October 22, 2018

It is easy to take for granted the openness and fairness with which democracy is practiced in this country. Indeed, it's easy to forget the foundations of democracy are hard fought for, and people are right to be naturally wary of any moves to curb their right to be represented and participate in government and decision-making. Australia has a proud history of working for peace and democracy in our region, but particularly in Cambodia. I note the Paris Peace Accords struck in 1991 and the work of the Hon. Gareth Evans in bringing them to fruition.

However, recent events in Cambodia, including the national election held on 29 July, do not reflect those accords or the sentiments with which they were reached. The election saw no other serious contenders challenge Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party. Other parties which did contest the vote were being propped up and promoted by Hun Sen to foster the illusion of democracy. The election has been rightly seen as a sham, with all 125 seats secured by the Cambodian People's Party. The EU said the result was not legitimate. The White House commented that the poll was flawed. The only credible opposition force, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved by the Supreme Court of Cambodia last year, and many of its leaders, including Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, are either in exile or have been imprisoned in Cambodia. The opposition press, including The Cambodia Daily, have been shut down. Recently, Australian journalist James Ricketson was arrested and jailed for six years for filming at an opposition political rally in June 2017. The trial has been described as farcical.

The Cambodian community in my region are very concerned about the escalating political situation in their country of birth. I've met with members of the local community, along with my colleagues the members for Fowler and McMahon, to discuss the situation. I also met with a delegation when they came to Canberra in December and have had regular correspondence contact with them. They are concerned, and rightly so, about the threats that have been made to Australian Cambodian citizens living in Australia. I strongly encourage the investigation of such threats. If correct, it is simply unacceptable for a foreign government to threaten Australian citizens in Australia.

The Cambodian community has a strong presence in my electorate. They arrived here as refugees seeking a better life for their families away from conflict. They still retain strong ties with their ancestral homeland and their family and friends in Cambodia. I would particularly like to acknowledge the efforts of Chhayri Marm and Sawathey Ek for raising awareness around this important issue in the wider local community. I've received petitions signed by several thousand members of the Australian Cambodian community in Sydney, citing their grave concerns about the current situation in Cambodia. They know without strong, independent institutions, including press, governments are not held to account and the foundations of a free and democratic society are placed at risk.

They remember all too vividly the previous Cambodian regimes and the lasting impact they have had on the country and its people. I was particularly moved by one member of the community: a small, softly spoken woman. With tears in her eyes, she told me her experience of the Pol Pot era. She lost all her family. Her brothers, aged seven, nine and 13, were taken away and never seen again. Her parents were not spared either. She said to me:

We looked to the sky constantly waiting for the helicopters to come, for help to arrive it never did, we had to flee; please don't let this happen again.

Unfortunately, this story isn't unique. Almost all of the Australian Cambodians have similar harrowing stories. It is these experiences that led Australia to help broker the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. It is time that Australia again showed leadership in this area and ensured that the promises made then for fair and democratic elections and country are formally put into place. We should be promoting and protecting the freedom of political expression, not sipping champagne with dictators.

I'm deeply concerned to see voices being unfairly silenced and I share the concerns of my colleagues, particularly the member for Bruce, who have risen to speak to this motion. I especially note that this motion calls on the government to induce targeted sanctions and guarantee the rights of Australians of Cambodian heritage in this country. I draw the other points of the motion to the attention of the House and fully support their implementation now.