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Thursday, 17 September 1992
Page: 1303

Mr SNOWDON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education and Training) (4.24 p.m.) —It gives me great pleasure to support this expediency motion on the Christmas Island rebuilding work this afternoon in the House and acknowledge the presence of the Chairman of the Public Works Committee, the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis). He has asked me to say some kind words about his Committee, which I am happy to do on this occasion.

  Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. G.G.D. Scholes)—As long as you do not mislead the House.

Mr SNOWDON —He knows I would not mislead the House. I understand he had a very eventful and enjoyable trip to Christmas Island. It is a very fine part of my electorate. I am sure, as I know he has said on previous occasions, that it is a place that should be visited by as many people as possible because it is a wonderful part of Australia.

  I would like, however, to address my comments to the building program. First, I acknowledge the response by DASET to the recommendations in the report which was brought down by the Committee. As far as I am concerned, as the member representing the people of Christmas Island, it is very encouraging to see the very positive attitude which has been adopted by DASET to the recommendations, and the undertakings that it has given as a result of the Minister for Small Business, Construction and Customs (Mr Beddall) addressing the House this afternoon to advance processes to try to get additional funds to complete road works and additional housing. I think that is very important and it is something which will be appreciated by the island community.

  One needs to understand the nature of the infrastructure currently on Christmas Island. I think it needs to be appreciated that the existing infrastructure was built to meet the needs of a phosphate mining operation and its workers in a situation which, not to put too fine a point on it, was very colonial and quite repressive, so that the living conditions for many of the workers were well below par. The sorts of activities which have taken place on Christmas Island, until a very active union was formed in the late seventies, are legendary, and the people who worked in the phosphate mine were not given appropriate conditions. That is reflected in the nature of the infrastructure which remains on the island.

  Certainly, in general, it is not built to meet current regulations. Bearing in mind that the law which operated on the island until July of this year was Singapore law, it reflected the colonial administration of the British. So the sorts of standards which we regard as acceptable and appropriate in Australia were not present on the island and are only just being implemented on a gradual basis as a result of the body of Western Australian law applying to the island community. That took place as of 1 July. Those laws will be introduced progressively, but it will mean that any new buildings and other construction activities which take place on the island will come within the ambit of the laws of Western Australia in relation to work health and safety, and building requirements. I think that is very important.

  It needs to be acknowledged that the reason why this building program, announced by the Government as costing $132m over a period of time, is so important is the poor state of the infrastructure stock on the island. As has been acknowledged by the Minister, the work encompasses all types of services, maritime works, foreshore development, new buildings, alterations and additions, upgrading of buildings and demolitions.

  The design allows for a population growth from the present 1,500 people to a maximum of 4,000 residents and visitors. The rebuilding program is a commitment to the future of Christmas Island, but it springs from the past dedication—and I think this is most important, and you would know that, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a previous Minister responsible for Christmas Island—of many people to ensure the future of the island. I would like to acknowledge some of those people.

  There is Gordon Bennett who, sadly, passed away last year and who was the Secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers; Lai Ah Hong, who is the current President of the union, and a very active businessman in the community; Tracey Lim, who worked with the union, and has done so for many years; and Terry White, an administrator who works with what is now the shire council but who was a Commonwealth Government employee previously. He is moving on to a job in Japan, and I wish him well in that.  As well as those I have mentioned, there are all those other people who have been actively involved in the union's activities in particular. There is Seet Choy Lan, of course, who is currently the Union of Christmas Island Workers' liaison officer, and who was previously the General Secretary of the union, and Lillian Oh, who is the current Secretary.

  It also demonstrates the commitment which has been evidenced by what is now the shire council, and what used to be the Union of the Christmas Island Assembly, under its Chairman, Peter Goh. Its members have taken a very impressive interest in ensuring that the needs of their island community have been addressed properly by government. They have made continual representations to a number of Ministers, and I am sure those representations would have been made to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

  I want to put on the record that the response from the Department has been very good, in my view. The role of the administrators has been very positive—those people who represent the Commonwealth's interests on the island. I must again acknowledge the very positive and encouraging responses I have had from the number of Ministers I have had dealings with since I became the member for the Northern Territory in 1987, looking after the interests of the people of Christmas Island. I would like to commend all of those people for the very active work they have done.

  We also need to appreciate the demographic make-up of the island. A vast proportion of the community are of Chinese origin and many of them have lived on the island for four or five generations. Under the old colonial regime, the wealthy mine owners and the managers lived in very nice colonial houses, but the accommodation for the workers was very shoddy. That is now being addressed and will continue to be addressed as a result of this $132m program.

  It is extremely important to understand that the future of the island revolves around a couple of very important issues, both of which could not be profitably advanced without this infrastructure development. One is the continuation of the phosphate mine on Christmas Island. It was closed down as a result of what I think was a very poor decision in 1987, but it is now reopening and should keep functioning for at least another decade. The other is tourism. The best example of that in the present context is the establishment of a casino on Christmas Island to the value of in excess of $40m. That is quite remarkable and the visitors will provide a focus for tourism to the community.

  The bottom line is that this infrastructure is fundamental and important to the lives of the people who live on the island. I know the Chairman of the Public Works Committee shares the view that without this infrastructure development it would be totally inappropriate for the Commonwealth to say that it is looking after the interests of the island community. I think we can honestly say that this commitment of funds by the Commonwealth and the way in which it has been advanced by the Government is a demonstration of our bona fides to the Christmas Island community and is an expression of faith by the Government in the future of the community. I thank the Treasurer (Mr Dawkins) for his role in making sure the funds were made available.

  However, some people have not been so positive. I want to place the name of at least one of them on the public record. The CLP senator from the Northern Territory, who, surprisingly, represents—or is supposed to represent—the interests of the Christmas Island community, questioned the efficacy of these proposals on the public record on 13 April 1992. He said:

The Federal Government must justify the cost of this massive outlay . . .

He went on to say that the great majority of the proposed expenditure—in fact, $95m of it:

. . . invites speculation about the hidden agenda of the Federal Labor Government, particularly Labor Senator Bob Collins and Federal Member Warren Snowdon.

I do not apologise for having high up on my agenda the proper and appropriate representation of the Christmas Island community in ensuring that it has an adequate and proper standard of living and that it has access to the same level of infrastructure and services that are available to other Australians. If he has a problem with that, he ought not to seek to represent the interests of the island community.

  I would like to put Senator Tambling's mind—I guess there is a huge assumption in that—to rest. As I just reaffirmed, the residents of Christmas Island should have, as far as possible, given the obvious disadvantage from which they suffer in living a lot closer to Jakarta than they do to the Australian mainland, the opportunity to enjoy the same standard of living as the rest of us.

  Recently, we normalised the legal regimes on the Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands so that the Indian Ocean Territories now both come within the framework of the Western Australian body of law. That is very appropriate. An enormous amount of money and energy has been poured into the development of these plans, particularly the housing policy. This has been an issue of great contention. I know the issue was raised before the Public Works Committee while it was on the island. It is an issue which has been high on the public agenda of the island community, not only in the assembly and the union but in the island community generally.

  It is very clear that although there was a great deal of debate, and a great deal of frustration which was expressed by the community at various times, the fact that the Minister for the Arts and Territories (Ms Fatin) has now released a policy which has been given widespread applause and support within the community speaks volumes for the capacity of this Government to listen to the concerns of the community and make sure they have been addressed properly and adequately. I again put on record my thanks for the way in which the Minister has dealt with that issue. The fact is that we had this senator, who masquerades as representing the interests of the people of the Northern Territory, making these outrageous statements attacking the rebuilding program—

Mr Humphreys —Who was it?

Mr SNOWDON —The thought of repeating his name almost makes me ill, but it was that senator who masquerades as representing the interests of the people of the Northern Territory and does not do it well at all—Grant Tambling. I am sure it is not a secret that he is a very poor representative of the interests of people on Christmas Island. They have made that plain.

  Very soon after Senator Tambling made his outrageous statement attacking the building program, he received a letter from Mr Eddie Turner, President of the Christmas Island Chamber of Commerce and yet another island resident committed to the future of the community. I think the Minister for the Arts and Territories (Ms Fatin) who is from Western Australia, would know Mr Eddie Turner. In a detailed letter to Senator Tambling, Mr Turner pointed out just how uninformed the senator was about the realities of life on the island, even though he purports to be one of the senators who represent the island's interest. Mr Turner concluded his letter by saying:

You have deliberately gone out of your way to make political capital out of the unfortunate position of Christmas Islanders. We are extremely angry at your insulting remarks and liberal voters will undoubtedly show you their feelings at the next election.

I am sure they will. Senator Tambling is not a representative of the residents of Christmas Island; he is a whingeing spoiler, and his attacks on this Government's attempts to lift the standard of living on the island deserve our fullest condemnation.

  As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education and Training, I want to address another issue which was taken up by the Public Works Committee—that of training. Very recently, I visited the community and discussed with it a training program which was put in place in the first instance by the Treasurer in his former role as Minister for Employment, Education and Training and, prior to that, the honourable member for Makin (Mr Duncan) when he was the Minister responsible. We have put in place a program under the office of labour market adjustment designed to address the very things which have been brought up in the recommendations of the report. I understand it has been satisfactorily addressed by the island community. When we presented our proposals to the community, it was extremely grateful for them.

  I again thank the House for giving me the opportunity to speak this afternoon. I re-emphasise my gratitude on behalf of the people of Christmas Island to the Public Works Committee and the Government for this commitment to the island's future through this $132m development. I note the fact that both the Committee and the Government picked up on the need to develop the wharf and provide a crane so that the costs for people who live on the island can be minimised in the supply of goods and services to both residents and people carrying on business on the island.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.