Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 23 November 1938


Mr FAIRBAIRN (Flinders) . - Just in case any one looking around this chamber during the last half hour might fail to realize the fact, I point out that honorable members are now dealing with the most important debate of the year. The consideration of the budget, on this occasion, is more important than usual, because of the present unsettled international situation which, members of all parties agree, renders it necessary for Australia to put its defences in order as quickly as possible. Although during recent weeks we have often been called to Canberra to sit from 3 p.m. until about 9.30 p.m., when the House has been considering unimportant measures, the business of Parliament has been so arranged that this, the most important debate of the year, involving proposals which might, perhaps, mean life or death to Australia, is being held at 4 a.m., and will be probably continued until 7 a.m. with honorable members generally somnolent. I do not blame honorable members individually, because I do not think the average human being can go on listening to speeches hour after hour right on through the night. Ever since I have been a member of this Parliament it has appeared to me that the business of Parliament has been arranged in an entirely unbusinesslike and haphazard manner. For many weeks past we have assembled here for three days a week sitting from 3. p.m. up to 9.30 p.m. and it would seem that the main idea has been to give the impression that Parliament sits so many days in the year. When minor bills are listed for consideration we sit for about four or five hours daily, yet the most important debate of the year must be carried on all through the night, ending eventually through the sheer exhaustion of honorable members. I wonder whether the councillors of countries which we have reason to fear discuss their war preparations in a similar atmosphere of lethargy, or hilarity. I suggest that they do not. Furthermore, if every other democratic country is handling its war preparations as, it would appear, from the circumstances in which this debate is taking place, we do, the death knell of democracy has been rung. I do not criticize honorable members individually. As I said before, I do not think it is humanly possible to remain alert hour after hour right through the night when the business of the Committee is conducted in this fashion. I suggest that Parliament should work the normal hours, say from 10.30 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. The objection is that that would prevent Ministers from attending to their administrative work. I have seldom seen more than one Minister at a time in this chamber during important debates, but tonight, owing to the need to keep a quorum, we have the unusual spectacle of several Ministers in the chamber.

Dealing with this budget, in which defence preparation is predominant, I offer my heartiest congratulations to the newly appointed Minister for Defence (Mr. Street). I extend to him my very best wishes in the tremendous responsibility which he is undertaking. I have no doubt he comes to this task with the advantage of greater experience in military affairs than any of his predecessors, with the exception of Sir William Glasgow.

The Minister for Defence went through the syllabus laid down for compulsory military training before the war, and during his distinguished war service was called upon to carry out most responsible duties. Since then, like many others, he has set himself, at great selfsacrifice, the task of trying to make our militia into something adequate. The great and unfair load that his predecessor was asked to carry, has been slightly reduced; nevertheless, I am still inclined to think that it is too great for any single individual to be expected to shoulder. We can, however, hope that, fortified by his extensive experience in defence matters, the load will rest more lightly on his shoulders than it would on those of another individual. My only regret about the appointment of the honorable gentleman as Minister for Defence - and his appointment is something for which I have hoped for many years - is that he is given what I consider the impossible task of making our militia into something adequate for the defence of Australia. Of that I shall say more later. I suggest to the honorable gentleman that, as soon as possible - we realize that ho cannot do it immediately - he should rectify what has been a serious omission from our defence efforts during the last couple of years, and that is, the failure of the Government to take the people of Australia into its confidence by telling them in what way an enemy, should we be at war, would seek to attack us, and in what way our defences are designed to meet the predicaments in which we might find ourselves in time of war. I feel that, if the people of Australia be told what are our dangers and how the efforts of the Government are designed to meet them, they will approve of a great deal of what is being done, but they will demand that the steps we are taking shall be complete and adequate. I take it that the Government only visualizes danger to Australia arising from raids. The Government's theory is based on the fact that so long as Singapore is in being, and so long as Great Britain can spare a few capital ships to be based on Singapore, invasion of Australia is impossible. I agree that, granted Singapore is in being and British capital ships are stationed there, the theory of raids is a sound one; but first we must prepare for these raids and, secondly, we must see that our basis for considering raids our only problem is not swept away. The limiting of our danger from raids depends on Singapore. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves carefully whether Great Britain could, in the event of a European war, send capital ships to Singapore and the necessary troops to reinforce the garrison there: I think - and I have it on reliable authority - that it is supposed that if the United Kingdom were at war in Europe, even against a very strong combination, its naval strength is at present so great that three or four battleships could be spared for (Singapore. Granted that that is so, actual invasion of Australia might well be discounted, and raids might be our only problem; but seeing what can be done by invading and landing troops, can we convince ourselves that the United Kingdom, in time of war in Europe, would be able to reinforce the garrison at Singapore so strongly that a great Asiatic power might not be able to capture or bottle it up? That is uncertain. Therefore, I feel that one of the great preparations we must make is tobe prepared to reinforce the garrison at Singapore ourselves. That would be a contribution towards the defence of the Empire that Australia could well make. Though it would be primarily looking to its own interests, nevertheless it would be a contribution of great help to the rest of the Empire. But in modern wars, as in wars of all times, fortifications thought to be impregnable do not always prove to be so. We have to visualize the possibility of Singapore falling, and of the United Kingdom being engaged in a fight for its very existence in Europe, with the result that Australia would be thrown back on its own resources. The Minister for Defence said the other day that he could not visualize a position in which the United Kingdom could not come to our aid. I think that had the question been pressed, he would have admitted that those words did not express his considered opinion. Possibly he meant that he could not visualize the time when the United Kingdom might not be willing to come to our aid, even if able to do so. I certainly can visualize the possibility of Singapore falling, as I can also visualize the possibility of the United Kingdom not being able, for a considerable time, to come to our assistance. First, we must provide for our defence against raids; secondly, we must try to see what we can do to be ready to help in the defence of Singapore if necessary ; thirdly, we must, in the last resort, be capable of defending ourselves, when control of the sea is temporarily lost, on the shores of Australia itself. That is something which I certainly do not want to see. I have seen war in other countries and I do not want to see a war fought on the shores of Australia. Therefore, we should make every effort, in co-operation with the rest of the Empire, to make it impossible for a war to come to our shores, even if one should break out in the Pacific.

First, let us examine the Government's proposal, in the light of the possibility of raids. The average man in the street who does not pretend to be a defence authority, but who is very much concerned about the need for defence says "What is the use of the five cruisers that we will shortly have in commission, when a potential enemy, the warlike and aggressive nation of Japan, has eight or nine capital ships and many cruisers ? " Accepting the raid theory, and assuming Singapore in being, the answer is that no power would risk battleships so far away from their base with opposing battleships based across their lines of communication at Singapore. That, I think, with Singapore in being, is a sound premise. What we would have to provide against is the necessity for convoying our overseas trade, and of protecting our coastal shipping; because, as many people do not know, eighteen times more of our interstate trade is carried by coastal shipping than is carried by railways. Therefore, if coastal shipping should 'be paralysed, the industrial life and the whole economy of Australia would also be paralysed. To protect our overseas trade and coastal shipping against raids our five cruisers would be invaluable. Without cruisers there would be no way by which we could protect shipping. Therefore I believe that the money which the Government is expending in this direction is being well expended. As far as the naval side is concerned, the only point in respect of which I see particular inadequacy is that, although a battle squadron might not be sent to our waters with Singapore in being, nevertheless a potential enemy might well send to these waters a couple of ships of such calibre that our cruisers would be, if not bottled up, almost completely immobilized. Of course, it might be possible for our cruisers to scatter and operate from different parts of the coastline, but their value would be reduced tremendously if ships of greater tonnage arrived in these waters. Therefore, I feel that the ideal at which we should aim, if we can possibly afford it, is the provision of two capital ships. I say two capital ships, for the simple reason that we could have two for only about 50 per cent, more than we would have to pay for one, because we would be forced to expend money not only in the purchase of the capital ship itself, but also for the purchase of ships necessary to protect it, and docks necessary to accommodate it. The provision of the money necessary for the purchase of two capital ships may be well beyond our capabilities, but what is not beyond our capacity is the provision of docking facilities for a capital ship, so that if British capital ships from Singapore, or possibly American ships, were sent to these waters we could accommodate them.

It is possible for us to have an adequate air force more easily than any other force, because the duties of the Royal Australian Air Force in time of war would not be so great as many people seem to visualize. Some people think that hecause Royal Air Force bombers have recently flown from Egypt to Darwin in little more than a day, Australia could be bombed, say, from a base situated in Japan. That idea is nonsense. Even Brisbane could not be effectively bombed by an enemy operating from a base in New Guinea. The distance at which bombing raids could be effectively carried out is very greatly exaggerated. People talk of bombing raids carried out 400 miles inside enemy country. I suggest that aviation has a considerable way to

KO before bombing raids can be success fully carried out at anything like that distance. Our Royal Australian Air Force has primarily to be designed for cooperation with our fleet in spotting raiding cruisers along our coast and to give full co-operation to our military forces in the event of a raid on our coast by an armed force. As an independent unit, its major _ duty would be to intercept such aircraft as could be despatched from enemy raiding cruisers which, after all, could only be small in number and in striking power. It should be quite easy for us to provide adequate air defences to meet that contingency. Many people' believe that Australia must have an air force which could meet in a pitched battle one of the great air forces of the world. That is not so, because no great air force could reach these shores until Australia had been practically defeated. The despatch to Australian waters of aircraft carriers is a possibility but not a probability, because one of the most vulnerable vessels afloat is the aircraft carrier. To launch an attack on a strategical objective in Australia, an aircraft carrier would have to come within about 200 miles of its objective, and, at that distance, the Royal Australian Air Force, even in its present state, which is far from what is aimed at by the Government, would be able to destroy the aircraft carrier. Therefore our air force should aim at having adequate squadrons to co-operate with the navy and back up our military forces. It should be able to protect our capital cities and other strategical points against attack by sporadic aircraft sent here from raiding cruisers or armed merchantmen. It is impossible, however, for me to say whether I think that our present air force is approaching adequacy for this purpose, because seldom a month goes by without the public hearing some entirely different story from that already published as to what will be the number of our aircraft, or as to what strength it is possible for us to build. A few months ago we were informed that our air force was being increased to the maximum to which it was possible to increase it within the couple of years of the supplementary programme, but within about three months there was a big public outcry against the condition of the air force. We were told that the air force was to be expanded by several squadrons more than what we had been told was possible. Therefore, it is almost impossible for an individual like myself, who is in the same position as the great majority of the citizens of Australia who are not taken into the confidence of our defence leaders, and have no opportunity of knowing what is happening in regard to air defence preparations, to form an opinion.

I should- like to make a very strong protest, however, against the extraordinary conduct of the Government, fo? which the present Minister for Defence (Mr. Street) cannot be blamed, with regard to the report of Sir Edward Ellington, of whose invitation to visit Australia I entirely approve. In these matters we cannot have too good advice. To me it was staggering to learn that, our own Air Board was not aware of the invitation issued to Sir Edward Ellington until we read of it in the newspapers. This was disgracefully unfair to the Air Board, as it gave the suggestion that Sir Edward Ellington had been brought out to Australia as a sort of plain-clothes man to see whether the members of the board had been good boys. The duty set him by the Government rather seemed to bear that out. I felt that the greatest benefit resulting from his visit would not lie in any report which he might present, but in the fact that every member of the air force would have opportunities to discuss at length with him their particular departmental problems. I imagined that all the senior officers of the force would have an opportunity to discuss their work with him, and to ask whether they were going on right lines, with a view to seeing whether he could make suggestions to them in the light of experience in the United Kingdom. But I have reason to suspect that Sir Edward Ellington had no conference with the Royal Australian Air Force when he was out here, and never discussed its problems with any senior member of the force. Apparently he waa put into a room with this instruction: "There is the evidence, and upon that evidence you are to report to the Prime Minister ". He was apparently given no opportunity to be helpful in any way except by reporting to the Prime Minister, and one realizes how well fitted the Prime Minister and the ex-Minister for Defence (Mr. Thorby) are to take action on a report from a great air expert!

Almost as soon as Sir Edward Ellington had left these shores, a report was handed out to the public, and, on the strength of it, the press came out with very severe criticisms of the Chief of our Air Staff and our Air Board. It is impossible for me to say whether any pf this criticism was justified, because, interested as I am in air force matters, ho Minister for Defence has given me an opportunity to discuss them. What seems monstrously unfair is that this report, containing certain criticisms of the air force, was made public without any opportunity being given the Air Board to defend itself publicly. That happened more than two months ago, yet our Air Board has not been allowed to give to the public any comment on that adverse report. It is quite possible that a report by Sir Edward Ellington might not need to be treated confidentially, but that a report critical of the Royal Australian Air Force should be made available to the public, and that neither the Minister nor the Air Board should be given an opportunity to reply to the criticism, is unfair to the board and the public. In my opinion, this is one of the most staggering of the many signs of ineptitude in regard to national leadership in Australia at the present time. Moreover, I have reason to suspect that some inner report must have been given to the press over and above that given for publication, because I have read Sir Edward Ellington's published report over and over again, and I cannot see in it anything on which to base the criticism made by several newspapers of the Chief of our Air Staff. If try any chance, the A.Ustralian metropolitan press was given further information behind the backs of the Australian public, it is quite a deplorable thing. Possibly some further information was not given. Perhaps the press drew on its imagination, and suggested that this further criticism was made; but the published report of Sir

Edward Ellington did contain criticism to which the Air Board should have been given the right to reply. I think that the Minister himself should have taken it upon himself to give an explanation to the public.

There was one criticism by Sir Edward Ellington which, with all due respect for his great reputation, was damnably unfair. I refer to his statement that Australian Air Force accidents over a couple of years had exceeded, in proportion to the time flown, the accidents in the Royal Air Force. That was true, but why was the Australian Air Board not given an opportunity to make known to the public that for the last six years those were the only two years in which Australia's record was not a very great deal better in the matter of accidents than that of the Royal Air Force? In fairness to the Australian Air Board, the personnel of our air force, and the parents of the members of the air force, who may be under the impression that service in it is more dangerous than in any other air forces, which is untrue, why was that fact not made known to the public ? The number of accidents in proportion to the distance flown is supposed to be secret - that is the custom in all air forces - but although I have not been taken into the confidence of any Minister or of the Government, I have taken sufficient interest in .the matter to put two and two together, and I challenge the Minister to deny my computation that only in two of the last six years has the Royal Air Force been better in the matter of safety than the Royal Australian Air Force. I challenge him to prove that the Royal Australian Air Force over the last six years has not had a much better record in that regard than the Royal Air Force. If the Minister was not prepared to do that in fairness to the board, the board itself should have been allowed to publish a reply to the Ellington report.

The report further stated that the flying discipline in the Royal Australian Air Force leaves much to be desired. Discipline is a matter which we have to watch very closely in our services. .Unfortunately, the press declared that the Australian army was noted, not for its discipline, but for its lack of it. In the first place that is a libel on members of the

Australian Imperial Force whose discipline generally was equal to that of any troops in the line in the Great War. On the only occasion when a lack of discipline was displayed, it was due to inexperience, and so much was learnt by the Australian troops on that occasion that their discipline was never faulty again. The myth that the Australian soldier is able to fight without discipline tends to make in any -young Australians adopt a nonchalant air in carrying out naval and military duties. But what is this flaw in flying discipline reported by Sir Edward Ellington? He suggested that out of twelve accidents, three were attributable to failure in flying discipline. I could only find two which suggest any ground for that criticism. One was a case in which an officer, who was operating with infantry, and trying to give an impression of what an aircraft attack would be like in war and to provide the infantry with an opportunity to train its machine guns on him continued his dive until . he reached a point lower than that to which he was ordered to go, dived into the ground and lost his life. Possibly he was carried, away by excessive zeal, because on numerous occasions he had dived too close to the ground, but, at worst, this was only an 'instance of excessive zeal. The next case was that of an officer who was taking part in a fly past. Each aeroplane was ordered to execute a roll at a certain point and this officer began his dive prior to the roll too early. If he had rolled at the right height, he would have executed the roll long before he reached the point at which he was ordered to do so. Therefore he continued the dive to the point at which he was ordered to do it; but by then he was loo low, and crashed into the ground. Therefore, in this case, the accident was actually due to an error of judgment rather than to lack of flying discipline. The pilot had to choose whether to roll at the height at which he had been told to do so, or at the point where he had been told to roll. Obviously, every one who wishes to be fair in his judgment in respect of this accident must put it clown to an error of judgment in deciding which of two orders should be obeyed. Both could not be obeyed. To allow the suggestion to go abroad that tho accidents were due to lack of discipline is unfair to the parents of the dead officers, in that it suggests that their lives could have been saved if proper disciplinary measures had been observed, whereas the fact is that the accidents might have happened through errors of judgment by pilots who had thousands of flying-hours of experience to their credit.

I cannot discuss the position of our air force in detail because of the mystery that surrounds it and the confused information that has been issued in respect of it. It is, in fact, impossible for any one to form a reliable estimate of whether our air force is adequate or not adequate. I simply assert that we can make it adequate more easily than we can make any other arm of the service adequate.

In regard to our military forces, 1 cannot express an opinion as optimistic even as that which I have expressed concerning our air force. I realize that a great deal has been done to provide coast defences. The public should be informed of the value of these coast defences. When people are told that so many 9.2-inch guns have been placed at certain points, they naturally ask, "What is the use of putting in 9.2-in. guns to meet attacks by ships with 12-in. guns?" I have asked the same question. But I ' have been assured that guns of lower calibre on land are capable of engaging successfully guns of higher calibre at sea. We may therefore assume that our coastal defences are of some use. But I do not think that our militia can be considered to be adequate in any respect, notwithstanding the self-sacrificing efforts of militia officers and trainees to become efficient. Even after the Minister for External Affairs (Mr. Hughes) has marched through our capital cities to the beating of drums and secured an enrolment of 70,000 men, and the men have been trained to the point of 100 per centefficiency, if that should be possible, the militia will still be inadequate to meet even raids, and it seems that raids are the only kind of assault that the Government can visualize. A militia of 70,000 men could not possibly meet some situations that may arise, for they would be too scattered for effective service. For instance, in perhaps half-a-dozen centres in my electorate groups of fifteen or twenty young men who deserve every encouragement are trying to train for military service. But they have no drill hall that they can use. The Treasurer told us recently that money for defence purposes would be found as quickly and in as large amounts as may be necessary. Yet when I have asked for funds to be made available to erect drill halls in my electorate so that the trainees may be efficiently organised, I have been told that the provision of money for that purpose is quite low in the list of priority. Seeing that we have many unemployed persons in the country and that drill halls are urgently needed, I can see no reason why works of this description should not be put in hand. One of the fundamental reasons why the militia, as at present visualized, must be inefficient is that men have to be trained in such small groups. Under a system of universal military training this would not be the case, for larger units would be available in every locality. I shall not go into greater detail on this subject at the moment, exceptto say that we must effect a tremendous improvement of the conditions of militia training before we can even hope for efficiency. Money must be found to provide training facilities. I fear that it will never be possible for a force of 70,000 militia men, even trained to 100 per cent. efficiency, to resist raids effectively. Obviously an enemy about to raid Australia would aim at Newcastle. If the Newcastle steel works were destroyed Australia would be almost helpless to carry on a war. I have made a rough mental calculation, and I estimate that Newcastle's proportion of militia, under the 70,000 scheme, would be about 4,600 men. Recent experience has shown us that the Japanese have been easily able to land forces of from 30,000 to 50,000 men on the coast of China for raiding purposes. About 2,000 oriental troops may be carried on an ordinary troopship. If an enemy wished to raid Newcastle there is little doubt that it would equip a force of between 5,000 and 10,000 troops for the purpose. Newcastle's quota of militiamen of 4,600 would be practically useless if an attack of that description were launched.


Mr Street - I remind the honorable member that the 70,000 men are to be only the nucleus of a first-line component of 120,000 men.


Mr FAIRBAIRN - I ask the Minister for Defence (Mr. Street) whether he expects his force of 70,000 to grow or to dwindle. In my opinion it will dwindle. I question whether, unless we had compulsory military training, we should be able to maintain an effective force. Numbers of men would be continually passing into reserves under compulsory training. I have inspected a militia regiment in Gippsland in my electorate recently and I suggest to honorable gentlemen, who may think that our militia is a laughable force, that they also should take an opportunity to inspect this Gippsland regiment. If they do so they will find the men equal in physique and personnel to any regiment of the Australian Imperial Force. These men are also displaying a remarkable enthusiasm. Many ex-Australian Imperial Force men are included in the personnel, but these units have no reserves. If we reverted to compulsory military training we should be able to maintain an effective force and also have in reserve, after the lapse of some years, a large number of men in every part of Australia capable of rushing to the defence of the country at short notice if they were needed. I suggest that the Government's scheme for a militia of 70,000 would not provide a force capable of repelling attacks at vital and strategic points in this country.

I thank honorable members for the forbearance they have displayed in listening to my remarks at this early hour of the morning. I wish now to make a few observations, in conclusion, concerning Singapore. Will the Government tell us what it proposes to do to organize a proper volunteer force to reinforce Singapore if that course should ever be necessary?







Suggest corrections