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Tuesday, 16 November 1976

Mr THOMSON (Leichhardt) - I was delighted at the announcement made on 12 November that the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) will visit the Torres Strait later this month. He will be the first Prime Minister to visit the Torres Strait, the northern extremity of Australia. It is very important that the Prime Minister should meet the Torres Strait Islanders in their home territory, to see their way of life, to understand the relation between the islands and the sea and that way of life and to hear their strongly expressed views on their future. All of the islands of the Torres Strait are within my electorate of Leichhardt. I have a great respect and affection for this fine and energetic people. They were great warriors and fought to establish and keep their islands. Now they are fighting with words, not spears and clubs, but their fighting spirit and determination is evident in thenefforts to retain their unique way of life.

I have not previously spoken in the Parliament on this matter, but I have been working very hard behind the scenes to present the views of the islanders to the Prime Minister and all other Ministers concerned. This was the best way I could serve my constituents in the area. I decided to speak tonight because of a report in the Courier Mail of last Friday, 12 November. This suggested the possibility of a protected zone in the Torres Strait without a seabed demarcation line running through it as was originally planned. This is a compromise which I have been recommending strongly for some months, although I should point out that I was not the source from which this newspaper report came. Briefly my compromise proposal is as follows: Firstly, a protected zone should be agreed to include all the islands and seas of the Torres Strait and the area of the zone outside Australian territory and Australian territorial waters should be administered by some form of joint commission. Secondly, no seabed line should be drawn within the protected zone. Thirdly, all resources contained within the protected zone, outside Australian territory and the Australian territorial seas generated by that territory, should be shared equally between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Lastly, outside the eastern and western boundaries of the protected zone Papua New Guinea should be allotted the seabed north to the mainland median line and Australia the seabed south of that line.

This compromise overcomes the very stong objections put forward by the Torres Strait Islanders to any seabed line within the protected zone. They believe that such a line would divide their land, their seas and their people and would be a source of future friction and misunderstandings. I agree with them. Traditionally they have always shared the resources of the seas of the Torres Strait with the coastal Papuans and they are quite prepared to continue this sharing within a protected zone. They have their own agreements on the sharing of these resources which have been worked out over generations and are well known to all. If the real problem is the sharing of any other resources which may be found within the area an equal sharing of such resources between Australia and Papua New Guinea would seem to be a very sensible and practical compromise. An internationally recognised commission comprising representatives of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Queensland and the Islanders formed to administer the sharing of resources would overcome many of the difficulties or frictions which are likely to arise if the Torres Strait Islands and the seas around them are divided by a sea bed line or by any other sort of line

Several times both inside and outside this Parliament the Prime Minister has stated that it is the firm objective of the Government to arrive at a settlement which will protect the rights and interests of the Islanders and preserve their traditional way of life and livelihood. He has emphasised that the continued wellbeing of the Islanders is linked to the conclusion of a satisfactory settlement with Papua New Guinea over this issue. There is no doubt now that the Torres Strait Islanders will remain Australian citizens and that the Torres Strait Islands will remain Australian territory. It is now recognised that a protected zone should be an essential part of any settlement. The Prime Minister stated at the Liberal Party annual convention at Toowoomba on 3 October 1976:

The protective zone is a fundamental requirement. My Government believes that the first priority of all is to ensure that the Australian Islanders of the Torres Strait shall be able to live and sustain themselves in the Torres Strait as they have always done. This is an absolute requirement.

It was good to hear such strongly stated terms from the Prime Minister. It is my firm belief that the long term interests of the Torres Strait Islanders, Queensland and Australia will best be served by an agreement which includes a protected Zone.

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