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Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2729

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(11.24) —As will be obvious, the Government resists those amendments. The desire has been to give the Cocos ( Keeling) Islanders a vote in referendums as it equally is to give them a vote in Australian elections. I understand that there will be no dissent from that basic aspiration. The difficulty is determining where they are to be entitled or able to vote. The situation is, as was essentially explained by the Minister for Territories and Local Government (Mr Uren) in the House of Representatives in moving the amendments, simply that the Cocos (Keeling) Islands can be included in a division of a State-that is to say, in Western Australia or anywhere else- only if the islands are actually made part of that State. That is the view of all my predecessors of Attorneys-General, and that is my view.

For that to occur would require support from both the State Parliament in question and from the majority electors of that State at a referendum. For all practical purposes, that places an absurd set of obstacles, I would imagine, to either the achievement of State status for the Cocos Islands or, at the very least, for the speedy implementation of that status. Presumably it would not be proposed by Senator Hill or anyone else that there be a separate referendum within Western Australia or anywhere else on this issue alone. The suggestion, no doubt, would be that that should occur in conjunction with the next referendum whenever it is held or the next election whenever it is held. But, for that to occur, would deny the Cocos Islanders a vote in that election or referendum, as the case may be. One is caught in something of a vicious circle in this respect.

For all those reasons it has been the Government's view that the Cocos Islands should be incorporated in the Northern Territory. If the State incorporation option is excluded, the choice reduces, obviously, to either the Northern Territory or one of the two Canberra divisions. There is obviously a much greater coincidence of interest between the Cocos Islands and the Northern Territory than would be the case with either of the Australian Capital Territory electorates by virtue of geographical proximity if nothing else. Against that background the Government has taken the view, both in the context of this legislation and in the separate Bill, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Self- Determination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, that will be dealt with today that there is no practical alternative but to deal with the Islands in that way.

I also understand it to be the case that this issue was canvassed with the Cocos Islanders during the recent domestic plebiscite or referendum that occurred within that Territory. There was a clear understanding of this proposal and support for it. To that extent I am not sure that there is the necessity for the kind of further consultation that Senator Hill describes as now being necessary or desirable. I appreciate that the matter will be further debated in the later--

Senator Kilgariff —It is not our understanding, Minister, that there was any consultation.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am not well briefed on this matter. I am speaking from my recollection of briefing notes that I saw on the later legislation. There may be differences of opinion about it, but I am sure Senator Gietzelt will carry that argument later in the day. The main point on which I hang my hat is the sheer practical unavailability of any realistic alternatives to this course. I suggest that that alone is amply sufficient reason for the Senate to prefer the Government's clauses now before it.