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Wednesday, 8 December 1993
Page: 4173

Senator SHORT (4.14 p.m.) —I support this censure motion of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) moved by Senator Hill this afternoon. Malaysia is Australia's 11th most important trading partner. It is more important than many of the much bigger countries in the world about which we hear so much. It is a bigger trading partner for us than, for example, Germany, Italy, France, or even our close colleague and neighbour Canada. It is an even bigger trading partner than Thailand, which is one of the fastest growing countries in Asia.

  Malaysia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its average growth rate over the last five to 10 years has been between 10 and 11 per cent per year. As a result, some of our biggest companies—BHP, CRA, Amcor, Boral, Leightons and Transfield, just to name a few—have growing links with Malaysia. There are also many hundreds of medium and small companies about which we do not hear so much that are doing all they possibly can to build relations with Malaysia and the Asian region. We, and they, are so often lectured by the Prime Minister about the need to get closer to the region and build those relationships. They are sentiments with which we agree totally.

  We also have longstanding defence and security links with Malaysia and, through them, with the region as a whole. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Gareth Evans, so rightly referred to this afternoon, there are very strong personal relationships between many Australians and Malaysians. When I went to the University of Melbourne in the 1950s I was fortunate enough to number Malaysian students amongst my closest friends, and I am sure many others can give similar examples. Anything that damages that very important relationship is therefore a matter of most serious concern.

  We now have on our hands a situation where there has been a fundamental rupture in relations between Malaysia and Australia which should never have arisen, but has arisen for one simple reason: the loose mouth of an arrogant and irresponsible Australian Prime Minister who made his remarks in front of television cameras when he was basking in the glory of the Seattle summit meeting. There, in front of the television cameras, he publicly bad-mouthed the leader of one of our major regional partners. That has implications not only for our relations with Malaysia but also for our standing in the region as a whole and our relations with other individual neighbours and partners within that region.

  We really do have a very big problem on our hands which has occurred for two reasons. I have mentioned the first. Both of these form the basis of the coalition's censure motion of the Prime Minister today. The first is the Prime Minister's intemperate, irresponsible and ill-judged series of remarks in Seattle when he not only offensively called Dr Mahathir a recalcitrant but also, at the same time, used other very dismissive language in referring to him.

  The second reason why we have this very serious problem today is that, having made that inexcusable mistake in the first place, the Prime Minister has then compounded the problem by his subsequent failure to take appropriate action to prevent—even to limit—the increasing and continuing damage to Australia's trade and other relations with Malaysia and the damage to our standing in Asia.

  For all the rhetoric and pseudo-defence from Senator Gareth Evans and Senator Carr this afternoon in response to the coalition's censure motion, there is one fundamental point that cannot be overlooked: we have a problem that should never have arisen. Given that it arose because of the very ill-judged, intemperate remarks of Australia's Prime Minister, it could have been settled—very easily, we believe—by his taking early action to correct the wrong that he had done and the serious impression that he had left with Dr Mahathir. The fact that he did not do that is an enormous indictment of the Prime Minister and the government.

  Although this censure motion refers solely to the Prime Minister, Senator Evans is deserving of equally strong criticism for his apparent failure to act in relation to this dispute. He is, after all, the Leader of the Government in the Senate. More importantly, he is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his basic responsibility is relations between Australia and other countries around the world, particularly those in our region. The failure of Senator Evans to do anything at all about this matter until today—that is what he said at question time—makes it apparent that he has achieved precious little. Even worse, he said at question time today that the Prime Minister could say nothing more to resolve the issue.

  The fact that Senator Evans appears to have either been mute or absolutely neutered in his role is a very serious matter in itself. It indicates a major rift between the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senator Evans has been less than forthcoming in his defence of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's actions. I think that in itself sounds important warning bells about our ability to conduct our affairs in other parts of the world and our relations with other countries.

  Given our ties within the region, the Prime Minister of this country should know, understand and operate within the accepted cultural parameters of our neighbours. We expect foreigners to respect our cultural beliefs and our attitudes to other countries; rightly, they expect us to reciprocate. The fact that Mr Keating did not follow this practice—apparently he did not really know what he was doing and the implications of it—is an indictment of him and his ability rather than another country.

  The media—as has Senator Evans in his attempts in this place in recent days to defend the indefensible—have made much of the fact that Dr Mahathir has not personally complained about the comments made about him. That is certainly the way the Prime Minister's office seemed to be briefing the press in recent days. Of course, that is very misleading. That is a nonsensical approach. Dr Mahathir could not say anything himself because—as honourable senators would know if they know anything about the culture of that region—it would be an admission that our Prime Minister had caused him to lose face. The fact that our Prime Minister does not know or understand that shows appalling insensitivity on his part.

  For all of those reasons, the coalition regards the censure motion as a very important, very serious motion. The Malaysian cabinet is due to meet in three days time—on 11 December—to consider this matter. It is absolutely imperative that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Australian government take all necessary action before that meeting on 11 December to ensure that, at the very least, we will try to do all that we can to redeem a very serious situation. It should never have arisen in the first place, hence the censure motion today, which I hope this chamber will support.