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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 58

Senator MOORE (4:19 PM) —by leave—I present the report of the Australian parliamentary delegation to observe the first round of the 2007 presidential election in East Timor, which took place from 7 to 11 April 2007. I seek leave to move a motion to take note of the report.

Leave granted.

Senator MOORE —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I think it is particularly timely that this report has come up in the midst of the discussion we have just been having on a review of the electoral system and the knowledge of civics in Australia. The experience that I was honoured to have recently, when I was part of a delegation to observe the first round of presidential elections that the East Timorese government had held in its own right, brought out a great contrast for me between our approach to elections in Australia and that of the East Timorese community, which approached their first step in running elections in their own country with enthusiasm, commitment and passion.

At this time I want to congratulate the workers in that process in East Timor. They received massive support from the UN because there was an acknowledgement that it was a huge task to take one of the youngest democracies in the world into the process of actively conducting an election for its own president. There was major international interest in this process and, frankly, I was surprised at the large number of international observers. I was not prepared for the numbers of people from across the globe who had decided to come to East Timor to share this experience.

The Australian delegation was small. We had Mr David Tollner from the House of Representatives and his partner, Mrs Alicia Tollner, representing the government, Mr Ian Loganathan from the Australian Electoral Commission—Ian is the Electoral Commissioner in the Northern Territory and has had great experience working with the East Timorese in developing their system, working with the officials and seeing just how strongly the East Timorese officials took their responsibility at this time. We were also supported by Mr Chris Munn from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Chris has a great deal of experience, particularly of the Indonesian process, and was invaluable in providing support to our delegation.

I also want to note the amazing, assiduous and careful  support that Ms Margaret Twomey, the Ambassador to East Timor, and her wonderful staff gave to our delegation. We laughed at different times about what would happen to the ambassador or her staff if they lost any of us, but they did not so they did not have to face that particular trauma. Nonetheless, we could not have had more support and more information about that country.

And it was notable, Mr Acting Deputy President Ferguson, as you would have found by visiting Australian embassies, the real joy with which our Australian diplomats take up their role, the care with which they perform their job and the way that they shared the excitement in the community leading into this election. As we all know, there was some fear about how this process would actually work out. There was a degree of violence in the community leading up to the election, and I think a lot of people were waiting to see how this particular process would work in a country where up until now there has not been a full electoral roll. In fact the roll was being developed as this process occurred, because in the period between the first round of elections and now an amazing number of East Timorese citizens attained the age and the right to vote. East Timor is, as we know, one of the youngest countries in the world and, in terms of the process, the people were faced with having to develop the way that the roll would operate.

They were also faced with an amazing geographic isolation. For a small country it is particularly difficult to travel around East Timor and just a simple process of ensuring that voting papers were available in all of the over 500 spots was a major exercise for those involved. It was like the invasion of a country to be there during the time of the election process, but it was well organised. Whilst there were issues that had to be addressed, there was a calmness and a professionalism from all of the people that we observed in the process.

It was a genuine honour to be part of this delegation. It was something for which I was not prepared and I do thank the officials from DOFA who stepped in very quickly and gave very detailed briefings to allow us to walk into that experience and to know exactly what was going on and what our own responsibilities were.

For me, the most overwhelming image is the turnout of people to take part in this process. No-one quite knew what was going to happen on the day, but at the opening of one of the polls in Dili we saw people queuing for kilometres to take their opportunity to be part of the electoral process. I think this confronts us in our own country about how we take our responsibilities to vote, and I was actually very interested to hear the report of the previous committee  and compare it to the experience that we had in East Timor.

I think that it is also timely that this report is being handed down now as we move through the second process of the voting practice in East Timor. We have now concluded the presidential elections, and at the end of the process that we observed there were two candidates who had received over 20 per cent of the vote and they were moving into a count-off, similar to the French system, in that process. I would like to congratulate Mr Horta, though I don’t think he actually needs my congratulations, for his success in now being the president of his country. Now we are part of the wider electoral program in East Timor and the lessons that were learnt in the process, for which we were observers, are now being put in place for the next round of elections. And I think that, in terms of the experiences that we had, the processes of just making sure that people had enough of the necessities at each polling booth was one of the  most basic things that came out of our process. It was also the splendid education program that was had across the country to inform people of their rights, to inform people about how the poll operated, and also to ensure that the officials were confident and professional in working through their responsibilities on the day of the poll and also in the very difficult task of actually counting the poll.

Over 500,000 people are registered to vote in East Timor. At the end of the first round of the presidential elections it is estimated that over 81.79 per cent of the citizens took up their opportunity to vote. When you see the challenge of that in terms of ensuring that people have the opportunity to vote, when you see the terrain that had to be traversed by people to vote to ensure that they did have their right, that is a splendid result by anyone’s calculation. And of that 81.79 per cent of the vote there was only 5.44 per cent of the votes cast that were invalid. We in this place know how that statistic compares sometimes to the way that Australians actually use their vote. One of the saddest things of being a scrutineer in an election, and I have said this here before, is seeing people who have taken the opportunity to vote, wanted to vote, and then, through a process of confusion or ignorance, cast an invalid vote. Now, considering the absolute obstacles that were put in place of people in a brand-new country, voting often for the first time, in very isolated areas, to have an invalid vote of less than six per cent I think indicates that people were actively involved in their process, and I congratulate them for that.

Leading up to the election one of the issues was to ensure that East Timorese women were given the opportunity to take part in the election. There was only one woman in that particular round of elections. There are many more running in the wider range that are going now, but I can guarantee that on the booths that we attended both in Dili itself and in Liquica, one of the provinces that is farther out, there was no evidence that there was any gender imbalance in the people who were coming to cast their votes. Women were there, they were there in numbers; women were there also in an official capacity working in the electoral processes. I think that that was one education process that was very successful.

I hope that the ongoing electoral processes in East Timor will be as successful as the first one. I hope that the lessons learned will be able to be put into place. I think that we can be well pleased with the first round of the election process, and I hope that the Australian government will send more observers to see this next round so that we can fulfil a partnership with East Timor and ensure that we have neighbouring democracies in this part of the world.

Question agreed to.