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Monday, 24 June 1996
Page: 2557

Mr BRERETON —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In your answer to my question last Tuesday, 18 June, you dismissed official protests of the governments of China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam against the axing of aid projects to be funded under the DIFF scheme. You said:

But if this was a serious issue in our relationships they would raise it at the ministerial level. They would be writing me letters. They would be expressing their concerns to me. There has been not one raised.

They were the minister's words. Minister, is it not the case that on 24 April Sun Zhenyu, vice minister of the Chinese ministry of foreign trade and economic cooperation, wrote to you on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, Madam Wu Yi, to express at length the serious concern of the Chinese government to the prospective axing of DIFF and the consequent termination of aid projects agreed to between the two countries? Did you not reply to the vice minister in a letter sent via the Australian embassy in Beijing on 29 May, a letter in which you informed the Chinese government of your decision to terminate DIFF? Did not the Chinese government, contrary to your unequivocal statement in the House last Tuesday, express strong concern for the prospective axing of DIFF directly and in writing to you as Minister for Foreign Affairs? Did you not wilfully and knowingly mislead this parliament?

Mr DOWNER —Mr Speaker, I certainly did not wilfully or knowingly mislead the House.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! Before I allow the minister to continue, there are other forms of the House that the shadow minister should use about deliberately misinforming the parliament. The shadow minister should withdraw.

Mr Brereton —I withdraw that. I put it to the minister: did he mislead the Australian parliament and the Australian people?

Mr DOWNER —I made the point in the answer that the shadow minister refers to that in my meetings I had not had these representations made to me.

Honourable members interjecting

Mr DOWNER —Hang on. It was drawn to my attention later by my department that a Chinese vice minister had written to me. I checked the status of the vice minister and I was told by my department that a vice minister has approximately the status of a departmental secretary. I am quite happy to check the records of all the meetings that I have had with ministers of any kind to assess whether the issue has ever been discussed. I have nothing to hide whatsoever.

As far as this particular matter is concerned, we are talking about a vice minister who has the status of a departmental secretary. That is not the equivalent of a minister in our system. That is the simple point. I would not have the least reservation, as the Prime Minister has pointed out in his standards, in going through a whole series of pieces of correspondence to assess whether in any way at all I had said anything misleading.

I make the point, since the honourable member raises China, that our ambassador had an initial meeting with the Chinese foreign minister last week. Interestingly, at that meeting the Chinese foreign minister did not mention this issue. It is perfectly clear that if this was a matter of such deep concern, no doubt, it is a matter that would be raised by the Chinese foreign minister. I am happy to check my records in relation to any other conversations I have had, but I certainly have no recollection whatsoever of foreign ministers or presidents raising this issue with me. The simple point is that it is not a matter of deep contention in our bilateral relationships.