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Thursday, 13 April 1961

Mr REYNOLDS (Barton) .- Mr. Deputy Speaker,at the outset of his speech, the honorable member for Barker (Mr. Forbes) referred to what he regarded as unwarranted attacks made on the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) in his absence. It will not require much effort on the part of members to remember that when Dr. Evatt, as Australian Minister for External Affairs, had to go abroad in time of stress, he was severely criticized by honorable members opposite many times during his absence. They did not reserve their criticism until the right honorable gentleman was present in this place. However, I do not want to dwell on matters raised by the honorable member for Barker.

It seems to me that three main issues have been raised in respect of South Africa in this debate. In the first place, the Opposition particularly, although it has no monopoly in this, has drawn attention to what it regards as the incompetence of the Prime Minister as Minister for External Affairs, especially his exhibition of incompetence in injuring our relations with other nations. The second issue involved in the South African affair is the whole modern concept of national sovereignty. The third issue - one to which I intend to refer only briefly - is the advantages and disadvantages of South Africa's withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

Taking the first issue of the Prime Minister's gross incompetence. as I will call it, in his part-time task as Minister for External Affairs. I believe that the most grave criticism that can be made against him is that he has undermined respect for this country among other nations, especially the new nations of Asia and Africa. In this regard it is not necessary to rely on the testimony of the Opposition. It is all very well to get up and talk about the political motives that might prompt criticism from this side of the House, but I wonder what judgment honorable members opposite will pass on the criticism offered by one of their own members. I refer to the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes) - a most significant member of this Parliament - who is the chairman of the Government's own Foreign Affairs Committee. If any honorable member thinks that anything that the Opposition has done has been actuated by political considerations, let him ask himself what were the motives of the honorable member for Chisholm - I repeat that he is the chairman of the Government's Foreign Affairs Committee - who, only yesterday in this House, referred to the Prime Minister in these terms -

I think that he is to be congratulated on the statement that he made to this House. Unfortunately, however, the document cannot be treated as a separate statement entirely, because it is really only a further chapter in a book much of which has already been written. Again, unfortunately, in my opinion, the earlier chapters have done far more damage than this latest one can repair. It is our job to repair the rest of the damage as soon as possible.

Speaking of the earlier statements made by the Prime Minister at the Australia Club dinner in London and at his press conference in London on 19th March, the honorable member went on to say -

.   . they produced disastrous impressions which have travelled far and wide across the world.

That is the very thing about which the Opposition is concerned - and very genuinely concerned. We are not making a personal attack on the Prime Minister. This is not the first occasion on which the Opposition, as well as other organs in the community, has had to direct attention to the lamentable failure of the Prime Minister in his excursions abroad - and especially to his failures in the field of external affairs. Still vivid is our recollection of the time just a few years ago when the right honorable gentleman lent himself to an excursion to see President Nasser of Egypt over the Suez Canal crisis. He followed that up a few years later by his excursion last year to the United Nations, when he lent himself to the proposal before the General Assembly of an amendment that gave affront to all Asian nations and, indeed, was able to enlist the support of only four nations apart from Australia. We all have vivid recollections of the severe criticism directed at our Prime Minister on that occasion by Pandit Nehru.

So this is not just an isolated instance. I am sure that the honorable member for Chisholm had that in mind. But I suggest, in all honesty, that the thing which he had most in mind was the behaviour of our Prime Minister subsequent to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference held in London recently. The honorable member had in mind vivid recollections of the Prime Minister's petulance when he was frustrated and rebuffed in the carrying out of his ideas about what should be done concerning South Africa. These are the things that have moved not only the Australian Labour Party but also many people outside this Parliament and, indeed, as I have said, even members of the Government parties within the Parliament. Is it suggested that the honorable member for Chisholm is interested in getting rid of our Prime Minister? That is the sort of suggestion to which honorable members opposite appear to be lending themselves.

In all our consideration of this matter, we remember and respect the law of primacy by which first impressions are the ones that usually have the most effect. The honorable member for Chisholm was quite right when he said that a lot more effort is required to get rid of an impression of this kind than is required to create the impression in the first place. That is the great regret that members of the Australian Labour Party and, I am sure, the Australian community generally have about this matter. However, that is not to say anything about the somersaults that occurred afterwards and the impression of utter cynicism and expediency that was given by the Prime Minister on many occasions when he talked about the policy of apartheid being a domestic affair. Having done that, in almost the next breath he instructed our delegate to the United Nations to support sanctions against South Africa. That is the sort of thing that moved even the " Sydney Morning Herald ", which began its editorial in the issue of 10th April in this fashion -

Nobody can doubt now that our Prime Minister is a political acrobat of awe-inspiring virtuosity.

The last two sentences of this editorial also are worth quoting. They read -

Last week our critics could say that we were wrong but honest. Now, belatedly, we are right, but for the worst possible reasons.

Our Asian neighbours and, indeed, many other countries of the world must have gained an impression of complete cynicism on this Government's part. One would almost believe that the Government got the word right at the last minute that more than 90 other nations intended to support in the United Nations the resolution condemning apartheid and that only Portugal and perhaps Australia intended to vote against it. Having heard that, of course, the Prime Minister went against all his earlier affirmations, ducked for cover and pulled in, perhaps for the first time in this unhappy affair, other senior Cabinet Ministers to share the somersault with him. This sort of thing is commonplace. The Prime Minister brings in his Cabinet Ministers when something unpopular is to be done, but he takes the popular measures upon himself.

Mr Downer - That is a complete misrepresentation.

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