Australia-Africa Dialogue

In September I represented the opposition at the second Australia-Africa Dialogue, co-hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Brenthurst Foundation, which is based in South Africa. I was there with my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and member for Gippsland.

The dialogue was held in Zambia and it highlighted the fact that, apart from mining, the relationship between Australia and the nations of Africa is pretty underdone. Despite the fact that 200 Australian mining companies are involved in over 700 projects in Africa, despite the fact that the Australia-Africa Chamber of Commerce and the Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations have been recently established and despite the fact that Africa will be home to one billion people by 2050, many Australians still associate the African continent as one of need and tragedy rather than one of opportunity and optimism. Fortunately, that perception is changing, albeit gradually, and the potential for shared opportunities between Australia and the world's fastest growing continent were explored at the dialogue.

The African delegation was incredibly impressive. It was a highly educated, articulate and formidable group drawn from a range of sectors including mining, legal, security and public policy. Africa's best and brightest, including a group of exceptional women, were drawn together to discuss peace, security and areas for future cooperation. The areas identified included: public health and hygiene education; deployable health units; creative industries, since African countries are home to talented and diverse creative entrepreneurs, and we need to explore how we can work together to better realise and commercialise that talent; road safety education, since Africa has only two per cent of the world's vehicles but contributes 16 per cent to global road deaths; agriculture, particularly in improving yield and calorific value from extreme, hostile and drought conditions; energy, because like we have seen in China and India, as the middle class in Africa grows so too will be the demand for reliable and universal energy, and Australia has expertise across the spectrum in this area; and also in governance.

Australia has made a significant investment in governance in our region for decades. Good governance underpins a strong democracy, as we know. I can see real potential here because the democracies in Africa are relatively new—full democracy in South Africa is just over 20 years old. But the challenge African nations are currently facing is getting their people to see democracy as perpetual, and not just as going to an election. The challenge for African nations is to empower people to be active citizens, to regard democracy as more than just casting a vote, to demand strong government that embraces democratic freedoms, to expect sound public institutions that serve the community and to call for robust oppositions that shine a light into the dark corners. What concerns these leaders is the cult of personalities and the ensuing leadership vacuums that are the regular hallmark of African politics and the limited expectation of citizens, resulting in little engagement in the day-to-day process of democracy. Like Australia, the hope is the same: hope for an active citizenry that shapes and engages in its future each and every day and not just every three years by numbering boxes at a polling booth.

I also participated in a panel on women and discussed issues that are confronting both Australia and Africa: the stain of domestic violence, the gender pay gap, cultural stereotyping and gender inequality more broadly. With those 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in mind, I also discussed the opportunity provided by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 review to re-examine and recast the position of women, peace and security in today's world of violent extremism, social media and non-state actors operating outside traditional paradigms. There is an opportunity to gain a steely resolve to act upon, not just talk about, the institutionalised sexual violence of women and children as a central aspect of ideology and operations and a tactic of terrorism and, most importantly, there is an opportunity to address the nub of the issue: the complex and challenging task of gender inequality, ensuring women are not only around the table in post-conflict and peace negotiations, but that they are in the leadership positions to help avoid conflict in the first place.

Finally, I feel privileged to have represented the opposition at the dialogue and I want to thank Peter Jennings, Anthony Bergin and Lisa Sharland for including me. It has broadened and deepened my understanding of the issues facing the nations of Africa today.

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