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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 398


Senator MASON(3.32) —From time to time there are bizarre happenings in government, and they occur too often. This is one such case. Certainly one of the most honoured shrines and institutions in the country has become involved in the past few months in an imbroglio of controversy and disputation, much of it at a nitpicking level-and that has not been helpful-when none of this to my mind should have been necessary. It goes back to a wrong approach. The Government, with all respect to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt), seems to me to have handled this matter with no delicacy, and that is the understatement of the year. If it had been handled with some delicacy from the beginning, the problems would never have arisen.

It is worth looking briefly at what happened so that we may hopefully learn from that experience. A Minister of the Crown and a distinguished Australian ex-serviceman somehow were placed in a confrontation situation publicly, and having got into that situation they found it difficult to retreat from it. I gather from what I read in the media that the matter is not yet over, and that there are other actions between the individuals concerned which will carry this matter on and which will not in the long term rebound to the credit or benefit of any of the people concerned.

It is easy to be wise after the event and I do not want to place myself in that position. I do not make these remarks in any sense of smugness or anything like that, but I feel that there is room for some sort of conciliatory area in cases of this kind. Maybe it could be provided somewhere in the Public Service. I do not know quite how it could be done, but it should be possible in a case like this where obviously there were problems to begin with, where the Minister quite honestly, I am sure, believed that he had a problem and where Air Vice-Marshal Flemming also thought he had a problem. I feel that both men did not understand each other's position. Because they are different personalities and their views of the world and its values are probably quite different in many respects, they found that they were attacking each other, with what appeared to be good will and good faith. Unfortunately, that situation occurs regularly on this planet, but it ought not to. It should be within our ability in a place like this, or indeed within any area of government, to see that it does not happen.

I feel that there should be some sort of area, be it informal or formal, of conciliation when there is friction between a member of this Parliament, a Minister perhaps, and a senior public servant. Surely it should be possible for that group, before the matter hits the fan, before it gets to the Parliament, and before it gets to the Press, to negotiate on some amicable basis. Then that group itself could establish, without formal inquiries and in an informal way, the truth of the matter. If that group felt that it was too big for it to handle and that it was a really serious problem, the matter could go to inquiry. It is right and proper that that should happen. I suspect, perhaps wrongly, that this case was not quite like that. This one would have been amenable to some sort of persuasion or resolution if it had been negotiated earlier by people quite apart from the main protagonists. They might then have been able to come to the main protagonists and say: `In our view, the situation could best be dealt with like this'. I am not in any way canvassing this as a rerun of the past, and I put it purely as a hypothetical case. That group might have said to the Minister: `This is a matter on which we know you have a problem, but could we leave it for a while? Do not force it for the time being'. That same group-and again I am not canvassing the matter-might have gone to Air Vice-Marshal Flemming and said: `There is a problem here. We know that you think that you are right and believe that what you are doing is right, there is an intractable problem and it will run us all into trouble if we go on with it. What about it? Perhaps after a certain amount of time you might want to get your beach cottage and go fishing'. Such a situation might well have resulted, and if that had happened it would have been so much better for the reputation of the War Memorial, for the people concerned, for this Parliament and for the dignity of our proceedings here.

I hope that two things will happen about the Flemming case-and here I am in some sort of disagreement with Senator Durack. I do not see that much will be rescued out of the individual case. There are court actions arising from this, as I understand from the media. I do not think that much will be achieved for Air Vice-Marshal Flemming by pressing this further. Although I agree with many of Senator Durack's comments, what preferably should happen is that nothing of this kind happens again in the same way. One should learn from experience and certainly it should be possible to learn from experience. On this matter, of all matters, I think that should be the case. If any Minister or senior member of parliament in this place has a problem of that kind and such a problem blows up again, could not some machinery be instituted to see that it does not become a public scandal for public debate, with all sorts of issues coming out which do not present any of the protagonists with dignity or charity? I would like to feel that some mechanism existed to deal with the matter before it reached that stage.

Debate (on motion by Senator Peter Baume) adjourned.

Senate adjourned at 3.39 p.m.