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Monday, 31 October 2005
Page: 41

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (3:17 PM) —Can I just say that I support the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition, and I appreciate his initiative in doing so. The government deeply regrets the President of Singapore’s rejection of Nguyen’s appeal for clemency. We of course must respect the decisions of the Singapore government and constitution, and this decision was made according to the due processes of Singapore law. While the Australian government has always taken a strong stand against drug trafficking, we have argued strongly that there are compelling compassionate circumstances in this case to justify clemency. Let me make it clear that I always oppose capital punishment.

We have emphasised to the Singapore government that this is a young man. His personal history and family circumstances are very difficult and very sad. He and his brother were born, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, in a refugee camp in Thailand, and their father abandoned them. Despite this unpromising start, Mr Nguyen completed secondary school and was on the student representative council. He was a patrol leader in the Boy Scouts and was involved in community fundraising. He is in this situation because he wanted to help his brother to pay off some large legal debts. He has no previous criminal record. Prior to this tragic error, he worked for three years in an attempt to pay off his brother’s debts. He has shown considerable remorse since his arrest. Let me also say that Mr Nguyen has cooperated fully and willingly with the police services of both Australia and Singapore, and the information that he has provided has assisted police investigations in Australia into drug trafficking syndicates. We have made the point to the Singaporean government that Mr Nguyen’s execution would close off forever a potentially important source of testimony, should any further investigation lead to prosecutions.

I can assure the parliament that the government will continue to do everything we can to plead the special circumstances of Mr Nguyen’s case with the Singapore government in the hope of preventing his execution. Following the rejection of the clemency appeal, which I received from the Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs the Friday before last, I wrote again to foreign affairs minister George Yeo to underline the government’s strong desire to see this young Australian’s life spared. The Prime Minister and I are also meeting Mr Nguyen’s Melbourne barrister, Lex Lasry, this afternoon to discuss whether there are any other avenues the government might usefully pursue. Reflecting the depth of our conviction that his sentence should be commuted, the government has raised Mr Nguyen’s case at every level of the Singapore government at every opportunity we thought it appropriate and where we thought it would make a difference, emphasising the compelling reasons for clemency.

This campaign actually goes back quite some time. Mr Nguyen’s case was raised with the Singapore President, SR Nathan, during his visit to Australia from 14 to 18 March this year by the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and me and by letter from the Governor-General in December 2004. It has been raised with Singapore Prime Minister Lee by written personal appeal for clemency from the Prime Minister on 17 May, by the Prime Minister during a visit to Singapore on 1 February, where he also raised it with the Senior Minister, Mr Goh, and by the Prime Minister also in November last year at the APEC meeting in Santiago, Chile.

It has been raised with Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, by me as recently as during the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Commission meeting on 22 and 23 August in Perth, by me in writing on a number of occasions—and I have referred to the most recent of those letters—by me at the APEC meeting last November and on earlier occasions by me to Mr Yeo’s predecessor, Professor Jayakumar. It has been raised with Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr Lim, and the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Mr Lee, by Mr Vaile, with other senior Singaporean ministers by Mr Rudd when he visited Singapore in April, with Singapore’s Senior Minister of State, Ho Peng Kee, by Senator Ellison on 24 April, and with the home affairs minister by senior DFAT officials during his visit to Canberra on 5 May. I could go on. For instance, Daryl Williams, when he was Attorney-General, raised the matter with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Professor Jayakumar.

The reason I mention all of these representations—and it is rather a long list—is that we have made an enormous effort on behalf of Mr Nguyen, and it pains me above all that it is proving extraordinarily difficult to win a reprieve for him. It has proved enormously difficult. Despite all our best efforts, still we have been unsuccessful. From time to time, so as to ensure the public are in no way misled about this, I have said that we remain pessimistic about our prospects of persuading the Singapore President to grant clemency, but we will continue to try.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the Australian parliamentary delegation which was in Singapore very recently—in fact, on the day Mr Nguyen’s appeal for clemency was rejected. The delegation was led by the member for Pearce and I think the deputy leader was the member for Fowler. The members for Riverina and Canberra were also part of the delegation. I know they were very distressed to hear the news. I appreciate all the communications from the delegation to me in my office in Adelaide, which is where I was at the time. In their bilateral meetings with their Singapore counterparts and with others, they did a very good job of expressing Australia’s remorse about this decision. The measured tone in which this parliamentary delegation acted is consistent with the way in which other members of parliament, both government and opposition, have conducted themselves, and I really would like to thank them.

A couple of journalists—Geoffrey Barker and Mark Baker in the Fairfax press—have suggested that we should bring our relationship with Singapore to the ground over this issue and tear up commercial, military and political agreements with them. It would not help. If anything, it would only make matters worse. We need to understand that. Nguyen would still be hanged and we, of course, would be left with the consequences of our own actions. I think the way that the government, the opposition, members of parliament generally and others have handled this has been the best we could possibly do in the circumstances. I appreciate the Leader of the Opposition’s initiative in moving this motion. If we can transmit the motion, passed by the parliament, to Singapore, it will help as part of the general armoury we have in trying to save this poor young man’s life. We all know he has done the wrong thing in trafficking drugs—we all understand that—but we dearly hope and pray that his life can be saved.