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Senate Standing Commitee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

BRUCE WEBSTER: Graham Maguire chairs the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. They've recently begun an inquiry into the Implications for Australia of reform in the USSR. The first public hearing was held on Tuesday evening, with witnesses from the Russian Foreign Ministry. John Rogers talked to Senator Maguire the next morning.

JOHN ROGERS: Given that events are so fluid in Europe at the moment, isn't there a danger that the inquiry could be premature, that events could actually overtake it?

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: No, there isn't John. In fact what's happened is that the inquiry, I think, has been launched at the right time. It's just only starting now - first hearings in fact were last night. And so information is very up to date and we've had the advantage of seeing the reforms in Poland and Hungary as well in that time period that we've been considering the reference. On Friday week we're going to be hearing from experts in our own departments and from the universities, giving further evidence. And surely that information will be contemporary and totally up to date.

JOHN ROGERS: At the first hearing ....

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: We heard from two high profile figures in the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow - Dr Vladimir Lukin, who is also a professor. He's a deputy chief of the Department of Assessment and Policy Planning in the Russian foreign ministry. Also his colleague, Mr Azizjan who's a foreign ministry officer. And they briefed us on a wide range of questions last night.

JOHN ROGERS: What were they able to tell you?

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: Well they told us, for example, interestingly on the economic front, that their view was that the world only had one economy now, the world could only have one economy. And I think to paraphrase what they said, that it was utopian to try and have two economic systems in the world - certainly the word `utopian' was used by them - and that the whole world was now interdependent economically, something Australia's been learning over the last decade. And that it was very difficult to operate a separate economic system, and they had to realise the realities that they were now part of a global economic system.

JOHN ROGERS: How could Australia and the USSR work together? Was there any indication from the two Soviet officials of ways in which that could be done?

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: Yes, they certainly saw a role for us with them in trying to thrash out a solution to the Kampuchea question, which is a very complex question in Indochina. Role on disarmament - Australia has a good record overseas in disarmament matters, and we have had an ambassador for disarmament. We have been a very high profile in world capitals about disarmament. The Russians are aware of that. They certainly highlighted and referred to our recent conference on chemical weapons disarmament, so in those fields. But it's very wide-ranging. I mean, they even mentioned specifically working with us to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. So there are a number of questions we can work together on.

JOHN ROGERS: Did they give any indication of where Australia could fit into the scheme of things, as far as economic reform is concerned in the Eastern bloc?

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: Well, I thought there was some very strong hints given last night. I mean, one of the things that was interesting to me as an economist was that they referred to the similarities and the natural resources available to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is rather like us. We have a vast range of natural resources in the form of minerals and so forth; they do as well. They often have the same type of minerals. And they were, I thought, hinting very strongly that there was a role for Australian expertise in the management and marketing of commodities such as minerals in the Soviet Union, helping them develop their commodity industries, better using our marketing skills and our management skills.

JOHN ROGERS: The Soviet officials, were they able to cast any light on the way Perestroika is going, and particularly in the context of the difficulties with the ethnic communities?

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: I thought they gave us some real insights last night. I think other members of the committee are of the same view, that the Perestroika concept, which is the new thinking in Russia if you like, or restructuring, was linked explicitly by the experts last night from Moscow to the whole question of the nationalities, the ethnic groups and the ethnic unrest in the Soviet Union. And they made the point fairly strongly I thought that in fact it was a lack of real economic integration in the Soviet Union in the past that was actually feeding this particular question, that the regions of the Soviet Union in which the various ethnic groups lived had not been sharing in any economic development and economic integration that had been occurring in the Soviet Union, and that this in fact was a very strong foundation for the unrest that was occurring on ethnic questions.

JOHN ROGERS: Is that unrest likely to continue, did they say, because the economic problems are still very much present.

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: They didn't go into it, but I think that the gist of what was being put to us was that they'll be working very, very hard to even out the processes of economic development in the Soviet Union, so in an indirect way I think they're trying to reduce the tensions that way.

JOHN ROGERS: A Senate committee hearing is a two-way process. What were they able to get from you?

GRAHAM MAGUIRE: Well, I think that's a very good question. I think that the Soviets at the moment are very interested in diverse forms of opinion and how parliamentary processes work in the Western world. Certainly that's the impression they're trying to convey, I think. And I thought last night with our committee they were really trying to get an idea of how the committee interacts, how you have a bipartisan committee with, say, me as a Labor member as the chair, with the Liberal Party deputy chair - and that's the tradition in our Parliament, whoever's in government. I think they learned that a lot of information gets transacted in the Western countries in public, not behind closed doors, but that committees of parliaments, and therefore key parts of democratic systems, do operate best when all information is put on the table, when there is a very frank exchange of views and when there's a lot of give and take. So I think they probably went away with some more detailed idea, if you like, about how democracy works and how two political parties can work together in a particular parliament and come to a report that, generally speaking, most people sign.