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Thursday, 5 May 1994
Page: 372

Senator LOOSLEY (6.04 p.m.) —I oppose Senator Short's motion on Vietnam for good and cogent reasons. The proposition which Senator Short has moved this afternoon, in my view, lacks merit; it lacks merit utterly. It is based on a series of false assumptions, firstly, about the visit of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) to Vietnam and, secondly, about the manner in which Australia ought to conduct its relations with Vietnam.

  The main problem the coalition has in looking at the circumstances of that relationship is that the view is coloured by a propensity on the part of the Liberal and National parties, when looking at matters concerning a prime ministerial visit, a prime ministerial initiative and a prime ministerial statement, to make a very virulent, personal criticism of the Prime Minister himself. That enters into just about all coalition contributions in respect of prime ministerial initiatives. We see that time and time again. That colours thinking and not for the better.

  The proposition is divisive. It aims to turn the clock back to 1966. I grew up in that kind of environment. My earliest political experience is of being in a moratorium march in September 1970 when a group of us left high school early to protest Australian involvement in the Vietnam war. That involvement was wrong in moral terms, political terms and in terms of our relationship with the region. I am proud that I was there. I saw what Sir Robert Askin's police did that day. I saw what Sir Robert Askin's police did to a whole lot of young people in a peaceful demonstration in George Street. As you would recall, Mr Acting President, the day after the September moratorium was the Georges River by-election. The Georges River by-election was supposed to be one of those classic law and order by-elections.

  The coalition government in New South Wales is about division.  There is no justice inherent in this proposition that Senator Short has moved this afternoon in the chamber. The clock can be turned back, according to the coalition, because that is how those opposite used to win general elections in the 1960s. Who knows? Nothing else has worked in the 1980s. Maybe turning back the clock will succeed. It has been moved for the crudest electoral objectives, the crudest possible electoral aims. The crudest possible electoral consequences are what are in mind with this motion. There is no merit in the proposition whatsoever. The prime ministerial visit to Vietnam was an enormous success by any criteria that anyone cares to devise or employ. To say that the Prime Minister did not acknowledge Australia's Vietnam veteran community is simply untrue. We have only to read the speech given at Kanchanaburi in Thailand to know that there is a lie inherent in the proposition.

  Let us look at the coalition's record on Vietnam. I am stunned that any coalition speaker would ever rise in this chamber to talk about Vietnamese policy, given its record, given the shameful record of Australian involvement in the Vietnamese war, where a weekend government supposedly invited the presence of Australian troops into its country. No memorandum or telegram has ever been discovered. A weekend Saigon government supposedly asked Australia to contribute troops to the conflict. It is true that over 500 young Australian men died in that conflict. And for what purpose? The Vietnamese policy of the coalition was forever manipulated and exploited for domestic political concerns.

  I grew up in an environment where, election after election, we saw in the Liberal's propaganda the red arrows on the maps coming down the Malay peninsula, originating in China, originating in Indonesia, all directed at Australia—this absolute xenophobia of the coalition of the day. It is now absolutely a matter of Australian history, of electoral history, of the manner in which the coalition endeavoured—

Senator McGauran —What did you do when they came home? You spat on them.

Senator LOOSLEY —I do not need any lectures from Senator McGauran about patriotism and sacrifice, and contribution and commitment to this country. Three generations of my family have been in uniform when they have been called upon. It has been the job of Labor governments either to mobilise opinion when the country has been under threat or to make the peace—and inevitably we pick up the pieces after those opposite botch the job. Do they want to talk about Menzies in 1940? Do they want to talk about what we had to do in 1972 when we came to government after such a shameful record in Vietnam? This motion seeks to turn the clock back to that time—the time of 1966. People were in gaol for their beliefs, people were forever being picked up in demonstrations, and peaceful demonstrations, with coalition governments at state and federal level.

  Let us look at what the coalition did for the Vietnam veterans when they returned home. Where was the march organised by the coalition government? Where was the memorial organised by the coalition government? Those initiatives were taken by a Labor government.

  There is a fundamental contradiction in Senator Short's proposition. He says, `By all means, let's have a relationship with Vietnam; by all means let's have a relationship that looks forward with Vietnam.' Sure, that looks forward from 1965 to 1966! If we accept Senator Short's proposition, that is effectively what we will be doing.

  The current Prime Minister understands that the sentiment of Australia's Vietnamese community ought to be respected and honoured. What we see opposite is an absolute determination to see that sentiment exploited and manipulated time and time again. We can just see this proposition being sent around to a number of Australian-Vietnamese community groups, again with the coalition beating its chest over what might have been 25 or 30 years ago. It was the job of the Labor government in 1972 to pick up the pieces of the Vietnamese fiasco in so far as our involvement in that appalling conflict was concerned. It is now the job of the Labor government to take the relationship forward in a realistic way and on the basis of a mutual respect in focusing on common goals.

  I for one think that human rights have to play an integral part in that relationship. They have to be central to and a core element in the relationship. In respect of political expression, freedom of religion, the rights of trade unions to organise, and of the freedom of association, I believe that there has to be a core element in the relationship, particularly in so far as the Buddhist community is concerned, for example. I am on the record publicly on that issue. I expect to be on the record publicly again next week.

  I see no difficulty in a mature relationship which embraces our values and argues them vigorously. But this is on the basis of a purposeful contact; not on the basis of trying to exploit the opinion of another generation—a generation of napalm, for example. I remember that vividly. A lot of people in this chamber obviously remember it vividly, but from a different perspective.

  Where is the alternative policy? Senator Short says, `I favour this.' That is fair enough. That is always a useful way in which to go politically—to say what one favours. But where is the method of implementation? Where is the device for taking the policy forward? `Have the relationship,' says Senator Short. There is nothing in this prescription that tells us where the steps can be taken, where the steps ought to be taken, and where the direction ought to be. There is nothing, except an effort to try to exploit and to manipulate opinion for a base political motive.

  Every time the coalition has endeavoured to do that—with Australia's Asian communities, for example—it has failed dismally, from 1984 right through to the present. The electoral statistics tell the tale. From the time that John Howard and Michael Hodgman began the debate on immigration—and Senator Bolkus knows better than I—people have flocked to our standard in thousands and thousands of voting circumstances in election after election. What we are seeing this afternoon is simply a matter of reinforcement. This is not a proposition which has any intrinsic merit whatsoever. The difference is that we intend to be constructive and purposeful in our relationship with Vietnam—to argue differences where differences are apparent, but to build a new relationship.

Senator McGauran —Over the bodies of 500 soldiers.

Senator LOOSLEY —Who is responsible for the 500 Australian dead? Those opposite are; do not walk away from it ever. That is the judgment of Australian history. Those opposite can tell us later on in this debate the purpose of the appalling tragedies involved in those 500 deaths. We will wait eagerly because we have never heard it from the coalition at any level.

  In terms of the way to go, the relationship with Vietnam ought to be based on real foundations and common objectives. ASEAN is moving in a differing framework. The United States has begun to move. The United States has, perhaps unfortunately, moved too late in a number of ways. The demons of Vietnam still inhabit its political processes. We ought to be able, in a mature fashion—as most of the Vietnamese veterans' organisations have already done, by the way—to put those demons behind us and to look forward.

  The simple fact of the matter, Mr Acting Deputy President, as I am sure you are aware, is that most of the veterans' communities and the Australian Vietnamese community are far more mature, reasonable, sensible and progressive than the coalition. To see this, we have only to go to the final day or so of the debate over the Prime Minister's visit where we had people as different as Digger James as spokesmen and women from the Vietnamese community in Australia talking about restraint and moderation. Not the coalition, though. People wanted to turn the clock back to 1966—to the time of Menzies and Holt.

  Correct me if I am wrong, but what was the coalition's foreign policy under Prime Minister Holt? Was it not the glib slogan `All the way with LBJ'? Did that not characterise the Vietnam policy of those opposite? There is dead silence opposite. What about Prime Minister Gorton? Was Australia not simply part of the American posse under Prime Minister Gorton? Was that not the policy? Is that not how events were characterised? Those kinds of nonsense ought to be buried forever. The coalition's Vietnam policy ought to be interred forever.

  The simple fact of the matter is that we really need to look forward. We need to look forward in a constructive and purposeful manner: identifying common objectives and common goals, working within a framework and seeking to extend the relationship in diplomatic, political, economic and cultural terms.

  I know of your passion for the subject of human rights matters, Mr Acting Deputy President Teague. Human rights matters have to be at the core of the relationship. There is no question about that. Matters to do with the rights of individuals and the rights of organisations, particularly trade unions, in my view, with freedom of expression and expression of religious beliefs have to be argued at different levels and on different occasions. All of these things are very important. We in this chamber ought not look back as people have urged us to do this afternoon; we ought to look forward.

  As Australians, we are determined to be a part of the future in Asia and the Pacific. That means working within the region in a realistic, constructive and purposeful way. There is a place of honour for our Vietnam veterans in our community. There is no doubt about that. Here in this city there is a very moving memorial to our veterans community. There have been moving marches of reconciliation in this country for our Vietnam veterans. We are very proud of their courage and their commitment. There is no doubt about that. I think it is true not only of this side of the chamber but also of the parliament generally. There is a place of honour for the sacrifice of our Vietnam veterans.

  There is no honour, however, in the proposition that is before the chamber this afternoon. The chamber ought to reject it. The Prime Minister has a sense of vision, a sense of purpose and a sense of obligation that is utterly lacking in the proposal that stands in the name of Senator Short, which is negative, divisive and destructive. But, of course, that has been the hallmark of coalition policy on Vietnam for the last 30 years—to divide and be destructive, to be destructive of alternative opinion, to try to divide the Australian community and, of course, to be negative. There is no alternative proposition in this, no alternative policy initiative. There is nothing to commend it to the Senate.

  The Labor government appreciates our role in the region and understands our obligations. We understand the sensitivities of the region. There is no effort to address any of the policy dilemmas in this proposition. We can see that it is destined for the photocopier, to try to grab an easy and cheap headline and a few votes. It ought to be rejected, just as the Australian people in 1972 rejected earlier coalition policies on Vietnam. I urge the Senate to reject the proposition this afternoon.