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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10468

Mr HAWKER (11:59 AM) —In beginning this contribution I must say that I was absolutely appalled when listening to the last speaker, the member for Lyons. I have never heard such a woeful effort, at a time when one would have thought that the parliament was going to give real support to what we are trying to do. You could not even call that half-hearted. It was just equivocation. It was like so much of what the Labor Party has been saying in this debate: `Good on you for the troops, but we cannot really say that we are going to support the decision,' although it is in the national interest. That really is pathetic, and I will come back to it in a minute.

The important point to note is that, as the Prime Minister said to the parliament this week, there is no more serious decision than to commit Australian troops to a foreign country. What the Prime Minister has done is an example of real leadership, and something that Australians right around the country have really got behind. It seems that about the only people who cannot support—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12.01 p.m. to 12.13 p.m.

Mr HAWKER —As I was saying before the division, I was absolutely appalled by the presentation of the previous opposition speaker. I would just like to contrast the presentation of so many members of the Labor Party with the support given by the then opposition in 1991 when Prime Minister Hawke sent troops to the Gulf War. On that occasion it was quite clear that the opposition was right behind the decision of the government and gave wholehearted support to the government of the day. I would have thought that the Australian troops in East Timor will be mortified to see all the equivocation that is going on within the Labor Party at the moment.

I would like to congratulate Prime Minister Howard on the magnificent job he has done over what has been a very difficult period. I would like also to congratulate the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, and the Minister for Defence, John Moore, for the professional way they have handled a very difficult situation, and for the way they have shown very strong support for our troops.

It is important to note also that in my role as Chairman of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—and I note the deputy chairman, Mr Price, is in the chamber—I had the opportunity to meet with Major General Peter Cosgrove before he went over. I can assure all honourable members he is a very fine soldier and will do a very fine job in what is going to be a very difficult situation.

When talking about the soldiers, it is important to note the support that is there. For example, Lieutenant General John Sanderson, a former Chief of Army, said recently:

The Australian Army is well trained for the situation it will confront in East Timor. Good field skills and self-discipline have earned its soldiers a strong reputation for success in places such as Namibia, Cambodia and Somalia.

I believe that East Timor will certainly be added to that list. I would like to refer to a couple of points raised by the member for Lyons, because I really do not think he can get away with what he said. He made some reference to the Prime Minister demanding from President Habibie an immediate ballot. In fact, that was not the case at all. When the Prime Minister wrote to President Habibie late last year, he argued for a long period of autonomy for East Timor, leading up to an eventual vote on the region's future. I make that point very clearly, because it seems that the member for Lyons was either unaware of or chose to totally misrepresent what the Prime Minister did.

It was the decision of President Habibie of Indonesia to bring on a quick ballot which created all the various difficulties that we have since had to confront. But to the credit of the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Defence, they have confronted them in a very professional way, and in a way that does us all very proud.

It is also important to recognise that the government was not caught short. It was the government that took this decision, through the Prime Minister, to approach President Habibie last year. It was an initiative by this government. When you compare that with what the Labor Party did, you see that they sat on their hands and did nothing for all those years when they were in government. It is rank hypocrisy for them suddenly to be critical now.

Let us look at what followed from that. The Minister for Defence, months ago, as the member for Chifley would know, got the 3rd Brigade onto 28-day readiness. That decision has stood us in very good stead.

Mr Price —And we supported it.

Mr HAWKER —He should support some of the other things we are doing, too. Following that decision by the Minister for Defence, we have seen the work done by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in getting United Nations support for a multinational peacekeeping effort. It is very important to note that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in his work in the United Nations, got a decision in record time. Australia has worked extremely hard to do everything we can to try to alleviate what has been, as all members would acknowledge, a very difficult situation.

That is why I find it so difficult to accept the criticism by some of those opposite who seem to have completely overlooked the facts and have come in with this mealy-mouthed duplicity, almost, saying on the one hand, `Of course we'll support the troops,' while on the other hand saying, `But we're going to sit there and bag the government for doing this.' The hypocrisy just leaves me cold.

It is worth looking at the efforts of the Prime Minister. He did approach President Habibie. What did former Prime Minister Keating do? He was happy to go over there and have little pacts which have since been torn up. It was not a great achievement and certainly did nothing to help those in East Timor.

The efforts of the Leader of the Opposition have been disappointing. He chose to selectively quote some media commentators. We could quote the commentary by some highly respected journalists. I refer, for example, to Glenn Milne in the Australian on 20 September. With respect to the criticism about not talking to the United States, the article points out:

In fact, when Howard visited President Clinton in July they spent more than a third of their working lunch at the White House discussing East Timor.

That is not a matter of just bringing it up in passing. It was made a prime focus. Likewise, the article states that he pointed out to President Clinton that he had raised the same concerns with President Habibie at their Bali summit in May. It goes on to point out that that meeting went on for an extra hour, and that when Prime Minister Howard suggested to Habibie that he allow an international peace force under UN auspices into East Timor before the independence ballot, those present say that President Habibie went `ballistic'. So to say that we had not been trying to do something about it is not to look at the facts. Milne pointed out later in the article:

. . . for those who say Howard should have done more to put an international peace force in place ahead of the ballot, the question also remains: exactly what should he have done?

He goes on to point out:

He had put the proposition to the Indonesian President and been refused. And he'd briefed the US President. What point would there have been in proposing a pre-poll peace force to Clinton when Habibie had made it plain such a force would be regarded as invaders?

Of course, at the same time, had we taken that course of action, the ballot would not have gone ahead. That is an important point to note. Another important point to note in this article is that:

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was among those who backed Australia's balanced judgment to proceed with the ballot.

So, again, Kofi Annan from the United Nations made it very clear. If we look at another article that appeared on the same day in the Financial Review , Christopher Pearson pointed out:

Howard is the first prime minister in a quarter of a century to have confronted what are literally life and death decisions.

And take note of this next point:

Doing nothing would have meant that people died.

As he pointed out, the policy of the previous 25 years of doing nothing would have meant continued unchecked genocide. In other words, doing nothing would only have allowed what had already been going on—which people have been so concerned about for all these years—just to continue.

It is time to get this debate back into focus and to realise that what the government has done deserves the support of all Australians. And it is time that those on the other side put aside their silly prejudices, stopped trying to play cheap politics, and got right behind the work that the government is doing and supported our troops in the very difficult task ahead of them.