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Thursday, 8 September 1983
Page: 579

Mr MacKELLAR —by leave-I join the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) in praising the report of the Sub-Committee on Middle Eastern and African Affairs of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. I think it demonstrates yet again the extraordinarily important role that joint committees of this Parliament play in providing an educational forum for the members of those committees. In these circumstances, people who have widely divergent political views can hear at the same time points put to them by a wide variety of people who are noted for their expertise in particular areas. I think that out of this process comes a greater understanding by all members of the parties.

I was not a member of the Committee but I was the leader of a parliamentary delegation to the Gulf states in January of last year. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity of responding to the statement to this House by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. On page 3 of the printed copy of his statement, the Minister refers to the:

. . . intention of the United States to maintain a military capacity in this area of vital interest to it.

That is, the United States. I hope that none of us takes this language to mean that the Middle East is not of vital concern to us as Australians. I think that point was taken up by the Minister in the latter stages of his statement.

Unfortunately I am quoted by the Minister. The report said that the Middle East is of vital interest to many countries, not least Australia and Japan. The latter of course derives a great deal of its resources from the region. I mention Japan here because last week the Minister found difficulty in understanding a point I made, that is, that as Japan took an increased self- defence responsibility American resources were released to support the Middle East commitments. So, there is a tie-up of interest in this area.

The Camp David process has left the door ajar for further efforts to promote peace in the Middle East. We as Australians are in the Sinai as part of that effort. In making that contribution, we can hardly argue our position on the basis that we are in the Middle East alone because the area is of vital interest to the United States. That simply is not the case. I repeat: This is an area of vital interest to Australia.

I think that the following description of the Soviet aims used in the report and by the Minister is perhaps a little too benign:

In regard to the role of the Soviet Union, the report correctly notes that the Soviet Union has continued its policy of seeking Arab and international recognition of its claims, as a neighbour and superpower, to a legitimate role in the Middle East.

I think that in the last few hours and days we have been treated to an interesting example of what the Soviets regard as legitimate. We know, for arguments sake, that the Soviets have supported some of the most extreme forms of terrorism. At present the Soviets are backing Syria's intransigence in rejecting a framework for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. There is no doubt that the Soviets are playing a part in hotting up the already very extreme situation in the Middle East. Is all of this and more merely to be passed off as an assertion of a legitimate role in the Middle East? I do not think it is. We need to look more closely at the actions of the Soviet Union and, where necessary, be prepared to make very clear our opinions about those actions.

I turn to the Indian Ocean. On page 5 of the Minister's statement he states:

The present position is that Australia clearly has its own independent views on developments in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. In support of our own and general Western diplomatic objectives in the Indian Ocean, Australia deployed a carrier task group in 1980 and has made a number of single ship deployments since then. It is desirable that Australia demonstrate on a regular basis that it has an independent national role to play in the Indian Ocean.

Naturally, we accept that statement completely. We accept the requirements for a national role to defend the Indian Ocean approaches to Western Australia. We do not look askance at collaboration with alies in this role. In saying that, of course, we have never argued that we should count on collaboration. There is no special virtue in being a loner in this difficult world. I hope that the Minister's remarks do not hide the view that we should be exercising a legitimate national role in this area, but at the same time we should be very prepared to join with our friends and allies in exercising a broader role in the Indian Ocean region. It is simply not practicable to dedicate forces and resources to a national system of regular deployments-not if we are to believe the Minister for Defence (Mr Scholes), anyhow. So let us do what we can, but let us not make a fetish out of acting on our own.

The Minister noted that a carrier task group carried out a mission in 1980. This Government, as we all know, has knocked out the carrier task force from the possibility of taking part in or undergoing activities of this nature. Clearly, we should not talk ourselves into unreal commitments; nor should we place such a low value on collaborating with allies in the wider responsibilities in the pursuit of strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean. I hope we will hear more from the Government on this matter. I hope there will be a stronger collaboration between the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs so that they both get their sums and their public statements right in relation to Australian naval activities in the Indian Ocean.

I believe that Australia has a significant role to play in the Gulf, in the Middle Eastern area, because we have in many areas special skills and experience . This was brought home to me and members of my delegation to the area in January last year. There is a great need for those special skills such as arid country agriculture, which Australia has pioneered in many areas. There is no doubt that Australians, and Australia, are well regarded in the area. We are not seen as being any sort of a threat. In fact, we are seen as being good neighbours, good markets and able to supply much needed expertise. I would like to see the private sector playing a greater role in this area. The private sector has in the past waited for too long in many instances for government incentives before playing what I would regard as its full role in this area of the world. I believe there are great opportunities for Australian private enterprise to operate and be successful in the Middle East, in the Gulf areas. I hope that this occurs more in the future than it has in the past.

We need to seek a development of understanding between the countries of the Gulf and Australia and Australians. The Ministers referred to this in the latter stages of his statement. I believe that Australia can play a very real role in training people from the Gulf countries and the Middle East both in their own countries and in Australia. I was very impressed by the obvious interest shown by senior officials and Ministers of all the Gulf countries about the possibilities of their nationals undergoing training in Australia. We should be looking for further developments in this area. I am glad that the Minister will take up this matter with his colleague the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan).

As the report notes, this area of the world is of vital interest to all of us. It will certainly not diminish in importance. I believe that we should be very keen to undertake anything that will further bilateral relationships. Certainly we should take every opportunity to learn more of the individual countries involved. I believe that the work of the Committee has done much to enhance the Parliament's understanding of this vital area that is of so much interest not only to us but to the whole civilised world.