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Tuesday, 21 September 1999
Page: 10119

Mrs GASH (9:57 PM) —I would like to document the feeling of the people in my electorate of Gilmore towards this crisis and the security of the East Timorese people, both in the lead-up to and after the referendum on independence. My office was flooded with calls and letters and lots of people taking the time to come in the front door. The resounding message was, `What are you waiting for? Send in the troops. Hurry up, get in there! You are all gutless wonders.' I had one school stage a protest outside my office. Other students were encouraged by some to strike in protest at the delays in getting the Australian soldiers into East Timor. Another high school threatened to march on my office and burn an Australian flag because this government was not sending the troops straight in.

Our young people and their families were calling for swift action. Our older Australians started to recall memories of other civil wars and were a lot more reticent about what was unfolding in East Timor, knowing full well the effects and repercussions of moving a force into another country without permission, therefore becoming an invader. One such person said that this action reminded him of seeing a parent going off at a child in the supermarket and yelling during the beating, `Don't (slap) hit (slap) your brother (slap, slap).' Surely modelling correct behaviour is the best teacher, else the lesson learnt is simply that you have to be the biggest to be able to bully and get away with it. Should Australia really invade Indonesia to teach it not to invade other countries? It doesn't make sense, does it?

The media portrayed this government as unmoved, uninterested, slow to act and perhaps even uncaring. The most positive reaction in my electorate came from a high school principal. Rather than have the students go on strike and conduct a protest march in ignorance, he allowed them to cut classes on the basis that they use the time to research the issue. I was invited to contribute to their research by answering the students' questions. There ensued a most interesting afternoon, with all sorts of different ideas, perceptions and interests being aired along with some very insightful questions, some of which I could not answer straightaway.

The result of this principal's action was that these students actually walked away from the incident with a better understanding not only of the East Timor difficulties but also of the way the media, politics and diplomacy work. They began to recognise that it would be unhelpful to become casualties of the situation through ill-considered early action.

Behind the scenes an entirely different attitude was apparent to even the most cynical observer. The Prime Minister, his cabinet, their advisers and departmental staff worked tirelessly to ensure that negotiations with Indonesia and with the countries likely to assist in a United Nations mandated force continued in a quiet, measured and well considered manner. The focus of the newscasts and people's attitudes suddenly changed. They came to understand the logistics of the then situation in Dili—2,500 Australians, 26,000 Indonesian police and army officers, and an unknown force of militia.

Almost instantly the messages faxed, written, phoned and carried into my office changed. My constituents then became concerned for the safety of Australia's sons and daughters who would be facing risks to assist our neighbours in getting the independence for which they voted in good faith. They also became aware that in our midst was HMAS Albatross, comprising men and women they met regularly on social occasions. Now it was these men and women who would be contenders for going over there to East Timor to face who knew what. I too recognised the full weight of this reality and my regret is not having had the opportunity, as their federal member, to thank them on behalf of the people of Gilmore.

Now people in my electorate are coming to hold a new respect for the Prime Minister and for his ability to withstand outside pressure and media calls for action. John Howard is a man who considers all the angles, who cares deeply for his constituents—all of us, whether we have voted for him or not—and who is prepared to make pragmatic decisions which in the short term may go against the popular flow.

Now the very same students who earlier wanted to march in the streets and burn the Australian flag are asking me if there is any way in which they can help or become involved. They are asking me about national service and suggesting that it may be necessary to make sure there are enough people with the skills to assist should another East Timor happen somewhere else. Some of these students are already part of military cadet units at their school.

A question I am regularly asked is: why does Australia have these military relationships with Indonesia and why haven't we severed all defence, trade and aid links with this country? It is a difficult question to answer when our emotions tell us that we must help. I reply by stating that it is really difficult to resolve difficulties with neighbours through negotiation when you are not talking to them at all. And it is only because of Australia's good relationship with the Indonesian military that the United Nations compound and Australian residences could be evacuated with full security. In fact, Kofi Annan, the leader of the United Nations, asked Australia specifically not to sever all military relations with Indonesia because of our relationship's value in negotiations.

Through all of this I cannot help thinking about just how fortunate we are in Australia. We have the right to vote and we vote in total security. In fact, so complacent are some of our people about this right that they do not vote at all. Isn't that ironic? People just an hour's flight from Australia are being killed because they have asked for the right to vote for whom they want, our servicemen and women are putting their lives on the line to uphold the right to self-determination and yet we have people in Australia whom, when I check their voting status, I find are not even enrolled to vote in their own country.

From this may I take a message to all the young people who are about to reach the age when they can enrol to vote. Please get yourself on an electoral roll. Once on the roll, I do not care how you vote, just do not waste it. Make your vote count. How can we have people actually dying to get a vote when others cannot be bothered to take up that right?

There is a referendum on 6 November this year. Take the time to think carefully about how you will make your mark on the history of this nation. Although you might feel that one vote does not count, think of it in this way. How much does a snowflake weigh? Virtually nothing, but get big enough snowflakes building up on a branch and their combined weight will break that branch right off the tree. Your vote might be like the first snowflake and seem to have no effect or be like the last snowflake and seem to break the branch. Most of our votes are somewhere in the middle and all of them count towards the total.

If this government has learnt one lesson about the organisation of a military mission, hostile or peaceful, it is that the people at home need lots of support while their partner, family member or friend is absent. This is because if our service personnel know that everything is well looked after at home they can focus fully on the task at hand and not pay any additional price through the breakdown of family or other relationships. Coping with the knowledge that a loved one is working in circumstances involving a degree of risk is not easy, regardless of prior expectations. In Gilmore, as in the rest of Australia, our military forces impact a great deal on the lives of those connected to a serviceman or woman. It is only fair therefore that we endeavour to stem any negative impacts on these lives.

One of the comments I constantly hear from service personnel is that, when they joined up, they did not sign on for a job; they signed on for a way of life. In return the armed services agreed to look after their welfare, provide a real career path, leadership training and meaningful work. By their actions, our people and the people of 11 other countries will model right behaviour and uphold the ideals of democratically chosen independence. In this way it is hoped that peace will be restored to East Timor and that the task of governance can proceed; then hopefully this sorry tale of human suffering will end in a positive way.

I thank all those who wrote, faxed or emailed their concerns. I thank also the person from the local branch of Amnesty International who stopped me in the street to tell me what a grand job Prime Minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer are doing and that perhaps our defence budget should increase, something that she—a woman of peace—would never have contemplated before. Lastly, as the chairman of the government defence and veterans affairs' committee, can I say particularly to the men and women of our defence forces: we in Australia salute you.