Australian Civilian Corps Bill 2010

It is a great pleasure to speak today in support of the Australian Civilian Corps Bill 2010. It is particularly timely, too, to reflect on the need for this legislation as we again witness the devastation wrought by natural disaster in our region, with the most recent tsunami in Indonesia. My thoughts are with the families and the poor people there who have experienced such tragedy and the loss of lives. Those tsunamis can be devastating. I remember the PNG tsunami when I was working in Foreign Affairs, and I was greatly affected by the suffering of innocent people—a tremendous tragedy, an unexpected tragedy brought on by nature. It was just dreadful, so I feel for those people. My sympathies are with them.

I have no doubt that Australia will once again take the lead role in ensuring the recovery of this region and we will respond accordingly to the tragedy of the tsunami. I also have no doubt because Australians have a long and proud history of helping those in our region, and indeed around the globe, through tough times like these. We are recognised not only for our short-term emergency relief efforts but also for our ongoing commitment to the sustainable development of these nations. This bill seeks to carry on this proud tradition, with the establishment of a civilian corps that will provide a new Australian civilian capability and a deployable Public Service to help countries in need and countries in crisis. It is a welcome piece of legislation and will significantly enhance Australia’s assistance to countries emerging from natural disaster or conflict. Australia has a great deal of expertise in this area and many of the people with that expertise live in my electorate. Canberra is home to people with skills in governance, infrastructure development, engineering, public sector reform, financial management, health administration and law and justice. And it is home to people with experience and expertise in the Asia-Pacific region. Every time I go to a party or catch up with my DFAT or AusAID friends I am constantly amazed at the relief and aid work that they are doing throughout the region. As I mentioned in my first speech, my very dear friend Liz O’Neill, who was killed in the Yogyakarta plane crash, was involved in helping families during their grief following the Bali tragedy, helping them through their experiences of the morgues. She was also involved in peacekeeping in Bougainville. I have a number of friends who are involved in helping out the region in both a short- and long-term capacity. From my experience in Defence I know the work that they are doing there. There are many people in Canberra with the expertise, willingness and commitment to help out the region. I am sure that many people will be signing up if this bill gets through.

As I said, many people have worked in disaster recovery and post-conflict areas in Banda Aceh, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many people have also worked on capacity building in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor. I also have a number of friends at the ANU, in the Pacific research school there, who are doing great work improving governance, improving financial management and building capacity in the region. Canberra is full of expertise, and I am very proud of the expertise and the willingness of these people to help out those in the region. The people in my electorate are often called on at a moment’s notice to lend their expertise and skills to those in need and they go willingly. This is because people in my electorate of Canberra, like many others in Australia, want to make a difference. They want to do that at the national and global level, but specifically at the regional level. Many of them are committed to improving peace and stability in the region and working towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. This bill is the end point of an idea proposed at the Australia 2020 Summit. The corps was then announced at the East Asia Summit in Thailand in October last year.

The bill provides for the establishment and management of the Australian Civilian Corps. The corps is a select group of civilian specialists who deploy to countries experiencing or emerging from natural disaster or conflict. Members of the corps will be drawn from a register of screened and trained civilian specialists and will be selected for their technical skills and ability to work in some challenging environments overseas. We have plenty of those skills here in Canberra. Many people I know have worked in very challenging environments. Members of this corps will be selected from all levels of government and from the broader community to provide advice, assistance and capability building in public administration, finance, law and justice, agriculture, engineering and health administration. We will be getting people from consultancies. A number of aid consultancies exist in Canberra, as well as capacity-building consultancies, plus we have the ANU research school and the expertise within the Public Service. So Canberra will be drawing from a very broad base. The Australian Civilian Corps is designed to support stabilisation, recovery and development planning, with a view towards the long-term viability of countries in need. The important point there is ‘long term’. To this end, it will not be part of the emergency relief phase of a crisis but build on the initial humanitarian efforts to set the foundation for sustainable development and self-reliance. The emphasis there is on ‘sustainable, self-reliance and long term’. It will assist these countries to restore essential services and strengthen their government institutions. It will partner with local communities and will mentor leaders and others to develop their own expertise, to build their own capability in their own country and to become less reliant on short-term aid.

An example of work that could well be done is the deployment of an Australian water and sanitation planner to assist local government officials rebuild water infrastructure following a natural disaster. Another example is an engineer called on to fix a bridge or to build a new road following a natural disaster. An Australian senior government official, with expertise in budget administration, could well be deployed to assist a country with budget control following a conflict. Following some of the recent earthquakes, government infrastructures have basically fallen in a hole, so it is important that we help people get those systems, structures and processes back in place so that the region can be governed effectively, efficiently and according to due process. The bill seeks to do this in a way that will maximise our already strong commitment to multilateral engagement with our region and our longstanding belief in action taken through the United Nations and other similar bodies. Already, an interim capability has been established consisting of 24 screened and trained civilian specialists on the Australian Civilian Corps register. They have been drawn from multiple government agencies, including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the AttorneyGeneral’s Department and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry just to name a few. Some members are also drawn from non-government partners, such as organisations like RedR, an NGO which provides training and expertise in disaster recovery. These 24 people already have extensive experience and have seen service in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout the South Pacific.

It is planned that this small number will be built up progressively to 500 by 2014. A further round of recruitment is currently being undertaken, targeting specific Commonwealth agencies and non-government sector partners, including Action Aid. A public recruitment round will be conducted in due course. It is hoped that this new capability will be fully operational by next year. At the moment, the arrangements for employing essentially people from the Public Service come under the Public Service Act. That can be pretty constraining. It does not allow for flexibility. It does not allow for rapid deployment. The beauty of this piece of legislation is that it will enable the Director-General of AusAID to engage civilians as a new category of Commonwealth employee in order to deploy them with the corps. The interim arrangements that we have at the moment are not ideal. They are inflexible and they do not allow for the specific and unique nature of the corps and its work environment. These people need to be readily available, need to be able to deploy quickly and need to be able to be mobilised quickly. Then they need to be able to go into an environment that is often in a pretty bad way, with little infrastructure and little technology and ICT. The current arrangements do not allow that flexibility, that ability to deploy instantly and that ability for these people to get into these difficult and often hard to reach environments quickly. The bill gives the director-general the remit to tailor a set of terms and conditions for these personnel to match the specific environment that they will be working in. That is very important. Each natural disaster, each area of conflict and each crisis is different. This means a ‘cookie-cutter’ effect should not occur. These people going in should meet the specific requirements of the mission rather than a generic approach.

The bill also provides the opportunity to craft a specific set of values unique to the corps and its environment, as well as better enabling the people selected to be released from their current work duties. That is often difficult. Trying to get experts in the Public Service out of their current circumstances and work environment into a crisis situation can be difficult, especially in terms of managing their work loads. This allows for greater flexibility, particularly for public servants. For consultants, there is a great deal more flexibility and, I imagine, the same applies to academics as well. But it is important that public servants with expertise, particularly in financial management, budget management and law and justice, have flexible enough work circumstances that they can move. It is also worth noting that this bill establishes more flexible and appropriate conditions for the work being undertaken by the employee while still being protected by the Fair Work Act. This bill sends a strong message to our neighbours that we as a nation are committed to playing our part as good global citizens. It also sends the clear message that Australia is interested in not only short-term humanitarian relief but longer, more sustainable action over time that builds resilience within the world around us. It would be all too easy to forget the people in these countries once an immediate crisis is over. How many people in these countries ask themselves, ‘What happens next? Who will restore water and power? Who will provide the experience to restore good governance? Who will ensure that our financial management is done effectively and efficiently? Who will ensure our budget processes are appropriate?’ It is very important that we provide that expertise and that we can basically say, ‘Australia will help you do that.’ And we will do that through the Australian Civilian Corps.

The Australian Civilian Corps plays a significant part in answering these questions, and this bill seeks to fix those long-term but no less vital issues that impact upon the lives of so many. The bill creates a mechanism for changing people’s lives around the world and I believe we should be immensely proud of it. I fully support it. I fully support it with the experience of having been in Foreign Affairs for quite a bit of my career and also having worked with AusAID, particularly during the early days of the East Timor crisis. I also at that stage filled in as media adviser for the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. In my time in Foreign Affairs, AusAID, the minister’s office and also Bob McMullan’s office when he was Minister for Trade, I did realise the importance of the role we play in the region. Having attended what was then the South Pacific Forum in the Cook Islands, I do understand the important role we play in the region. We will continue to do that by providing not just short-term relief but long-term assistance through the Australian Civilian Corps. I fully support this bill.

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