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Tuesday, 2 February 2016
Page: 137

Senator BULLOCK (Western Australia) (20:17): I have always adopted a parsimonious approach to spending other people's money. For over 20 years in the union I did not carry business cards, reasoning that anyone who wanted to see me knew who I was, that anyone who I wanted to see would take my word for it and that the union would be better placed by saving the printing cost. In my current role I fly economy, I drive my own car in Perth and I bought another one for Canberra so that when I occasionally give talks in Sydney or Melbourne I can travel and stay at my own expense. I have never booked a Comcar and I have told my party and committees that I am not available for international travel at the expense of the Commonwealth or anyone else.

I am aware that this approach is not one commonly adopted. In particular, I note that it is not an approach adopted by the member for Cowan, Mr Luke Simpkins, as reflected in the report of The Weekend Australian Magazine of 23-24 January with reference to business-class travel by Australian politicians and their wives to Azerbaijan, paid for by what The Australian calls, 'the repressive former Soviet republic'.

One of the problems inherent in undertaking such jaunts is the possibility of the perception that any action which one might take with respect to issues arising therefrom represents a dividend on the investment made by those who pick up the cost of the trip. Indeed, the Australian refers to the Azerbaijani investment as:

… paying dividends in parliament with Liberal MP Luke Simpkins using question time …

to condemn as 'illegal occupation' the establishment of Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly when, according to The Australian, Mr Simpkins's electorate of Cowan is home to a grand total of four Azeri-born residents.

I had the opportunity of gaining some familiarity with the issues concerning Nagorno-Karabakh without leaving my office. Late last year I had the privilege of meeting Mr Davit Ishkhanyan, a member of the National Assembly of Nagorno-Karabakh. I found Mr Ishkhanyan to be a tremendously impressive individual: a committed democrat and a courageous defender of the liberty of his people against the oppression of their neighbour.

My meeting with Mr Ishkhanyan prompted some research into Nagorno-Karabakh and the struggles of the Armenian people generally. In 301 AD, eleven years before Constantine famously saw the vision of the cross of Christ on the Milvian Bridge, King Tiridates III of Armenia was converted to the Christian faith by the preaching of St Gregory the Illuminator, and the Kingdom of Armenia became the first Christian nation.

Before his death in 331, St Gregory had also brought the Christian faith to the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. His grandson, St Grigoris, is buried in the fourth-century monastery of Amaras, which still functions today as a primary centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Through 1,700 years the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have maintained their Christian faith and their Armenian identity, despite long periods of subjection to Islamic Turkish and Persian khans.

On 24 April 1915, the day before the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli, the Ottoman Empire commenced a genocide of its Armenian subjects, resulting in the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians. In the early 1920s, the newly-independent Republic of Armenia, which included the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, was faced with a joint attack by Soviet Russia and Turkey. Fearful of Turkish occupation, Armenia reluctantly decided to accept Sovietisation.

Joseph Stalin at that time was People's Commissar for Nationalities, and played a key role in the decision on how to incorporate Armenia and its neighbour Azerbaijan into the Soviet Union. On 5 July 1921 the Caucasus Bureau of the Russian Communist Party decided to transfer the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenia and incorporate it into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the late 1980s, with the emergence of perestroika and glasnost, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh began exercising their fundamental right to self-determination, calling for unification with Armenia. On 20 February 1988, the Karabakh national council voted 110 to 17 to request the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. This call was aggressively opposed by Azerbaijan, which rejected any transfer of territory. On 23 February 1988—three days later—an Azeri mob killed 50 Armenian villagers in Askeran. On 27 February 1988, an Azeri mob hunted down Armenians in the city of Sumgait, raping and killing them. In January 1990, an organised pogrom against Armenians living in the Azerbaijani capital Baku resulted in 90 dead and 700 injured.

On 10 December 1991, an independence referendum was held in Nagorno-Karabakh. With a voter turnout of 82.17 per cent, the vote was 99.89 per cent for independence from the Republic of Azerbaijan, which itself had just become independent from the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan attempted to militarily suppress the new nation, but the plucky Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, with the help of the Republic of Armenia, successfully defended their homes, their nation and their freedom, leading to a ceasefire on 12 May 1994.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a well-functioning parliamentary democracy which has conducted both presidential and parliamentary elections every five years since 1991. A formal constitution was adopted by referendum in 2006. This year this brave nation of 150,000 people will celebrate 25 years of nationhood. This nationhood is a fact rooted in a history of 1,700 years of Armenian culture and heritage and in the courage of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, who seized their opportunity for freedom as the Soviet Union disintegrated.

To speak, as the Member for Cowan has repeatedly done in the other place, of the 'illegal occupiers of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan' is ludicrous. How can a people who have lived continuously in this region for centuries illegally occupy their own land? Furthermore, such uncritical support for Azerbaijan's absurd demand that this brave little nation commit suicide, dismantle its 25-year-old democracy and hand over its people to the tender mercies of the Azerbaijan government can only serve to strengthen the intransigence of the Azerbaijanis in refusing to recognise the reality of Nagorno-Karabakh's nationhood.

As Nobel Peace prize winner Andrei Sakharov said in November 1989, shortly before his death:

For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition; for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death.

Joseph Goebbels may have notoriously preferred guns to butter, but the Australian government needs to take care that its efforts to increase exports of butter to Azerbaijan do not result in the Azerbaijanis more confidently turning their guns onto the brave citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh.