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Thursday, 11 November 1976
Page: 2639

Mr INNES (Melbourne) - I rise to indicate that the Opposition will not oppose the Christmas Island Agreement Bill. However, there is a number of matters upon which our views ought to be taken into account by the Government at the time that this issue is finalised by adoption of the Agreement. The purpose of this Bill is to ratify an undertaking made jointly by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand to amend the 1958 Christmas Island Agreement in such a way as to enable Asian residents of long standing on Christmas Island to resettle in Australia. The Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Street) stated in his second reading speech that it is a matter of simple justice that the Commonwealth Government has obligations to those who have given long and valuable service in the working of the phosphate deposits of the Island. Apart from one misgiving which I will outline later, the Opposition completely supports these sentiments. It agrees with the Government that justice demands no other response.

The major regret of honourable members on this side of the House is that the Minister could not resist the temptation to mar the bipartnership of the occasion with a little sly politicking. He accused the Labor Government of going back on its promise to introduce the resettlement scheme announced in April 1973 by Mr Morrison, the then Minister for External Territories. The Minister knows that this is a totally baseless charge. He knows that the regrettable time lapse in the implementation of this scheme was not the fault of the Labor Government. He knows that the scheme could not be implemented unilaterally because it had to be negotiated between the Government of Australia and the Government of New Zealand. He knows that negotiation of this agreement was plagued by political difficulties. Australia faced double dissolutions in 1974 and 1975. The second double dissolution occurred in politically troubled times when the country's legitimate Government was summarily thrown from office. Of course, today is the anniversary of that occasion of which we should never be proud. In New Zealand, an election was held in 1 975. So it was difficult for the 2 Governments to arrange a mutually convenient time. Throughout much of this period, one or other of the Governments was either at the polls or soon to go to the polls. I was elected to this Parliament 3 times in 3 years. It seems to me that that is a waste of much time and energy.

Mr Street -Hear, hear!

Mr INNES - It seems to me that that is a waste of much time and energy. It holds up issues such as this. We will live to regret that occurrence. The Minister at the table says: 'Hear, hear'. If he can condone such actions and be party to them, he will live to regret them because he will bring upon himself the wrath of the Australian people either now or sometime in the future. Perhaps honourable members opposite might begin to see from this problem the sort of effect that the carelessly wrought mischief in those years had on the conduct of government. Their actions were irresponsible in the extreme. I hope that I never have to witness the like of them again. In any case, despite the existence of overwhelming political distractions during this period, the Whitlam Government managed to open negotiations with its New Zealand counterpart. Some honourable members opposite who are trying to interject would never understand this. If they can spare a little time afterwards, I will explain it to them in some convenient spot.

Mr Baillieu -Where-in the bar?

Mr INNES - No, I never go to the place. As I say, the Whitlam Government managed to open the negotiations with its New Zealand counterpart. Under the circumstances, rather remarkable progress was made. In fact, officers of the Department of the Special Minister of State were on the verge of reaching important agreements when the Whitlam Government was overthrown. This being the case, one only wonders why it has taken so long for the 2 new Governments to complete the task and get the agreement signed. Had government in Australia not changed hands, it is a safe bet that the resettlement scheme would have been under way months ago. But the procrastination of the Government is indicative of its methods. Once again, honourable members opposite, including the Minister at the table, must answer for the actions of the Minister for Administrative Services (Senator Withers) in another place. Honourable members opposite are the ones responsible for this delay. The Government's aspersions are without foundation. I am surprised and disappointed that the Minister at the table should have taken advantage of this occasion to make them. It was a churlish action and one unworthy of the Minister. However, it is not my wish to dwell on this fact. I have no doubt that the people of Christmas Island recognise the immense difficulties under which the Whitlam Government toiled and will not be fooled by the misleading utterances of the Minister or the lightweight champions of the back bench who prattle along and are unrecognised by their 'God' who sits at the table during question time.

As I said earlier, I have one misgiving about this legislation. I have said that the Opposition welcomes this Bill as providing simple justice for the Asian community on Christmas Island. This community, as honourable members well know or some of them know- some of the back benchers on the Government side would not know but they may learn about it if they listen intently- has been subjected to some quite shameful discriminatory practices in the past. The most well known- perhaps I should say notorious- was the existence of differential rates of pay by which the Asian workers were paid about one-fifth of the wage of their European counterparts. My support for this Bill and the principle of justice which it enbodies is based on the understanding that this is what those concerned want. It is assumed that most Christmas Islanders wish to resettle in Australia. There are no indigenous Christmas Islanders. Christmas Island's economic lifespan is limited. For those reasons, they have taken that position.

The Minister told us in his second reading speech that, given existing technology and current rates of extraction, the phosphate is good for another 20 years. Therefore, the Island will provide a limited living for those people. However, it is an important period of their life and it is important to see what flows from here on in. There is still a responsibility for the implementation of the agrement. What exists now in respect of industrial legislation is part of our responsibility. I put it to the Minister that that is one serious consideration we ought to be taking into account.

On 20 October, Senator Georges, in another place, cast some doubts on these assumptions. His experience of Christmas Island was of a well established community which in no sense saw itself as impermanent. If this is the case, 3 questions require answers. Firstly, has the Government taken steps to establish whether the Christmas Islanders wish to maintain their community after phosphate extraction has finished? That is a good question. If so, has it undertaken to find out what other economic measures, if any, might be set in train to provide Christmas Island with a viable economy beyond the lifespan of the existing phosphate extraction?

Mr Baillieu

Mr INNES - The honourable member would know all about it! The honourable member would not be consulted even upon the time of the day, let alone upon matters such as this. Secondly, -

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!Bearing in mind the title of this Bill- the Christmas Island Agreement Bill- I do not think that this would be an appropriate debate for me to take action against any members -

Mr INNES - For interjecting?

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