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Wednesday, 20 March 1985
Page: 481


Senator BOLKUS —I refer the Minister representing the Prime Minister to his recent trip to the Soviet Union to attend on behalf of the Australian Government the funeral of the late Konstantin Chernenko. Can the Minister report on any impressions he has of the new Soviet leadership and directions the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics might take under that leadership?


Senator BUTTON —I had difficulty in hearing the question because of the interjections of those people on the other side of the chamber who have preconceived ideas on every conceivable issue. In answer to the thrust of Senator Bolkus's question, I did attend the funeral of Mr Chernenko and after the funeral I had the opportunity of meeting and having discussions with Mr Gorbachev and briefly with Mr Gromyko, the Foreign Minister and Mr Tikhonov, Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers. I also had discussions with representatives of other countries who attended the funeral. If I might risk the interjections of the Opposition and in answer to the question I was asked give some brief impressions arising from those discussions, I simply say that, as a result of the change of leadership in the Soviet Union, amongst all those present from Western countries and amongst those from the Soviet Union with whom I was able to have discussions one could sense an atmosphere of great optimism arising from the changes. I make the point that it was in the course of Mr Chernenko's short period as General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the Soviet Union that some steps were taken towards a resumption of discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union on the question of arms control. There is no doubt that under the regime of Mr Gorbachev those discussions will be greatly encouraged and enhanced. That is certainly the view which emanated not only from foreign visitors to Moscow but also from those Russians with whom I had the opportunity of having discussions and certainly from foreign Press observers who were present in Moscow at the time.

Though I understand very few words of Russian, my impression was that the speech given at the funeral by Mr Gorbachev was one which commanded attention because of its obvious authority. That view was shared by those who fully understood the contents of the speech. There has been a significant change in the Russian leadership which I hope will be important in relation to pursuing the activities which had already begun under the regime of Mr Chernenko. Also while I was in Moscow I had the opportunity of meeting with the Deputy Minister for Trade, Mr Smelyakov. I had a series of discussions with him in relation to bilateral trading relations between Australia and the Soviet Union. There is, as honourable senators on the other side of the chamber hopefully will be aware, a Business Council of Australia delegation going to the Soviet Union in May for the purpose of having discussions with its counterparts in that country on the pursuit of bilateral trading relationships.


Senator Chaney —The heads of the 50 biggest companies.


Senator BUTTON —Yes, as Senator Chaney says, no doubt the heads of the 50 biggest companies will be there. Let me again make the point that there was a great willingness on behalf of Soviet trade authorities to pursue those discussions, contrary to a series of decisions which were made in the time of the previous Government in Australia when those discussions were aborted, deflected and abandoned for all sorts of childish political reasons.


Senator Lewis —Like the invasion of Afghanistan?


Senator BUTTON —Yes, like the invasion of Afghanistan. If this country ever had the misfortune to have in government again honourable senators from the other side perhaps they would think twice about the sort of action which was taken in respect of Afghanistan on a previous occasion. It was an example of total hypocrisy when political posturing was being engaged in here at the same time as Australian wheat trade with the USSR was at a record level. That was the sort of hypocrisy in which Ministers of the Fraser Government indulged to the detriment of the furtherance of relationships with the Soviet Union. I have digressed somewhat from the original answer I intended to give. One is seldom provoked but, on the other hand, I am not prepared to suffer fools gladly.