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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 257


Senator BOSWELL(1.07) —I rise today to speak about the recently independent Republic of Vanuatu. I am sure that all Australians feel great sympathy for our South Pacific neighbours in Vanuatu as they go through this extremely difficult time, having suffered tragic loss of life and extensive destruction in the recent cyclone. The Republic of Vanuatu became independent in 1980 and since that time has had a government headed by Prime Minister Father Walter Lini, the leader of the majority party, the Vanuatu Party. Vanuatu consists of about 80 islands and lies between the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. It also lies 1,000 miles off the north Queensland coast.

Vanuatu and Australia have enjoyed a long and respectful relationship, both while it was a condominium under joint British and French rule and since independence. Many Australians live and work in Vanuatu and many Australian tourists visit it every year. There exists a strong and mutual feeling of goodwill between the two countries. Therefore, it is of enormous concern to Australians that last month a fishing agreement was signed between Vanuatu and the Soviet Union. Of particular concern is the fact that the agreement includes port access and shore facilities for Soviet ships and their crews. The gaining of port access is a giant step forward for the Soviets in the Pacific. Last year's agreement with the Pacific nation of Kiribati has now ended because the Soviets wished to have the royalties that they were paying. The agreement with Kiribati involved the payment of $2m and access for 16 Soviet trawlers. It did not involve any on-shore access for the Soviets.

The new Soviet agreement is to net Vanuatu US$1.5m and involve eight Soviet vessels operating in Vanuatu waters. The new development is the provision of port access for boats and crews. The boats will be able to call into ports for repairs and supplies and will have the use of facilities on the island of Santo. We have been told by Prime Minister Lini that the agreement could also lead to landing rights being given to the Soviet airline, Aeroflot, at Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Hayden, has had very little to say about the Vanuatu-Soviet agreement and the fact that shore rights have been granted. Even when Prime Minister Lini admitted that, as well as port facilities, probably landing rights for Aeroflot in Vanuatu would be involved, Mr Hayden declared he would not comment on a hypothetical situation. Because of Australia's traditional role as the largest nation in the South Pacific, it has a responsibility to make its views known, particularly in regard to assuring other South Pacific nations of its complete and total support.

The Soviets are stepping up their interests in the Pacific. Japan is concerned about it. The establishment of the Soviet base in Cam Ranh Bay means that a Soviet fleet is located with the proximity necessary for deployment into South Pacific areas. The Soviet Embassy in Canberra has revealed that it has sent to all South Pacific countries an invitation to negotiate fishing deals. The United States of America can see that the Soviets are now after more than fish. I am sure that Australians can see the potential threat to their region from these soviet so-called fishing deals. How is a line to be drawn between a fishing boat and an intelligence vessel? Australians know that Soviet trading ships visiting Australia always have a political officer. Even the Australian seamen's unions do not bother to take on Russian political officers over union pay and conditions, as they do with officers of other foreign ships. Last year, in Fiji, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Hayden, stated that Australia would be more concerned if island countries provided the Soviets with shore facilities. Now that this is actually happening in Vanuatu, he is silent about Australia's concerns. In July of last year he acted differently when he said:

Past experience strongly suggests that a toe-hold encourages the Soviets to engage in things beyond normal commercial interests which are not always in the best interests of the host country.

It is the best interests of the host country, in this case the Vanuatuans, that I want to bring to the attention of the Senate. If the Minister were to follow up his words of last year with equally strong words now, he would show the South Pacific nations that they had a friend in Australia. Those nations are concerned about the Soviet's new toe-hold in the Pacific, but no one is more concerned than are the people of Vanuatu themselves. They do not want an agreement with the Soviet Union. They signed petitions opposing the Soviet links. These were presented to the Government but were ignored. The Vanuatuan people have been alarmed at the direction that their Government was taking.

Since independence, in 1980, Cuba has established diplomatic relations with Vanuatu. In fact, Cuba sponsored Vanuatu's membership of the non-aligned movement. The ties with Cuba are strong. A non-resident Cuban ambassador to Vanuatu has been appointed. Colonel Gaddafi's Libya has hosted training programs for Vanuatuans. Only recently the Libyan Government took a number of Vanuatuans back to Libya for training. Doctors from Vietnam are being brought in to staff the hospitals. Then, last June, Vanuatu established diplomatic relationships with the Soviet Union. So we have Cuba and the Soviet Union appointing ambassadors to Vanuatu, and Vietnamese and Libyan influences in evidence. Under last month's Soviet agreement, eight so-called Soviet fishing vessels will be travelling around the waters of Vanuatu. Soviet personnel will have access to land and travel throughout Vanuatu and its 80 islands. The Soviet airline, Aeroflot, will be making regular landings in Vanuatu. It is a shame for the Vanuatuan people that their new-found independence sees them in a position in which they have a great fear about the new influences being imposed on their country by Cuba, Libya and the Soviet Union.

The period after independence is always difficult for a new country. The people of Vanuatu have found that instead of the gaining of independence meaning greater control over their own destiny they are now in the Cuba-Libya-Soviet Union camp. When it comes to issues that really affect their day to day lives, they find their standard of living falling not improving. As their leaders take counsel from, and aim to please, their new Cuban, Libyan and Soviet friends, the average Vanuatuan is left with fewer places in the schools for his or her children. The standard of health has deteriorated since independence as less funds have been put into the health service. The basic needs of the country are being neglected while their Government, contrary to the people's wishes, flirts with these communist countries. This only brings fear to the average Vanuatuan. At the moment Vanuatu is out of step with the thinking of the rest of the South Pacific nations. However, there is a potentially destabilising problem in the whole South Pacific area in that the Soviet Union is actively seeking fishing agreements with all South Pacific nations. This should particularly concern Queenslanders because that State includes the archipelago of the Torres Strait islands, whose people are of Melanesian and Polynesian descent but are also Australians and Queenslanders. Sir Julius Chan, the Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, has told the National Press Club of the pressure exerted via Australian companies, acting on behalf of the Soviet Union, to negotiate so-called fishing agreements with Papua New Guinea.

Australia has a large role to play in the South Pacific. It enjoys an enormous goodwill on the part of all of the people of the region, but those who would really like to see Australia take a stronger stand are the Vanuatuans. They appreciate Australia's role as the dominant country in the region. They are disappointed and afraid of their Government's change in direction away from their traditional allies to strangers such as the people of Cuba, Libya, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. They do not wish to see Russians, Cubans, Libyans and Vietnamese influencing their institutions, living and working in their country and alienating them from their brothers in the South Pacific. Australia's bilateral aid to Vanuatu in 1986 and 1987 will amount to approximately $5.6m. Australians made an immediate response to needs created by recent cyclone disaster. The Vanuatuan people feel very alone as their leaders take them away from their traditional allies and open up their country to Cubans, Libyans and Russians. It is to be hoped that, unbeknown to us, the Australian Government is playing a strong role in the Pacific region, as it should, as the Soviets attempt to negotiate fishing expansion agreements with other Pacific nations; also, that, despite the Vanuatuan Government's action in aligning itself with Soviets, Cubans and Libyans, the Government is aware that the Vanuatuan people are greatly concerned about where their newly independent country is being taken.

Sitting suspended from 1.19 to 2 p.m.