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Wednesday, 21 October 1964

Senator CAVANAGH (South Australia) . - One regrets that he has to come to the defence of a colleague in another place on a question that has not reached a degree of importance sufficient to justify the speech that the Minister for Works (Senator Gorton) has just made on the motion for the adjournment of the Senate. The accusation was made that the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Benson) had not been captain of a ship on an exercise such as that which took place on the night of the "Voyager" disaster. Mr. Benson replied to show that he was not, as the popular term puts it, a " has been " and was not without some knowledge of command of an aircaft carrier no matter where it might have been. Apparently the Minister for Works was in some embarrassment tonight because he could not be exonerated entirely from responsibility for his statement that Mr. Benson had no knowledge of these matters. Here was a man with at least some experience of what happened in the case of the " Voyager ".

The Minister said it was possible - and he put it no higher than possible - that Mr. Benson had had certain experience. Then he immediately said that he had some doubt whether Mr. Benson was speaking the truth yesterday. Then the Minister made a series of statements concerning what Mr. Benson should do. apparently in the full belief that Mr. Benson cannot comply with the conditions stipulated by the Minister and so would stand condemned. Mr. Benson does not stand condemned as he stated his qualifications in the House of Representatives and what he said in the House has not been denied tonight. It has been stated that it is possible that he had the experience that he claimed. No one is denying that he was commander of a particular carrier. Mr. Benson has said that he has not tried to exaggerate his qualifications and if one considers the activities of Mr. Benson, one must accept that he has some knowledge of naval manoeuvring and possibly is more competent than any other man in this place to analyse the report of the Royal Commission which investigated the calamity involving H.M.A.S. " Voyager ".

If the Minister has some feeling of guilt that he may be responsible, or that the statements of Mr. Benson might have caused some suspicion about the handling of the Department of the Navy by the present Minister for Works prior to this unfortunate incident, I do not think the Minister has achieved anything tonight in trying to discredit Mr. Benson as a person capable of giving an opinion on the disaster. Mr. Benson's opinion had serious repercussions in the Department of the Navy. The question could have been left alone at this time but the Minister for Works cannot exonerate himself in respect of the whole matter by giving guarantees of what he will do in certain circumstances which he knows cannot arise. It is the Minister who has made this statement who should be discredited. It is clear that Mr. Benson has operated in certain exercises as a result of which he at least knows something about the relevant naval manoeuvre.

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