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Tuesday, 21 September 1999
Page: 8501


Senator VANSTONE (Justice and Customs) (5:09 PM) —I rise to support the motion on East Timor being debated today. I acknowledge Senator Bourne's contribution. I can say to her that, from discussions I have had with Senator Payne, I do understand what that trip to East Timor was like and the difficulties you witnessed. Even though you said it is odd to say you enjoyed it, I can understand that you would and I do not think it is particularly odd to say that at all. It must have been a fascinating experience, and I agree that you were very lucky, as was anyone who had the opportunity to witness it.

It makes you think twice about the people who complain intermittently when elections are held about the bother of going to cast a vote when there are people who are prepared to die to have that opportunity. It just seems incredible really. But come next election, Senator Bourne, you will strike someone and I will strike someone who will give us a mouthful about why we are not worth voting for and why they should not have to go to the bother of casting a vote and having the chance to have a say in how their lives are run.

I want to spend most of my time today focusing on the contribution that the Australian Federal Police made prior to the need for the UN Security Council resolution that we are debating today—prior to the need for us to be sending a peacekeeping force into Timor. As I am sure we all understand, the Australian Federal Police formed a significant portion of the UNAMET contribution that was in Timor. The Australian Federal Police responded in a very timely fashion when first approached by the government in April this year to provide personnel for a possible contingent. People may not realise the sort of work and logistical changes that need to be made in order to get people ready. I understand it from a police perspective dealing with 50 people, so I can magnify it to a certain extent to imagine what the Defence Force might have had to go through.

There was a time when we were not sure if the contingent would be required and the appropriate planning was made. On 25 May, 50 members began training for the deployment to East Timor. Then in June, the former AFP general manager, Alan Mills, was selected by the United Nations to head the civilian police contingent of UNAMET. That contin gent consisted of 272 police from a wide range of countries, and I might mention some of them: Ireland, England, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sweden, Mozambique, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Austria, Thailand, Brazil, Nepal, Egypt, Korea, Ghana and Senegal. That highlights what Senator Bourne said—that the view being expressed about what should happen in Timor is not a view that is entirely an Australian view; it is very much an international view.

The Australian Federal Police provided training in Darwin for all of the police contingents prior to their deployment to Timor. On 21 June the first deployment of police personnel to Timor commenced, with all of them being successfully deployed by the beginning of July. All in all, 50 Australian police were deployed across all regions of Timor—that was 50 out of the 272, in addition to the leader, Alan Mills, whom I have mentioned.

It is important to understand what this UNAMET contribution did. It ensured that the ballot could be properly conducted, that people could safely get to the polling booths and cast their votes unhindered—other than by the occasional ill-advised journalist—and that the votes would be properly counted. That was a very significant contribution because that is what allowed for this overwhelming expression by the East Timorese that they wanted independence. If you do not provide a mechanism for a free and fair ballot, if you do not provide a mechanism to ensure that the ballots are properly counted, you cannot rely on that expression of view. We are able to rely on it because of the United Nations civilian police force that was there.

I will just give you a couple of examples of what happened on the ballot day. The ballot was held on 30 August. During this ballot, one of the locally engaged United Nations staff members was stabbed by militia members during the escort of ballot boxes duties. There were significant efforts made by two Federal Police members to resuscitate that person, who sadly later died. Those officers were themselves endangered by ongoing gunfire into their residence. From that time on, all of the members endured various degrees of difficulty, none of them minor—conditions which we here I am sure can only imagine. In many cases, they witnessed the death of people whom they had been working with and developed friendships with over the weeks they had been there. They were deprived of their own liberty, in many cases being under siege within their own compounds. They gave refuge to the sick and the needy and administered first aid to those where they could.

As we all know, with conditions deteriorating in East Timor it became necessary to evacuate the majority of UNAMET personnel. But what many people perhaps do not appreciate is that a number of the AFP contingent, including its commander, Mr Alan Mills—who, as I said, had previously retired but had then come back into one of the most volatile tasks that the AFP could offer—volunteered to remain at the UNAMET compound in Dili to ensure the safety of some 1,600 refugees who had sought United Nations sanctuary. Those volunteers had a very clear view of what would happen to those refugees if the final UNAMET people left. Such was the dedication and devotion of the AFP members and the courage they displayed in fairly adverse conditions and despite grave threats to their personal safety. We could see these happenings on our televisions from the comfort of our offices here or in our lounge rooms at home—but watching those things occurring in Dili on television is entirely different from actually being there and putting your own life at risk to ensure that other people's lives are in some way given a greater chance.

It should be noted that the AFP had trained a further 50 contingent members who, under normal rotation, were to replace the first 50 who had been sent there. Despite the non-deployment of these personnel to East Timor, 17 members of that detachment were deployed to Darwin where they provided essential support to the United Nations and the Northern Territory Police service in assisting with the relocation of refugees from Dili to Darwin. In summary, it was a very profes sional and dedicated job by the Australian Federal Police, of which I am sure all Australians can be proud.

It is important to conclude by highlighting how many other people also have played roles—smaller, sure, than the Defence Force are playing now, and smaller than perhaps the Federal Police played by being there. Nonetheless, people ought not to watch their television sets and imagine that forces just fly into Darwin and it is all easily handled. Take Customs, for example. You might think, `Well, what could they possibly have to do with the sorts of activities that are going on in East Timor?' Obviously in order to handle the inflow of East Timorese and UNAMET personnel and to handle the inflow of goods, arms and weaponry that might come in here before going to Timor, we needed a number of things done. Regulations needed to be changed, and changed very quickly. So somewhere in buildings around Canberra there were people working quite late at night to ensure that their task in this effort was completed and completed on time.

We have had assistance from people in Customs—only 20 of them; not many. But what I am trying to highlight is that I am sure this kind of contribution is replicated in other departments all around Australia—people who, having had an hour's notice, agreed, left their homes and families and went up to ensure a smooth transition for the people coming in and out of Darwin who, admittedly, have a much more important role.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the Australian Federal Police on the job that they have done in this. I agree with the motion, and I wish our troops well who are there. I also highlight the role that has been played by a whole lot of other people who do not normally get mentioned.