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Monday, 27 September 1999
Page: 10692

Mr ENTSCH (5:24 PM) —The member for Newcastle has referred to a whole lot of newspaper headlines and to the more recent nonsense that was attributed to the Prime Minister regarding us being the deputy sheriff for the United States. I remind the honourable member that newspapers survive on sensationalism and, unfortunately, we have in this country now—probably nationally—a situation where journalists are more interested in creating the news rather than reporting it. A lot of the nonsense that they tend to report, in my view, deliberately inflames the situation so that they can sell more newspapers. I suggest that we do not give them too much credibility. They certainly do not deserve it.

Only yesterday I saw images of East Timor which distressed me immensely. One of our soldiers was handed a suspected militia man to apprehend. During the process of that fellow being secured on the ground I saw journalists almost crawling over his back, and lying on their stomachs as they were jamming television cameras in the face of the militia man and in the face of one of our soldiers trying to do his job—absolutely disgraceful, and intimidating for our soldiers. A lot of this nonsense can clearly go back to the media.

I rise today to support the Prime Minister in his efforts in the past few weeks to restore stability and peace to the South-East Asian region, particularly East Timor. I would also like to praise the efforts of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, for his very hard work and skill in being able to convince the Indonesian government that a ballot should take place. There is absolutely no way on this earth that there would have been any movement to restore independence to East Timor if the people there had not been afforded the opportunity to show overwhelmingly that they wanted independence. There is no way that the international community would have come on board without that. Unfortunately, the people are going to pay a very high price for it, but at the end of the day they will certainly achieve that outcome.

I commend the countries that have come on board—Thailand, Britain, New Zealand, et cetera—although I must say I was very disappointed with the United States for the time that it took. I believe that it could have responded a lot more quickly than it did, and we might well have been able to be in there a little bit more quickly. However, it is there now and is committed to supporting the United Nations peacekeeping force. For that I am very grateful.

In Cairns we have quite a considerable population of East Timorese, about 300. When these events started to unfold, there was a lot of concern in the area, prompting the formation of the Cairns East Timorese Support Association. It has conducted a very effective public awareness campaign, including a number of public meetings to which it has been able to attract quite a considerable number of people, and has been able to draw strong attention to the plight of the East Timorese people.

One of the leaders and spokesmen, Antonio Pinto, has the very strong backing of a large group of people from Cairns, from a very broad range in the community. I have to congratulate them on the very proactive way in which they have acted, without resorting to racial or inflammatory tactics. What the group has done is very commendable, and I understand that several hundred are now involved in that support group.

One of the things that is concerning me, and which is starting to unfold gradually, is the extent of the horrific crimes that have been inflicted on the East Timorese people. I must say I was very pleased to see the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, come out with some very strong words on this issue. I think that we are going to have—from what I have been able to see—crimes against humanity of huge proportions. It is really going to throw a very bad light on the Indonesian military and some sections of the military in particular. I think that we have to be very careful when we are dealing with this that we do not point the finger at all of the Indonesian people. We should realise that it is only one small section of the population.

In a media release today, the Australian Council of Overseas Aid, which represents all the non-government aid organisations, commented that Indonesian doctors in Australia are travelling to this area to offer their support. The fact that the Indonesian community in Australia is raising funds in support of the East Timorese is a wonderful thing.

I would have thought, given the seriousness of this issue, that we would have had some sort of bipartisan support, particularly from the leadership on the other side. I was very disappointed when, on the first day of this debate, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, reverted to quotes of commentators in an effort to do some mudraking. The opposition leader made many hollow claims, the most hollow of all being that the intervention of the troops should have occurred earlier on.

I have got to say that the Australian government as a whole has to accept some responsibility for what has happened here, and I say that successive governments for the last 25 years have been very reluctant to do anything. As I say, I am very proud to be part of a government that has been prepared to have the political will and the courage to get out there and actually start to do something.

On 10 February 1999, Mr Beazley said that he `would be against overseas deployment of Australian troops in circumstances where there was no agreement within the community that they wanted a peacekeeping role performed'. That was on 15 February this year and he was totally opposed to going in there before we were invited by the Indonesian regime. On 2 March 1999, Stephen Martin, the shadow defence minister, said:

You simply cannot commit troops in advance of a final system of Government being determined by the East Timorese people themselves.

That is exactly what we had to do, and he acknowledged that on 2 March.

Most importantly though, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Laurie Brereton, has been ranting and raving about the fact that he had demanded sending a force prior to the ballot. This is the same man who, as Minister for Industrial Relations in 1993, said:

I think one should not adopt the role of critic. One should, in acknowledgment of the vitally important bilateral relationship (with Indonesia) move in and assist wherever possible.

The shadow minister also went on to say:

We hope that in turn we could help the development of our neighbourhood, a neighbourhood in which we see Indonesia as our most important partner.

So they also played a very strong role in supporting the Indonesian regime back then. It is interesting to note that he is probably the only shadow foreign minister that I am aware of in Australia who has actually been told that he was not welcome in Indonesia. I suppose that highlights his ability as a diplomat. I am pleased that Alexander Downer was working at that time rather than the shadow minister for foreign affairs.

In closing, I would just like to send my best wishes to the Australian troops. Let us not forget that they will be there for some time. They have a very strong risk of facing hostile fire, from what we have seen to date. For the time that they have been there, they have absolutely excelled themselves. Also, we must not forget the families—their loved ones who are sitting here waiting on tenterhooks that they return safely. I think it is important that we all get behind them 100 per cent with our best wishes and encouragement and, of course, wish them godspeed.