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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2340

Mr LIEBERMAN —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Can the minister inform the House of the government's views on the most recent developments in the UN sponsored talks on East Timor? Is the minister aware of any alternative views on that matter?

Mr DOWNER (Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for Indi for his question. I particularly appreciate the work the member for Indi does on behalf of Australia on foreign affairs issues, both as a member of the joint house committee and on a number of trips he has made to Asia over the years. He is a very able member.

I understand that the United Nations sponsored talks in New York have gone into adjournment and that those talks could be described as being at a critical juncture. The whole of that negotiation—involving Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Alatas, and his department, as well as the Portuguese government and their foreign minister, Mr Gama—is at a very sensitive juncture. Of course responsible members of this parliament are restrained in the remarks that they would make about this because of the sensitivity of the time.

As the House well knows, the government has made it perfectly clear that our preference is to see an autonomous East Timor, obviously subject to the agreement of the people of East Timor. Of course we will accept that if the people of East Timor want to go their own way—and the Indonesian government has made it clear they can if they want to—we will accept and support that decision. But the key is to make sure that there is a smooth and successful transition—a peaceful and calm transition—either to a fully autonomous province or, if the East Timorese people choose to go that way, to an independent state. Obviously Australia is already very active behind the scenes in doing what we can to help achieve a smooth and peaceful outcome.

The government has been very active on this issue. Over the last two weeks I have met with the Indonesian economy minister, Mr Ginanjar, I met with Kofi Annan, I met with the EU Presidency of the Council of Ministers and with the European Commission, the British Foreign Secretary and the United States Assistant Secretary of State, inter alia, to discuss the very difficult issue of East Timor. I must say that I have been very impressed with the positive responses I have received from each and every one of those people.

In two weeks time, members of the government—including the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, the Minister for Defence and I will be in Bali for the ministerial forum with the Indonesian government. Also over the next two weeks, I will be having a number of discussions with East Timorese leaders.

Opposition members interjecting

Mr Melham —Watch out for Bali belly!

Mr DOWNER —The interjections make the point, because what is really bizarre about this historic time in the destiny of East Timor is the attitude of the federal opposition. I understand that this morning the opposition had yet another meeting to discuss the issue of East Timor, and there was considerable debate in this meeting. What I did hear this morning when I was listening to the radio was the Leader of the Opposition emerging for the very first time, as far as I am aware, in recent weeks on this issue to claim that the government was `behind the game' on the issue of East Timor—as if the Prime Minister's letter of 19 December had been an event definitely `we, as the opposition, ought to forget.'

Let me make this point: the Labor Party had 13 years in government. Some of you may not remember it, because it is becoming a little while ago. But you had 13 years in government and your foreign affairs spokesman says that, in those 13 years, there was a litany of wrong decisions with respect to East Timor by the Labor government. You had a litany of wrong decisions and you have the audacity to lecture us about how to handle the issue of East Timor. What sort of advice is that? Would you go to somebody who says that they made a litany of wrong decisions and ask for their advice? Do you think that, up there in the press gallery, they are interested in your advice when you say you presided over a litany of wrong decisions? Not a chance.

Opposition members interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —The Minister for Foreign Affairs will resume his seat. The member for the Northern Territory is a persistent interjector. I remind him of the standing orders.

Mr DOWNER —I hardly need to remind the House that in the caucus meeting yesterday the member for Holt, the former foreign minister—the man the Leader of the Opposition described as `the greatest foreign minister since Metternich' or whatever it was—said that the member for Kingsford-Smith had mounted `a comprehensive assault on the competence and moral integrity of successive Labor Prime Ministers and foreign ministers.' That is what the member for Holt said, and he is a man who was respected in his role as the foreign minister. In fact, the more I contrast him with the member for Kingsford-Smith, the better I think he was—not great, but better than the member for Kingsford-Smith.

Throughout this extraordinary debate in the Labor Party—this fusillade of fire across the factions and within the factions of the Labor Party—the Leader of the Opposition, like Jabba the Hutt, sits there doing absolutely nothing, allowing this debate to go on behind him, with the member for Kingsford-Smith, like Salacious Crumb, buzzing around. The opposition is out of control on an issue of central importance to Australian foreign policy at this time. It will always be remembered that the Labor Party said, at this turning point in history, that they made a litany of wrong decisions and then played politics at the crucial turning point in history. It is a pathetic indictment, at the end of the day, of the Leader of the Opposition.