Australian ambassador explores Philippines relationship 


The relationship between the Philippines and Australia is not well understood, says Tony Hely, the Australian ambassador to the Philippines.

Media coverage of the country tended to be negative, concentrating on terrorist explosions, political instability and natural disasters, he told a meeting of the United Nations Association at Charles Darwin University on yesterday (17 Oct).

“The Philippines suffers from the CNN factor,” he said. “But there is a more benign and calm side to living in the country.”

Mr Hely outlined Australian relations with the Philippines since the first consulate office was set up in Manila 60 years ago.

The live cattle trade to the Philippines was once the most important element of relations, but that was now less important.

Relations now centred on university student exchange and the training of the Philippines defence forces in Australia.

“We are a major defence trainer and are helping to modernise their forces, as well as helping build up maritime security,” he said.

Mr Hely said the Philippines tended to be regarded as the great development puzzle of South East Asia since the 1960s.

“Over the past 30 years there has been a perception that the Philippines has under-performed,” he said. “The feeling is that the country has not moved forward, but it is in Australia’s interest to help support a strong, prosperous and democratic society.”

The economy was now improving after government efforts to address the national deficit and create the conditions for investment in infrastructure.

One of the problems that had held the country back was the insurgencies in the south led by the Maoist revolutionaries. However, the numbers of the leftists had dwindled, and they were more of a nuisance in regional areas rather than a national problem.

Radical Muslims were a more potent threat to security, however, and the Philippines government, like governments elsewhere, were spending a lot of money on counter-terrorism measures.

“The Muslim radicals are not really part of the global jihad movement, they’re fighting for local territory and are more a home-grown version of the problem,” Mr Hely said. “At the same time, they are not going to go away easily.”

Mr Hely said there was enormous potential for Australia to provide education opportunities to Filipinos. There were already educational aid programs that gave children access to maths and science in schools, and while spending was up, more could be done help improve educational standards.

He said the Philippines’ government estimated it will need an additional 229,000 classrooms over the next few years to bring the teacher-student ratio down to 1:30.

On the issue of stable government, Mr Hely said President Arroyo seemed in trouble 18 months ago but had now made a comeback.

“I feel the president will see out her term to 2010 but it won’t be a reformist government; it will be focused on survival.”