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Monday, 29 November 1999
Page: 10986

Senator TAMBLING (10:28 PM) —The Prime Minister's visit to East Timor yesterday has highlighted the exceptional job being done by the Australian Defence Force and the earlier Australian police force personnel involved in the East Timor crisis. The praise the Prime Minister has given to the INTERFET troops and their commander, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, is well deserved and not lightly given. Australia's biggest deployment of troops—as part of INTERFET—since Vietnam has been outstanding. The professional manner in which all Australian Defence Force personnel have conducted themselves during the crisis, which has been dangerous and involved sometimes appalling conditions, is a tribute to their training and commitment. Major-General Cosgrove, in particular, has done Australia proud.

The courage and restraint under fire that has been shown by those troops unfortunate enough to experience combat is remarkable. To have so few casualties in such a large scale operation is a godsend. I, along with all Australians, thank God that no Australian troops were lost in East Timor and wish those injured all the best in their recovery.

Australian troops and police have not only shown professionalism in their attitude to military and policing duties but also outstanding humanitarian and personal commitment to the people of East Timor. That is no less reflected in our assistance now than it was at the height of the tension and violence that followed the intervention of the INTERFET force into East Timor.

The ties that link Australia and East Timor have always been strong but they will now be unbreakable. Over the years, the East Timorese have done much for Australians. This was particularly so in the Second World War, and many Australian troops owe their lives to the assistance that was so freely and courageously given by East Timorese men and women during those dark days.

Australians have responded to the crisis in East Timor with feeling and a great sense of empathy. It was extremely moving to see in Darwin the great effort that was made to look after the East Timorese evacuees. When I toured the tent city that had been constructed by the Northern Territory government, the Army and various other NT and Commonwealth departments and agencies, I was astounded at the efficiency and effectiveness of this temporary haven. The volunteers who worked so hard at the tent city were extremely generous with not only their time but also their spirit and good humour. Many Territorians donated food, clothing and many other items that the East Timorese desperately needed.

The generosity of the Australian people and their government has not stopped with the fantastic examples shown in Darwin. Australia has so far contributed a total of $74 million in foreign aid to the East Timor crisis to assist with humanitarian and reconstruction needs. This is the largest contribution Australia has ever made to an international humanitarian crisis. The most recent announcement of including $60 million in the aid package by the Minister for Foreign Affairs consists of: $34 million to ensure that longer term goals are achieved through reconstruction and development programs, and that an administration is established to oversee preparations for independence under UN authority; $23 million to meet the immediate needs of the East Timorese people in humanitarian areas such as repatriation and resettlement; and $3 million for refugees in West Timor.

What I have just described excludes the substantial ADF presence of some 5,500 troops and the costs associated with this sort of effort. These costs are estimated at approximately $1,000 million and have been sustained as part of Australia's contribution to INTERFET security and humanitarian operations in East Timor.

To say that Australia has not done and will not continue to do the right thing by the people of East Timor, particularly with regard to humanitarian and refugee assistance, is ludicrous. Yet this is what the opposition immigration spokesman, Con Sciacca, has claimed. Mr Sciacca's comments regarding the return of East Timorese evacuees are ill-timed and extremely mean-spirited. Once again the ALP has irresponsibly stirred up a media feeding frenzy with these inaccurate and ill-informed comments. The result has been coverage that has completely blown all the facts out of proportion and which is irresponsible.

The federal government is not sending East Timorese evacuees back to East Timor against their will. In fact, many evacuees are very keen to return to their homeland to be reunited with family and friends. I do not find this surprising. What I do find surprising are the claims that people are being forced to return. They are not being forced. Some 600 East Timorese have already returned to East Timor from Australia. The voluntary nature of the return of these people is being verified by the UNHCR.

The UNHCR has also given assurances to the East Timorese people in Australia and West Timor that the security situation has stabilised to such an extent that it is now safe to return. It is not the Australian government giving these assurances but the United Nations. The claims that the East Timorese are being enticed to return with a bag of rice and a tarp is yet another fiction created by Labor and some people with a determination to politicise what should be a bipartisan position. The UNHCR and several aid agencies will help those who return. Emergency shelters and assistance packages will be provided, and the East Timorese who are choosing to return are being informed of this fact by immigration department staff.

Comparisons have been made by those who should know better, such as Mr Sciacca, with the situation of the Kosovar refugees, who received $3,000 in assistance upon their return to their homeland. The situations are not comparable. Australia has played a major role in East Timor with extensive military assist ance and humanitarian aid, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Australia did not play a major role in the NATO operation in Kosovo; even though we played a `good neighbour role', it cannot be compared with our `good and near neighbour' policies towards East Timor.

What is Mr Sciacca advocating—that Australia give $3,000 to all 2,000 East Timorese returnees? The economic and social impacts of this in East Timor would be tremendous and largely negative. It surprises me that a committed socialist such as Mr Sciacca may even be thinking about such a measure which is clearly nonsense. The ALP's comparative plan to equate the two groups would only create pockets of `advantage' for a few, whereas the Australian government's response to the entire East Timorese population is far more equitable. Our initial response of aid and military assistance was generous by any comparison. Also, our ongoing support to the many refugees now caught in West Timor plus our future commitment to reconstruction and peacekeeping for an emerging nation is beyond question. The ALP is playing opportunistic politics in the extreme.

The Australian people, through their government, generously accepted the East Timorese in a time of crisis. This offer of a safe haven was a temporary measure and has always been meant as such. As the Prime Minister has said, it is in the long-term interests of the East Timorese to return, and I feel it is also in the long-term interests of East Timor for them to return.

Due to the courageous and timely intervention of Australia and many other nations, we are seeing the will of the East Timorese people being implemented. It is a long process that will not be easy, but it is a democratic process—and that is of vital importance. The Australian government, the Australian people and our defence forces can feel justifiably proud of the role they have played in the emergence of this new nation. We have provided the platform of stability and security necessary, following the deployment of Australian troops in INTERFET at the end of September, to enable the East Timorese people to find freedom.

It was interesting to note that Major-General Cosgrove indicated that it might be possible for troops to begin returning home by 15 January next year. As a senator for the Northern Territory, can I be very partisan and state that I hope it is the Territory ADF personnel who are allowed to return home to their loved ones early.

From a parochial point of view, let me comment on the advantages and challenges that have been met by the Darwin and Northern Territory communities because of our geographic proximity as Territorians to the Timorese. I have detected a great unity of spirit in the Northern Territory and a determination to be intimately involved for the long haul. It will involve many compromises to Northern Territory social priorities and activities in the next few years. Certainly, there will be some economic opportunities, but that will pale into insignificance alongside the great bonds of friendship and interdependence that will be produced.

Senate adjourned at 10.37 p.m.