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Wednesday, 13 June 1984
Page: 2908


Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(12.25) —The Government welcomes the Cocos Islanders to Australia. They have made the important decision to integrate themselves and their islands with a friendly neighbour country. This indicates that slowly but surely, on a world scale, all of those islands, countries and regions, which previously operated as part of a colonial or personal empire in the immediate post war years, have come to nationhood or come to accept a need to be integrated with a friendly and sympathetic country. We are cleaning up the remnants of a colonial era. In the case of the people of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, we are cleaning up a personal , feudal and fiefdom situation which is no longer tolerable or acceptable by any standards of democratic process. The people of the Cocos Islands, having participated in a free and democratic act of self-determination under the auspices of the United Nations, have elected overwhelmingly to become part of Australia. For the first time they will have the democratic rights which were denied them by the Clunies-Ross dynasty. That family afforded them no rights at all except to work under its personal direction.

Naturally, we are delighted that the people, in a free vote, have elected to become part of the Commonwealth. But, having made that important decision, the next step is for them to participate in the democratic processes that exist in this country. That, of course, is the intention of the Government in this legislation. They will participate in the next Federal election, whenever that may be held. Obviously, whilst there now appears to be bipartisan support for the general principle of the people of the Cocos Islands to be integrated with Australia, the point of contention that exists is whether they will be able to participate for the first time in their lives in an election process which will determine the government of their choice and the member of parliament of their choice.

This Government, committed as it is to the principle of self-determination and to democratic processes, desires that no stone be left unturned to make sure that the people of Cocos Islands will participate in the next Federal election whenever that may be held. To do that, the only action available to the Government is to make them part of one of the Territories under the control of the Commonwealth, that is, the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory. Senator Durack emphasised the contention by saying that they should be a part of Western Australia. That would require a decision of the people of Western Australia to have the Islands and their residents included in that State region and under that State's responsibility. The people of Cocos Islands would have to choose, at the next Federal election, the constituency in which they would like to be placed. That would mean, of course, that they would not be participating in the election of the government but rather in the process of determining where they are to be placed.

The amendment moved by Senator Durack seeks to appoint a Supreme Court judge to ask the people of the Cocos Islands in which electoral division of Australia they would like to be included. The Government believes that to make such a determination would be a tremendous responsibility for the people of the Cocos. The Government, in its wisdom, has decided that they should be placed in the Northern Territory, certainly not in the Australian Capital Territory with which they have absolutely no affinity and no common interest. There is no reason why they should be placed in the Australian Capital Territory, an area far removed from them geographically, socially and economically. The reason the Government has chosen the Northern Territory is that some association between the two areas can be justified. We do not regard it as the final act of integration but rather as a temporary act, placing the Cocos people in an area whereby they can participate in the next Federal election.

I believe that there are good and cogent reasons why the Government's position can be defended. Firstly, the political representatives of the Northern Territory, both the senators and the members of the House of Representatives, are probably more expert in this area than are many other members of the national Parliament. They deal with isolated communities and with disadvantaged people. No one could disagree that the people of the Cocos Islands have been disadvantaged socially and economically as a result of the Clunies-Ross influence. That, of course, has been the case with the people who comprise a sizable proportion of those who live in the Northern Territory-our own Australian Aborigines. Representatives of the Northern Territory are used to flying over large distances and dealing with isolated communities. It seems that in the short term, they would be more expert in dealing with the residents of the Cocos Islands and ultimately, as has been suggested during the debate, also, when the decision is finally reached, with the people of Christmas Island. So a degree of pragmatism, but also a degree of principle, is involved in what the Australian Government is seeking to do, that is, to extend the first principle of the democratic process to the people of the Cocos Islands.

It is natural, of course, for the Minister for Territories and Local Government (Mr Uren) to recommend to the Government that the people who live on Cocos should, in fact, be incorporated for the time being in the Northern Territory. I emphasise that what is not being said is that somehow or other this would advantage one point of view against another. In other words, the Opposition is presumptuous enough to say that the electors of the Cocos Islands would prefer one party, one candidate or group of candidates when voting in the Senate and the House of Representatives elections. That, of course, is absurd. We know that a very big problem has arisen out of the dynasty of Clunies-Ross, who kept the people at such a political level that they were not able to understand concretely, in the same way as the rest of Australia, their political responsibilities. Only this Government has endeavoured to raise the political understanding of the indigenous people of the Cocos Islands, to educate them to an understanding of their political rights. Of course, that is not a process that takes five or 10 minutes; it takes many years. Consequently, it is quite absurd that we should say that the Cocos Islanders, having made a decision as part of their initial political consciousness, should then be able to decide which of the electorates-Western Australia, for example, or elsewhere in Australia-they should be placed in. Some people have suggested Perth; others have suggested Kalgoorlie. What affinity, what closeness would they have with those areas and what process would the people of Cocos be able to use to make a value judgment upon those lines?

As the Government has indicated, it is not making a dogmatic decision in respect of the ultimate future of the people of Cocos. After all, the Opposition stands indicted for the low educative process that existed on the Cocos Islands with respect to the people's political rights. It was only on the initiative of the Whitlam Government that the process of seeking to protect the interests of the people in that region began. It is true that finally public opinion forced the previous Fraser Administration to take the next step in 1978.

As I am advised, one of the principal problems that the Government was faced with-it was one of the principal problems that the people of Cocos Island raised with my colleague the Minister for Territories and Local Government, Mr Uren-was the people's desire for a political education program and for some government action in respect of acquiring the Clunies-Ross land so that the political, social and economic interest of the Cocos-Malay people would be protected. They want to be removed from the influence of that family which has held such a sway upon the rights of the people for more than 160 years. So it was at the request of the people that the Australian Government sought to acquire the land to protect the overall interests of the people on Cocos.

The Government is seeking to take the next step in the process, and that next step is to have the people vote in the next election. Personal links have been established with the Australian political process through representatives from the Northern Territory. Those representatives, regardless of their political colour, will then be in a position to advise and to raise the political education of the persons on Cocos so they will not be confused about where their future may lie.

Absolutely no evidence has been produced by the Opposition that the people on the Cocos Islands are concerned about where they will be placed electorally. They have just made the very elementary, but important and vital step of wanting to be integrated with Australia. They are now Australian citizens. The purpose of the Act is to confirm that. The purpose of the Act is also to give them the right to vote in the next Federal election to be held, as Senator Macklin has indicated, sometime between now and 30 June 1985, the end of the next financial year. The Government believes that there is a pressing case for these people to be part of the political process and in view of the shortness of time they had to be placed in the electorate of the Northern Territory.

I am advised, I think correctly, that it would require a referendum in Western Australia to have the Cocos-Malay people attached to one of the Western Australian electorates. Assuming that the referendum determined to the satisfaction of the Parliament where they would be placed in an electoral constituency, it would be another three years before they would have an opportunity of actually voting for a senator or for a member of the House of Representatives. That is not our intention. We support the principles of representative democracy. We have taken the view that the clearest, best and fairest method is now to extend that right to the people of the Cocos Islands.

Whilst it is true that some criticism has been made by Ambassador Koroma from the United Nations delegation of the inability of previous governments to raise the political understanding and education of the residents of Cocos, I have been assured that in no way is that a reflection on the present Government. The present Government is anxious not only to welcome Cocos Islands residents to Australia but also to welcome their participation in the next electoral process. I do not think there is anything difficult about that. We have a different situation with, for example, Lord Howe Island. Whilst it is part of New South Wales and is within the Federal seat of Sydney and the State seat of Elizabeth, that is a historical fact going back to the early part of last century and not one that can be shown to be associated with this move. The relationship of the people of Norfolk Island is different again in the sense that their social and economic conditions and position in society are very different from those of Cocos and Christmas Islands residents.

The Minister, in response to representations by the Australian Democrats, has agreed to recommend to the Remuneration Tribunal that once the decision has been reached by the Parliament to attach the Cocos Islands to the Northern Territory, special arrangements be made to enable the elected representatives to make regular visits by charter to converse with the people of the Cocos Islands. If, in that process, the people of the Cocos Islands decide that they require some other consideration in this matter, the Government will be quite happy to accept such representations.

Finally, I say that the previous Minister, Mr Tom McVeigh, was in favour of acquiring the Cocos Islands land owned by Mr Clunies-Ross but the proposition was never put before the Cabinet for a decision because the decision about self- determination was not made sufficiently quickly. So the Australian Government has a clear conscience about the way in which we propose to deal with this matter. We urge, therefore, support of this legislation.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be added (Senator Durack's amendment) be added.