JEREMY FERNANDEZ: The 19th African Union Summit is underway this week in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Dozens of African leaders are at the conference to hold talks on economic and security issues. The parliament secretary for Foreign Affairs, Richard Marles, is at the summit to strengthen relations between Australia and Africa, and he’s here with us now to talk to us via broadband.
Richard Marles, thank you for joining us. This meeting was to be an opportunity for Australia to showcase its credentials for a seat on the UN Security Council. The Prime Minister’s office had pushed for an invitation, but when that invitation came that was eventually turned down because of the roll out of the carbon tax. Has Australia passed up an opportunity here?
RICHARD MARLES: I don't think so. I think it’s well understood why the Prime Minister was not able to attend. One of the things that’s really understood in Africa is the challenge of climate change. There is an enormous sense of acknowledgement about what we're doing in Australia, in terms of placing a price on carbon, and what that represents in the context of the international arena.
I think there’s a fair degree of admiration for us trying to tackle this issue and there is an understanding about the Prime Minister being at home to prosecute that issue. She spoke to the chair of the African Union, the president of Benin, as well Jean Ping, the chairman of the African Union Commission and they were very understanding.
But this isn't really about the Security Council. This is about increasing our engagement with a part of the world that is growing significantly and, in terms of Australia’s worldview, is increasingly becoming more important by the day. Something like six of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Australia is increasingly becoming a part of that economic growth, particularly through the mineral resource sector, with a lot of Australian interests here, something like $50 billion in current or prospective investments in this part of the world.
So there’s a lot of reason for Australia to be building its engagement with Africa and I'm very pleased to be able to do that as part of this summit.
JEREMY FERNANDEZ: It’s fair to say the ties to African nations have been a peripheral political concern here in Australia. What are you hoping to achieve on this trip?
RICHARD MARLES: That may have been a fair comment in the past but, going forward, what is really important is that those political ties are strengthened, and that we see this as very much front and centre of our worldview and our global diplomacy, because it is a part of the world which is growing dramatically and it’s part of the world in which our presence is also growing dramatically. I mention the mining sector, but if you look at our development assistance, which is of course growing across the globe, we're now spending something like half a billion dollars a year here in Africa, and that represents a more than tripling of our aid commitment from 2007.
We've expanded our diplomatic presence. We now are accredited to every single one of the members of the African Union. This is increasingly going to be an important part of world affairs. When you think of the global human story, that is increasingly going to be told here in Africa, and we need to be part of it. We've been present at a ministerial level at each of the last nine African Union summits and I think you'll see an Australian presence from here on in.
JEREMY FERNANDEZ: How would you characterise Australia’s relationships with some of these nations, because they are really quite diverse? Some are rich, some are poor but it seems to me a sort of - a big brother sort of relationship.
RICHARD MARLES: I wouldn't say it’s a big brother relationship. We've got historic ties with those countries that are members of the Commonwealth, and that’s particularly in southern and east Africa, but we are intending to increase our ties across the continent. We're about to open an embassy in Senegal, which will be our first embassy within francophone Africa.
We're also engaged in lusophone Africa, the Portuguese speaking parts of Africa.
So we do want to extend our footprint across the entire continent because what we're finding is that Australian mineral resource companies, particularly, are extending their footprint through the entire continent. Almost every country with whom I've had meetings over the last couple of days, has talked about the particular Australian interest doing mineral resource work in their country. Our reputation in that regard is very high but there’s an enormous sense of affection for the work that’s being done and also for Australia. I think the future in terms of our relationships with Africa is very bright indeed.
JEREMY FERNANDEZ: How receptive are these countries to Australian involvement and investment in their countries?
RICHARD MARLES: They're very receptive. If you look at the future of Africa, something like 30 per cent of the world’s mineral resources are here in Africa, but only five per cent of exploration effort is being spent on those resources. So there is a lot of blue sky, if you like, in terms of the future of resource development in this country, and we are known, Australia is known, as an expert in mining.
But it’s not just the technical business of getting the minerals out of the ground - although we are very good at that - our private sector is very good at that - but also getting the public policy settings around that are very important so there is a genuine social dividend for those countries which have mining resources.
I think Australia is respected as a country which has tackled this issue within our own environs but also knows how to do that, how to work with developing countries in terms of developing their own public policy around that and undertaking mining in a setting which is environmentally sensitive but also socially sensitive. There is a great deal of receptiveness about that - the companies that are involved in these countries - as there is for Australia’s development assistance in this area as well.
JEREMY FERNANDEZ: All right, Richard Marles, we'll have to leave it there but thank you for joining us.
RICHARD MARLES: Thank you Jeremy.
- Parliamentary Secretary's Office: (02) 6277 4330
- Departmental Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555