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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 6991

Mr NUGENT —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Can the minister inform the House, following the minister's trip to Belgrade, what optimism does the government have for the release of CARE workers Pratt and Wallace? What further action will the government be taking in relation to this most serious matter?

Mr Kerr —They sold you the dump today, didn't they?

Mr SPEAKER —Member for Denison.

Mr Nugent —It's a serious question, and you should have more respect. You ought to be ashamed.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Aston. I will rule his question out of order if he does not exercise some more restraint. I call the Minister for Foreign Affairs and expect the House to extend him the courtesy this question deserves.

Mr DOWNER (Foreign Affairs) —Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I first thank the member for Aston for his question. I know that he and—to be fair—all members of this House have a very great concern for the fate of Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace. The honourable member asked what degree of optimism I had for their early release. I think all of us have gone through phases of being optimistic and pessimistic. During the course of the early part and middle part of last week it is true to say we had a fairly high degree of optimism of a relatively early release, only to find on Saturday that President Milosevic had reconsidered this case on Friday night and had decided for the time being to ensure that Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace were retained in prison. I think, nevertheless, it will not be too long before they are released, but it is very difficult to make any predictions about that.

I spent Friday evening and Saturday in Belgrade, and most of Saturday I spent with the foreign minister of Yugoslavia, Mr Jovanovic. I had been advised earlier in that week—on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; that part of the week—that President Milosevic was likely to see me, and I had hoped to see him on that day. I was disappointed when the foreign minister told me that he had spoken to President Milosevic the previous night, the Friday night, and that the President had decided not to see me and that there would not be a release—with, of course, the two things being related.

But the visit was, I think, very useful in ensuring that the Yugoslav government knew several things: firstly, that this issue goes to the very heart of Australia's bilateral relationship with Yugoslavia; secondly, that this is an issue of very real concern not just to Australia and Australians generally but to the international community. Indeed, last Monday I spoke with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. Following that discussion in which, inter alia, I raised with him the case of Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace, Mr Annan wrote to the Yugoslav government yet again urging the release of Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace.

Thirdly, let me say it was an opportunity for me to meet Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace. Members of the House may like to know, by the way, that I passed on to them the fact that this House had passed a resolution on the previous Thursday in support of their release—which I think they already knew, as a matter of fact, through the embassy. But they were in good health and showed themselves to be in good spirits, despite their circumstances. They seem to be well fed. They said the food was adequate. They both reside in a cell in the military court in Belgrade, which they said to me is about 25 square metres. There is one other person—the Yugoslav citizen from CARE Australia—in that cell with them.

Needless to say, the Australian government will continue to work tirelessly for the release of Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace, and I will certainly return to Belgrade if it is necessary to do so. We will certainly continue our work with the international community in order to maintain international pressure, because the Yugoslav government does recognise there is strong international pressure on them to release these two Australians. For the time being, the President has made the judgment that for domestic political reasons he does not want to proceed with the release. We want to make sure the release takes place and that the international community continues to focus on this issue.