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Wednesday, 13 June 1984
Page: 2900

Senator DURACK(11.31) —The Opposition is very pleased indeed that this measure is before the Parliament to enable the residents of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to be fully integrated into Australia and the Australian community. The question of integration has been a matter of very serious consideration for some considerable time. I do not propose to traverse the history of the matter. Suffice to say that there was a need for Australia to discharge its international obligations to enable the final determination on integration with Australia to be decided by the Cocos (Keeling) Islanders themselves. They determined quite decisively in April this year in favour of integration. I refer to the figures quoted by the Minister for Territories and Local Government (Mr Uren). All the 261 eligible voters in the referendum voted and only two informal votes were recorded. What an outstanding achievement. I do not think I have seen figures in any election in Australia that would equal that for seriousness of purpose by voters. They voted overwhelmingly in favour of integration. Two hundred and twenty-nine voted in favour of integration, 21 voted for free association and only nine voted for independence. It was really a most decisive and impressive election, one on which I think Australians should ponder with respect and consider how people should face up to the major decisions that are made so frequently at elections which perhaps are not treated with the same degree of determination that the Cocos (Keeling) Islanders gave to the matter on which they voted in April this year.

That matter is now out of the way. It has been a long-standing process. It has been a long-standing concern not only for the Cocos (Keeling) Islanders but also for Australia. As I have said, the decision to integrate with Australia is one of major importance not only for the Islanders but also for all Australians. I think we can express a great deal of satisfaction with the result, which is in our interests as well. The fact is that the Islanders clearly see integration with Australia as being in their interests. I look forward to a much closer association and integration of the Islanders with the Australian mainland.

There has already been a good deal of association by the Islanders with the mainland, particularly with my State of Western Australia. A very close association has formed. A number of Cocos Islanders are residing in Western Australia and there is obviously a good deal of interchange and association. As far as I am aware, communication with the Islands is almost entirely through Perth. As we all know, a number of Australians have resided on Cocos Island performing various Public Service functions and that will continue. There is no doubt that as time goes on there will be further developments of that association.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands Self-Determination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 1984 gives effect to the Cocos Islanders having full integration with the Australian community. It also amends health laws, social security laws, the Commonwealth Grants Commission Act, the Health Act and so on. Of course, the Bill deals with the perhaps all-important question about the rights of Cocos Islanders to vote in Australian elections. Clearly that is what they must have the right to do. There is absolutely no question about that at all. As they are now part of Australia they must be given the right to vote in Australia. I think a more difficult question is how that should be achieved and it is one to which the Senate should give some further consideration. It is also bound up with long term questions of other Territories being integrated with Australia and having the right to vote in Australian elections. At the moment there is a great deal of talk about the future of Christmas Island. The Government seems to be moving ahead very quickly with the integration of Christmas Island. I am disappointed that no clear statement has been made as to what will be done about Christmas Island. At this stage there are difficulties but I think they are part and parcel of the same question. A policy decision will have to be made in the long term about Norfolk Island.

This legislation provides that in Australian elections the Cocos (Keeling) Islands will become a division of the electorate of the Northern Territory. That is a surprising and disappointing decision by the Government. The Opposition has already taken steps in another place to amend the legislation in that regard. I have given notice that I shall do the same on behalf of the Opposition in the Senate during the Committee stage.

However, the Opposition believes that the right way of determining this matter is by properly and fully ascertaining the wishes of the Cocos Islanders themselves. The matter has been raised with them. I do not know whether the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt), who is at the table and is in charge of the Bill, has any further information to give us about this question. When the Opposition was in government the then Minister responsible for the Territories, Mr McVeigh, discussed with the Islanders which electorate they would prefer to be a part of. They were asked which part of Australia they felt was the right one for them and their interests. Mr McVeigh in fact discussed with them the possibility of their being part of the Australian Capital Territory electoral division of Fraser. Certainly, the Islanders themselves wished to be consulted and wished to express their own choice in relation to this question. Unfortunately, because of constitutional problems, there is some limit on the choice that they can make. We recognise that. Because of the close association which the Islanders have with Western Australia they may well choose , as their first choice, to be a part of a Western Australian electorate. It seems fairly clear that they cannot be part of a State electorate. I do not propose to go into the reasons for that. Under the provisions of the Constitution regarding the representation of States in the Federal Parliament, there seem to be very strong legal reasons why the Islanders cannot be part of a State electorate. The State boundaries would have to be extended to include the Cocos (Keeling) Islands or any other territory to allow it to belong to a State electorate.

There is another difficulty in incorporating the Islanders into the Northern Territory as this Bill proposes. As we all know, the Northern Territory is moving rapidly towards Statehood. We do not know when it will become a State, but we are pretty certain now that it will become a State and probably in the not too distant future. If the Cocos Islanders are to be part of the Northern Territory electorate for the purpose of voting, once the Northern Territory becomes a State there will be a real doubt as to whether the Islanders can continue to be part of the Northern Territory for the purpose of voting. It is quite unbelievable that the Government should be rushing ahead in the way it is and incorporating the Islanders as part of the electorate of the Northern Territory. As I have pointed out, the Islanders have very little connection with the Northern Territory. Their main connection is with Western Australia or the Australian Capital Territory. I say the Australian Capital Territory because a great deal of their interests must reside with what happens at the seat of government, the Federal government. It is very strange that the Government is seeking to join the Islanders with the Northern Territory. Apart from the constitutional restraints which may exist, the overwhelming question is: What do the Islanders themselves want? As I say, the matter has been discussed with them . They have indicated that they want to be consulted about it. Therefore, at the end of the second reading stage I propose to move:

'but the Senate is of the opinion that a State Supreme Court Judge should be commissioned to ascertain the wishes of the Australian citizens in the Cocos ( Keeling) Islands as to which electoral division of Australia they should be included in for the purposes of participating in elections for the Commonwealth Parliament and referenda under the Commonwealth Constitution'.

There is only one other matter that I want to mention. It has been a very difficult subject to make any public statements about because of the United Nations vote that was imminent for some time, but which is now out of the way. It is the situation of Mr John Clunies-Ross and his family. I do not propose to traverse the relationships between Mr Clunies-Ross and successive Federal governments; suffice to say that several years ago steps were taken to acquire almost all of his land on Home Island, leaving him with only his home and a curtilage. I do not know how much it is exactly but it is a very small area around the home. As he has pointed out, that is his home: that is what his family regards as home and they have so regarded it for some generations. However, steps were taken last year by the present Government to acquire that property. Mr Clunies-Ross will not sell it voluntarily, for very good reasons, and the Government has taken steps to acquire it and those steps are being challenged in the High Court of Australia. I do not want to say anything about the arguments in the High Court; that will be for the Court to decide. But I must say that I am very disturbed indeed by the actions the Government has taken . I do not accept its justification and I did not even at the time. But if there was some justification for the attitude the Government adopted when the Islanders were considering what their future would be, now that they have decided it, there is absolutely no justification that I can see for continuing with this attempt to acquire Mr Clunies-Ross's home and, in effect, to expel him and his family from the islands.

All that debate has now passed. We are now looking to a future close and happy relationship between the Islanders and Australia. Mr Clunies-Ross and his family must be included in that process. Moving him out of his home and taking his home from him is, I believe, a most alarming, dangerous and unjustified course of action. I was even more alarmed by what I read of argument by counsel for the Commonwealth, the former Solicitor-General, in the High Court yesterday when he was no doubt arguing his brief. I am not reflecting on Sir Maurice Byers, as he was doing his job, but for a counsel for the Commonwealth Government to be emphasising the fact that the Commonwealth Government has the power actually to expel Mr Clunies-Ross and his family from the islands, not just take their home from them, I think is anathema to anyone on this side of the chamber. That has been his and his family's home for generations. I think to talk about exercising those sorts of powers is totally contrary to all of our concepts not only of rights of private property but also of rights of home ownership and freedom of association. In fact, I do not know-

Senator Georges —Mr Deputy President, I take a point of order. I am astonished at the remarks that Senator Durack is making. This is a matter before the High Court of Australia. I think the honourable senator is intruding into that area. No matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter may be, I think it would be unwise for him to continue in that vein.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hamer) —The honourable senator is raising the question of whether this matter is sub judice. I have to consider whether anything said here would prejudice the fair consideration of the case. So far Senator Durack has said nothing that would prejudice the case. I call Senator Durack.

Senator DURACK —Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I have been very careful. If Senator Georges had been in the chamber he might have heard me say that I do not propose to canvass the arguments. I am simply making a comment on argument that has been put forward by the counsel for the Commonwealth Government as to matters which are quite extrinsic to the case that the Commonwealth Government is presumably adopting, a policy of which we strongly disapprove.

Senator Georges —Let the Court decide.

Senator DURACK —The Court is not deciding that. It is deciding the interpretation of an ordinance. It is not deciding what the policy should be. That is the Government's decision. The Government is pursuing some sort of vendetta, as far as I can see, with all the powers at its disposal. We on this side of the chamber are saying that what the Government is doing is quite anathema to us. If in fact the High Court finds in favour of Mr Clunies-Ross in this litigation, and I make no comment one way or the other on what the Court should find, the Government should think very cautiously about trying to exercise any further powers by amending the ordinance because it can be assured that this side of the chamber will be very strongly opposed to that course of action. If the High Court upholds the Government's power to amend the ordinance there is no reason why it should exercise that power. I believe it would be deplorable if it did so.

As I have said, the Opposition welcomes very warmly this new association and integration with Australia by the Cocos Islanders. We welcome them as citizens of Australia. We are sure that they will make good citizens and that they will derive great satisfaction from their new status as part of Australia. We support this measure for those reasons. I move:

At end of motion, add 'but the Senate is of the opinion that a State Supreme Court Judge should be commissioned to ascertain the wishes of the Australian citizens in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands as to which electoral division of Australia they should be included in for the purposes of participating in elections for the Commonwealth Parliament and referenda under the Commonwealth Constitution'.