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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee: Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Governance in the Pacific

CHAIR: We will go to Senator Rhiannon and come back to Senator Wong.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. I want to pick up on some of the programs around governance in the Pacific. In PNG, I understand, DFAT is funding programs to support women's leadership and governance. I picked up on the pillar 3 of the PNG Governance Facility and it says: … focus on supporting the role of civil society agents as instruments of change and promote greater community engagement with government, including MPs, for more accountable use of resources. Through the aid program, it appears, Australia does support advocacy for change. Is that a fair summary?

Mr Sloper: We support, through the aid program, in a range of countries, NGOs, communities and—to participate in political debate. We support better governance in the Pacific through training of public servants, through a whole range of programs, including the ones you have outlined. I am not sure if that is answering your question, but certainly we support both better and more effective governance through training, questioning, contestability of evidence and discussion in the public fora. Is that the change you are looking at? Sorry, I'm just not clear—

Senator RHIANNON: No. I just wanted to establish that you do support advocacy for change programs in other countries, in low-income countries. The government has before parliament the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, and there have been questions raised by some of the aid organisations about the impact it would have on advocacy in Australia for civil society and their international aid work. Will this bill undermine the department's own efforts to bring about change through the aid program? I will give some examples that have been raised with me of things that could be under a cloud because of this new electoral funding bill. The foreign minister has joined the Bill Gates-led End Malaria Council, which has an advocacy component to it. The US based Wellcome Trust is sponsoring the Malaria World Congress and, I understand, doing that with DFAT. My question is: has consideration been given by DFAT to the impact this bill will have on advocacy within the aid sector and even within DFAT's own work?

Mr Isbister: The draft legislation currently being considered doesn't have any impact on the humanitarian and development work of agencies overseas. In the work that they're doing overseas they're exempted from that. It doesn't constrain them in raising funds and using funds in Australia for advocacy efforts here. The only limitation is around the use of foreign funds for political expenditure in Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: But I noticed that when you were speaking about the overseas work you emphasised humanitarian work, you only said 'humanitarian work'. Is that because you're separating the advocacy work out? The heart of my question was about advocacy work in low-income countries.

Mr Isbister: No. It covers all humanitarian and development programs overseas.

Senator RHIANNON: Organisations in Australia won't be able to use international funds to conduct advocacy, such as for the need to eradicate malaria within the region. That's a fact.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I'm loath to interrupt your questions, but, as chair of that inquiry, of which you are a member, I think what you're saying is not factually correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Chair, with all due respect, I can ask the questions and get them on the record, because, as we all know, there is massive controversy and there are different responses to the impact this will have.

CHAIR: But the purpose of this is to ask questions of the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, not necessarily to prosecute a case and get issues for another committee on the record.

Senator RHIANNON: My questions are very relevant, Chair, and I would ask that I be able to continue them.

CHAIR: What I would ask is that you ask questions, again, cognisant that this is an estimates hearing for Foreign Affairs, not prosecute a case for another inquiry.

Senator RHIANNON: It's not prosecuting it for another inquiry. Foreign Affairs now, as we know, covers overseas aid. As we all know—and as you and I particularly know—the issue of how the charities who work in overseas aid will continue their work has been one of the issues we've dealt with enormously. So I would ask that I be able to continue my questions.

CHAIR: Please continue, but just keep in mind that this is a DFAT estimates.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Mr Isbister, the Uniting Church have stated that, for example, their campaign to ban landmines, which funded a representative to be part of the Australian government delegation at meetings relating to the Mine Ban Treaty—which, again, is advocacy—possibly could not occur if this legislation were in place.

Mr Isbister: As the chair said, the main questions in relation to this are for the Department of Finance, which is lead on the legislation. The only restriction is in relation to funds that are used for political expenditure. In terms of raising awareness and issues around landmines and concerns, I couldn't see, under the current legislation, there being any restriction or issue with that.

Senator RHIANNON: Was the department consulted on these bills?

Mr Isbister: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: What was the response?

Mr Isbister: I'm not going to go into the advice, obviously, that's provided from DFAT, but I will say that in looking at it we provided our views and perspectives on the potential impacts and the shaping of the bill around the humanitarian and development activities that we support.

Senator RHIANNON: Advice to ensure that the bills don't impact on our international reputation or the aid program—is at a fair summary?

Mr Isbister: In terms of the department obviously being focused on the issues in the white paper around our roles and ensuring the aid program meets its objectives—yes, that's part of providing advice to the drafting of the legislation.

Senator RHIANNON: And the need for the draft to change?

Mr Isbister: No. As I said, it's draft legislation. We've provided input into a whole-of-government process around the drafting of it.

Senator RHIANNON: On another, related bill—the espionage bill—did the department provide advice to the government regarding the proposed extension to the definition of 'national security'?

Mr Isbister: I might pass that to one of my colleagues.

Senator FAWCETT: While we're waiting for that colleague to come forward, can I ask for clarification around the point that Senator Rhiannon's been making. Will the proposed changes to Australia's electoral laws stop charities from delivering overseas development aid?

Mr Isbister: No.

Senator FAWCETT: Will they still be able to undertake advocacy in Australia?

Mr Isbister: They'll still be able to undertake advocacy in Australia using funds raised from Australian sources. The only limitation is from funds received overseas.

Senator FAWCETT: Is that consistent with the actions of previous governments in terms of stopping political advocacy using overseas funds?

Mr Isbister: I couldn't comment on that.

Senator FAWCETT: That's fine.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon?

Senator RHIANNON: I'm just waiting for the answer to the question about espionage.

Mr Sadleir: Would you mind repeating your question?

Senator RHIANNON: In relation to the espionage bill, did the department provide advice to the government regarding the proposed extension to the definition of 'national security'?

Mr Sadleir: This is a matter on which the Attorney-General's Department leads, so I'd refer the questions to the Attorney-General's Department, and I'd note that DFAT participates in whole-of-government processes around these sorts of bills. But I also should note that it's currently before the PJCIS.

Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate what you've said about the Attorney-General's, but did DFAT provide advice to the government about the extension to the definition?

Mr Sadleir: DFAT's involved in whole-of-government processes, but AGD has the lead on the matter.

Senator RHIANNON: In a subsidiary role, did you provide advice?

Mr Sadleir: I'm happy to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: What representations from Australian organisations, if any, have been made to DFAT in regard to the three bills before parliament? There are three bills: the electoral funding bill, the espionage bill and the transparency bill. Did you look at them together?

Mr Isbister: The department as a whole looked at them, but obviously they impact on different parts of the department. As Richard said, they've had a lead on the other two and we've particularly looked at the issues around the first part—the electoral reform legislation.

Mr Sadleir: I'm not aware of any particular representations, but I'm happy to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to move back to Cambodia and ask some questions there.

Mr Isbister: Just to clarify—your question is in relation to whether there has been any representations to us from NGOs?

Senator RHIANNON: No, my final questions there were: has DFAT made representations or have you looked at those three bills together and given comments on them collectively? All these bills interact, and that's what I was trying to understand—if you've not looked at them singularly but you've looked at them together.

Ms Adamson: All I can do is repeat Mr Sadleir's advice that when a bill is being drafted by the Attorney General's Department—typically their role—that has potential implications or in which other departments have interests, we work on a whole-of-government basis to develop that legislation, but the actual drafting of it is always done in the Attorney-General's Department. Then they go through the process that you're very familiar with at this end—the committee stage—with potential amendments and those sorts of things.

Senator RHIANNON: You've taken part of that on notice, so I'll wait till that comes back. I would like to move back to Cambodia to some related questions, please. Can you outline the Australian government's concerns regarding the crackdown on democracy currently occurring in Cambodia.

Ms Heckscher: The government is deeply concerned by the political situation in Cambodia, particularly the actions that have been taken to restrict media, constrain civil society and repress the opposition ahead of the 29 July national election. This includes the arrest of the Cambodia National Rescue Party opposition leader as well as the banning of opposition figures from engaging in politics and the closure of a number of independent radio stations. We have expressed our concerns on these events. We mentioned the foreign minister's statement on 17 November earlier. Since then, we've continued to express our very strong concerns to the Cambodian government. I understand that 11 formal representations have been made since the last estimates, in fact, through our embassy and through other many and varied engagements with the Cambodian government. Senator RHIANNON: Has the foreign minister raised it—

CHAIR: We're now starting into the lunchbreak. Have you got many more on this? Because what we can do is adjourn and come back to you after the lunchbreak.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. Can we come back?

CHAIR: In light of it being 12.30, the hearing will now adjourn for the lunchbreak. We will resume at 1.30 with Senator Rhiannon.

Proceedings suspended from 12:31 to 13:32

CHAIR: Good afternoon everybody. This hearing is now resumed. Senator Rhiannon, you have the call.

Senator RHIANNON: I'd like to continue with some questions about Cambodia. Has the foreign minister raised the crackdown on democracy in Cambodia directly with the government there at a ministerial level?

Ms Heckscher: In recent times, the embassy has, of course, been constantly raising concerns over a lengthy period of time with the Cambodian government at different levels. The foreign minister issued a statement in November 2017 which raised those concerns. I'm not—

Senator RHIANNON: Was that at a ministerial level?

Ms Heckscher: The foreign minister issued a statement on 17 November.

Senator RHIANNON: And that was to her counterpart.

Ms Heckscher: She issued a public statement—a media statement—on 17 November expressing deep concerns.

Senator RHIANNON: But was a public statement sent to her counterpart in Cambodia?

Ms Heckscher: Well, it was made public. It was published.

Ms Adamson: Normally, the embassy and the ambassador would seek to draw any statements that are made by ministers to the attention of the local government to ensure that they couldn't be missed.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you confirm that that happened? Can you confirm that that was sent to the—

Ms Adamson: Yes, we can do that.

Ms Heckscher: I would also say that on 20 November the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Minister Fierravanti-Wells, raised Australia's concerns to the visiting Cambodian minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. On 21 November last year, then Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Minister Hartsuyker, raised Australia's concerns to the visiting Cambodian minister for agriculture as well, and, as I say, there have been many, many engagements by our embassy with different levels of the Cambodian government on this throughout the course of this year as well.

Senator RHIANNON: What you're reporting here is that the highest it has gone, in terms of ministerial representation, is to the agriculture minister or fisheries minister from Cambodia. Is that correct?

Ms Heckscher: When they were visiting.

Senator RHIANNON: Has DFAT had any discussions with counterparts in Indonesia or France, or at the United Nations, about reinvigorating the mechanisms under the 1991 Paris Peace Accord that I understand would enable a response to the crisis in Cambodia?

Ms Heckscher: Perhaps I can say, generally, that our embassies and representatives overseas are constantly engaging with like-minded governments on any and all manner of human rights issues and other issues on a daily, regular basis. I couldn't say, absolutely, which governments they have been discussed with, but these sorts of concerns are discussed all the time. You asked about the reopening of the Paris Peace Accords. I don't know whether that, in particular, has been discussed.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you take it on notice? That was a very significant agreement that would allow some progress on this issue.

Ms Heckscher: Perhaps I can clarify that the reopening of the Paris Peace Accords—I'm assuming that's what you're asking about—

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Ms Heckscher: is a matter for the UN Secretary-General. I'm not aware that the UN Secretary-General has a process in place to do so.

Senator RHIANNON: I understood that Australia could make representations on that, having been involved initially in that. Could you take it on notice, please?

Ms Heckscher: I can say that we haven't received any request from the UN Secretary-General for consultations. So there is no current process.

Senator RHIANNON: I thought Australia could make a request to that effect, make a request to the United Nations to reactivate the 1991 Paris Peace Accord. I thought we had standing to do that. That's what I'm asking to be taken on notice, please. Is it the department's view that Cambodia's July elections will be free and fair?

Ms Heckscher: We haven't yet had those July elections so it really is too early to comment. However, we had some elections on 25 February. Given the dissolution of the main opposition party, it really is hard to describe them as free and fair.

Senator RHIANNON: Is the department currently considering other measures to pressure Hun Sen to stop the crack down? Are you looking at targeted sanctions?

Ms Heckscher: We always have many options under review, and that is the case with Cambodia.

Senator RHIANNON: Is one of them targeted sanctions?

Ms Heckscher: All options are under review.

Senator RHIANNON: Given Hun Sen's systematic dismantling of independent voices, the seriousness of what is occurring in Cambodia and, particularly, in Phnom Penh, and his threats against the Cambodian community in Australia, shouldn't we revoke his invitation to the ASEAN Australia summit?

Ms Heckscher: We have expressed our concerns about the human rights situation in Cambodia many times. The special summit is a historic occasion. It's an occasion on which we can engage, in a very deep way, with all the leaders of the ASEAN region on many issues. It provides us with an opportunity to discuss at length issues that might arise, whether it's bilaterally or otherwise. Apart from anything else, if we want to engage with we can't simply engage with one or two or three countries of ASEAN, we need to engage with all 10 of the ASEAN countries.

Senator RHIANNON: I'd like to move on to asking questions about the Rohingya in Myanmar, please. Can you provide us with an update on the UN fact-finding mission and, specifically, has the committee been allowed full and unfettered access to the Rohingyas in Myanmar?

Ms Heckscher: Whilst I'm waiting for details on the exact fact-finding mission, I can tell you that the factfinding mission is due to present an oral update to the Human Rights Commission later this month, 12 March, and will submit its final report in September. I don't have full details on exactly what access they have been able to have, but no doubt we will get clarification of exactly what they have seen, who they have been able to engage with, when they present their report on 12 March.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice whether the committee has been allowed full and unfettered access and the other matters you raised that, I understand, you said will be released in the report on 12 March?

Ms Heckscher: Rather than taking it on notice, perhaps we could wait until 12 March, because they will make a formal statement, which I assume will be public, and clarify exactly what arrangements they have had and what access and engagement they have had.

Senator RHIANNON: Could that be forwarded to the committee, please, on 12 March. Amnesty International recently put out a report on the situation of the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar. They say that ethnic cleansing is continuing. They are seeing forced starvation, the abduction of women and girls, robbery and sexual violence. What's the department's response to the report?

Ms Heckscher: We don't have a specific response to Amnesty, we have a general response to the issues of human rights within Rakhine State.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you elaborate on that, please?

Ms Heckscher: I can. If what you're asking for is the Australian position, in relation to the situation in Myanmar with the Rohingya, I can provide that to you.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Ms Heckscher: I can also give you a little update on what we understand the situation is, including the numbers involved, if that's helpful.

Senator RHIANNON: That would be helpful, and if you could include whether it is safe for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar.

Ms Heckscher: I can address that as well as provide you with an update. I will start by saying at the outset that it is quite difficult for us to provide a completely comprehensive picture on exactly what has happened and is happening in Rakhine, as access to some of the affected areas is severely limited. You may be aware, Senator, that there were some bombings on 25 February. They have been reported in the media and they targeted government officials in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine State. Three bombs exploded. Security officials also seized three unexploded devices. No group, so far as we understand, has yet claimed responsibility. We understand that security operations against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army have concluded, although there continue to be some reports of forces conducting raids against suspected ARSA targets, and ARSA claimed responsibility for an ambush of government forces on 5 January earlier this year. With an update on the numbers, according to UNOCHA, the estimate as of 25 February is that 671,000 Rohingya, mainly women and children, have sought refuge in Bangladesh since 25 August. That is a slight revision from an earlier figure they had provided. I gather it's not because any have left, it's because they have got a more accurate number now that they have had a chance to count up. OCHA have also reported that Bangladesh was already hosting a verified population of 212,000 Rohingya from Myanmar. They were there before the current crisis—that is, since August last year. The current estimates are that there are around a total of 900,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh. The 2018 interim humanitarian response plan, which was published in November 2017 and compiled by the UN Country Team, indicates there are over 831,000 people in need in Myanmar, with 660,000 in Rakhine State of whom 530,000 are Rohingya, and 129,000 remain in IDP camps. All continue to face severe challenges: accessing food, livelihoods and basic services. I note that most UN agencies and international NGOs continue to face some access constraints in northern Rakhine state. On that, I don't know, Senator, if you have caught up on the fact that Myanmar's Minister for International Development spoke at the HRC on Wednesday night, our time, and clarified that there had, on 23 February, been a meeting with the UN. I have the report here. The reference to the UN engagement is: 'On 23 February 2018, the Myanmar authorities held a meeting with the UN Resident Coordinator and the country representation of UNHCR and invited UNDP and UNHCR to jointly assist Myanmar government’s efforts in carrying out livelihood development for all communities in Rakhine and for repatriation and resettlement of the displaced persons respectively.' So we may see some developments in relation to access. I just wanted to update you on that. All of those difficulties are impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance and limiting the ability of humanitarian actors to assess needs in Rakhine state. The Red Cross movement and, to a lesser extent, the World Food Program are the only large humanitarian organisations currently operating there. There are also humanitarian access constraints in central Rakhine state but on a lesser scale. There are some other, smaller humanitarian organisations operating, and I don't have the full list of those. The Australian embassy is closely monitoring the situation in Rakhine. Our deputy head of mission in Yangon visited northern Rakhine state on 9 February to observe the repatriation preparations. It was part of a Myanmar government organised visit by Yangon ambassadors. There was a statement issued after that visit by the ambassadors who went on that trip. During that visit they interacted with local communities and government officials and saw the facilities the government of Myanmar has built in anticipation of potential returns. There were earlier visits to the region which our embassy was invited to and did participate in, but they were not so recent, so I won't go into detail on those unless you wish me to do so. The Myanmar government is making efforts at reconstruction and progressing plans for returns. However, many issues need to be addressed if returns are to be sustainable. You asked if our view is that the conditions are such that in that state they would enable returns.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it safe?

Ms Heckscher: Our assessment is that at the current time that's not the case. The conditions don't currently exist to support the safe, dignified and secure return of Rohingya.

Senator RHIANNON: The British government has suspended all military cooperation with Myanmar. Has Australia considered doing the same?

Ms Heckscher: The engagement that Australia has with the military is relatively small. I think we've had this question come up a few times in previous estimates. Australia maintains an arms embargo on Myanmar, and the defence engagement continues and is relatively limited. I'm just trying to find the exact details of what that is, but it is very small. However, in our view, the continuing military engagement is very important. Engaging with the military, which still has a particular role in the political situation in Myanmar, is a channel through which we can both engage with the military and also work with the military in the development of and to support the further democratisation in Myanmar.

Senator Payne: I can add slightly to that, if I may, Ms Heckscher. Ms Heckscher is quite correct: it is a very modest engagement. It is focused on helping them to understand international law, to professionalise their military approach. Ms Heckscher is also correct: we do have an arms embargo in place. Our focus is on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief—the HADR activities and skills that Australia is particularly well versed in—on peacekeeping training, on aviation safety and on English language training. We don't conduct bilateral exercises. So we consider that engagement on a case-by case-basis.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand Aung San Suu Kyi will be here for the ASEAN summit. Does the department intend to raise concerns about the treatment of Rohingyas by the Myanmar regime?

Ms Heckscher: As I mentioned a little earlier in relation to the ASEAN special summit, the visit by leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, provides us with an opportunity for extensive conversations about issues during the visit. I would expect that this issue will be something that we will discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit to Australia.

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