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Thursday, 5 May 1994
Page: 353

Senator SHORT (4.25 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate—

  (a)notes that the actions of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) during his recent visit to Vietnam have offended a wide range of Australians;

  (b)condemns the Prime Minister for deliberately refusing to recognise the efforts of the 50 000 Australian soldiers who fought in the Vietnam war until eventually, after 5 days, being shamed into doing so;

  (c)expresses its concern that the Prime Minister has:

    (i)capitulated to the Vietnamese Government over the issue of human rights by accepting the proposal for an emasculated human rights delegation which apparently is now to be insipidly called a `consultative delegation', and

    (ii)invited the Vietnamese Communist Party chief, Mr Do Muoi, to visit Australia, despite the fact that he is not a representative of the Vietnamese Government or nation; and

  (d)notes that Mr Do Muoi's visit will offend a great majority of the Australian community of Vietnamese origin, who fled to Australia to escape the very principles and practices of communism that Mr Do Muoi represents.

I welcome this opportunity to speak to the motion of which I gave notice earlier this week. It concerns the actions of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) during his recent visit to Vietnam. I want first to deal with his refusal—until he was shamed into it—to so much as acknowledge, whilst he was in Vietnam, the contribution made by the 50,000 service men and women who served in the Vietnam war, thousands of whom were wounded and more than 500 of whom made the supreme sacrifice and died in that war.

  Secondly, I want to deal with the Prime Minister's invitation to the Vietnamese Communist Party chief, Mr Do Muoi, to visit Australia. Thirdly, I want to raise the matter of the proposed visit to Vietnam of a human rights delegation from Australia, which appears to have been the subject of further discussion or negotiation between Mr Keating and the Vietnamese government during his recent visit.

  I do not raise these matters to reopen debate on Australia's participation in the Vietnam war. That participation initially received overwhelming support by the Australian people, as witnessed by the record majority won by the coalition government in the 1966 election where, virtually, the only electoral issue involved was Australia's role in the war. Subsequently, that overwhelming public support did erode and our involvement became a divisive issue. I will not reopen that.

  The one indisputable fact is that 50,000 Australian service men and women participated honourably and gallantly in that war. They won more than 1,000 awards for gallantry, including four Victoria Crosses. More than 2,000 were wounded in action and more than 500, as I said, paid the supreme sacrifice. It is incomprehensible to me and to millions of Australians that the Prime Minister should deliberately choose, while he was in Vietnam, to refuse even to acknowledge the participation of gallant Australians.

  It is not only incomprehensible; it is deeply offensive, hurtful and weak, and it is cringe mentality at its most pitiful. Long after all else about Mr Keating's Vietnam visit is forgotten, the one thing that will be remembered is his cold, arrogant answer when asked early on whether Vietnam veterans could expect some act of recognition while he was in Vietnam. His response was, `I don't think they are expecting something and, frankly, why should they?'

  It is not only the 50,000 Australian Defence Force personnel and their families, relatives, friends and all fair-minded non-Vietnamese Australians who found the Prime Minister's attitude and actions offensive. So, too, did the 150,000 Australians of Vietnamese origin. These people, many of whom also fought in the war, fled to Australia because, despite their best efforts and those of their allies, the communist forces eventually won the war. So what was a harsh and repressive communist regime was installed in Vietnam, a regime which over its first 10 to 15 years in power—through to the late 1980s—devastated Vietnam's economy, produced abject poverty amongst its people and made Vietnam one of the five poorest nations on earth.

  I acknowledge that in more recent years, under the economic reforms known as Do Muoi, economic growth is taking place, but there is a long way to go with annual per capita incomes still around only $200. These people who have made such a significant contribution to Australia since their arrival and who have demonstrated, and continue to demonstrate, a fierce loyalty to Australia deserve very much better from Australia's Prime Minister. There can be no valid excuse for the Prime Minister's deliberately calculated offensive action. The reasons he advanced, until shamed into changing direction, did not stand up to serious examination. His excuse that there was no place in the whole of Vietnam where he could make an act of recognition was pitiful. There were scores of appropriate sites.

  His argument that recognition would have detracted from his main aim—which, he said, was to look forward rather than to dwell on the past—was, quite frankly, puerile. We cannot build for the future by ignoring the past. Mr Keating knows that full well—and so, I am certain, would his Vietnamese hosts.

  Mr Keating's invitation to the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Mr Do Muoi, also shows an extraordinary insensitivity to those Australians of Vietnamese origin. Mr Do Muoi is not a head of state; he is not a member of the Vietnamese government; he is not an official representative of his nation. Instead, he heads a political party whose actions have caused great hardship, great poverty, great repression, and gross violation of human rights to the people of Vietnam.

  Although Mr Do Muoi is said to be the most powerful figure in Vietnam, that in itself is no reason to extend to him an official invitation to visit Australia, presumably at taxpayers' expense. A leading member of the Vietnamese Australian community, in a letter to me at the conclusion of Mr Keating's visit to Vietnam, wrote:

Mr Keating's trip and his statement about Australian involvement in the Vietnam War and Australian responsibility to the poverty of Communist Vietnam as well as Mr Keating's invitation to Mr Do Muoi has deeply insulted the honour and dignity of free Australian Vietnamese people.

I know there are millions of Australians, not just those of Vietnamese origin, who agree fully with that statement.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I foreshadow that the Senate passed a resolution this morning requiring that business before it be interrupted for the purpose of allowing Senator Hill to respond to the government's white paper. It is not something over which I have a great deal of flexibility.

Senator Hill —I think he should be given leave to complete an excellent speech.

Senator Loosley —Mr Deputy President, on your advisory observation, I would like to have the opportunity to respond to Senator Short in due course.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The resolution this morning was that we adjourn the debate for as long as would allow Senator Hill to complete his remarks. We will then return to general business.

Senator Reid —There are other speakers, as well.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I am not debating who is speaking; I am telling Senator Loosley and the Senate what the procedures will be. It being 4.30 p.m., pursuant to the order agreed to earlier today, the Senate will now proceed to consideration of government business order of the day No. 7.