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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2074

Senator BOLKUS —I direct my question to the Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Has the Minister seen the allegations of the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia in the Australian newspaper of Friday, 24 April that the Australian Council of Churches is funding the Tamil Tigers, and the Press release of Senator Jessop of the same date, where he repeats the allegations and adds that the Australian Council of Churches is also funding the Communist Party in the Philippines and its military wing, the New People's Army? Does the Government have any evidence to support the guilt-by-association claims of Senator Jessop against that highly respected overseas aid organisation?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am able now to say that no evidence which has come to the attention of the Government justifies the allegations made by Senator Jessop both in the Press release to which Senator Bolkus referred and in the question which Senator Jessop asked me a couple of days ago. I now reply to him as well as to Senator Bolkus: The Australian Council of Churches is a highly reputable Australian non-governmental aid organisation, as we all know, which provides relief to thousands of victims of natural disasters, poverty and conflict. Churches affiliated with the ACC include the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church, Churches of Christ and the Salvation Army.

The Council of Churches advises that it has indeed supported church-based organisations in southern India which offer relief and rehabilitation services to Tamil people from Sri Lanka who have fled their country because of the situation there. The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, known as OFFER, and the People Education for Action and Liberation, known as PEAL, provide emergency relief for refugees, including shelter and loans for the setting up of a small business and/or continuing education. It might interest Senator Jessop to know that the Australian Council of Churches reports regularly to the Government on these activities.

I readily acknowledge as a general matter that it is inevitable that relief organisations and militants, including terrorists in pursuit of recruits, will on occasion find themselves in physical proximity as they pursue their very different objectives among the victims of violence in refugee camps in many parts of the world. But the needs of the hungry, the sick and the homeless cannot be held hostage to ethnic antagonisms, nor to the ideological climate prevailing, or which is believed to prevail, in the refugee camps. It would be quite unreasonable to expect non-government organisations to tailor their assistance to such considerations.

The Government's views on the use of violence to achieve political ends are very well known. We give no encouragement to terrorist groups and would naturally be deeply concerned at any evidence of such groups receiving assistance from Australia. I repeat, as I said at the outset, that no such evidence has been forthcoming regarding the Australian Council of Churches' activities in South Asia, the Philippines or anywhere else. Under these circumstances we can only condemn the allegations that have been made by Senator Jessop about not only the ACC but also Community Aid Abroad and, for that matter, the Catholic Church as well. It would be a tragedy if the vital work of these organisations, which rely on public confidence and support, were to be affected by these allegations, which I can describe only as being both irresponsible and malicious.