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Christine Milne: Australia must stand up for democracy in Cambodia [Estimates]

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Christine Milne 4 Jun 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, uses Senate Estimates to ask the Department of Foreign Affairs about the Australian Government's failure to stand up for democracy in Cambodia.

Senator MILNE: Thank you. I might request Mr Chittick to come back to the table, if I may. I would like to talk about Cambodia this afternoon, and I wanted to take you up, Mr Cox, on your description of the election that was held last year in July and your implication in your answer that things were improving, that there was a democracy, there had been elections and that the opposition had won 55 seats. Is it not true that the election was marred by considerable electoral irregularities and that the leader of the opposition in Cambodia, Sam Rainsy, asked the Australian government for help in seeking a United Nations probe into the irregularities in that election? If you or somebody else could answer whether Sam Rainsy approached anyone at the Australian embassy or here in Canberra in relation to that?

Mr Cox: Indeed, Sam Rainsy was and continues to be concerned about the conduct of the elections, but he and the Cambodian National Rescue Party continue to be in dialogue with the government of Cambodia about the electoral reform and about opportunities for the elected members of the national assembly, his 55 deputies, to the circumstances whereby they may in future join the national assembly if there are appropriate reforms put in place. Through our ambassador in Phnom Penh we continue to support that process and encourage both sides, the government and opposition, to find an appropriate compromise formula to work forward on that.

You are right that the UN was approached by Mr Rainsy; however, I think the UN itself chose to look to the parties themselves to try to form the compromise whereby they could both agree on the conditions by which the Cambodian National Rescue Party would sit in the national assembly. We continue to be in dialogue with Mr Rainsy. Our minister and also Senator Mason have met with Mr Rainsy. The minister has spoken to Mr Rainsy when she was in Cambodia and Mr Rainsy met with Senator Mason when Mr Rainsy visited here. We have continued to offer him encouragement and support to try to resolve the differences between the government and opposition to facilitate the opposition taking up its seats in the national assembly.

Senator MILNE: Has the Australian government taken up with the Hun Sen regime the irregularities, the independence of the electoral commission and the early election that the opposition is seeking? Have those matters been raised by the Australian government with the Hun Sen regime?

Mr Cox: When Ms Bishop met with Prime Minister Hun Sen she certainly encouraged the process of reconciliation. I think that meeting took place a couple of days after the 18 February agreement where the two sides agreed to begin a process to sit down to try to nut out a solution whereby the opposition could sit in the national assembly. That process has gone through some highs and lows since then. It still has not resolved itself, but certainly Ms Bishop encouraged that process to get underway properly after that 18 February agreement. That is something that we continue to urge through our ambassador in Phnom Penh and through further dialogues with Mr Rainsy and other political voices in Phnom Penh.

Senator MILNE: In relation to that meeting in February it was only a very short time after there had been a protest in Phnom Penh at which four garment factory workers were shot dead and at which 23 others were arrested, imprisoned and have only been released in the last week or so. What action did the Australian government take with the Hun Sen regime to protest about the human rights abuses that took place and to secure the release of those 23 people?

Mr Cox: On 28 January in Geneva at the Universal Periodic Review on Cambodia we voiced our very strong statement urging the government to look into these matters to avoid arbitrary violence and the attacks on protestors and garment workers, as you say, that had happened in early January in the context of a strike at garment factories that had merged together with elements of the protest movement or the opposition movement. So both through our embassy in Phnom Penh, through the ambassador and her staff, in representations to the government, through our support for the UN Special Rapporteur and their work on human rights in Cambodia and through our statement at the Universal Periodic Review at the end of January, I think we have made clear our protest at those violent actions at that demonstration and the desire that those actions not be repeated and that those involved be brought properly to account.

Senator MILNE: In relation to that, is it true that Prime Minister Hun Sen has suspended freedom of association and banned people meeting in Freedom Park, for example?

Mr Cox: I will need to take that detail on notice. Certainly, as far as I am aware, there are still groups gathering in Phnom Penh, so I really do not know the answer to that question. Suffice to say that I think groups are still congregating. I will take that one on notice.

Senator MILNE: What I would like to know specifically is whether the Australian government has protested the fact that freedom of association has been suspended in Cambodia by the Prime Minister?

Mr Cox: That was certainly part of our statement at the Universal Periodic Review. We, again, asserted the importance of the right of freedom of assembly, the right to protest and freedom of expression as critical rights for the Cambodian government to uphold. Those were critical parts of our Universal Periodic Review statement and those were I think, in turn, reiterated by Ms Bishop in her press release following her visit. There was a press release issued on her departure from Phnom Penh on 22 February.

Senator MILNE: And at the very same time we were protesting about refusing a right of freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom for the press and so on, we are considering sending refugees to that country.

Mr Cox: We continue to see some elements of freedom of press in Cambodia in newspapers like the English-language newspaper in Phnom Penh. The Phnom Penh daily newspaper is often quite critical of policy issues, including on the issue of resettlement. This issue has been widely written about and we often find the media in Phnom Penh is widely reporting on these issues, so I do not think that you can say that the press in Phnom Penh is muzzled by any means, including on this issue. It has been widely reported and debated in Phnom Penh as much as it is here as far as I can see.

Senator MILNE: Are you aware that the former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, has said that Prime Minister Hun Sen rules as an autocrat, that the Cambodian leaders should be named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned because of violence, human rights abuses, corruption and media and electoral manipulation without any serious internal or external challenges?

Senator Brandis: Are you able to help us by telling us when Mr Evans said that and whether those views were informed by a recent visit by Mr Evans to that country?

Senator MILNE: I can certainly tell you that he made those remarks in March this year.

Senator Brandis: Are you able to tell us when Mr Evans was most recently in Cambodia?

Senator MILNE: No. I am not in communication with Mr Evans but I am aware that he made those remarks this year.

Senator Brandis: So you are not in a position to tell us or make comment on the authority with which Mr Evans speaks, given that you do not even know whether he has been to Cambodia lately or for a long time?

Senator MILNE: He works in a global context. I am not judging Mr Evans as to when he has been in Cambodia but I am giving you those remarks.

Senator Brandis: But you are putting him forward as an expert. You are putting him forward as an expert. I know Mr Evans, who is a distinguished former Australian foreign minister, as we are all aware, but whether he has particular recent expertise of Cambodia which would enable him to speak with authority on recent political events in Cambodia is something that you are not able to reassure us of.

Senator MILNE: I am sure he will be more than happy to inform you of his sources and he can take that up. He has worked in a global peace context for some time.

Senator Brandis: Then he must be right?

Senator MILNE: He can speak for himself. The point here is he is making it clear.

Senator Brandis: Is that your point, that anybody who represents themselves as working in-to use your words-a global peace context is therefore an expert on the domestic affairs of any particular country?

Senator MILNE: I accept Mr Evans's remarks as a former foreign minister and someone informed in human rights circles. I want to go on to DFAT's role in promoting Australian financial institutions in Cambodia, particularly whether DFAT has played any role in facilitating investment by Australian banks in Cambodia. Have we had any meetings with any of the big four banks where Cambodian investment has been discussed, either here or in Cambodia?

Mr Cox: I have some notes on that matter. Just to add to Senator Brandis's point or just to clarify further, I should say that we are very aware of that op-ed that he wrote and those are his views. We are aware of that. I will ask Ms Corcoran to comment on your question about the banks.

Ms Corcoran: We have not provided any support to any of the major banks to operate in Cambodia. However, I should say that we have, through the aid program, provided a $340,000 grant to Credit Union Foundation Australia to deliver some financial literacy training to households relocated by the Cambodia Railway Rehabilitation project, noting that the Credit Union Foundation Australia is not a bank but an accredited NGO.

Senator MILNE: Are you saying that DFAT representatives have had no meetings with any of the big four banks where Cambodia has been discussed?

Ms Corcoran: No. I am not saying that. I am saying that we are not providing any support to the banks.

Senator MILNE: I am asking whether DFAT representatives have had meetings with any of the big four where Cambodia has been discussed?

Ms Corcoran: I will have to take that on notice.

Mr Cox: I think we will take that on notice. I am sure the ambassador would have had meetings in Phnom Penh with representatives of ANZ Royal Bank, for example. As you know ANZ has an investment with the Royal Group in a bank in Cambodia and I am absolutely sure that the ambassador has had meetings with the representatives, the CEO of that bank and representatives of that bank. We will get further details for you about the meetings between the ambassador and members of the staff of the banks on notice.

Senator MILNE: Further to that, can you tell me if any steps have been taken by DFAT in relation to the Banking on Shaky Ground report that was released by Oxfam in April this year which indicated that ANZ had been involved in investing in a company which was associated with a government minister and which saw people displaced from their land and a large amount of money going to that particular political figure?

Mr Cox: My notes suggest that for issues relating to the Banking on Shaky Ground Oxfam report, that my colleague Mr Sam Gerovich, the head of the Trade and Economic Diplomacy Division, may have more to assist us. I do not know if he is here at the moment. I might ask him to answer those questions later or we can take them on notice.

Senator MILNE: Can you indicate to me whether the allegations contained in the report have been investigated by DFAT or any steps have been taken to assess what has gone on there in relation to that Australian bank? Further to that, are you aware that Transparency International describes Cambodia as the most corrupt of the ASEAN nations?

Mr Cox: No, I was not aware of that depiction.

Senator MILNE: Is it a corrupt regime?

Mr Cox: As you said, you have quoted a Transparency International report. I do not think I am in a position to make a blanket judgment that you are requesting.

Senator MILNE: Can you confirm that the Global Fund last year brought out a major report which said that there was a network of bribery in Cambodia connected to the Ministry of Health? That was in relation to grants and so on that came into Cambodia.

Senator Brandis: It is all very well for you to quote the conclusions, or at the least the assertions, of worthy bodies but the officers at the table are responsible for the conduct of Australian diplomacy. We have our own diplomatic representation and the Australian government forms its conclusions on such matters primarily on the basis of the advice of our expert diplomatic representatives.

There are many countries in the world that are criticised by ostensibly worthy international organisations. Australia is criticised by some ostensibly worthy international organisations, almost always wrongly. So is the United States and so are all of the democracies of the world criticised at one time or another by these ostensibly worthy international organisations, the credibility of whose judgments depends on the thoroughness of their investigations, the prejudices they may bring and the expertise and integrity of the people who write these reports. You can quote them until the cows come home, but the Australian government has better bases than unverified reports by organisations of no particular expertise about this particular country on the basis of which to form its own views.

Senator MILNE: In that case can you tell me what is the Australian government's considered view about whether or not Cambodia's Hun Sen regime is corrupt?

Senator Brandis: The Australian government does not act as a commentator on friendly nations and on the domestic affairs of friendly nations. I do not think you were in the room but I made the point to Senator Dastyari that we accept that Cambodia is seeking a place among the community of nations, a respected place among the community of nations, and that it has taken steps in recent years to put what is uncontroversially a very dark past behind it and Australia, as a friendly state, encourages and supports its endeavours.

Undoubtedly in relation to this particular country, as in relation to many other countries, there may be issues of governance. One of the reasons the Abbott government put governance at the top of the G20 agenda this year is that we care about governance and we understand how important good governance is, both to economic prosperity and to political success, but we want to help Cambodia in improving its systems. We do not, in a Diogenes like fashion, wander around the world reading moral lectures to every country.

Senator MILNE: In relation to any money that goes from Australia to Cambodia, can you guarantee that that money is not going to line the pockets of the ministers in the Hun Sen regime?

Senator Brandis: That is a hypothetical question. We have, as you should know, various integrity measures in place in relation to our foreign aid about which the officials can speak in detail.

Senator MILNE: Perhaps you can tell me what guarantees you can offer me that money that goes to Cambodia is not lining the pockets of the Hun Sen regime.

Senator Brandis: These are highly rhetorical expressions that you are using. No government can guarantee that every official in every country which may be the beneficiary of its aid program is not or has never been guilty of corrupt conduct. It is not possible to guarantee that in relation to every official of every recipient state. What we can do is we can establish, as we have done, strict integrity guidelines in relation to our foreign aid and our foreign aid program, about which Mr McDonald can speak.

Mr Cox: As Senator Brandis said, in our existing $85.3 million aid program or our aid flows to Cambodia, like all countries we have very robust fraud controls in place to ensure that the funds that we dedicate to the program are being used for the purposes for which they are designed. I do not know but maybe Mr Dawson from the Aid Contracting Division can assist.

Mr McDonald: I can add to that. The Australian aid program has a zero tolerance to fraud, and has for as long as I have been involved in it. That includes us prosecuting offenders where there has been fraud committed. It includes recovery of misappropriated funds or assets. To avoid fraud we put in place a number of strategies. They include fraud control plans, which were just alluded to. There is aid project designs which address fraud and corruption. There is a comprehensive training program for DFAT staff in relation to managing that aspect of the program.

There are standard contract clauses that are put in place in relation to requirements for not only the Australian government but also our partners in relation to avoiding any fraud activity and there is close monitoring of our aid projects. In fact, we have a very strong evaluation process and monitoring process not only here in Canberra but also within the countries in question. We take that risk very seriously and we have in place a whole set of mitigation strategies in relation to that.

Senator MILNE: Why would I have confidence in that when it comes to Cambodia when you have Senator Ly Yong Phat, the leading Cambodian political figure and ruling party member who is clearly named in the Phnom Penh sugar scandal in Cambodia with displacing people and millions of dollars coming his way in that associated venture backed by ANZ bank? Given what has been exposed there, why would I think that you would be able to track the money in the way that you are suggesting?

Senator Brandis: Why would you even conclude that, because an allegation has been made, it must be true, which is basically the point of your question? You are saying that some individual, about whom you know nothing except what you have read, has been the subject of an allegation. Now, I do not know if this allegation is true or not, but what the official has been able to explain to you, though you seem to be impervious to what he is trying to explain to you, is that the Australian government has both a zero tolerance policy in relation to fraud in the delivery of its foreign aid and a very comprehensive, robust and strong mechanisms to protect against fraud.

Senator MILNE: In that case what prosecutory action have we taken in Sri Lanka?

Senator Brandis: I think the adjective you meant was prosecutorial.

Senator MILNE: What action have we taken in relation to Sri Lanka with the person in the navy who was involved in the exposure of Australia to ridicule our asylum seeker program?

Senator Brandis: I am sorry, I thought we were talking about Cambodia.

Senator MILNE: We were but I am asking you this. You are saying we take a strong stand on these matters. I have noticed no such strong stand against the Rajapaksa regime in this particular case where it was exposed that we were made fools of. Thank you.

[End]

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