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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 478

Senator SHORT(10.21) —I want to support, briefly but very strongly, Senator Durack's amendment that the debate be postponed to a later hour this day. Many of the points I would have wanted to make have already been made. I think that they bear very careful consideration by the Senate and in particular by Senator Evans who is, admittedly, new to his position of Manager of Government Business in the Senate. However, he has been a member of the Senate for many years and one would have expected him, before moving a motion tonight to in effect gag the debate, to have had more understanding of what the result would be. In a democratic parliament, gags should be used only in the most extreme circumstances.

The Government and the Australian Democrats have suggested that this debate should be gagged so that we can discuss other subjects that are on today's Notice Paper which they say are urgent matters. One of them has been around for a decade. The others relate to the conduct of the Senate. There is no way in the world that they could be regarded as extreme subjects. If the definition of an extreme matter is that the matter under debate is legislation rather than a government policy document, which Senator Haines tended to argue tonight, that seems to me to turn completely on its head the whole determination of priorities as to what is important for this nation. Surely there could be nothing more important for this nation than a proper and adequate debate at this time on the subject of defence, particularly defence arrangements in our region of the world.

It is only next week that we are to have a visit from the Soviet Foreign Minister-a very important visit. A debate tonight would have given us an opportunity to raise issues that are of the highest importance in relation to that visit by the Soviet Foreign Minister. Why is that so important? It is vitally important because of the growing Soviet presence in our region of the world. The build-up at Cam Ranh Bay has been fully documented by aerial photographs published in the Australian Press a few days ago, despite claims by the Soviet Embassy in this country only a few weeks ago that the Soviets even had a military base at Cam Ranh Bay. Instead, the Soviet Embassy in Australia put it out that Cam Ranh Bay was, in fact, a marina. Those matters and the implications they have for the whole of the defence of this region, for the whole of Australia's security in the region, are of the utmost importance. The significance of tonight's debate, had it been permitted to take place tonight, surely cannot escape the notice of the Australian public and members of the Senate.

Senator Haines made an extraordinary statement tonight. She said that what we were debating and what was being gagged did not really matter because it was only a piece of paper. If that is the definition of what is important and if she and the Democrats ignore the central issue of defence in Australia, it is a very sad day for this Parliament. It is a sad day if a group which holds the balance of power in this Parliament says that a major defence statement is not really an important issue because it is only a piece of paper. There are many other issues in respect of the statement by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) which we had intended to debate tonight and which are of vital importance-for example, developments in New Zealand which echo the slow but steady Soviet successes in our own backyard. The consequences of that country's anti-American, anti-nuclear stance have resulted in a great deal of concern in this region of the world.

Those are just some of the reasons why we in the Opposition wanted to continue the debate on the matter tonight, and why we regard it as of the utmost importance that the statement and the debate on it were not buried in the limbo of non-existent future history. We all know that it is a time-honoured device used by governments over the years to make an issue an order for the next day of sitting and thus gag any further consideration of that issue. It is hypocrisy in the extreme, particularly for the Democrats, for the Manager of Government Business to pretend otherwise. It is not just a matter of form or of minor consequence. What we are talking about tonight is a matter of very grave issue because we are seeing an attempt by the Government, with the support of the Democrats, to suppress debate on an issue which has no peer in Australia at this moment in terms of its importance.

Senator Gareth Evans —Mr President--

Senator Hill —Are you closing the debate?

Senator Gareth Evans —I do not think that there is much time to do anything else, with respect, Senator, is there?

Senator Hill —Mr President, on a point of order, I and other senators wish to contribute to the debate tonight and I think that the Minister is seeking to end the debate.

The PRESIDENT —Order! A point has been raised with me about whether this is a substantive motion and whether Senator Evans would close the debate. In the circumstances, I will allow Senator Hill to speak to it.