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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2456

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (3.15 p.m.) —I rise on this matter because I think it is one of national importance. I am disappointed that the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus) seems to think he can engage in some sort of schoolboy debating contest. He fails to understand—

Senator Bolkus —Lift your game. Why don't you do your homework?

Senator HILL —I thought Senator Bolkus objected to interjections from this side.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Bolkus, I asked Senator Short to cease interjecting. I ask you to do the same.

Senator HILL —The fact that the minister is walking out typifies his attitude to the parliament and to these matters of major national significance. There are two areas of grave concern. Firstly, there is the matter of immigration policy and the administration of that by this minister and his predecessors. Out of a series of questions concerning immigrants from Afghanistan and Lebanon in the last few days, there must be grave doubts about whether the Australian public is being properly protected within that process. At the very least, any objective assessment of the information that has been put before this chamber could not but lead one to the conclusion that it would be justified in having grave concerns over the way those matters are being administered. That is one aspect.

  Secondly, if the minister says, `We recognise that there may well be a problem here, and we are seeking to rectify it'—or whatever he might say—perhaps that is a reasonable response. As I recall, his department did make some acknowledgments about the lack of effectiveness in relation to certain Afghan immigrants. But he does not come in here and approach the matter from that point of view at all. He comes in here and seeks to hedge and hide from the whole issue. The Australian people are entitled to know about issues such as whether immigrants have come in from Lebanon; the basis upon which they have come in; the effectiveness of the security checks to the background of apparent warrants being issued for an immigrant's arrest; and concern for the slaying of a politician and his family in Lebanon. The minister does not seem to think that the Australian people are entitled to know this. That is what we find astonishing—he is hedging and hiding behind his brief.

  Today, the minister is still saying that he does not know anything about the extradition of Mr Obeid. It has taken him until today to acknowledge that he knows about the request for extradition of one other person. Although he had a brief before him the other day, he did not say that there had been a warrant for the arrest of Obeid. Why did he not inform the Senate of that? Are the Australian people not entitled to know that? Why did he not say it even today when he had the briefing note before him? Why did he deny that he knew that ASIO had intervened in the matter? Why is he not prepared to tell the Australian people what they are entitled to know? The Australian people are entitled to know whether there is proper protection of their interests in relation to immigration policy and, if there have been errors in that administration, what the minister is doing to rectify those errors.

  Of course, the fault is further compounded by what is apparently the reckless uninterest of the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Gareth Evans) in this matter. Today, he got up and diverted the first question that was asked of him as to his knowledge of the matter to Senator Bolkus. Later in question time, he said that he thought it was referring to an Afghan matter that was raised yesterday. I do not think there was any Afghan matter raised yesterday. The matter that was raised yesterday was that concerning Antonios Obeid. The minister sought to divert it. When we specifically brought to his attention the fact that we had information that the Australian Ambassador to Lebanon had been called in to hear—

  Senator Gareth Evans interjecting

Senator HILL —That is right. He is uninterested in matters of this nature that the Australian people are entitled to know about. There is always a bigger issue for Senator Evans. Instead of facing up to that and telling the Senate and the Australian people frankly what is going on, Senator Evans said, `Yes, I vaguely remember that there were some matters, but I don't know the details. I'll come back to you in due course.' He was not even prepared to say today that he knew of the existence of the warrant for arrest and that he knew that the ambassador had been called in for that matter.

  Senator Evans either did not know, or he should have known. At the very least, after the questions that were asked in this place yesterday Senator Evans's department should have advised him of its involvement in the matter. It is a serious matter for the Australian people and Senator Evans has failed in his responsibility. We are astonished at the attitude of Senator Bolkus. We intend to press the matter further, get to the bottom of it, find out the true facts and find out exactly what this minister and this government are hiding.