Tuesday 21 November 2017

Hansard of the Legislative Council
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Recommendation - Humanitarian Crisis - Rohingya Community

Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, I move - 

That the Legislative Council support the recommendation of the 63rd General Assembly of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that by consensus called for urgent action from the international community to resolve the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya community.

Mr President, I do not suggest for one moment that you or anyone else in this Chamber has one of those old school atlases with a large part of the world showing the former British Empire coloured in red.  Some of us saw our parents' atlases and by then the red had faded to pink - now the British Commonwealth is all but gone from the school atlases.

Mr Hall - You were part of the Raj?

Mr FINCH - I will ignore that comment and proceed.  This is serious.  Since 1971 the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has been held every two years and is due next year.  The CHOGMs have attempted to orchestrate common policies on certain contentious issues and current events, with a special focus on issues affecting member nations.  In the past CHOGMs have discussed issues such as the continuation of, and how to end, apartheid in South Africa; military coups in Pakistan and Fiji; and allegations of electoral fraud in Zimbabwe, which is again in the news.

Sometimes member states agree on a common idea or solution and release a joint statement declaring their opinion.  Since 1997 the host nation sets an official theme, on which primary discussions have been focused.  That also occurs with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.  Shared interests are other factors that hold the Commonwealth together.  Members are united by their adherence to the Westminster parliamentary system, albeit in various forms.  Other countries cannot believe Tasmania's upper House structure where we have not been ruled by a party since inception in 1856.  Other countries find so many independents unbelievable, when they look at their own use of the Westminster system.

Mr Hall - Other states do not.

Mr FINCH - That is right.  It is quite unusual and people acknowledge it is the way an upper House should be, with due deference to the party members here.  We have had more party members previously in the upper House, but Tasmanians are always prepared to acknowledge the strength of independents and what they bring to our parliamentary system and democracy in Tasmania.  If we get too out of whack with the introduction of party members, the constituents will take a hand and focus more on putting independents into the upper House.  It is interesting that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has met every year for 63 years.  The CPA last met in Bangladesh on 8 November, and I was privileged and proud to represent Tasmania at the gathering in Dhaka.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's role is to connect, develop, promote and support parliamentarians and their staff to identify benchmarks of good governance and implementation of the enduring values of the Commonwealth.  The parliamentary association in Bangladesh brought together hundreds of parliamentarians, parliamentary staff and decision‑makers for what has become an important networking opportunity for CPA members.  Today's parliaments face more scrutiny than ever before and there is continuing evidence of a public trust problem, not least in Australia.

The overall theme of the Bangladesh Conference was, 'Continuing to enhance the high standards of performance of Parliamentarians'.

In the eyes of much of the public in Australia that might be something of an overstatement.  It is time we in Australian parliaments got our act together.  I find it useful to share professional development and best practice ideas with colleagues from other Commonwealth parliaments.  I spoke to the conference on our Integrity Commission in Tasmania, how it functions and about the work of the Integrity committee which oversees the work.  There was interest as other parliaments are searching for ways for oversight and scrutiny of the operations of parliament and public service.

The conference program included two plenaries and eight workshops that discussed topics such as the role of parliamentarians in building stronger ties with the Commonwealth, giving voice to youth - and we have certainly given voice to youth of recent times with our elections - and ways to ensure young people's greater participation in the governance process.  There was a focus, as there has been in recent years, on women's empowerment.  All good, strong initiatives and good contemporary initiatives by the CPA.

The conference was held in Bangladesh, which has its own problems of dense population, limited resources, poverty and the threat of global warming and rising sea levels in a country that is barely above the tideline in some parts.  Climate change is of great concern to members of the Commonwealth, particularly Pacific Islanders.

Bangladesh is a country of very resourceful and determined people.  One problem is of direct concern to Australian consumers.  There has long been concern about the appalling wages and working conditions of garment manufacturers in Bangladesh.  Thousands of garment makers, mainly women, are paid much less than the living wage, and work in crowded and often unsafe conditions.  In the past years, hundreds, if not thousands, have died because of those conditions.  The international aid charity Oxfam is trying to improve that situation.  Its Australian branch commissioned Access Economics to analyse the cost structures in the Bangladesh garment industry and findings are surprising.  For a cotton tee-shirt that sells in Australia for $10, 25 cents is for wages.  If you double the 25 cents, you would pay a Bangladeshi worker a living wage.  Australian customers would hardly notice 25 extra cents on a $10 tee shirt.

Oxfam has mounted a campaign to persuade Australian retailers to put pressure on Bangladesh garment manufacturers to improve wages and conditions.  This would work at a negligible cost to Australian garment buyers.
I want to speak about the appalling problem of the tens of thousands of frightened Rohingya refugees pouring into Bangladesh from persecution and what has been described as ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees are streaming into one of the poorest and overcrowded countries in the world.

The CPA conference was briefed by Bangladesh Government representatives and given extensive documentation, including The Plight of Rohingya People, the most persecuted ethnic minority in the world.  Can we afford to stay silent?  Is this humanity in the twenty-first century?  Should human civilisation accept this?  There are appalling photographs of the treatment meted out to refugees as they leave from Rakhine State in Myanmar.  I am not going to show these photographs because they are very confronting and show what has been going on there.

I quote the Bangladesh foreign minister, Abdul Hassan Mahmud Ali, who addressed us -

'As you are aware Bangladesh is currently facing a colossal challenge due to the unprecedented level of influx of Rohingyas from the neighbouring Rakhine state of Myanmar.'  These people, most of whom are women, children and elderly, are taking shelter in Bangladesh fleeing ethnic cleansing in their homeland ... 
The question is:  why are they fleeing from their own homeland?  Independent sources, including the United Nations and human rights organisations, as well as international media, reveal that the villages of Rakhine are being burnt down and their livelihood options are being deliberately destroyed.

The Muslim forebears of those people in Rakhine settled there in the eighth century, so those people have not recently come into that area.

We were not able to go into one of the main refugee areas, Cox's Bazar, where thousands of refugees are fighting for survival.  There are different estimations of how many are there.  One report suggests 800 000 Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh.  Following a visit to Cox's Bazar, a United Nations envoy called for enhanced measures to protect and assist victims of sexual violence among the displaced population.  The photos show the murders and torture.  I will quote from the envoy's report on the United Nations News Centre website -

My observations point to a pattern of widespread atrocities including rape, gang‑rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity directed against Rohingya women and girls.

That was the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten.  It goes on -

A clear picture is also emerging of the alleged perpetrators of these atrocities and their modus operandi.  Sexual violence is allegedly being commanded, orchestrated and perpetrated by the Armed Forces of Myanmar, otherwise known as the Tatmadaw.

Other actors allegedly involved include the Myanmar Border Guard Police and militias composed of Rakhine state Buddhists and other ethnic groups.

It is horrific.

Since I returned from Dhaka, the situation has worsened, with even more refugees risking their lives crossing the border river into Bangladesh.  These are the terrified refugees former prime minister Tony Abbott said no to.  However, other Australians are not saying no; they are engaged in a major effort to alleviate suffering.  It is estimated that one in four children who recently fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar is suffering from life-threatening malnutrition, with aid workers warning refugees are essentially starving before they even cross the border.  I will quote from the Guardian online a few days ago -

The preliminary findings of a joint nutrition assessment conducted in late October at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar show that severe acute malnutrition rates among child refugees under five have doubled since May, while nearly half of young children are also underweight and suffering from anaemia.
The situation for Rohingya refugees is truly dire, with some refugee camps now running out of drinking water.  However, international diplomacy is grinding into action, although slowly, and we have heard of the United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, becoming involved and having meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi last Wednesday.  China, this week, is pushing Myanmar and Bangladesh to resolve the problem, and the Chinese are prepared to help in that circumstance.  These moves, as I suggest, are painfully slow.  In the meantime, hundreds are dying every day. 

I mentioned the Australian efforts.  The Australian Government is offering aid on a dollar‑for‑dollar basis, with public funding efforts, which is helping.  The ABC is calling for donations.  I heard that on the radio just recently.  In fact, I have some notes from research by the Tasmanian Parliamentary Library that suggests Australia has given $30 million for the work to be carried out.  I will not go into detail at this stage because I have a quote from Akbar Khan that I do not want to lose.

Australian experts are on the ground in the refugee camps.  One is an Australian Red Cross water engineer, Mark Handby who is working on a program of deep drill bores to overcome those water problems.  There are many other aid workers from Australia and other countries.  They can alleviate some of the suffering, but ultimately the persecuted Rohingya must return to their homeland.  They have been there since the eighth century.

Bangladesh cannot accommodate them indefinitely.  A horrible wrong has to be addressed.  This will require a major international effort.  Putting this notice of motion on our books is just a small gesture, but it gives some heart to people in Bangladesh.  Last night I spoke to the secretary‑general of the CPA, who is now back in London.  In anticipation of my phone call last night, he spoke to Dr Chaudhury, the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament, to ascertain the latest developments in respect of the Rohingya.  The feeling is the same as at the conference:  to a person, everybody was sympathetic to the cause and wanting to assist.
Hopefully, initiatives like this one will bring this issue to the attention of the international community, from where help can come.  United States and China are now involved.  That is a good thing.  There is an urgent need for the international community to help relieve the suffering of these people.  By the way, Dr Chaudhury and Akbar Khan were very appreciative of this parliamentary notice of motion in highlighting the statement we received from the Dhaka conference, which I have distributed to you all.

Mr Kahn reiterated to me the generous act of humanity by Bangladesh in throwing open its borders and hosting these displaced people - men, women and children - even though they are in no position to shoulder the burden alone.  The appreciation at the conference, as suggested, was unanimous.  The hope is that the international community will move quickly to assist the Rohingya back to their land and rebuild their homes in Rakhine State.

Where are they going to go?  It is suggested that there are 800 000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, a land of great poverty.  They are getting international aid themselves to just survive, and then here we are asking for them to shoulder the burden of another 800 000 people.  They cannot do it.  Delegates to the conference were hoping to travel to Cox's Bazar to view the situation firsthand, but the Australian High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Ms Julia Niblett, warned strongly against moving away from the conference facilities.
That was, in fact, not only to go to Cox's Bazar, but also in respect of the conference itself.  It was quite dangerous for us to move outside the conference facilities.  I will say that everyone was trying to get to Cox's Bazar, however they could, to see firsthand what was going on there.  The only delegation that I know was successful was a four-to-five person delegation from the United Kingdom, which was headed by Baroness Uddin from the House of Lords.  They travelled there and reported that the ethnic cleansing was appalling and shocking.

That is the information I bring from Dhaka, Bangladesh and from the sixty-third CPA conference.  Thank you, Mr President, for suggesting that I move this notice of motion to progress this issue.  I ask honourable members to support the motion.