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Thursday, 10 March 1977

Mr Antony Whitlam (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - At the commencement of my remarks, I think it appropriate to repeat the wording of the matter of public importance which is being discussed:

The Government 's incompetent handling of the Lebanese refugee problem.

Like those who have preceded me in this debate and particularly the honourable member for Lang (Mr Stewart), I lay emphasis on the word incompetent'. No one on this side has attributed any ill will or other kind of motivation to the Government or any of its Ministers in the evolution of its policy on this question, although I believe that one could arguably say that the incompetence has been of such an order that such a motive must exist. I do not want to spend too much time on the remarks of the honourable member for St George (Mr Neil) except to say that I find it absolutely incredible that he should say, after hundreds of interviews with persons of Lebanese extraction in his electorate, that they are satisfied with the Government's handling of this question. All I can say is that he must be very easily misled.

There is no question that there is a tremendous amount of confusion in the Lebanese community about the Government's policies and particularly about the administration of those policies. The Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr MacKellar), in an expression worthy of his Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) 'the full global situation' of persons of quasi refugee status- that is about as dehumanising a phrase as I can think of- talked about the selectivity of the Australian Labor Party when it was in power. Not surprisingly, one of the war criminals in this House stood up and talked about the Vietnamese situation. If there has been any selectivity in caring for refugees around the world it has been by this Government in its approach towards people whose homes were devastated in the Friuli region of Italy or towards those who were the victims of the tragic events in Cyprus.

Mr Graham - Mr Deputy Speaker,I bring to your attention a reference to a war criminal in this House and I ask you to rule whether that is in order.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! I think it would be advisable if the honourable member for Grayndler withdrew the words. He did not name anyone although he mentioned an honourable member speaking in the House. In the circumstances, I think it would be advantageous if the honourable member withdrew the remark.

Mr Antony Whitlam (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Mr Deputy Speaker,in deference to you and with the usual respect I have for your rulings I withdraw the inference. However, honourable members can draw their own inference about and choose their own words to describe the behaviour of a person who was not a career officer or a conscript and who went off to fight in a disgraceful war.


Mr Antony Whitlam (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) -The honourable member is always interjecting in this House. His name is never down on the speakers' list. His interjections remind me every time of the disrespect that the Establishment has for this Parliament. It sends us all its idiot sons. No doubt he could not be found a place in the Army or the Church. They would not trust him to protect their millions in the commercial establishments which they control; so they sent him to the Parliament.

The Minister was very strong on statistics but, as he should concede and as I think perhaps he would concede, this question cannot be resolved by looking at statistics. It is a question of tremendous concern to persons in Australia. Again I was alarmed to realise that the honourable member for St George thinks that the situation of thousands of persons in Cyprus does not concern people in Australia. Of course it does, as he ought to know from his constituency representations. It is in that respect that the Minister ought to be concerned. The cosmetic part of his mie, that which relates to ethnic affairs, shows that he ought to be concerned about the real fears of people here. The Minister spoke about the levelling off in numbers of applications in Cyprus. Why would that not occur? Anybody who has had any dealings with the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and with the distressing situation of relatives in Australia knows that people who go to Cyprus stay there and month after month are told to report back again and again to the High Commissioner there. So no one will be going to Cyprus. Of course they will stay in the Lebanon when they know that they cannot have these matters dealt with in Cyprus.

The Minister mentioned the deception that has been involved. To his credit, he conceded that in situations of great personal distress people occasionally tell fibs and white lies. The reason why this situation has arisen is not only that people have been desperate but that the Department has not been able to handle compassionately and to communicate with the Lebanese community in Australia. The letter which the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Innes) tabled points up one of the demands of the Lebanese community in Melbourne, that there ought to be additional interpreter staff within the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs available to assist sponsors in this country who are concerned about their relatives in the Lebanon or who have escaped from the Lebanon. All of us see instances of the examples which the honourable member for Lang gave us, of middle men, illegal profits and bribery. No honourable member here would not be suspicious of some of the people who have introduced constituents to him. This kind of profiteering goes on. One of the reasons for it is that people with language difficulties are unable to communicate effectively with the Department. Because of the Department's lack of resources they have to use middle men who in some instances behave quite unscrupulously. I believe that it was to that kind of situation that the honourable member for Lang was referring and that he certainly was not insisting that there had been corruption of members of the Australian Public Service.

Mr Stewart - That is right.

Mr Antony Whitlam (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am delighted that the continuous efforts of members of this House and particularly of the honourable member for Melbourne have borne fruit and that we shall now have a reopened embassy in the Lebanon, perhaps as early as May. This points out the extraordinarily casual attitude of the Government towards the situation. Everybody remembers the shortlived operation at the Netherlands Embassy in Damascus in Syria where facilities were made available for a short time for the processing of applications of Lebanese refugees. The fact is that this procedure was in force for such a short time that, by the time it had become well known and communicated throughout the Lebanese community, by the time the people had communicated with their relatives in the Lebanon and they had made arrangements to go to Syria, by the time they had gone or were en route, the facility was closed down. Some months later the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Peacock) blithely announced that Australia proposed to establish an embassy in Syria. Of course, that facility or some similar kind of facility in another friendly nation's embassy should have been made available throughout the whole of last year in Syria, the most accessible country to the Lebanon.

The Minister's relaxed arrangements which he announced in September called for the establishment of a task force to administer them in Nicosia. At that time he made it quite clear that those arrangements would operate only until the end of the year. I suppose that could be fairly done on the basis that he did not know for how long the troubles in the Lebanon would continue, nor how long it would be before an Australian Embassy was re-established there. But he knows now that it is not likely to be until at least May that facilities will exist m the Lebanon, yet he has not extended that deadline for the lodging of ap- plications under the relaxed rules in Nicosia. He as extended it merely to the end of February. Again we are faced with the same situation that by the time these relaxed policies have been communicated throughout the Lebanese community and persons' relatives have been able to act on them and to get to Cyprus, they are arriving just as these rules are being changed. The administration of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in Canberra and its regional offices, at least to my knowledge in Sydney, has been much less than adequate. Persons have been advised by letters dated March that they ought to have their relatives proceed to Nicosia and to lodge their applications before the end of February which, of course, is a nonsense.

The arrangements have not been good enough; they have been incompetently administered. The question of relaxation of rules and all that kind of thing can only be effective so long as the administration and the back-up is up to scratch and clearly that has not been the case here. The Minister ought to have known about it. One of the reasons that he gave when he established the task force in Nicosia was that communication between Australia and Nicosia was so much superior to that available in any of the other adjacent Mediterranean countries. That is not a bad reason. I know that my relatively less well-off constituents have no difficulty in telephoning Nicosia daily to hear reports of their relatives' applications but the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in Australia is forever losing files and unable to be brought up to date. Not only does the Department have access to the telephone system but also it has telex and other sophisticated means of communication. Nicosia proved to be a good enough place for communication for the persons who were worried about the situation of their relatives but the Department has not performed well at all. From everything I have heard, the remarks of the honourable member for Melbourne about the task force in Cyprus are quite right. As he said, they are completely overburdened. They are being reduced in numbers and I regret to say that the Minister ought to be aware of the less than satisfactory performance of his Department here in Australia.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The honourable member's time has expired.

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