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Thursday, 5 May 1994
Page: 371


Senator SHORT (5.56 p.m.) —When debate on this motion was adjourned, I was criticising the action of Prime Minister Keating in inviting the Vietnamese Communist Party chief, Mr Do Muoi, to visit Australia. I said that there were millions of Australians, not just those of Vietnamese origin, who fully agreed with a leading member of the Vietnamese Australian community who wrote to me to say that the invitation had `deeply insulted the honour and dignity of free Australian Vietnamese people'. I was about to add that it was especially insulting to those Vietnamese Australians who fled to Australia in the 1970s and 1980s to escape the very principles and practices of communism that Mr Do Muoi represents.

  It is a well-documented fact that the abuse of human rights in Vietnam still is greater than in most other countries. We have had the examples of the imprisonment of the buddhist monks and the hard labour imprisonment for many years of leading democratisation spokesmen like Dr Quan and Professor Hoat; and there are, as again is well documented, thousands of other prisoners of conscience in gaols around Vietnam. It is for that reason that successive Australian governments, at least until very recently, have taken a strong line on this matter. It is for this reason that both Prime Minister Keating and the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Hewson, raised with the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Mr Kiet, during his visit to Australia a year ago Australia's wish to send a human rights delegation to Vietnam to examine the human rights in situation there.

  Somewhat to my surprise, but very welcome nonetheless, Mr Kiet agreed to that proposal. As I recall it, a statement released at the conclusion of Mr Kiet's visit to Australia said that arrangements would be made for the delegation to visit Vietnam later that year, 1993. This visit has not yet eventuated. I was told several times by Senator Evans around June, July and August through to September last year that negotiations for the visit were proceeding satisfactorily. In answer to my question in the Senate on 16 November last, Senator Ray, who was then the Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, said amongst other things:

We are in an advanced stage of putting the delegation together. . . There will be further discussions with the Vietnamese foreign ministry this week on the composition, objectives and itinerary of the delegation.

He went on to say:

As to timing, we are aiming for the week beginning 7 March 1994 and we will be doing what we can to ensure that there is no further slippage. . . We would find it strange if Prime Minister Kiet's personal undertaking were not soon followed up with action to facilitate this visit.

The expectations of Senator Ray and the government were not fulfilled. Two months after the date from which the government was seeking to ensure no further slippage—the first week of March this year—it appears that the delegation not only has not set out for Vietnam but its composition has not even been finalised. It appears from reports that both Senator Evans and Mr Keating discussed the delegation with their Vietnamese counterparts during their recent visits to that country. Mr Acting Deputy President, I am sure you would agree that the Senate has a right to know—as do the Australian people—the outcome of those discussions. Unofficial reports have been somewhat disturbing.

  I would like to put some questions about the delegation to the government. They demand answers. I am told that Senator Evans may respond later in this debate. I hope he will be able to answer the following questions about the proposed delegation. Firstly, what discussions did he and the Prime Minister have with the Vietnamese government on this matter during their recent visits to Vietnam? Secondly, what are the reasons for the long delays that have occurred to date? Thirdly, when will the composition of the delegation be finalised and announced? What will it be called? As is pointed out in the motion we are debating, it is reported to be called a consultative delegation, with no reference in the title to human rights. Fourthly, will it be concerned solely with the examination of human rights in Vietnam? If not, what proportionate role will the examination of human rights in Vietnam play in the delegation's work and itinerary? Fifthly, and most importantly, when will the delegation visit Vietnam? I hope we will get some responses today to those questions.

  In concluding my remarks, I do not want to suggest in any way that Australia should not be building relations with Vietnam. On the contrary, it should. I hope the parliamentary delegation to Vietnam six months ago, of which I had the pleasure to be a member, did contribute to that process. But the point I want to make very strongly is that we will not help our cause, or that of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, by compromising our views on human rights or by ignoring our moral obligations and the concerns and feelings of the Australian and Vietnamese people.

  If we cease to act according to what we really believe and according to our principles as a nation and a people, we are the losers. I believe that the Prime Minister's activities during his recent visit to Vietnam did nothing to improve Australia's reputation, or increase its stature or integrity in Vietnam or Australia. For those reasons I moved the motion we are debating today and confidently expect that that motion will have the support of the Senate.