Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (16:15): I also rise to speak on the report on Australia’s trade investment relationships with the countries of Africa. First of all, as Deputy Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, I congratulate Senator Gallacher for his chairmanship of this inquiry and I endorse all of his comments on the contents of the report. It is a very significant report and I hope it’s not, as Senator Gallacher said, one of those wonderfully bipartisan reports that just sits on a shelf, because it has a lot to offer our country and also many nations across Africa.
I’ve said previously in this place that Africa matters to Australia, and I believe it matters a great deal. As Senator Gallacher said, it is very likely soon to become the largest free trade area in the world. Australia’s two-way goods and merchandise trade with Africa was valued at $7.6 billion last year alone and is now set to grow considerably across many different industrial sectors. In my home state of Western Australia—and those here know it wouldn’t be a speech from me without mentioning Western Australia!—exports to many countries in Africa are now worth over $1.4 billion a year. But I think the most significant thing for me is that Western Australia is home to over 150 ASX listed companies with up to 600 advanced resource projects at last count across 35 African countries. It was very, very interesting to me when I went to represent the Australian government last year at Mining Indaba that I had to go all the way to Cape Town to meet half of West Perth! It was a very revealing trip and it led me on the journey to standing up here today talking about our relationship with many African countries.
I know today through the various committee work that I do that the Australian government faces a range of challenging and often competing strategic priorities, firstly, in our region and then, more widely, globally. With everything else going on in the world today competing for our limited resources in terms of people, government focus and finances, it is very easy to overlook the significance of the scale and scope of our trade investment relationship with countries right across the African continent. But now is the time—I firmly believe this and so do all members of the committee who participated in this inquiry—to re-examine our relationship with this wonderfully vibrant and diverse continent. It has almost a billion people, and millions and millions of Africans every year are moving into the middle class. Many of them will be very eager for the goods and services that we can provide. For me, it’s been very clear, too, that we have much to offer each other. This is particularly the case when it comes to my focus at the moment on Western Australia and the mining industry in terms of the ability to provide some really interesting new opportunities for economic diplomacy across the continent in the areas of our sustainable development goals, achievement and many other factors.
As I said, last year I had the honour of representing the Australian government at Mining Indaba, and one of the things that struck me the most when I came back after a week there of engaging with hundreds of delegates from across the African continent—from government, bureaucracy and mining companies—is that Australian companies are doing some extraordinary work in their communities across the continent. But it’s a story that hasn’t yet been captured or analysed further to have a look at what our companies can do in leaving a lasting legacy individually in the communities they work in. A lot of our companies, very early on, were engaging with local communities and finding out what was required in a community.
When they develop their own projects, they do things like bringing extra roads, power, sewerage, sanitation—all of those sorts of things—into the local community and not just to support their mine sites. But also, as Senator Gallacher has said, there are examples of companies now regularly working with the local community on how to better use their tenement lands. Whether it’s to have new agricultural opportunities or training the local communities in providing the skills to develop their land and other associated businesses, there are some extraordinary circumstances.
I’m not claiming for a second that every single Australian company is fully virtuous in terms of what it’s doing locally. But I think that, with this generation of mining executives and staff, they actually do want to make a difference because it’s not only good business to engage and support the local community it is inherently the right thing for them to do. Since this visit and subsequent engagement with Australian mining companies, with DFAT and with a number of other organisations, I’ve got a much better understanding of those opportunities and the things that we are doing across the African continent.
Like Senator Gallacher, I’d also like to give a specific shout-out to Australia’s very limited but absolutely fantastic heads of mission across the continent. They do an extraordinary job. Most of them are looking after multiple countries and Australia’s interests in multiple countries. That can be very logistically challenging and brings a range of other issues as well. But they are doing an amazing job. I particularly want to commend them for the work they’re doing with Austrade and the trade section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade because they are looking after Australia’s interests, not only looking out for the security of our personnel on the ground in some very, very challenging environments but looking for these new economic diplomacy opportunities.
Australia’s relationship value, as I’ve come to learn, goes well beyond mining. We share significant economic and particularly security interests with many African nations. One of the opportunities I believe that we’ve got is because the couple of hundred—at least—companies operating across the African continent, every single day, live or die, literally, by their understanding of the security circumstances in that environment. They have significant security knowledge and understanding of the local terrorist organisations and other community issues, which I don’t believe that Australian and other nations’ security and intelligence agencies are making nearly enough use of. A lot of these companies are starting to work together to provide a common picture and understanding of what is happening in those areas to support other companies and other companies’ staff to keep them as safe as possible.
Another shout-out for another fantastic organisation which DFAT is engaging with in a rather untraditional method—but I think in a highly successful way—goes to the Australia-Africa Minerals & Energy Group, which are based in Western Australia. They represent the Australian METS sector and extractive sectors that are working across the African continent. They provide enormously valuable liaison and cooperation with those organisations, but the fact that they’re working so closely and engaging regularly with DFAT I think is a great model that we should be capturing and looking to engage and roll out in other parts of the world.
In this report, as Senator Gallacher has said, the committee makes 17 recommendations for the Commonwealth government to consider, all of which I think are eminently implementable without significant resources. A lot of them are just different ways of thinking about how we engage with countries which, while not necessarily in our immediate region, certainly are west of Western Australia. I think we can be making a lot better use of that.
These 17 recommendations stand to deepen and strengthen the relationship between the two continents and also between the businesses. I am delighted that the bipartisan report has included a recommendation on providing more detailed advice to Australian businesses that are currently operating on the African continent and those that are looking now to engage in Africa on how to utilise the local knowledge that we already have gained through other companies and from DFAT.
Another significant recommendation that I would like to highlight in the short time I have left is the recommendation that DFAT review their Smartraveller advice platform with a view to providing more tailored and specific information to Australian businesses operating on the African continent. Whether it’s because we have limited heads of mission across the continent or whether it’s because—as some of the African heads of mission who presented to the committee advised—we don’t necessarily have a deep understanding of what goes on in each country, I think we do a disservice to those African nations, and also to Australians who want to engage with those companies. The fact that we have very generic and often very sensationalist and alarmist travel advice serves neither those countries nor our country very well. I commend this report to the Senate and I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.