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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 19986


Mr JOHNSON (1:01 PM) —I am pleased to present in the parliament today the report of the Australian parliamentary observers delegation to the 2003 Cambodian National Assembly elections, which were held in July. I had the honour of leading this delegation to Cambodia, from 24 to 29 July 2003, at the invitation of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Alexander Downer, whose personal initiative ensured that Australia would be part of the broader international community's election observation team.

On 27 July 2003, the people of Cambodia went to the polls for the third time since the Paris peace accords. In so doing, they demonstrated a remarkable enthusiasm for their right to vote and for the opportunity to take part in the political process of their country. Against the background of the 1993 and 1998 elections—and 10 years after the UN-supervised elections of May 1993—Cambodia's march towards political pluralism and a freer democratic culture continued in July 2003 with an infectious enthusiasm by its people that deserves the international community's full admiration. The Australian delegation—which consisted of Senator Mark Bishop, Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja and my coalition colleague in the House the member for Cowper—join the consensus of the international community and the domestic election observers that the 2003 election environment represented a marked improvement, in all respects, over Cambodia's two earlier elections.

The political atmosphere in the days preceding the poll appeared conducive to ensuring that Cambodians felt confident in airing divergent political views. Campaigns were boisterous, spirited and appeared to proceed unhindered through Phnom Penh on the final day of campaigning. Standing in the middle of a major Phnom Penh city road with convoys of trucks—overloaded with cheering party supporters—driving by was, for me, a truly remarkable experience. The improvement in the election environment appeared to reflect the growing sophistication of the electorate, in both its awareness of electoral processes and a growing confidence in the freedom to support the party of choice. Urban voters were significantly more advanced in this regard than rural voters. It must be said, however, that this confidence was tempered in some cases by a general lack of faith in evolving electoral and government institutions. Indeed, some Cambodian voters expressed concern about a return to political instability in the wake of the election. Underlying this concern was Cambodia's recent history of election violence and the widespread climate of impunity which has sprung from the lack of an effective legal and judicial system.

While Senator Mark Bishop and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja observed the various polling stations in the Phnom Penh municipality and rural and semi-rural areas across Kandal Province, my colleague the member for Cowper and I observed the voting around Kampong Cham Province, which is notable for its rubber plantation work force and for being a trigger for several incidents of serious violence and intimidation against opposition and FUNCINPEC party candidates and activists in the past. We noted that election day processes were generally smooth and were managed well by polling station and election committee officials. The electorate appeared aware of voting procedures, and all those we questioned believed in the secrecy of the ballot. When asked, voters universally responded that the election was a marked improvement on the previous two polls in 1993 and 1998.

We observed small but noticeable numbers of Cambodians being turned away from polling stations by officials on the basis that their names did not appear on the electoral roll. It was unclear from subsequent discussions with voters whether this resulted from a failure on the part of the persons to follow correct registration procedures or whether deficiencies in the list existed. There was, at certain points, a degree of confusion regarding the correct registration requirements, although people were usually aware of their right to lodge formal complaints.

Cambodia's 2003 National Assembly election represents an important step in Cambodia's transition towards a form of representative democracy. With this greater political openness, there can be only better prospects for economic growth as the international business community looks for new markets and new consumers.

In conclusion, I take this opportunity to acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues on the delegation and to thank them for their support. I also thank especially the professional and enthusiastic staff of our embassy in Phnom Penh. Their cooperation and skills ensured that our visit went smoothly and successfully. I also express our gratitude to the royal government of Cambodia for extending the invitation to observe the election process. Having met the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, in Bangkok, Thailand last year, I take this opportunity to wish him the very best as he leads his government and the people of Cambodia to greater prosperity and greater freedom in the interests of all the people of Cambodia.