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Monday, 6 June 1994
Page: 1319

Senator TEAGUE —As another senator who was a member of the parliamentary delegation which visited Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco from 9 November to 3 December last year, I wish to speak very briefly, before seeking leave to continue my remarks, about this significant report to the parliament. Senator Jones, who has just spoken, and I were the two senators who made up the delegation along with four members of the House of Representatives.

  I agree with every part of the observations made by Senator Jones about the report that he has presented to the Senate. I found it a most satisfactory delegation to be a part of. Colleagues in the Senate will know that Senator Jones and I have been fortunate to be asked to represent the parliament on a number of delegations over the years. This particular delegation had excellent group dynamics; it had an excellent commitment to Australia's interests, and to the explicit objectives of the visits to the Middle East that are set out in the beginning of the report. I believe it had a significant impact on those four countries.

  One of the ambassadors of Australia in the region said to us in one of the careful, well-prepared formal farewells that we had, that the delegation had achieved for Australia more in a few days than is possible by the diplomatic service in a few years. I took that as a very important compliment. I believe that when a well-prepared and well-briefed group of members of parliament, in a delegation such as this one, proceed with energy and with carefulness, it is possible to build bridges, to start waves, to lift flags, and to open opportunities that can have a very significant impact. The parliament should never underestimate the good that can come for Australia when we work together with our permanent representatives—our ambassadors and public servants—in the way that we were able to at this time.

  It was right that we went to Syria. As far as I know, this was one of the first parliamentary delegations to Syria. For 20 or 30 years, Syria has been offside with most countries because of its militant support of terrorism and its irresponsible international policies. However, this has been changing in recent years, particularly since the Gulf War when Syria was an ally with us, the United States and most other countries in action against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Also, as Syria has been making positive moves towards discussions with Israel for a settlement of the Middle East conflicts, it was right to go and listen to the Syrian parliament, to the government and to other elements of Syria, business included, and to make sure that an Australian-Syrian dialogue was open at a number of levels.

  With regard to Lebanon, the civil war is definitely over. There are some terrorists and militant elements still within the country, such as Hezbollah, and they have some outside support. There are various analyses that we have not got time to give with regard to that. Only this week, Israel took direct military against Hezbollah. We do not welcome the need for military action on anyone's part in this part of the world. We are looking to a concluded peace between Lebanon and Israel.

  The civil war is over, and the flavour of all the discussion in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon was to reconstruct the country and to involve Australians in that construction process, in investment and in trade. We talked about the live sheep trade, building, and the injection of highly skilled elements of expertise that are needed by Lebanon and, to some extent, by Syria. Australia can make a positive contribution in this way.

  With regard to the Maghreb, the other countries in the north of Africa, I believe again that this was one of the first parliamentary delegations to visit the area. We were able to visit only two of the Mahgreb countries, Tunisia and Morocco.

  I do not want to make invidious comparisons but I commend Tunisia—its government, its parliament and its foreign minister—for the enlightenment that it brought to the UN agenda, to African nation discussions, to Middle East discussions, to human rights matters generally and to human rights for women in particular. As a Muslim country, and as a member of the Association of Islamic Countries, Tunisia has a very important voice that needs to be heard in the Middle East.

  The same goes for Morocco. Whilst there has been some difficulty between the King of Morocco and the elected members of the parliament—it may have been possible for the King to invite a prime minister and other major ministers from what was, up until last year, the opposition because of its success in the recent election—what happens in Morocco as regards government and the parliamentary election outcome is a matter of judgment. We found an excellent welcome in Tunisia and Morocco, as members of parliament and as Australians. There are some niche markets, not least in wool and iron ore, for Australia in the Mahgreb group of countries.

  I wish to refer to Tunisia's role in being the host for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It was a very stable base for the PLO to diplomatically conclude its accord with Israel last September, an accord for which we all have very high hopes. The initiatives of the foreign ministry and government of Tunisia—in Norway, in the UN and in bilateral discussions with the other Middle East players—has been most significant in the coming together of Chairman Arafat and the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and other representatives of Israel.

  It is a matter of careful knowledge that the government and opposition in this chamber wish the accord between Israel and the PLO—indeed, between Israel and all the Palestinian people—well. We look forward to step-by-step progress through the five-year period outlined in the report. We can see the real achievements in Jericho and Gaza and we can see the enormous difficulties but we also see the determination on both sides for progress to be made. It is only right that Australia stands ready to assist as an international player in making that process of reconciliation, of working together, of peace, more achievable.

  This happened to have been the first official meeting between any Australians and Chairman Arafat, and we had the honour of doing it in his own working office in Tunis. For an hour and a half, Ambassador Sheppard, the ambassador to Tunisia from Australia, the leader of our parliamentary delegation Mr Bob Brown, the deputy leader Mr John Moore, Mr Bruce Scott, Senator Jones and I—the final member of the delegation, Mr Melham, was absent on that particular occasion but joined us again in Morocco—were delighted to have a constructive, bona fide discussion not only with Chairman Arafat but also with the PLO's foreign spokesman Qaddoumi, with whom we met separately and together with Chairman Arafat.

  I am very conscious of debates in this chamber over the need for security for the Israeli and Palestinian people and for a solution to be determined by the representatives of those peoples on a just basis. By our parliamentary delegation visit to these four middle eastern and north African countries we are now better placed in this parliament to respond positively to those things that Australia can do to help in that peace process. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.