Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

General Pinochet

I rise today to speak on behalf the people in the Latin American community in my community, who have contacted me in relation to a specific incident that occurred at the end of last year. They contacted me out of concern, concern that one of this nation's elected representatives had make careless and offensive remarks in the New South Wales Parliament that would forever be on the public record. They were concerned that the history of one of the most brutal military juntas was being rewritten and that that their own stories and experiences were being forgotten. I speak of course about the remarks made by Dr Peter Phelps, member of the New South Wales Legislative Council in relation to the Pinochet dictatorship. He made these comments on 11 September last year, the 40th anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet's military coup that deposed the elected Allende government.

In his speech to the parliament Dr Phelps said that he was there to argue the case for General Pinochet. This was a man, he said, who many believed was a 'reluctant hero, a morally courageous man'. He also defended the overthrow of President Allende, saying:

We have to accept that sometimes it is necessary to do bad things to prevent terrible things—
It was a callous and cold-hearted comment to make. After all, those who appreciate the truly deplorable actions of the Pinochet dictatorship could not say such things. They would never seek to 'make the case' for a man who imprisoned and tortured his own people, who killed those who opposed him and who tore Chile apart bit by bit.

In speaking to those members of our Latin American community about this issue, it was clear that their memories of this time were as vivid as ever. Even if Dr Phelps had successfully forgotten this violence, they could not. They had no such luxury, because what they had seen, what they had heard and the people they had lost would be with them forever. The trauma experienced by parents, siblings, partners and friends was theirs too. And it always would be. Those I spoke to lived this history and felt incredibly disrespected to have that history rewritten for political pointscoring in their new home.

In response I feel compelled to call Dr Phelps to task on the public record in this place. In the days after his speech and following the outcry from the Chilean community, his fellow state parliamentarians and the wider population, Dr Phelps then tried to diminish the impact of his remarks. He said that he had not sought to defend the Pinochet regime but merely highlight the criticisms of the Allende government.

I think that what Dr Phelps was really trying to do was to whitewash history to score some kind of point about ideology, that his attempt to recast Pinochet as merely doing what was necessary is really an attempt to cast stones at those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

While I understand that Dr Phelps has personal ideological objections to the Allende government and its philosophy, I would suggest that all he has managed to do is hurt innocent people. His attempt to score a political point comes at the cost of creating further trauma to already traumatised people. This cost is far too high, because to dismiss the experiences of these people as somehow the benign lesser of two evils is to deny these people basic justice. To insist that murder is necessary to overthrow a government is to belittle the memories of those who lost their lives, and to declare that many believe Pinochet to be some sort of hero is to obliterate the concerns of those who knew him as a villain. There is, after all, nothing 'morally courageous' about violence and oppression.

This is a man whose actions have been condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Chilean parliament, as well as the broader international community. No matter how many times Dr Phelps denies this, he cannot change the reality. He cannot equate his own opinions as being equal to facts and expect to get away with it; and he cannot make these kinds of statements and then seek to dismiss them as merely a misunderstanding, with no damage done. All he has really done is to deny the people of Chile their truth—truth, that most basic of justices.

It shows, I believe, a callousness and contempt which I find appalling, and so I would like to use this opportunity to ask Dr Phelps to apologise for his comments and to suggest that rather than using Chilean history as a political pawn that he acknowledges the truth of the situation: regardless of your personal politics, the Pinochet dictatorship committed unconscionable harm. I thank the House.


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