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East Timor

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 24 Jul 2013

Senator DI NATALE

I rise to speak today after recently returning from a Global Fund parliamentary delegation to East Timor. Like many Australians, East Timor occupies a very special place in my heart. I was one of the many thousands of Australians who was appalled at the violence that occurred after the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor, was immensely relieved when the Australian government finally intervened in that conflict, and felt motivated to help. I flew up to Darwin to help with the processing effort of the East Timorese refugees who were evacuated from Darwin. The traumatised faces I saw is something that will be forever seared in my memory.

I have many other connections to East Timor: my wife spent some time there, I have many other family members who have spent some time there, and the place of my work, Geelong, has a sister city relationship with a small place called Viqueque, a remote district in East Timor. Geelong has a very active local community there. In fact, I know some of them will be listening this evening. The opportunity to visit East Timor with the Global Fund was one that I was very keen to undertake. I was involved in that delegation with MPs from across the political divide here in Australia and also MPs from New Zealand. There were eight of us in total. I think we all got an immense amount of information from the trip.

The Global Fund is essentially an international financing institution. It tries to pull resources to ensure that we get some serious money tackling issues like HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It is important that with the Global Fund all the money is used in a way that ensures that the countries themselves have ownership of the health programs that are run there and the funding is performance based. Since it was started, the Global Fund has become the main funder of programs to fight AIDS, TB and malaria. It has directed almost $23 billion worth of funding to more than 1,000 programs in 150 places, so it has been a very successful model.

On the first day of the trip we spent some time touring some of the important historical sites. We visited the Santa Cruz cemetery, which was the site of the Dili massacre in 1991. It was triggered by the murder of a man called Sebastian Gomes. So when we got to the cemetery we asked a local if he would take us to the grave. One of the first things you are struck by at the cemetery is the number of tiny graves. It is a reflection of the fact that this is a very poor country and infant mortality is so high.

We got to the grave of Sebastian Gomes and the fellow who took us there proceeded to start crying when he described the Santa Cruz massacre. As it happened, he was there. He lifted up his pants and revealed a large bullet wound in his thigh. He started telling us about how the Indonesian military was there waiting for them, ambushed them and shot people indiscriminately. He told us about how the two American journalists and English filmmaker were also there, how he helped Max Stahl, the English filmmaker, hide the film that was taken of the massacre and how after the massacre they went back to find it to try to document what had happened. It really was a reminder of how raw some of those experiences are for many of the people who live in that country.

Over the course of the week we met with some of the most inspiring people that I have met with, both people who were local East Timorese but also some of the expats who were working across a range of areas. We visited people and clinics where treatment was being provided for multi-resistant tuberculosis and where for the first time people were getting access to life-saving treatment. We went on a number of visits, some to reasonably remote outposts, where we saw the distribution of bed nets. It is a really simple measure costing a few dollars, but one which means that pregnant women and young kids are now not getting malaria. We are talking about an environment where some of the strains of malaria result in cerebral malaria, meaning that young kids die from what is a preventable and treatable disease. We learnt that there were a number of people who were providing really important education about the spread of HIV: what could be done to prevent it, distributing condoms, and fighting stigma and discrimination. One of the real concerns for me is that we have the potential for a major HIV epidemic on our doorstep. I think we need to direct as many resources as we can to that country to ensure that we try to minimise the potential for a very serious HIV epidemic on our doorstep.

One of the most important things about the work that is being done through these projects is that they are not stand-alone projects; they are really building the capacity of the local health system. It is important to acknowledge that they are starting from a very low base. To have the funding available to train people to look down microscopes and identify tuberculosis or to train people in entomology so that they can assess whether their programs can try to reduce the spread of the vectors that cause malaria, all of those things that are a vital part of a functioning health system are all being done. That will be one of the legacies that, once these programs have finished, will be left behind in that country.

We met with people within the health ministry and learnt about the important work that is being done to develop the health capacity within the bureaucracy. We met with the Australian and New Zealand ambassadors and the head of the AusAID mission. We learnt a lot more about what is being done from an Australian perspective with our aid dollar and the focus on health, governance and a range of areas—Australia being a very, very critical player in the effort that is going on in East Timor.

We were very fortunate to meet with a number of MPs, who were all very generous with their time. This is a country that is essentially building its democracy from the ground up. These people were thirsty for knowledge, desperate for anything that we could provide them with that might provide them with the opportunity to perhaps create some of the building blocks for their fledgling democracy. The welcome we got was overwhelming at times, incredibly warm, and we were very privileged to have been given the honour of being welcomed into people's homes and their workplaces.

We were also lucky enough to spend an hour with the new President of East Timor, Taur Matan Ruak. He is a very inspiring figure: a man who spent decades in the resistance movement, essentially fighting in the struggle for a free and independent East Timor. He acknowledges the huge challenges that his country faces, but one of the terrific things about what the country is doing relates to one of their most important assets—that is, their oil and gas reserves. With some help from the Norwegian government they have set up a sovereign wealth fund. They have ensured that the money cannot be spent all at once. In fact, only three per cent can be spent in any one year. They are using that as a sustainable revenue stream so that they can build all the important infrastructure that is necessary for their democracy to function—the roads, the water and sanitation, the health and education systems that are so vital.

One of the take-home messages for me from that visit was just how critical our aid dollar is—that is, how critical international financing mechanisms like the Global Fund, but also the domestic effort through AusAID, are. Of course trade is important, and international trade within our region is important in helping to alleviate poverty, but without that direct aid dollar these people will not get access to life-saving TB treatment, they will not get access to bed nets, they will not get access to the important information they need to stop the transmission of HIV.

It was an inspiring trip in many ways because the problem in East Timor is not one of corruption, it is one of capacity. What is being done through the Global Fund is ensuring that the capacity is built. It is a funding mechanism that ensures that the programs that are implemented are owned by countries, and I think it is a really terrific model to ensure that our newest democracy is helped to build a sustainable health system and, in fact, a sustainable democracy.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT

Thank you, Senator Di Natale. It is important for us to hear those delegation reports and to understand the importance of our AusAID investment in those countries.

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