The Australian government has used a visit to Qatar for the FIFA World Cup to engage in what is has described as “honest, humble, and frank” discussions with Qatari government officials.
- Sports Minister Anika Wells met with Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater
- Qatar officials are frustrated by what they say is a “relentless” campaign of negativity
- Ms Wells says there are lessons for Australia as it prepares to host the Women’s World Cup
Ahead of the Socceroos opening game with France on Tuesday local time, Sports Minister Anika Wells met with Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater.
“Beyond supporting the Socceroos, we need to show up and take our seat at the table again,” Ms Wells told the ABC.
“It’s important to show up and have the discussions.”
Officials in Qatar are known to be frustrated by what they describe as a “relentless” campaign of negativity around their hosting of the biggest single sports event in the world.
Headlines about migrant worker deaths and other human rights conditions persist despite many substantial changes in the country, which is now credited with setting a regional standard by agencies such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Ms Wells said there were lessons from Qatar for Australia as it prepared to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 and the 2032 Brisbane Olympic Games.
“Firstly, with respect to the global spotlight, we are an open and free and inclusive democracy, and we can always do better, ” she said.
“In the same way we have raised our voice acknowledging the progress Qatar has made, but wanting to see more progress, we can expect the global spotlight to come to Australia next year.
“At a practical level, certainly there are some things we are learning with respect to logistics. I mean Brisbane 2032 …[it] is a similar size to Doha.
“I had a really helpful discussion with some Qataris, [including] the assistant minister for foreign affairs, about a number of things, one of which was what lessons they learned too late here, which we can try and learn earlier with respect to logistics … and inclusivity.
“As the Australian government representative, I came here to put on the table our position, which is that we acknowledge the very worthy advances that have been made in the past 12 years [surrounding workers’ rights in Qatar] and that we want to see that continue.”
Qatar’s changing position
Qatar’s labour reforms have been written into law, with a compensation fund that has paid out more than $US320 million ($481.6 million) in the past three years to workers who have not received payment on time — or on occasion, not at all — but challenges remain in enforcing some conditions.
“Australians may or may not know that we actually contributed to that because Fair Work Australia and Safe Work Australia have both been contributing to the work to see minimum wage increases and to see better data on safety at sites,” Ms Wells said.
“I said that we acknowledge that great work, and we stand ready to assist to make sure that work continues.”
Qatar also faces the challenges of a society in transition. Of the nearly 3 million people who live in Qatar, most are foreigners, with Qataris numbering about 300,000.
The locals are young, well educated, and well off, in contrast to their grandparents who lived before gas and oil wealth changed their lives substantially.
It was only 50 years ago that Qatar became an independent state, having previously been classed as a British protectorate.
Ms Al-Khater represents the changing face of the conservative Islamic country, appointed the first female foreign affairs spokesperson in 2017, moving to her current position two years later.
“She was really honest. We had an honest, humble, frank discussion and she was very welcoming and acknowledged that there’s a lot more to do,” Ms Wells said.
“She welcomed our assistance and our readiness to assist with that progress.”
Australia to face human rights spotlight
Ms Wells said the Australian government was prepared for a similar spotlight to be shone on Australia’s human rights record as it prepared for its own FIFA World Cup and numerous international events slated for the green and gold decade of sport ahead.
Australia has the worst Indigenous incarceration rate in the world by percentage of population, with 2,315 persons per 100,000 Indigenous adults incarcerated as of July, and the country’s treatment of asylum seekers has also been called into question by human rights groups.
“That’s what I hope Australians will consider now in light of the World Cup here, because that will come to us next year,” Ms Wells said.
“Certainly, as the Australian government, we stand ready to receive everybody and to be scrutinised because as an open, free and inclusive democracy you have to welcome the scrutiny as well.
“We all have to be prepared to advance the cause and we all have to acknowledge that we can do better.”
The minister acknowledged that diplomatic relationships were a juggling act between making demands that were non-negotiable and stepping back at times to recognise nations came with their own histories, their own cultural backdrops and their own perspectives on what was best for their communities.
“I know it’s something people are grappling with … it’s been a hot-bedded discussion for months, if not years,” she said.
“My husband and I are constantly sending each other articles and podcasts about the complexities of coming to Qatar and what that means, and how people from different camps would take it, but ultimately, I think we believe in open dialogue and we believe that discussion and sunlight is the best disinfectant.
“So let’s have the discussion.”