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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10462

Ms KERNOT (11:32 AM) —East Timor has haunted Australia's national consciousness for more than 50 years. There is a deep feeling amongst many Australians that we owe a great debt to the East Timorese that we have failed to honour. That, I think, is one of the reasons why so many Australians have so strongly endorsed calls for international action to end the bloodshed that has taken place in East Timor since the referendum on 30 August. Irrespective of our political persuasion, Australians feel that we cannot stand by and allow such a convincing and brave vote for independence to be overturned by violence and oppression.

Many Dickson residents have contacted my office—along with the member for Petrie, I also record the emotion that was expressed in these telephone calls—and many who have signed petitions about East Timor have wanted it to be made known that their argument is not with the people of Indonesia. They do want Australia to have a productive and friendly long-term relationship with Indonesia, but not at the expense of the lives and the freedom of the East Timorese.

Many Australians are also wondering why the referendum went ahead at this particular time. They wonder how wise it was to set off down this path in the first place, with militia violence and the complicity of the Indonesian military evident in East Timor well before the ballot and when East Timorese leaders themselves were urging a longer time frame. Many Dickson residents expressed to me their concern about whether lives have been lost unnecessarily and whether a more peaceful transition to independence might not have been achieved at a later date.

I do not think that these questions have yet been answered satisfactorily by either the Prime Minister or the Minister for Foreign Affairs. To say that `no-one could have predicted the events following the ballot' I think must rank as one of the more ingenuous statements of all time. To ignore the concerns of Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Carlos Belo—and, as we now know, the United States—in favour of the assurances of President Habibie and General Wiranto now looks to have been a terrible error in diplomatic judgment.

To have sided with Indonesia in its refusal to accept peacekeepers prior to the ballot taking place—and I know you can always say that you can see things with hindsight, but I am arguing there were a lot of circumstances evident before this decision was taken—now seems a wilful and blinkered denial of the facts. None of this, however, excuses the behaviour of the militias, of the Indonesian military or of the Indonesian government. But it does now seem that what could at best be described as Australia's naivete contributed to the destruction wrought on the people of East Timor over the past three weeks.

Of course the United Nations also chose to ignore the evidence and pressed on with the ballot even though it, too, knew the militias were not being disarmed. As the Labor shadow minister for foreign affairs, Laurie Brereton, said in the parliament on Tuesday, there can be no doubt that the people of East Timor have been grievously betrayed by both the United Nations and Australia.

I agree with those who say that we have let these people down once again—as we did in 1942; as we did in 1975; and as we did in 1979, along with another 32 countries, when we recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. We have let them down by helping to push forward a flawed and dangerous process that has ended in violence and ruin.

Having said that, I think we must now look to the future. We must now honour our debt and meet our responsibilities towards the nation of East Timor. It is not going to be a small responsibility or a minor commitment. We, as a nation, must be prepared to play a strong and positive role in returning East Timor to peace, in rebuilding its towns and its infrastructure, in returning home its refugees and in helping it to become a free, peaceful and prosperous nation. I believe the vast majority of Australians would support a government commitment on that front.

I also believe the vast majority of Australians want a friendly relationship with a democratic Indonesia. Irrespective of provocation, we must remain positive, calm and constructive in that relationship. Perhaps now is also the time for the coalition to recognise the serious error it made in reducing funding for Radio Australia. I join others in asking the government to rebuild that service as an important part of informing Indonesians of our goodwill towards them.

Finally, I think we have to take stock of what East Timor might mean in the wider regional and international context. There is often a tendency to place stability in a nation or a region above human rights concerns or democratic principles. History is littered with the disastrous consequences of appeasing brutal regimes in the perceived interests of regional stability.

But this really does seem to have been changing since the end of the Cold War. We can see people's movements, democratic movements, springing up all around the world. I think we have to face the fact internationally that some nations may not be able to hold themselves together in the future, particularly those with diverse cultures, faiths and ethnic backgrounds within their borders. And this may not be such a bad thing. In a globalised economy, the actual size of countries may not matter all that much in the future, providing those countries can sustain friendly relationships with their neighbours.

But there will be those who cannot let go and who will seek to hold on to power at any price, and the rest of the world has to ask itself how it is going to respond to the growing tide of independence and separatism. Writing in the Guardian a fortnight ago, the columnist Polly Toynbee summed up the question very well, I think, when she said:

The world should consider whether it really wants to waste the next century trying to hold together those who wish to break apart, at what cost in money, arms and blood and according to laws laid down by what authority? Far better to let the people go.

Perhaps that is a message Indonesia should have heard in regard to East Timor. But it is also a message which the rest of the world has to pay close attention to in the years ahead if other nations and other peoples are to avoid paying the same terrible price for independence and freedom as that paid so far by the people of East Timor.

Like other speakers, I want to close by sending my thoughts and best wishes, on behalf of all the people of the electorate of Dickson, to those parents I have met who have children serving in this operation and also to those serving personnel who are indirectly or more directly involved. Their safe return is obviously at the forefront of our thoughts.