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Wednesday, 17 October 1984
Page: 1918

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(10.30) —I wish to raise on the adjournment tonight the plight of a young Western Australian who has been imprisoned or detained in Vietnam since last July. The comments I wish to make arise from representations I have received from the young man's father, a Mr Robert Flecker. I know that Mr Flecker has also made representations to other members of parliament and directly to the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) and to the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). I should mention that I have indicated to the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), who represents the Minister for Foreign Affairs in this place, that I would be raising this matter. I acknowledge the co-operation I have already had from his office with respect to this matter.

I should also mention that in raising the matter tonight and in responding to the representations which I have received from Mr Flecker, there is no suggestion on Mr Flecker's part that he is dissatisfied with the efforts which have been made by staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He knows that they have been attending to this matter, but he is concerned that his son has been detained in Vietnam since 22 July 1984, and one can understand his very real concern. I should also mention that I know Mr Flecker, who is now a clinical psychologist. I do not know him well, but he was the guidance officer at the University of Western Australia when I was a student there in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Mr Flecker's son is Michael David Flecker. He is 22 years of age and he completed only this year a Bachelor of Civil Engineering at the University of Western Australia, where he obtained a first class honours degree. I am advised both by his father and by an academic from the university who has made representations that he is a young man of very fine character who has worked extremely hard to achieve a number of significant academic successes. I have mentioned that he got a degree with first class honours. He topped his year in 1980 and 1981. He obtained distinctions in all 11 units of study and obtained a whole series of prizes. He has a very impressive sporting record and he appears to be a young man of impeccable character and reputation.

In common, I suppose, with many people who complete an arduous course of study, he decided to take some time off and, in common with a number of friends, decided that he would do so by engaging in some cruising yachting around the world. He was taken on as an unpaid crew member on a cruising yacht known as the So Fong which was sailing from Singapore to Hong Kong. That vessel was intercepted by Vietnamese authorities and the yacht's owner and skipper, an American citizen, and the others on board were taken to Can Tho, about 100 kilometres south of Ho Chi Minh City. The other personnel, two French women and two children, were released after being in custody for about nine weeks, but the skipper and Michael Flecker have continued to be held in detention. I am advised that they have not been able to contact one another and that Michael has been kept under close guard and with very restricted freedom of movement. No charge has yet been laid against him. He has been allowed one-only one-visit from an Australian consular representative. I understand that there were some difficulties in obtaining that visit on behalf of the consular representatives. I mention again, because the Attorney was not in the chamber when I mentioned it earlier, that there is no suggestion, in my bringing forward this matter, of any complaint about the way in which the Department of Foreign Affairs has endeavoured to act in this matter. The visit took place on 22 October and lasted somewhere between one and three-quarter hours and two hours. Apart from that visit he has been without contact with any non-Vietnamese since the commencement of his detention.

I am told that the yacht was large and well equipped. Its gear included radar equipment and it was flying an American flag. It may be that the Vietnamese authorities are particularly sensitive about the matter because of that fact. They may also be concerned because Michael Flecker is a graduate engineer. They may have some concern about his activities. I can only say that on all the advice I have been given all that we have here is a young Australian who, after working extremely hard both at school and at university, is endeavouring to see a bit of the world in a fairly adventurous fashion and has most unfortunately fallen into this situation.

I am advised that his degree is in civil engineering and, he has no expertise in electronics, surveillance equipment or anything of that sort which might give rise to concerns that he is other than what he appears to be. He is a keen yachtsman. He has sailed both on the river in Perth and on the ocean. He was hoping to obtain a lot of ocean yachting experience en route to America or Europe to look at various civil engineering projects and to decide whether he would take up employment or commence post-graduate studies in engineering.

I mention all of those details because I am sure that all of us will appreciate the concern which is being felt by his father at the situation in which he finds himself. I think there has been on the part of the present Government a quite positive approach to the Vietnamese Government. The Australian Government has put forward views which I would have thought would have put it in a position to make strong representations to the Vietnamese on this sort of issue. I raise it in the hope that our concern will bring home to the Vietnamese representatives in Australia that this matter will be regarded seriously if it cannot be cleared up quickly. I also ask the Government to use its good offices in the best possible way to achieve the release of this young man from detention. Again, I acknowledge the efforts which have already been made departmentally, but I ask the Minister to bend both his mind and his efforts to seeing whether some additional action can be taken to make sure that Mr Flecker is able to regain his freedom.