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Thursday, 20 September 1973
Page: 1404

Mr LYNCH (Flinders) - It is not often that I seek to participate in the adjournment debate and the infrequency of this experience will therefore underline the importance of the issue I am about to raise. The Government has not provided an opportunity in this House to debate Australia's withdrawal from a major international organisation - the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration. Accordingly I take this opportunity to place the Opposition's views on the record. This is a very serious matter. The Government's decision will place financial hardship on the ongoing operations of ICEM.

It represents a rejection by the Labor Government of the principle that refugees are a common international responsibility. It denies the concept of multilateral co-operation on migration problems. Not only was the Government's decision quite contrary to the interests of our migration program and to an international humanitarian cause; it was also secret and surreptitious. It was a decision taken without prior consultation with the organisation involved or with the member governments of that organisation. It was a decision conveyed in a letter from the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) to the Director of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration of 7 March. No public announcement was made by either the Prime Minister or the Minister responsible - the Minister for Immigration (Mr Grassby).

It was a decision which the Prime Minister refused to discuss with the Director of of ICEM who was told during a visit to Australia earlier this year that any discussions would merely concern transitional administrative arrangements and would take place at official level. If the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration can carelessly cast aside our membership of ICEM it is important to make clear that senior officials in the Department of Immigration have recognised its importance. Mr Andy Watson, the First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Immigration, said this to Senate Estimates Committee B in November 1971:

There is also still a potential refugee problem in Europe and many European countries seem to value ICEM as a sort of fire brigade in case a further refugee situation develops. Those European countries see it also as a means of contributing to the development of countries that are less developed than are perhaps the United States and Australia. I refer particularly to countries in Latin America.

All governments which have become members seem to recognise the value of having an international forum for the exchange of ideas on migration. So for different governments ICEM means different things. It is true that Australia is organised to the extent that we could take over the movement functions performed for us by ICEM, but this is only part of the story.

I recognise now the presence of the Minister for Immigration. I hope that he received the message from my office that I was rising to speak on this subject in the adjournment debate. Mr Watson continued:

As I have said, Australia's position is such that we could handle the movement ourselves, but European countries now are not embarrassed by surplus manpower. In fact some have a shortage of manpower. They find lt very hard politically to contribute to a bilateral migration scheme, whereas they can contribute to a multilateral scheme which is already in existence. A number of European governments have made it very clear to us that they would find it much more difficult to co-operate with us in our migration schemes if those schemes were not to be carried out through the medium of ICEM.

Another First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Immigration, Mr Dempsey, had this to say to the same Committee in October 1970:

This organisation as an international body moves refugees for resettlement. We could ignore the organisation, move the refugees ourselves and pay for them. While we do not do that we do not have to pay the total bill. We are only one member contributing towards the resettlement of refugees. So there is an economic advantage, in belonging to it.

The whole manner of Australia's withdrawal represents one of the most shoddy and badly handled episodes in Australia's recent diplomatic experience. Australia played a significant role in the drafting of the ICEM constitution in 1954 and subsequently in developing the operating principles of that great humanitarian organisation. Since that time Australia and ICEM have co-operated closely in the emigration of nationals and refugees to Australia. Up to the present time more than 625,000 persons have been moved under ICEM auspices. The positive value of the operational capacity of ICEM has been demonstrated by its assistance of the stateless, the political refugees and the homeless in postwar Europe. It was demonstrated last year in the evacuation of Asian refugees from Uganda. It was an ICEM team in Kampala which carried out the documentation, medical service processing and transportation arrangements with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Secretary-General of the United Nations sent the following message to the ICEM Council in December 1972:

I am personally grateful for the support and cooperation the United Nations and its family of organisations have received over the years from ICEM. I have long been aware of the valuable contributions of ICEM to the welfare of thousands of persons who have been displaced over the years, and I wish to thank Member Governments for their active support for the important humanitarian contributions of ICEM.

Australia's annual contribution to the administrative budget of ICEM is SUS28 1,211. This was stated by the Minister for Immigration in reply to a question that I placed on the notice paper. It is almost inconceivable, in view of the Government's excessive spending in the Budget, that economies should have been sought by cutting off this contribution. The Opposition believes strongly that Australia should not opt out of its international responsibilities. It is a matter of major concern that the Government has determined to do just that without any form of announcement in this Parliament and without providing any opportunity for the matter to be debated. It is, I believe, a very good reflection of the Government's contempt for Parliament and its extreme hypocrisy in claiming credit for the principle of open government.

I ask the Minister for Immigration, who is now in the House, to indicate, firstly, the reasons why the House has not been informed of the decision to withdraw from ICEM, even though that decision was made by the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and himself as far back as 7 March this year. Secondly, I ask him to explain to the House how a major decision of this type could possibly be taken by only 2 Ministers of the Government and why the Cabinet again has been ignored in what is a most significant decision making area of this Government's responsibilities. Thirdly, I ask him to refer in some detail to the reasons why Australia has withdrawn and, in so doing, to state them for the first time and place them on the official record of this Parliament, so that they can be subject to the scrutiny of parliamentary debate and to further questions of the Minister and of the Prime Minister.

Fourthly, I ask the Minister to inform the House of the discussion which took place at the earlier executive meeting of ICEM members, at which Australia was represented and views being put to this country by other member nations at that important meeting. Finally, I ask the Minister to indicate to the House why, although this may be a matter in which, selfishly, Australia may gain some short term advantage, we have withdrawn and are not prepared to consider the question of membership on a 'sympathiser' basis. My understanding, is that this matter has been put to the Minister and the Government but has not yet received a positive response. The Opposition parties believe this matter to be one well worth raising in the course of the adjournment debate. It gives the Minister, for the first time, an opportunity to explain it and to tell us why the facts have not been revealed, why we have withdrawn and why we are not prepared to continue on a sympathiser basis. We believe strongly that this Government must reconsider its decision to withdraw from ICEM.

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