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Thursday, 12 May 1994
Page: 781

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (4.48 p.m.) —I was not intending to participate in this debate, but I was provoked by the contribution made by the Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, last week. I must say that my colleague Senator Short moved a sensible and necessary motion after the embarrassing performance of our Prime Minister, Mr Keating, during his recent visit to Vietnam. The Prime Minister found it politically convenient to overlook the sacrifice of Australian service men and women.

  I was listening to Senator Evans's speech in my room last week and his attempted defence of the Prime Minister was appalling. In fact, I had to read the Hansard to check that in fact Senator Evans had said what I understood him to have said. I found it unbelievable to hear the foreign minister of this country indicate that we are giving aid to redress what he or his government regards as shame.

  To hear Senator Evans go on and say that we as Australians should accept at least some of the responsibility for the current state of poverty in Vietnam—and I acknowledge it is one of the poorest countries in the world—I also found unbelievable. He should recognise more than most that the real problem which has faced Vietnam—the lack of development and the suffering that has resulted from the lack of development—does not flow from the war; it flows from the system of government which was installed after the war. As we have seen all over the world, governments based on the communist model do not produce the wealth that is necessary to achieve reasonable standards of living for their people, let alone give them through the political system the freedoms that every man and woman internationally is entitled to.

  I would have been much happier if Senator Evans last week had recognised that to be a fact rather than attributed blame to his country, Australia—a country that he has a particular responsibility to represent in a leadership role in international fora. I have never heard before an Australian foreign minister say that we are giving aid to a country to help overcome its poverty because we feel a shame. I was embarrassed to hear that. I want to put it on the record that we on this side of the chamber were appalled that that might be the attitude of the Australian foreign minister and presumably also the attitude of his Prime Minister, because the minister seems always to respond to Mr Keating's sentiment.

  What it demonstrates is that Vietnam badly needs economic and political reform, and that is what Mr Keating could have been constructively urging during his recent visit. I acknowledge that there has been some economic reform, and there has been some small improvement in the standard of living of the Vietnamese people as a result of that. Now that the period of isolation has come to an end—and I must say to Senator Evans that Mr Keating even attributes that in part to us—hopefully there will be the opportunity for even greater economic development as international capital flows into Vietnam and it becomes more integrally involved in the international trading world. That, and the potential material wealth that flows from it, will benefit Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, and I am pleased that that is going to occur.

  We on this side of the chamber, however, hold the strong view that maximising economic benefit will not take just economic reform but political reform as well. Until people have the sorts of freedoms that are taken for granted in most places of the world these days, they will not maximise the economic opportunities, let alone their political opportunities.

  I want to make it clear that we on this side of the chamber support the building of new foundations with Vietnam, but we will still press Vietnam to comply with the minimum standards of human rights as set out in the international covenant. That is something that we do as citizens of the international community. There are minimum standards that the world community as a whole has accepted and it is our responsibility to press those who abuse those standards to comply. I regret that Mr Keating and Senator Evans seem to be somewhat shy these days in pursuing these matters when they are within our own region.

  I seek leave to table a copy of the most recent Amnesty International report on Vietnam that I have been able to get, and also the United States' state department's annual report on human rights as it relates to Vietnam. Also, I would like to table the latest material I have been able to get on the assessment by Asia Watch on human rights in Vietnam. I seek that leave because during the course of this debate it is important to put on the record some objective assessment of human rights breaches that are still occurring in Vietnam that we wish to see redressed.

  Leave granted.

Senator HILL —I remind you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that I have pressed the issue of human rights in Vietnam in this chamber before. I have tabled long lists of Vietnamese people who we have been advised were incarcerated or detained in some way or otherwise suffering at the whim of the Vietnamese government. I have particularly brought to the attention of the minister Buddhist monks who were being restrained and who have lost basic freedoms. I have urged the minister to utilise the resources of his department to press Australia's concerns on these issues. I must say that the response has been somewhat disappointing, and I think that is the sentiment that Senator Short was also expressing in relation to the minister's attitude to the human rights delegation that is now going to visit Vietnam.

Senator Bolkus —That is not true.

Senator HILL —What is not true?

Senator Bolkus —Some of those criticisms you are making of the minister.

Senator HILL —They are absolutely right. Senator Bolkus can go back and check the Hansard. For weeks and weeks we tried to get a response from the minister but he regarded other matters as more important at the time. If he disputes that, he can come in here and we can have a debate on the detail.

  It might be that Senator Evans feels shame in relation to Australia's commitment to what was seen at the time as an attempt to resist communist expansionism, but I remind him that that was not the assessment of the ASEAN states, the countries with which we are now very close, that were most concerned at the time as to where that expansionism was going to lead. Honourable senators will remember the leadership role that those countries played in urging resistance to that movement.

  It certainly was not the view of the Cambodians who suffered invasion at the hands of the Vietnamese. No doubt it was not the view of the families of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Cambodians who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge, trained under the Hanoi regime at the time. Nor was it the view of the thousands of Vietnamese who were forced to flee their country as a result of the conflict. Those Vietnamese, many thousands of whom now live in Australia and have become very good Australian citizens, certainly did not feel liberated by the victory of the North Vietnamese.

  I commend Senator Short for reminding Mr Keating and the foreign minister, Senator Evans, that Labor treated our returned service-men from that war appallingly. I also commend Senator Short for advising the Senate that we are not ashamed of what Australia, in good faith, sought to do in that war, and for urging Senator Evans to do more for those who are still suffering in Vietnam and, finally, understand and respect the sensitivities of Vietnamese Australians who were refugees from the regime.

  There are good reasons for this motion to be moved and carried today, and that should not in any way deflect from what I said is our desire to build upon new foundations a stronger and more productive relationship with Vietnam. But when the minister comes into this chamber and abuses Australia in the way that he did through what I regard as his shameful contribution, then it requires an answer from this side of the chamber.