth largest export market for our country and the sixth largest source of Australian imports. ASEAN nations are very important, hence this important delegation.
I thank Sid Sidebottom, who led our delegation with very good humour and who was a great credit to our parliament, as I am sure the member for Gippsland will agree. It was not very long after he returned that the Prime Minister promoted the member for Braddon, and he is now the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. This was well deserved because he has been a very hardworking local member. To see him on the international stage leading his parliamentary colleagues was something that we will long remember.
As the member for Gippsland has just said; yes, the reports from Asia were very encouraging, and the member for Braddon can take great credit for the role he fulfilled.
I thank my colleague the member for Gippsland and his lovely wife, Julie; the member for Cowper; and the member for Swan and his new bride. They added great value to the delegation and we could not have done without them. I record my sincere appreciation for the invaluable and lasting support that we were given by Mr James Rees. He gave tremendous support to me personally and to all members of the delegation. James Rees: you do great credit to the staff of the House of Representatives and I thank you for all your great work. I also thank the two ambassadors and the high commissioner who looked after us together with the staff in Hanoi, Bangkok and Singapore.
It is noteworthy that the two-way trade between Vietnam and Australia is in the order of about $6 billion, and it was even higher before the global financial crisis. I will not go over what the member for Gippsland said but Vietnam is certainly a country which is terribly important to the future of Australia, and vice versa. Although commodities have been of longstanding importance in our two-way trade there is a lot of encouragement in the expansion of our services sector, principally in the area of education. Other areas, such as agriculture, energy, electricity, oil and gas are sectors for growth and development in our two-way trade.
Thailand and Australia have had a free trade agreement since 2005 and the two-way trade between Australia and Thailand is over $16 billion. That is a lot of money. As the member for Gippsland said, when we arrived in Thailand we were concerned about whether that part of the delegation could proceed due to the devastating floods that the Thai people had experienced, but to their great credit they managed their water very well and managed to avert a terrible disaster. Coming out of those discussions were opportunities for us, as the Thais are having to deal with problems of salinity. The report goes into some detail about those opportunities, so I will not go over that, but Australia can help Thailand with salinity problems.
Like Vietnam, education is an important sector and a source of export revenue for our country. There are many young Thais studying in Australia. It was very surprising to learn that, conversely, there are almost no Australians studying in Thailand. That is something that ought to be remedied. There are great opportunities for two-way trade between our countries, Thailand and Australia. Another area is sugar, which should be explored because Thailand and Australia are the third- and fourth-largest sugar exporters in the world respectively.
The member for Gippsland referred to our visit to Hellfire Pass. That was a very, very moving experience, as he said. I worked for many years in the Department of Veterans' Affairs before I came here. I know Tom Uren, a former Deputy Prime Minister of our country, who was on the Burma-Thailand railway. I knew many of his colleagues who experienced the privations and hardships as POWs in that terrible part of the war and about their experiences. To go there and see what they experienced all those years ago is something I will not forget. We also visited Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and saw the graves of the young men who perished on the Burma-Thailand railway or as POWs. That was a terribly moving experience. We laid a wreath there and had a memorial service to honour the soldiers who lost their lives. We paid particular tribute to Weary Dunlop who is a legend in that part of the campaign.
Finally, we went to Singapore. We have a free-trade agreement with Singapore which has been in existence since 2003. Clearly the two-way trade relationship with Singapore is going from strength to strength. It is noteworthy that Australia has invested something like $25 billion in Singapore, and we are about the fifth-largest foreign investor there. One thing that came up while we were in Singapore is that they are very sensitive about defence cooperation. It is good to see Australia being so closely involved with Singaporeans in maintaining very close defence contact, because the stability of that region—as Singaporeans know only too well from what happened in World War II—is vital to them and to us.
Water management and water security are also important, because we come from a country which experiences droughts. We have had our own problems, and it was only a matter of about four years ago that everyone in Australia was worried that we were running out of water. Now we have had an abundance of rain and seem to have an abundance of water, but that will change. Singapore forever and a day has relied on imported water, so there are great opportunities for us to cooperate on water security and water management.
I conclude by saying it was a very, very successful delegation. Again I thank our hosts for the opportunity to visit their countries and bring our countries closer together. ASEAN is very important to the future of Australia, and the countries we visited are important to us and we are important to them. I encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to visit Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore to do so, because they are great friends of Australia and can contribute greatly to the growth of our country.