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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10470

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (12:22 PM) —I rise today not to talk about the performance or lack of performance of the Howard government on the issue of East Timor. History will make an appropriate judgment on those issues. More importantly, I rise to talk about human rights violations, which I do not believe are acceptable at any time or in any place. They are morally wrong because our essential commonality as human beings must triumph over any differences we may have between us. Where people choose to impart violence on others, we have to stand up and say no. The rights of the vulnerable in the world are no longer protected only by organisations such as Amnesty International; they are now protected by most of the developed nations. They are not protected nearly enough, particularly in the case of minorities, but they are at least protected.

Australia in its role in East Timor is doing just that—protecting human rights. A measure of a modern nation such as Australia is its ability to face up to its shame. Around the world, we see expressions of national pride, but it is often too difficult for some to also face up to questions of shame. I raise that today because I also think it is part of the debate. Rarely do we see genuine acknowledgment of national shame. Governments taking responsibility for matters of national shame are actually showing leadership, because it is not an easy thing to do. Very often, it is not a popular thing to do. Unfortunately, this is not just restricted to Indonesia in 1999. There remain many Australians who cannot bring themselves to recognise our national shame in relation to the treatment of indigenous people. We should not pretend, in the relatively comfortable light of Australia today, that the issues are easy; they are clearly not.

Australia has in the past sent its troops on very different journeys. While the world wars are still sources of great national pride and respect, the memory of Vietnam is one that still sits uncomfortably in the Australian psyche. The fact that after putting their lives on the line for their country, in some cases without choice, Australian military personnel were treated with disdain by some in our society is a shameful reflection on our society of the time. The fact that an Australian government has in the past embarked on conscription is, too, a shameful reflection on the times. Fortunately, I believe that on this occasion we are mature enough to take these issues off the agenda in this case. We have learned from our mistakes. Such issues should never again be part of the Australian defence debate.

The journey our soldiers are embarking on may be a long one. It may even be that some of them do not return. That is something that we all need to be prepared for. It is the reason we must tread warily in relation to these matters. It is about the lives of our fellow citizens, our families, those whom we care about. With all of our hearts we wish them, above all else, safety. We hope that they will return to their families, to their communities and to the normalities of life.

Though the prospect of international engagement typically incites feelings of animosity towards Indonesia, I would also make a plea for a perspective. We must keep in mind the importance of our long-term relationship with our most powerful neighbour to the north. I suggest to the Australian community that the Indonesian people are not to blame. In the long term, Australia needs Indonesia and Indonesia needs Australia. We must be sensitive to the task of repairing that relationship in the future. Such repair will not come easily, but our economic and cultural role in the region is at stake if we do not face up to the issue of repairing that relationship. In the same way, we must face up to our responsibilities with respect to the people of East Timor.

One of the most important immediate tasks is to ensure that our aid assistance is also fully utilised. The approach must be a cooperative one. We must not have competition between delivery agencies which sees a waste of scarce resources in the rebuilding of East Timor. Immediate assistance is needed to ensure the basic needs of people are met, but we must also be thinking about how we can assist the East Timorese people in the long term.

The East Timorese people have always stood by Australians in times of need, most notably in the Second World War. Now it is Australia's turn to stand by the people of East Timor, not just in the months ahead but right through to the establishment of the institutions and structures that will be critical to their long-term future—their democratic, economic, cultural and social institutions. Australia's interest in East Timor has reflected the legacy of the Second World War when, as we all would know, Australian commandos operated against the Japanese with the assistance of many East Timorese people.

The controversy surrounding the manner of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor and the deaths of five journalists working for Australia's media in October 1975 rings in the mind of a lot of people at this time, and so do the allegations of human rights abuses over the past quarter of a century. The ongoing nature of human rights abuse in East Timor, particularly in the Dili massacre of 1991, have left many people asking the question: are we too late? The simple answer in some ways is yes, we are too late. That, therefore, creates a sense of urgency in the minds of many Australians who want to do the right thing on this occasion by the people of East Timor.

Perhaps the more complex answer is that probably we could have saved lives earlier but now it is important that we do all that we can to reverse some of our mistakes of the past. In many minds, the end of the Suharto regime brought the prospect of the East Timorese status being revisited. The agreement of 5 May 1999 to allow the East Timorese a vote for independence was met with hope and in some quarters, let us be honest, scepticism. The scepticism has proven well founded. Our task now is to ensure that the hope also proves, on this occasion, well founded.

We must recognise the courage implicit in that August vote for independence. Amid threats of death, amid the very real possibility that turmoil would precede triumph and that many of those who voted for independence would not live to see it, the East Timorese turned up to vote conclusively in favour of their future, and they did so in droves.

That is an enormous statement by a little nation of solidarity and courage, something that all Australians should recognise as cause for pride. After almost a quarter of a century of human rights abuses, the resolve was thick. That is what comes of being tortured, being starved, being beaten. The old paradigm that `might is right' no longer has credibility in East Timor. It never had credibility in the hearts of the East Timorese people, and they voted in their droves to put to bed the old paradigm that `might is right'.

As a recently returned aid worker reported, many of the East Timorese people voted with the statement, `We will suffer for the next generation,' and suffer they have, after the vote. The militia have sought to maximise the devastation, the intimidation, the human tragedy. But, at the end of the day, the human rights tragedy will only strengthen the resolve of the East Timorese people and of those in the international community who realise what is at stake. Systematic intimidation cannot be allowed to suppress the right of self-expression and self-determination.

Debate interrupted; adjournment proposed and negatived.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Some may see it as sad that it has taken Australia so long to recognise that. To the East Timorese refugees we say this: our hearts are with you; we are by your side; we are your friends. Given the tragedy and suffering that you have seen and endured, we cannot claim to understand. We offer you our open hearts and all that we can to ensure your safety and wellbeing.

We should also be concerned at the plight of Indonesia—and there is concern that Indonesia may slip into deeper recession. We should be aware of the potential for a downturn in the industrial sector to impact on the agrarian sector, the poorest Indonesians. They are not to blame for the problems of East Timor.

It is essential that Australia, in facing up to its responsibilities in East Timor, also does what it can to ensure that hyperinflation is kept in check, that financial institutions are fundamentally reformed and economic stability is restored to Indonesia. It is a mistake to believe that it is a short-term task; it also carries political risk as the millions of Indonesians without work may not appreciate aspects of the necessary reform process.

We must resist the temptation to see this as a conflict with the Indonesian people—it is not a conflict with the Indonesian people. They, too, are human beings. They are not responsible for the complicity of their military or some in their government.

Finally, I would like to wish our soldiers and those from other nations who have joined us in the peacekeeping effort a safe return. Our hearts are with you and you can be assured that they will be with you on your return. I also simply say in conclusion: yes, we must do our best in East Timor. Also, in looking to the stability and safety of our own region, we must face up to our responsibilities, support reform in Indonesia and maintain its developing democratic structures. That is in the best interests of Australia and it is also in the best interests of the people of East Timor.