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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4215

Mr SOMLYAY (6:55 PM) —While this motion is expressed in broad terms, it is specifically about recognition of those Royal Australian Navy submarine personnel who participated in ‘intelligence collection missions’ in the period from 1978 to 1992. I am pleased that the member for Bradfield and former defence minister, Brendan Nelson, will be speaking on this motion as well. As defence minister he came to my electorate and met with one of these submarine commanders, so he has an intimate knowledge of the subject. I note, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you will also speak on this motion.

We expect much of the members of our armed forces. In return, the Australian government, on behalf of the people, must recognise that service. This motion seeks to do just that. As a nation we need to recognise appropriately those who served their country in these specific missions between 1978 and 1992. Successive governments have failed to act. This motion seeks the recognition of those RAN submarine personnel who participated in these missions.

During the period 1978 to 1992, the Royal Australian Navy submarines conducted intelligence collection missions in areas to the north and north-west of Australia and in areas outside of Australia’s sphere of influence but in areas of perceived threat. These missions were conducted at the height of the Cold War. They were also conducted as war patrols. Submariners have told me that the then Chief of the Defence Force acknowledged this fact by his instructions to his commanding officers stating that ‘in the event of capture by foreign nationals the Commanding Officer was to seek POW status’. I am advised that the CDF believed that such status, if granted, could result in better treatment for the men. POW, of course, means ‘prisoner of war’. These were certainly not normal peacetime operations or exercises and this was definitely not the normal practice. These were warlike operations.

The submariners who undertook these missions in this period have at no stage been permitted to discuss these secret missions in any detail. It is ironic perhaps that the matter was discussed in great detail in an article by Geoffrey Barker in the Financial Review Magazine dated December 2003. A number of books on the Cold War activities of the US and British submarine forces have now also been published. These submarine missions were ‘undeclared operations’, with only the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence of the day having knowledge within government of the operations. These operations were not included in any defence exercise program and were controlled exclusively by the Chief of the Defence Force.

These intelligence collection missions were only stopped, according to this article by Geoffrey Barker, by the then Minister for Defence and the then Prime Minister in 1992 because one of the submarines on such a mission apparently came close to creating a diplomatic incident. These missions lasted up to five weeks or more, and a policy of total electronic emission silence was imposed during such a mission. Geoffrey Barker in his article points out that life on these submarines was lonely and isolated, as well as perilous. While no-one can take away from the fact that it takes a special person to take up the challenge as a member of a submarine crew, I emphasise that these particular missions were different from normal peacetime exercises. When on these secret missions the submariners had no communications with family. Personal bad news was withheld from crew members until patrols ended.

With intelligence collection as their priority task, their whereabouts while on the task was unknown to anyone but themselves. If, while ‘collecting’, a submarine had suffered an accident or had been attacked and thus damaged or sunk, the search area for the ADF to find the submarine would have covered millions of square miles in foreign waters.

Again, Geoffrey Barker notes that despite the submarine being designed to accommodate a crew of five officers and the 57 ratings, these missions contained more than 75 people on board. In addition to the normal complement there were always some submarine service trainees and civilians operating specialised intelligence collection equipment. He noted that during the patrols perhaps not more than 10 people on board would know the boat’s location. A curtain was placed around the chart table to discourage curious crew members. This is not fantasy from an Ian Fleming novel; this is what our Australian submariners endured. These operations were conducted in warlike conditions, not peacetime exercise—in other words, active service.

Their families, or the general public, may never have known if an entire RAN submarine crew was lost at sea or was in a foreign prison camp, had one of these submarines been compromised during such a mission. During these secret missions at the height of the Cold War our submarines entered other nations’ areas of interest and were told they could penetrate territorial waters of those nations if the intelligence collection potential warranted such action. This was effectively authorisation for that submarine to commit a hostile act. Perhaps this is why these men have been denied the recognition they deserve, which is active service. Those submarines were part of the dark side of the politics of the Cold War. Their service to the national interest should be recognised and not just shoved aside and put in the too-hard basket because we might upset some countries who are now our friends.

In Australia we have a system of recognising those who participated in active service and served their country. They are recognised publicly by the award of the Australian Active Service Medal. To quote from the official Australian government website:

The Australian Active Service Medal recognises service of Australian Defence Force …

…            …            …

The medal is awarded with a clasp to denote the prescribed operation.

This medal has been awarded to our service men and women who have served in areas such as Kuwait, Cambodia, Vietnam, East Timor, Namibia and Somalia. The main difference is that these operations were in the public arena whereas the submarine operations were part of the Cold War. The Australian government deployed them in the national interest and their service should be recognised.

As a member of the Howard government, I was disappointed that the service of these crews was not recognised by that government in a timely way. Since the election of the Rudd government I have continued to bring this matter to the minister’s attention, to have this service by these submariners recognised. This is nothing to do with party politics; this is about justice. The correct and appropriate recognition should be either to award an Australian Active Service Medal with Special Operations clasp to the crews on these missions—thus granting full active service status—or to recognise submariners under the terms of the award of a new medal similar to that being discussed for SAS personnel for their special operations in the 1980s, which apparently includes active service recognition. It would not be difficult to classify these special operation missions and grant active service status for our submarine personnel. We do not expect that submariners will face similar conditions in the future to those which they faced in the Cold War, but if that did happen in some future era submariners could expect recognition of their service.

I am happy to say that today I have been advised there has been real progress in the process of recognition of the missions undertaken by these submariners. This is the right thing for Australia to do, and I look forward to this announcement from the government in the near future.