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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 50


Senator MURRAY (3:49 PM) —by leave—The official Australian Parliamentary Delegation to the European Institutions and France was one of which I was privileged to be a member. The delegation visited the European Union countries of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. I want to commence my brief remarks by thanking the secretariat, who did an outstanding job of administering, coordinating and supervising the effectiveness of that visit. I want to particularly acknowledge the good humour and good graces of the President. I grew very close to my companions on that delegation, as you do on these visits, and learnt a lot about them. It generated a great deal of fraternal respect and affection. The visit was enormously beneficial to me.

I want to make my remarks in two distinct frames. The first is to reflect on the extremely beneficial impact on a senator who has in Australia's consideration of legislation issues to be cognisant of the importance of our relations with those giant economies and the societies that constitute Europe. I am not going to remark in any detail on the institutions we visited because they are covered in the report, but the variety and the place that is given in Europe to a diverse expression of institutions that address matters of democracy or justice or that represent the state is a reminder to us all that in diversity is often strength—in diversity is the ability of large and diverse societies to reflect and respond to extremely complex situations. Another aspect that impacts on a senator is the parliamentarians who meet and the environments in which they live and work, which induces understandings that we do not otherwise achieve.

What has the most impact of all is the recognition that Australia's place and reputation in Europe is a very large one. It is large by virtue of our peoples; it is large by virtue of our history and the things we have achieved as a nation; and it is large because of the tremendous regard that Europeans have for the sacrifices and efforts of Australians in the two world wars and in trying to assist in reconstructing the peace thereafter. Within my eight years I have not been on that many delegations, but I can say without doubt that this one had the most impact on me. It was the most useful for me and it really helped put in my mind where I and we sit with respect to the great role and great responsibilities that any parliamentarian does carry in the broader scheme of things.

The second frame I really wanted to draw attention to was something that struck me as being immensely important. It is that the Europeans, through their harsh and very difficult history, through the tremendous conflicts and bloodshed that marks their modern history—and by `modern' I do not just mean the last couple of hundred years; I guess I mean since the time of the barbarians—have gained an understanding that, unless parliamentarians talk to each other, unless you continue to negotiate, to discuss issues and to sit down on things that otherwise would seem to be intractable, you are faced with the ugly, awful alternative that conflict will be used as a means to resolve difficulties.

Consequently, to an efficiency minded and somewhat rationalist people, the range and variety of institutions that are dedicated just to parliamentarians meeting each other is quite astonishing to an Australian's eyes. The European parliamentarians cross-fertilise in ways that we do not even consider in Australia. We do not even meet as parliamentarians. I know that individual political parties might have interaction, but we do not even meet with our own state and territory parliaments in the intense, reflective and very interactive way that the European parliamentarians do. In this country we tend to leave the interaction as one between executives or between bureaucrats. In Europe the interaction is between the parliaments of Europe and the parliamentarians. That understanding of the distinction between the relationships that are vital to preserving unity and to preserving peace in Europe I think most of all rests on the proposition that the parliamentarians make an effort and put themselves out to attend many common forums where parliamentarians from other countries are present to discuss issues. That is why the countries of Europe can end up with a fairly uniform view on major issues such as human rights and environmental rights. In our little country we squabble and quarrel in ways that mean issues can never be resolved, because it is a contest between executives. In that huge continent, with those hundreds of millions of people, they are able to make huge advances because the parliamentarians talk to each other and sit down to work through those issues.

The other thing I want to briefly remark on was that I was struck by the regard that is had for the life and the work of parliamentarians. The attitude of the community, the media and the general public to parliamentarians is one of respect for the very considerable role they have. I was a little surprised—but on reflection, not—to discover that when the parliamentarians of some of those countries are coming out to Australia one of the major briefings they get is to expect an aggressive media that has no respect whatsoever for the role and duties of a parliamentarian. That is a reflection on our society. We have as capable and as qualified parliamentarians and media as they have, but the relationship and the sense of the importance of the democratic and representative function is quite different. In thinking briefly about what I would say in my remarks, my eye was drawn to a press release today from the Roy Morgan organisation, which has just conducted a poll. It says that newspaper journalists are regarded as having `high or very high standards of ethics and honesty' by 12 per cent of the public in this country, and federal members of parliament by 20 per cent. I am disturbed that we are only at 20 per cent, but I note that the European parliamentarians think much worse of our media than they do of us.

Question agreed to.