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Wednesday, 8 December 1993
Page: 4169

Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (3.58 p.m.) —I think even the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Gareth Evans) would acknowledge that, in the area of diplomacy, words are bullets. Those words were used by a relatively more distinguished predecessor of the minister's; nonetheless, they remain very valid. Therefore, it is all the more extraordinary that we should have had the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) on 22 November not just showing his frustration and lack of self control by using that offensive term `recalcitrant' but saying that he could not care less whether Dr Mahathir attended the APEC meeting. Having considered the full consequences of his remarks, he then chose to go on Lateline and say that his remarks were merely part of the rough and tumble of international politics.

  If words are bullets, the Prime Minister has comprehensively shot himself in the foot and has continued to do so since that time. It is extraordinary that again we have heard a very limp defence by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Gareth Evans, who—for all his professed awareness of the significance of words—continues to misuse the word `fulsome', which means `flatteringly insincere'. I presume he does not intend those to be the words used to characterise the Prime Minister's choice of words.

  The statement put out by a spokesman for the Prime Minister could give offence because it should have been put out in the first person by the Prime Minister, not by some flunkey or lackey on his behalf, giving every impression that the Prime Minister would not condescend to speak on the public record about the matter. He did not release the terms of the letter. He just put forward a case of self-defence, saying the issue had been blown out of proportion. What message does that convey to the Malaysians? It says someone else is distorting the issue and the Malaysians are taking offence unnecessarily. It also says that the Australian media is to blame, the Malaysian media is to blame or the Malaysian authorities have got it wrong. I would not have thought that to be in any way helpful.

  The mantra that the Prime Minister's remarks in Seattle were not calculated to give offence has been repeated. Anyone on the government side ought to know by now that whether or not they were calculated to give offence, they most surely did. Yet we have had no acknowledgment from the Prime Minister that that was the effect and no regret at his choice of words. Who can blame the Malaysians for saying, as Dr Mahathir did subsequently, that he could not regard or define the letter as being conciliatory.

  We have had yet another confirmation that the government has been far too clever by half in this very delicate area. It received what was clearly intended to be a formal expression of displeasure. The Acting Secretary-General of the Department of Foreign Affairs rang the Australian High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur and made it very plain that the Malaysians were very unhappy about the remarks made by Mr Keating. A statement was put out by a spokesman but it did not in any shape or form acknowledge that the Malaysians had concerns. It tried to pretend they were unconcerned by saying the Malaysian government had made no official protest.

  That is very clever and semantic, as has been pointed out today. But it is utterly disingenuous and misleading. If the Trade Practices Commission had jurisdiction, it would find this an open-and-shut case of someone trying to give the impression, by misleading and deceptive conduct, that the Malaysians had nothing to worry about and had not really complained in terms that ought to be taken seriously. But we have had confirmation today from the minister's mouth that they did take it seriously. It is only a semantic point to talk about official protests.

  What is the purpose of the exercise? Is it to make those opposite feel good; that on the Richter scale of diplomatic gaffes that is only about a six instead of a nine? Because it was not characterised by them as official; it was really a very strong and formal expression of displeasure. To go ahead and put out that statement inevitably would have the consequences it has had.

  Even as late as today, Senator Cook—if ever there were a boy on a man's errand, it has to be the junior minister—is wandering around Malaysia saying there will be a change in the relationship between the countries but that Australia has done enough to try to heal the rift. I would have thought that everyone acknowledges—certainly the public opinion polls—that there is more that the Prime Minister can do. The Prime Minister should not say, like a schoolboy caught with his hand in the till, `I am sorry I got caught'. He should be saying, `I should not have used those words in the first place. Those words did not just have the effect of giving offence, but they were utterly inappropriate and should not have been used'. He should have acted much more quickly.

  The Prime Minister thinks he can get away with this sort of conduct in the international arena just because he seems to be able to get away with it in the domestic arena where the press thinks he is very clever to use such terms as scumbag and all the other terms that have so endeared him to the electorate. He thinks he can go to Seattle, mix it with world leaders and use that sort of gutter talk. That betrays the Prime Minister's fundamental incapacity to exercise diplomatic skills.

  It is therefore extraordinary that Senator Evans seems remarkably reluctant to put on the record any efforts that he has made to try to counsel the Prime Minister. One suspects that the real answer is that the Prime Minister does not want to know the views of Senator Evans. Senator Evans, in his quest to be the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, does not want to be tagged with the oafish behaviour of his parliamentary leader. Nonetheless, it is very surprising that, when the minister dealt with this issue last Monday, he said that we will do everything we reasonably can to keep the relationship warm and productive, but if a good relationship is to continue it must be wanted and worked for by both sides. He is again lecturing the Malaysians. He is saying, `It is not our fault. If you want to fix it up, you do it'.

  He then goes on to say that it would be helpful if the Malaysian side were to acknowledge the circumstances in which Mr Keating's original remarks were made. That is another attempt to avoid responsibility and to somehow suggest that not only is the Prime Minister not guilty but also, if we look at the context, we will see it in a fundamentally different light. We know that is not the case; it is not the way it has developed. It is not the approach the Malaysians have adopted.

  To say, further, that Senator Evans discovered just a few days ago that the Malaysian translation of `recalcitrant' is extremely insulting raises the obvious question as to whether this was brought to his attention by his departmental advisers and diplomatic representatives in Malaysia. If it was and Senator Evans did not act on it, there is a case to be answered. If they were not even aware of it—even though there had been a recent spat in the Malaysian press—one wonders what they do with their time.

  I suspect that they did relay all this and the Prime Minister ignored that counsel and chose to tough it out. Senator Evans went on to say that the media and other key interest groups in Australia are much more likely to line up against a person or institution in question, assuming that if a criticism is made there must be some case to answer. The obvious implication of that assertion is that there is not a case to answer in this instance. All Senator Evans has done is compound the felony, making it clear that we will not take any further initiatives and that it is up to the Malaysians.

  It is almost 2 1/2 weeks since this utterly undisciplined statement was made by the Prime Minister, yet events have indicated that the relationship is going from bad to worse. We can send as many Cooks and Rays as we want to Malaysia, but only one person can repair the damage; that is, the Prime Minister. But his ego stands in the way of any repair of the relationship. What we are stuck with is Senator Evans saying it is tough luck for Australian exporters. He said that if they are on the brink of losing hundreds of millions of dollars that is in the nature and hazards of business life.

  We cannot expect people to factor in an avoidable and political risk of a Prime Minister running off at the mouth and fundamentally fracturing the relationship we have with one of our near neighbours. Only a few months ago, the Malaysian foreign minister was making it clear what a very good relationship we have. The deterioration since that time is the fault of one person.

  He can send his junior minister and his Minister for Defence (Senator Robert Ray) to Malaysia every day of the week, but everyone knows that there is only one person the Malaysians will take any notice of, and he is the person who not only cannot bring himself to acknowledge that his remarks gave offence but also shows not the slightest remorse or regret and has uttered no expression of conciliation. He seems to be perfectly content to see billions of dollars in contracts with Malaysia put at risk.

  Telecom Australia is keen to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the region. Malaysia plans to spend up to $10 billion through 1997 on telecommunications. This seems to be of no concern to the government which prefers to wriggle around and pretend it is everyone's fault except the Prime Minister's. We all know the facts of life. Even Senator Gareth Evans understands whose fault it really is. The sooner he starts to give some sensible and constructive advice—and better still, is listened to—the closer we might be to resolution.