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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
05/04/2017
Strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Territories

BOWMAN, Mr Aaron, Chief Executive Officer, Shire of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

IKU, Mrs Seriwati, Project Manager, Cocos Islands Cooperative

MINKOM, Mr Mohammed Isa, President, Persatuan Islam Pulu Cocos, Cocos Islands Islamic Association

SEMAT NOOM (Nek Neng), Private capacity, through Balmut Pirus, interpreter

PIRUS, Mr Balmut, President, Shire of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

WHYTE, Ms Avril, Manager, Oceania House

YOUNG, Ms Jeanette (Ayesha), Shire Councillor, Shire of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Committee met at 16:31

CHAIR ( Mr Morton ): Welcome. I appreciate you coming before the committee today. It is a great honour to be here on Home Island today, particularly because of the celebrations tomorrow that both myself and committee members will participate in before self-determination day. I have a few formalities I need to run through at the start.

I declare open the fifth public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories for the inquiry into the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Territories. I thank participants for making time to speak to the committee. I welcome those who have come along to observe proceedings also.

Under the inquiry's terms of reference the committee has been asked to consider the changing regional security environment and security contingencies; defence capability in the territories and associated infrastructure development; the scope of maritime, air and other cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners; and impacts on local communities. We have already had two roundtable hearings in Canberra with government officials, subject experts and academics. Yesterday we held a hearing on Christmas Island. Today is an opportunity for residents of Cocos Islands to be heard at a roundtable with invited participants. The roundtable format is free-flowing. There may be particular points that are raised today where you would like to emphasise something that somebody else has said, and you are welcome to do so. You may disagree with something that has been said, and you are welcome to seek the call and to provide your view and your opinion on the issue before the committee. I will ask each of the participants to make a short three-minute opening statement.

I note that there is a very important rugby league game occurring this afternoon between Christmas Island and Cocos Islands in preparation for celebrations today and the grand final tomorrow for self-determination day. Once the committee has finished for the day many people here may like to go and observe that game.

There will be an opportunity for individuals here today to make a statement as well. Please provide your details to the secretariat at the side table, and we will be able to hear from members of the community as well as participants here for the roundtable discussion.

I do have to make a formal statement. Participants should be aware that filming and recording are permitted during the hearing, and today's proceedings are being recorded by Broadcasting. A Hansard transcript of today's discussion will be produced and published on the committee's website in the near future. Although the committee does not require you to speak under oath, you should understand that this forum is a formal proceeding of the Australian parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament.

My name is Ben Morton. I am the federal member for Tangney, and my electorate is based in Perth. I am the chairman of this committee. I invite Senator McCarthy to introduce herself.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you very much for having us all here. It is lovely to see you all. I am the senator for the Northern Territory, which includes Christmas and Cocos Islands. I did see many of you a month or so ago with Warren Snowdon, who is the member for Lingiari. It is lovely to be here with my colleagues on the committee.

Mr LEESER: I am the federal member for Berowra in Northern Sydney. This is my first term in the parliament. It is my first visit to Cocos Islands and my first visit to Home Island. It is terrific to be here. Thank you very much for your participation today. I am keen to learn about the issues that affect you in relation to the strategic position of these islands.

CHAIR: I now invite participants to introduce themselves. We might combine the introduction and the opening statement in one.

Mr Minkom : Thank you for the opportunity. I am the current president for the Persatuan Islam Pulu Cocos, which translates to the Cocos Islands Islamic Association.

CHAIR: Would you like to make a short opening statement?

Mr Minkom : I did not actually prepare for any statement.

CHAIR: That is fine. It is a roundtable format hearing. That is very good; it means that it will be very good free-flowing discussion.

Mr Pirus : I am the current shire president. This is my last year; I will be finishing this October. I am here just to represent the Shire of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. As Isa was saying, we do not have any statement to make. We are here to discuss any issues that need to be raised.

Mr Bowman : I am the chief executive officer of the Shire of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. I will start with my opening statement about West Island. I think, whatever is considered strategically for defence, the most important thing that we need to consider is how that will impact on the locals both here on Home Island and on West Island. Earlier this morning, we heard about issues with using up more accommodation and the impacts that would have. We talked about flights and how at the times we cannot get flights because they are booked out. So as for an increase in defence presence on Cocos, we would need to consider that. We talked about even issues like food and freight and the impacts there. Again, I can support consideration that needs be considered and needs can be considered at a local level.

CHAIR: One of the important things about what we are doing is that sometimes all that goes on in Canberra can be a long way from communities and nothing is more real than when you are sitting here on Home Island in the Cocos Islands. You are an enormous distance from Canberra. That is why it is very important as parliamentarians that we get out into the community and that we come and learn firsthand from you about the issues that concern you and learn what is very special about your community. We cannot do that unless we come and spend time with you. I think it is very valuable that we will be here both tonight and tomorrow as part of your celebrations. Mr Isa, can you perhaps explain to the committee what makes Home Island so special but also so different? That is just so we can get a good understanding of this community.

Mr Minkom : When you think of the Malay community, I think Home Island stands out a lot more in regards to its remoteness and through the generations. We are probably the descendants of one of the regional settlers on island. We have created our own identity throughout the years. It is quite unique when you think of our language and our background. There have been instances where we have had blood that has been traced back to Papua New Guinea and all around Micronesia. I think when you consider Home Island and the remoteness of where we are—we are a little speck in the ocean—we are so diverse and we are so uniquely Malay, in that sense. You would not find a similar Malay community anywhere—not even in places like Katanning or Geraldton, which does have a little Cocos Malays community. That is the uniqueness that has attracted a lot of tourists to the islands. The cultural background is of significance to us. You will see examples of that tomorrow—people showcasing our cultural background. What makes it important as well is that we are Australian. Not a lot of people realise that. We have our background and history, yet we still find ourselves as Aussies.

CHAIR: That is fantastic. Thank you. Our terms of reference relate specifically to defence issues and the strategic nature of these islands. I note that the Cocos Islands Cooperative Society's submission to the committee spoke about the relationship, from an employment perspective, of many of the people who live on Home Island in supporting defence with visiting ships, with the air force and in a whole range of areas. Could you perhaps expand a little bit on your understanding and your view in relation to the work and the relationship between the Malays and the Australian Defence Force in that environment? Are there any concerns in relation to any possibility of any future expanded defence roles that might take place on this island within your community?

Mr Minkom : To be honest, whether the project goes ahead or not, I ultimately think that it is not our decision. It is out of our hands. However, we would like to see, if it does expand, some of the locals get involved as well in some of the employment they have to offer. I can certainly see a Malay or someone local in those positions in some of the examples of what we see now that are currently being done by defence.

A defence base on the island does raise a bit of a concern. I remember Christmas Island back in the Serco days. I remember the communityship they had there before the Serco days, and yet it has changed so much now. It used to have people walking along the streets and waving to people. It was just a common thing to do. You would walk around the streets, you would see someone and you would just wave, but now that sense of communityship is not there anymore. That is one of the things. It is not desired for these communities. I certainly would like to see that sense of communityship continue. I am not saying that it is a bad thing to have a defence base here, but it is probably just one of the things that that would impact a lot on.

Mr LEESER: We heard today from the co-op that the Home Island community is very much a separate community from the rest of Cocos Islands. I want to ask you about that. Do you feel that this is a separate community or do you think it is all part of the one Cocos Islands community?

Mr Minkom : I do not think that is right, to be honest. When you say Cocos Islands, it is Home and West. I do not like the differentiation between Home Island and West Island. Yes, the majority of the people live on this island, but Cocos Islands is Cocos Islands.

Mr LEESER: This question may be better directed to Mr Pirus than you, but please feel free to answer, either of you. Some 87 per cent of people on Home Island voted to join Australia 30 years ago. I assume you were not old enough to vote at that time, Mr Isa. I am not even sure Mr Pirus would have been old enough to vote at that time. But I wonder if you can tell me about the decision around becoming part of Australia and whether, from the perspective of the Cocos Islands, you think the promise of being part of Australia has been fulfilled.

Mr Pirus : I just did a few readings here a couple of nights ago, from a book related to the elections on Self Determination Day and also a piece of paper that was given to me by one of those who went to the United Nations in the USA. I think this was back in 1984, when we did Self Determination Day. That was in the old days. We would not even remember it because we were so young. We were still at school. But I think the decision is made now—87 per cent of the residents or the community voted to be integrated with Australia. The decision was made. The vote is done.

As Cocos Islanders and Australians, we have to respect the laws and the people of Australia. As Isa was saying, whether we live on Home Island or West Island, we should all be part of Australia, as one. As shire president, I represent both communities—Home Island and West Island, not just Home Island. Whatever happens on Cocos Islands, whether it is on Home Island or West Island, is going to affect all the people here, all the residents.

I reckon most of West Island is people who are here on contracts, people who are here to do work. But a lot of people tend to stay longer on West Island now, whereas the people on Home Island are what we call the natives. They were here a long time before the rest of the West Islanders came along. But now we have new generations coming through. We have the old generation and a new generation. I reckon about 50 per cent of people on Home Island voted on Self Determination Day. I think they made the right choice, because I am happy being part of Australia. We have it pretty good here with education, health, Centrelink and anything people require here.

In addition to what is happening now, we have been through a lot of changes on Cocos Island, with laws like taxation laws, Centrelink, the police, shire laws and any laws that come through. Sometimes it does not go down well with the community, but if we are going to be part of Australia we just have to take it as we go.

As the shire president, I need to go back and find out whether this joint standing committee is here for a project that is going to happen on this island. I do not think a lot of the community understand your intention or what is going to happen on Cocos—whether you are going to come and build or introduce extra defence structures or people that are going to affect the community, on either Home or West Island. What sort of impact will there be, or what is going to happen in the future here? What is your intention?

CHAIR: Mr Pirus, the joint standing committee is looking at the strategic importance of these islands. It is important to note that the joint standing committee is not a decision-making body. We as parliamentarians are here to learn and to make recommendations. Part of the learning process is to come and learn from you in relation to your views and your attitudes. We are inquiring into the changing regional security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. We are looking at what the current defence capabilities are and what infrastructure is required, in our view, to support the current defence activities that are here. We are also looking at what defence capabilities could well be there in the future.

We have had inquiries with academics and subject matter experts in Canberra to learn from them what our recommendations ought to be in relation to infrastructure and defence capabilities on these islands. The important part of why we are here on the island today is to learn about your views, because the impact on local communities is very important to the Australian parliament. We are not here representing Defence. We do know that in the Defence white paper there was discussion of hardening and strengthening of the runway to be able to cope with larger aircraft, such as the Orions, for surveillance purposes. That is something that has come up time and time again in the evidence that we have collected. We will be making recommendations to government on what we have learnt and we will be able to provide the community with what those recommendations are. They will be recommendations that the government will then be required to respond to. We do not have the answers, and we are not the body that will be able to tell you what the Australian government's intentions are in relation to particular developments, but we are here as part of that process to make recommendations.

Mr LEESER: You are the most remote part of Australia in many respects; you are the western-most part of Australia. Given that that is the nature of our inquiries, I think a consideration for us is to ask: are you concerned about the security of these islands, given the international environment at the moment?

Mr Pirus : Yes. We have had a lot of good security for the last few months with the two ships that were rotating and looking after the islands, and we have the RAAF flying in and flying out. That is why we always welcome Defence, because they are the guys who are looking after the islands security-wise. As Isa was saying, sometimes, whether we want it or not, if it is good for the islands then we should go for what is good and better, especially with the airstrip on West Island. If we can make it better and more useful, more employment or more airlines could come here. A big airline for tourism purposes can create employment for the people. That is as long as we are still living in the same way as we are now, with no interruption to our lives. We respect the Australian government, but, at the same time, in the United Nations statement it says that they must also respect our tradition and religion here. As long as all of that goes along well, I do not think that there is any problem—as long as we have got employment and we have got good security from the Commonwealth of Australia that looks after us through Defence. If it is going to happen smoothly, I do not think that there is any negative feedback for the committee. I would welcome more of the community here to listen to this so that we can get good feedback for the committee. We support what is good for here and take it from there.

CHAIR: You are providing the information that we need to understand the views of your community as well.

Senator McCARTHY: Mr Pirus or Mr Minkom, either of you may wish to speak to this question; it is a common question that we are asking at each inquiry. If there were to be an Army reservist position or group here on the Cocos, would there be interest from local people to be involved with that in any way?

Mr Pirus : It depends on where you look at it from, which perspective. A lot of people are not employed and would welcome that sort of thing because they will join it and will enjoy the opportunity to be able to do something different, but I cannot talk on behalf of the whole community and the differences they have. If it is a good service that will help the future of this island, I would support that.

Mr Minkom : No doubt there will be certain individuals who would jump at the opportunity. That could be for the reserve. If it was 20 years ago and I had the opportunity, I would jump at it, but that is just me. It is one of those things. There will be influence no matter what the decision is, good or bad. There will be influence as to the community itself.

Senator McCARTHY: What do you mean by 'good and bad'? Is there anything in particular that you want us to be aware of?

Mr Minkom : In every decision, there are always advantages and disadvantages. I guess it is no different in this case. If it means better opportunities for the young generation, I can see some people going ahead with it. There are also those who would be concerned that it might be a little detrimental to the community itself. It is a hard thing to do. Community consultation throughout the process would alleviate some of the questions it might pose.

Mr LEESER: What sorts of issues might arise that might make people think it is detrimental in a way? We are trying to assess that to see whether this would be a good thing to recommend.

Mr Minkom : Like the example I gave before, Christmas Island, prior to Serco days, was just one of those communities where you felt safe. You would walk along the streets, you would see someone and give them a wave and say, 'How do you do?' and all of that. I went there not long ago for a three-day visit and it was quite visible that it was not that kind of community anymore.

Mr LEESER: The nature of an Army Reserve would not be bringing in outside people; it would be creating a reserve from the local people.

Mr Minkom : Like I said, some might think that would be an advantage and some might think that it is a bad idea. When you go through the community consultation, that is when you would get the majority of the community's consensus, I suppose. Speaking with my Cocos Islands Islamic Association hat, it is one of the things where it gets a little tricky for us as Muslims. As you know, we have certain dietary requirements and we pray five times a day, and that could be an issue. In saying that, I could be wrong. I know a couple of people in the Defence Force who are Muslim. You need to go through the consultation with the community.

CHAIR: So you think there may be some religious issues, some concerns or hesitations, which may be real or perceived, in relation to participating in a voluntary reserve unit, for example?

Mr Minkom : Not really. I am just saying that there are requirements as a Muslim, and to be in the Defence Force and to be part of its operations may limit some of the things you can or cannot do.

CHAIR: Perhaps what we are learning from you is that if we were to progress that idea further what we would need to do is provide some more information as part of that community consultation on how those things can be addressed for the community before the community comes to a conclusion on whether it is good or bad.

Mr Minkom : Most definitely.

CHAIR: That is very important. Thank you.

Mr Bowman : Cocos is unique. There is no other example you can compare us to—you cannot even compare us to Christmas Island. What we say in Canberra as a shire is that we are unique and we need unique solutions. I think part of that consideration is that the standard reserve unit would perhaps not be a good model to use here. It would have to be something that is different, for the uniqueness of Cocos. I do not know what that would be but, again, it would be making the situation to suit Cocos and what Cocos needs as well.

CHAIR: This is important evidence, because it will frame the kinds of recommendations that we will make. You are a community that is quite integrated and involved with the Defence community because of the work that many of your residents have through the cooperative in relation to Defence, and this could be a way of increasing that. But there are obviously things that we need to learn from you.

Senator McCARTHY: Mr Minkom, could I expand a little more on the cultural aspects here: what advice would you give the committee in terms of that community consultation? What would be the expectation of that information coming back—is it just to the shire council? Can you give us advice as to how that consultation, especially on a cultural level, should take place?

Mr Minkom : Sure—just talk to the community. Half the time, we do not know what is happening. Sometimes I flip through Facebook and find, for example, that an article has come out about Defence on Cocos—that comes as a surprise to me. It is the kind of thing that people would hear about in the community and would jump to a conclusion, and would think it is a bad thing. We read certain things that are not necessarily true or correct, or even accurate. Just talk to the community.

With the older generation here, you need to talk to them on a lot of things. I have been involved in a lot of fisheries studies. When we first started, it was like going into a brawl. But as we talked to them and got them to understand, they came around. This is no different: just talk to the community—talk to the younger generation and to the older generation.

Senator McCARTHY: We hear that a lot around Australia, even with first nation families and organisations on the mainland: talk to all the people. But governments have a real difficulty with that. Even in terms of layers of government—with local government they go through councils and they go through organisations. I hear what you are saying, but in terms of Home Island: when you say 'talk to the people', is it a case of having a public meeting outside that people can access or is it something in here? This really drills down to the kind of advice that this committee is looking for.

Mr Minkom : I do not think a lot of elders like confrontation. I personally think that it should be a meeting where they can speak freely. We have these seniors groups, youth groups and a shire council now. There is a number of groups we can touch base with to target specific groups. I think that if it is something this important then you have to make time for that consultation process and the contact.

Senator McCARTHY: We will probably put you on notice that you will be one of the people who we will be coming back to for that guidance, for sure!

CHAIR: We are now going to have statements from members of the community. I note that there are a number of observers here today. Now that you have heard the discussion and some of the things the committee is inquiring into, if you have something that you would like to add please come forward. This is an opportunity for the committee to hear from you. This is an informal committee hearing, so that opportunity is there. There might have been something you have heard today that you are concerned about, that you agree with or that you disagree with. I would like you to consider taking the opportunity to speak if any of you are interested in doing so. I can see that there is someone who wants to. You are more than welcome. Your coming forward might give leave to others who have something they would like to say to think about coming forward next. What lessons can we as a committee learn in relation to engaging this community further?

Nek Nang : I think that you have to talk to all the community first and agree or not agree, and dissect and take back to you.

Mr LEESER: I would like to get an understanding of your news sources on the island. Where do you get your news from? Obviously there is Australian news. But do you get Malaysian news as well? Do you get Al Jazeera? What sources are there? Is there a local news organisation? Let us say Australia went to war with another country. What sources of news would be telling you about what is happening if aircraft were launching from Cocos Island as part of that war?

Mr Minkom : I guess it depends on who you want to target. I know news can be quite selective to some—everything from social media to ABC to SBS. I rely on a number of sources. It is hard to pin down exactly what station you are listening to.

Mr LEESER: Do people on this island subscribe to Malaysian news? What is it that—

Mr Minkom : I know that there are those who are keeping current with a lot of Malaysian and Indonesian TV channels.

Mrs Iku : I would like to come to the table. I am a shire councillor.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for joining us. I saw you taking a lot of interest in the audience and I am very pleased that you have come forward to share your views as well. We were just talking about the media.

Mr LEESER: Where do people on this island get their news from?

Mrs Iku : From Facebook and from television.

Mr LEESER: Which television stations do you get here?

Mrs Iku : With the new NBN service, we stream all that on our TVs.

Mr LEESER: And Netflix?

Mrs Iku : Yes, and Netflix. Because my husband is Malaysian, and through networking and through friends, we keep up with news, mainly from Malaysia, and stuff that is happening there. We really subscribe to anything, but mainly just television.

CHAIR: I am very interested in this topic, actually, because this is an issue that we are facing all around Australia and around the world, about where people get their information and news from. I subscribe to the view that social media is making the world smaller, not bigger, because people can use social media to focus on the things that interest them to the exclusion of other more general news that they would otherwise be aware of. There has been a cyclone in Queensland. Have people been aware of that?

Mr Pirus : Channel 7.

CHAIR: You would watch Channel 7?

Mr Pirus : Always Channel 7.

CHAIR: If you heard now that there was a cyclone in Queensland and you wanted to go on to the internet and check, what news website would you go to to check?

Mrs Iku : The Australian.

Mr Pirus : Bureau—BOM, is it?

CHAIR: You would bypass the media entirely and go to the Bureau of Meteorology. There you go.

Mr LEESER: What about the visit of the Indonesian President to Australia? There was a recent visit; I think it was the Indonesian President who came to Australia, about two months ago. Would you—

Mr Pirus : GWN7.

Mr LEESER: GWN is Channel 7. You would not look at the Indonesian press about that visit too?

Mr Pirus : We have no access to that.

Mr LEESER: What about if it were the Malaysian Prime Minister visiting Australia? I will get to the question that I am trying to get at, which is that 20 or 25 years ago relations between Australia and Malaysia were a bit strained. I am asking: in a scenario like that, are you getting your news from Australia or are you getting it from Malaysia or are you getting it from both?

Mrs Iku : Both.

CHAIR: Wati, were there any issues that you were hearing about earlier that you wanted to address? Was there any particular thing where you thought our conversation was going in the right direction or the wrong direction, or anything that concerned you or anything you were very pleased about?

Mrs Iku : Yes, with the rebuilding of the runway. It is just that I am all for the employment opportunities available for the people here but, in saying that, with the rebuild of the runway and with the Defence Force being here more, it will not just be an Australian military presence here, will it? There will also be an international military presence here?

CHAIR: Yes.

Mrs Iku : You keep saying that, where we are strategically in the Indian Ocean, we are very well placed strategically, and there will be interest from others.

CHAIR: Good question, and I will let you know that in our submissions that we have received there have been suggestions—this is not a government position; this is what academics and defence analysts have said to us—that we should be using our facilities here and offering them to India, for example, in order to improve our relationship with India, and maybe also Indonesia and, I suppose, other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. How would you feel about that? Does that concern you? Does that worry you?

Mrs Iku : I am a bit concerned about that, with other people coming into the islands.

CHAIR: Okay. Would it concern you if it were just a refuelling exercise and then they left, or would you be—

Mrs Iku : But if they were to come here, set up base here, then that would be a concern.

CHAIR: The reason I am asking questions is that I am just trying to understand the level of concern and on what basis.

Senator McCARTHY: Do you want to explain just what that level of concern would be? Is it about cultural or security—

Mrs Iku : The security of the island. You all keep saying how unique we are—that we are culturally diverse and unique. If we keep bringing all the influences of the outside environment to the islands, I see that as a concern.

Senator McCARTHY: If it were just the Australian Defence Force increasing a presence here, how would you feel about that?

Mrs Iku : Cautious, but they are Australian—it is more Australian presence.

Senator McCARTHY: It is wonderful to have you at the table, so thank you for coming forward to speak. I asked a question before with Mr Minkom about the Army reservists. Would women be interested in being involved with any Defence presence in terms of local employment?

Mrs Iku : If it is employment they are after—they are always saying that there is a lack of employment on the island—some people would be interested. The women—the younger generation are not the type to just stay at home now. They would be interested.

Senator McCARTHY: I appreciate that, because we are conscious that we are learning as well about the culture here and on Home Island. So I think it is important that we hear directly from you, if there are any cultural issues or if there is something that we need to be aware of.

Mrs Iku : In countries like Malaysia, there are a lot of women involved in the army and the navy. Religious and cultural issues are not a concern if they want to be involved.

Senator McCARTHY: Except that where we are coming from is that this is your home and we want to hear from you directly. It gives us greater confidence if we hear that directly from you, so thank you for that.

CHAIR: At this point, I welcome to the table Ms Jeanette Young and Ms Avril Whyte. Could you state whether you are here in an individual capacity or representing an organisation.

Ms Young : I am representing myself, really, but I am a member of the shire council as well.

CHAIR: Would you like to use this opportunity, before I pass to Ms Whyte, to make a comment on anything you have heard so far?

Ms Young : I am a health professional, and I have worked on both Christmas and Cocos. I currently go backwards and forwards and do contracts on Christmas Island. I work at the hospital, and we get a lot of work provided by the Defence Force personnel. They become patients of ours. Some of them get quite sick and have to use quite a lot of resources of the health service. Also, I was here when that P-3 went down, which was a huge drain on the resources of the health service when they had that tragedy of a plane crash. There was also the incident of the paratrooper whose chute did not open. That was a huge drain on the health service. I suppose my concern would be the capacity for the health service to be responsive.

CHAIR: This is a very interesting point. Currently, do you feel that your health service is at a better level than it would otherwise have been because of the Defence Force, and do you think that, if there were further Defence Force investment, you could receive a better health service than otherwise? I am just trying to work it out.

Ms Young : No, I do not believe that the health service is in any way enhanced by having Defence here. I do not know about Cocos, but on Christmas Island I do not think the health service is enhanced to cope with the demands of the Defence Force.

Mr LEESER: What about, in the Christmas context, to cope with the demands of the detention centre, when the volume of people, as a result of the detention centre, increased there?

Ms Young : That was insane. That was really, really busy. In fact, right now, when I work there, we have people come in from the detention centre with three, four or five guards, and there are just two nurses on. We might have four Serco guards and somebody in shackles come in for an X-ray or be admitted overnight, and it makes you feel a little bit vulnerable because that is not really what we signed up for, I think.

Mr LEESER: I think what the chair was getting at—and I am interested in the same question—is: do you think that, if there were more military people here because of an increased military presence because of the alterations to the runway, there would be greater demands on the health service and perhaps an improved health service, in the way that there have been greater demands on the health service in Christmas Island?

Ms Young : If there were greater funding and more resources were invested in the health service, there probably would, but I have not seen that. No, I have not seen any evidence of it.

CHAIR: So your message to the committee would be that, if there were to be any increased Defence Force presence on the islands, that needs to be matched with a greater investment in the health services to support that and to support the community. Is that correct?

Ms Young : In cooperation with the healthcare providers on the ground. Do not come in and say, 'This is what you need.' Do it on reflection with the actual healthcare providers.

CHAIR: Are you aware of whether the Defence Force assisted in any way with the evacuation of a non-Defence Force member from the island for a medical reason or in any other medical circumstances?

Ms Young : Not recently. In the past, I worked here in 1980, and there were constantly American forces here, and there were constantly Australian aircraft coming and going here. That is what we actually depended on: for anyone that was really sick in the community, we whistled up an Air Force plane that might be around, and they used to come down and take them back to Perth with them.

CHAIR: Ms Whyte, I might get you to introduce yourself.

Ms Whyte : I am the manager at Oceania House, so I am involved in tourism. I have a few things that I want to bring up. Wati very succinctly covered one of them, which was that I was wondering if there was any idea of what number of people we would expect to be here on a permanent basis and how that would affect, firstly, the cultural influx. Secondly, with supplies on the island, we very regularly run out of staple foods, and we are waiting on the ship to come in. I have some very relevant photographs that I took where the supermarket shelves were just row upon row of empty shelves and freezers were just empty. So, if the ship gets delayed, we can be very short of vital stuff, and we only have that one ship every four to six weeks, and at times it does not arrive; for two months we might wait. That would be a concern. Maybe something like the military could help out by providing transport for some of the goods that we tend to lack, but that would need to addressed.

The second point I wanted to address was—I will go onto the third one because I have lost the second one, at the moment. If we were classified as being recognised internationally as a strategic military base and there were to be a fairly major conflict, how likely would it be that we would become a very prominent target? I know they dropped bombs in the Second World War that were supposed to hit the cable station on Direction Island and they mistakenly dropped them on Home Island. For us over on Home Island we might have been happy if they had been dropped on West Island but not so happy if they had misfired—that was tongue in cheek, of course; I am joking! I do have a wicked sense of humour so I do not really mean that.

CHAIR: We will have to get you down to the football game, shortly, to cheer on Cocos Island.

Ms Whyte : The other point I wanted to make was, pretty well, the only sort of money-making industry we have here, at the moment, is tourism. I had some guests staying with me and they were moving across to West Island after they had stayed with me. I saw them a few days later and said, 'How is it going on West Island?' I was expecting them to say, 'It's great! There's so much more happening over here.' But the comment was, 'I'd rather have been on Home Island for the whole time. I wish we had decided to stay there. The planes are coming and going at all hours of the day and night, revving up the engines for heaven knows how long before they actually start off,' and we all know that screeching sound as they take into the air. She said, 'Quite frankly, it was nothing like the tropical island paradise holiday that I had been expecting.'

I imagine if this increases and becomes publicly known around the place—'Don't go to Cocos, whatever you do, because you will just have these roaring planes; it's a military base'—how will that affect the income of those of us in the tourism industry? They are my concerns.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Whyte. You started off asking some questions and then outlined some concerns. The committee here is to collect from you what your concerns are, and you have done a very good job of outlining a number of them that we can take into consideration for our report.

Are there any other contributions people would like to make? Is there anyone, also, who would like to come forward and make a contribution from the audience? No? I am just checking, because I will close the meeting now unless there are final contributions anyone would like to make.

Mr Minkom : Maybe just one. There was something I read from the last minutes of the hearing. I think it was a comment made by Mr Clay that is not with me at the moment. In that hearing, Mr Clay stated:

These days I think they are a little bit more hard line than they perhaps were before.

That was referring to us as a Muslim community here. I took a little bit of offence to that comment. I do not think that is representative of how we are. I think some of the West Islanders who come over here quite often would agree that nothing has changed or has become more hardline, in that sense. Speaking from the Islamic association's point of view, I think you would appreciate the frustration that we have when something happens on the mainland and we get affected here as well. Sometimes, we are painted with the same brush. I would like to say that I do not think that is representative of Cocos itself.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Minkom, we appreciate your evidence.

Mr Bowman : To add to what Isa, Mr Minkom, just said, my family and I have learnt a lot about Muslims since we came to Cocos. It has been a good learning opportunity for my children, my wife and I. For example, we went to Mohammed's birthday—unfortunately, one of my kids thought it was a little kid's birthday party, but we found out that it was a religious day—at the mosque, and there was the Australian flag flying proudly, with the Home Island flag. Isa is actually the person who created the Home Island flag, to put that on the record.

We hear about the bad stories on the mainland, and we hear stories about impacts when they go to the mainland and certain idiots may raise things. I could not feel safer here compared to anywhere else. I just wanted to reiterate what Mr Minkom said about that. I think a lot of people are surprised at how Australian Home Island is, especially in the way it incorporates the Muslim faith; and, when you see the Australian flag flying proudly, I think that is really important.

CHAIR: Absolutely. Thank you, Mr Bowman. Do the witnesses have any final comments?

Ms Young : We did have a big Navy boat here, and a whole lot of Navy personnel came. Being the mother of a submariner, I was used to the banter amongst the Defence Force personnel, but I noticed that there was a great deal of wariness of us—this was just in the supermarket. Because I was wearing my headscarf, there was a real reluctance to talk to me, until I broke the ice and said, 'My son was in the Navy,' et cetera. I felt people were very guarded.

CHAIR: Did you take that as them being disrespectful or culturally unaware about how to engage with you?

Ms Young : I took it as, 'You are Muslims; I am Defence.' That is the sort of feeling I got. It was like when I go through security clearance at the airport. If I am wearing my scarf, I get put through the whole lot. If I am not, I just walk through. It was that sort of impression that I got.

Senator McCARTHY: Can I just take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for being incredibly straightforward and very insightful for the committee. I have to say—if I may, through the chair—that I have been really looking forward to hearing your thoughts, because, as much as we may read through the transcripts, documents of academics and everyone else who has provided important evidence to this inquiry, ultimately it is about your home. It is about how you feel. And I really do commend you, Mr Minkom, for pointing out some very real concerns that all Australians need to be aware of—that we are a country that is filled with many nationalities. Certainly, the first nations people of this country are incredibly welcoming of all nationalities, so thank you for your honest advice. I look forward to deliberating with the committee as we go along in the coming weeks and months.

Mr Pirus : I think when it comes to the joint standing committee, only people who put submissions in can talk. It is sort of a very limited access. I think you guys open a good discussion forum, and I did not expect to talk today because we did not put in a submission. But the opportunity is there for us to do it and also for these guys that are here today. It is a good opportunity, and we would also like to thank you for inviting us and giving us the opportunity to give our views as a community.

Mr LEESER: You live in a very strategically important, very beautiful and very remote part of Australia, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity as a new member of parliament to come and hear some of the challenges of your islands. They may relate to issues that parliaments and governments are considering about the future of your islands, and it is really important for us to get a perspective. My electorate is a long way from here, probably the furthest from here of any of the three of us. But I have learnt a lot this afternoon and I have learnt a lot in the last few days too, so I would particularly like to thank you. I would like to acknowledge the chairman for his excellent work. I would also like to thank the secretariat for their work in arranging these meetings over the last few days.

CHAIR: Mr Leeser, Senator McCarthy and I were elected last year on July 2. We are new members of parliament and it is an enormous honour and privilege to be representatives of the Australian people in the Australian parliament. As I have said in the previous hearings, sometimes you see Canberra as something very remote. You see question time, which is the worst part of the parliamentary day, but the most valuable part of our job as parliamentarians is to come out and learn from communities. You are right in relation to the evidence we have received. We can only assess people's evidence based on their experience and profession, and we have a lot of work to do in putting together all the submissions we have received.

The last dot point in our terms of reference was about the impact on local communities. This session today has been enormously helpful for this committee to understand your local community. Our tour of your community this afternoon, our dinner in your community this evening and our spending time with you tomorrow on your celebration day will be extremely important to us. We hope to actually get out and talk to people in your community. But can you do me a favour? You might see any of us walking around tomorrow looking lonely and unsure how to interact or go up to somebody at the supermarket. You might see me acting like the daggy guy from Canberra who is going to interrupt someone on their day of celebration. If you see that, please introduce us to as many people as you can while we are here so we can learn from them.

Mr Minkom : We will dob you in to one of the jukong captains!

CHAIR: I have heard about that, and I might regret that! Before I do close, there has been a number of hearings, and Mr Leeser was very right to acknowledge the secretariat, and particularly Sara Edson, who is the inquiry secretary. She has put a lot of work into this inquiry. I would also like to place on the record my thanks to the committee secretary, Peggy Danaee. I also thank broadcasting and Peter from broadcasting for their support. I now ask a member of the committee to move the requisite motion in the business paper.

Mr LEESER: So moved.

CHAIR: There being no objection, it is so resolved. I declare this hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 17 : 39