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Thursday, 2 August 1934

Mr LATHAM (Kooyong) (AttorneyGeneral and Minister for External Affairs) . - The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin) has challenged the need for this provision for the defence of Australia. I agree with him that, if honorable members were satisfied that there is no need for such armament, it would be wrong to approve of it.

Mr Scullin - I did not say that there is no need, but that we have the right to consider every aspect of the matter.

Mr LATHAM - I had not the slightest intention to misrepresent the right honorable gentleman. I agree with him that it is for this Parliament to consider the need for what is proposed in these Estimates. But he has moved for the deletion of this item, thus implying that in his view there is no need for the provision of this cruiser.

Mr Scullin - I gave as my reason the necessity for consideration being given to the matter by the new Parliament.

Mr LATHAM - As the right honorable gentleman has given reasons, I am able to deal with his proposition more readily than would have been the case had he left the matter " in the air ". He has referred to the Disarmament Conference and it is partly on that account that I have risen at the present stage of the debate. I attended the Disarmament Conference for the purpose of representing Australia, and I recall that I left this country in March, 1932. We are now in the month of July, 1934, yet that conference, most unfortunately, has reached no decisions or conclusions. When I left Australia I hoped to take part in a conference that would open up a new era for the world; that the peoples of the world would see that, if only they could remove some of the causes of misappre- hension and mistrust that were separating them, some of which appear to many of us to be artificial and unreal, there would be a chance of mankind being relieved largely of the cost of armaments, the possibility of competition in armaments, and the risk of war which a system of competitive armaments inevitably involves.

Mr Watkins - I thought that the last war was to end war !

Mr LATHAM - There were many who hoped that it would end war. But we have to deal with the world as it is, and not as we would hope it to be. Most unfortunately, other elements have been added lately to the disturbing international conditions, and nations such as the United States of America have had to pay attention even to their internal armaments in order to provide for the security of their own people. Other nations also have had to take similar steps. To-day the nations of the world are in a state of misapprehension and mutual suspicion. I do not wish to say anything that might add to the fears that are entertained; but without exaggerating anything I say that we have to recognize that nations must be prepared to defend themselves and that the Disarmament Conference, at present at all events, cannot be looked to for an immediate alleviation of the position.

The first duty of the Government of any self-respecting country is to see that adequate provision is made for the security of its people. The difficulty is that, with each nation having the same view, and the same right to provide for its defence, there is a risk of armaments being provided on a competitive basis. We can only look for an increasing determination on the part of the people of the world that they will see to it that in taking proper measures for their own protection they do not run the risk of adopting measures which may ultimately result in their destruction. But until there is a further realization of the need for united action to decrease armaments no country can afford to neglect the taking of adequate defensive measures against external attack. I have not abandoned hope that good results will follow from the Disarmament Conference, but I must admit that it has disappointed our expectations. We have, accordingly, to consider the steps to be taken for the proper defence of Australia. I believe that a very large number of our citizens are to-day anxious and nervous about the position.

The Leader of the Opposition has given reasons for his opinion that, whatever might be deemed necessary for defensive purposes, the building of a cruiser is not necessary. I do -not suggest that the right honorable member is not prepared to make provision for defence, according to his own views on the subject. He advanced the opinion that the greatest risk that Australia has to provide against was that of raids. I have had the opportunity to devote a considerable amount of attention to this subject iu Australia and elsewhere, and I know that it is agreed by those who have the technical knowledge and training necessary to express reliable opinions on the subject that warships are a necessary means to afford protection against raids, riot only upon coastal towns, upon which a few shells might be fired, after which the attackers run away again, but also upon commerce. To counter such raids warships are necessary, as well as the provision advocated by the Leader of the Opposition. Some people are very enthusiastic about the value of aeroplanes for defensive purposes, and others advocate very strongly the provision of shore defence. The best opinion of those qualified to speak on the subject is that each of these arms of defence is necessary with a due measure of coordination between them. One of the fundamental dangers in relying wholly upon aircraft or any form of shore defences, however powerful, is that their action is affected, and often vitally affected, by weather conditions. Seacraft are not subject to the same disadvantage. Weather conditions may entirely prevent the utilization of aeroplanes and shore defences. In the case of a fog or a mist, or operations during the night time, aircraft and shore defences may be entirely useless, whereas under such conditions mobile seacraft may be used in order to resist raids. The possession of such seacraft would place the defenders of a country in a much stronger position than they could be in without them. It. must be remembered that attack mav come upon a country and upon its trade routes from hundreds of miles beyond its coasts. The opinion of the high authorities in Great Britain, with whom I have had the opportunity to discuss this subject, is that all three arms of defence are necessary, and that it is unsafe to rely solely upon any one of them.

The Assistant Minister (Mr. Francis) will deal with what the Leader of thu Opposition has said concerning the relative cost of a cruiser constructed in Australia and one constructed abroad. I wish to make only one observation. Any one who has been on board a modern warship and observed the intricate and complicated mechanism of which it consists must have recognized that a very highly specialized degree of skill is required in its design and construction. I do not think that any one would suggest that we can draw upon such skill in Australia. A warship is completely different from a merchant ship. The electrical wiring alone is extraordinarily complicated, and for its design and installation requires the most specialized skill. The highest degree of naval architectural ability is necessary to design and construct a modern warship, and it is not to be had in Australia. In any case it would take four years to construct such a vessel in this country if the necessary experts were brought from overseas. The cruiser Brisbane became over age in 1932 and if we decide to retain her, and not obtain a new cruiser, Great Britain will be required, under the terms of the existing naval treaty, to scrap a better vessel. By undertaking the obligation to purchase and maintain a vessel such as is now proposed, we shall be keeping the Empire's naval force at the full strength in cruisers permitted under the existing agreement. I might add that some further naval assistance from Australia to the fleet of the Empire is long overdue if we are to do our fair share. This cruiser will be of the most up-to-date type, and it may be as valuable as the Australia and the Sydney were. I was rather astonished to hear the Leader of the Opposition say that the only engagement that certain Australian warships had taken part in were the Hobart Regatta and the Melbourne Cup.

Mr Scullin - That was merely in reply to the urgency argument.

Mr LATHAM - The man who says that because for the last few years we have not been required to engage in a naval war we can afford to act as though there will never be another naval engagement in which Australia will be concerned, does not realize the position.

Mr Scullin - I hope the AttorneyGeneral will not misrepresent my argument.

Mr LATHAM - Everyone knows that a warship may never be required to go into action. I should be glad indeed if I knew that there would never be another naval action in the history of the world ; but no one can pretend to foresee the future. The fact that in the past some of our vessels have not been required to take part in naval engagementsis no guarantee that our fleet will never again be required to do so. I shall say now something that I have long desired an appropriate opportunity to say. As a citizen of the Commonwealth and a member of this Parliament I have become very tired of the cheap jokes and sneers published in sections of the press and uttered by certain individuals about our fleet always being in the principal cities of Australia at a time when they are filled with visitors from the country because some special event is about to happen. These entirely unworthy jokes about the members of the fleet attending a Regatta or a Cup are to be strongly deprecated. It is a good thing to provide opportunities for the personnel of the fleet to meet as many of our citizens as possible.

Mr Scullin - Socially ?

Mr LATHAM - Yes, socially; and on the flat and the hill as well as on the lawns. The naval service should be made as attractive as possible. We should not attempt to keep the navy away from the people. I should like io give our fellow citizens every opportunity to see the Royal Australian Navy so that they may develop a proper pride in it. I offerno apologies for the practice of arranging for the fleet to visit the ports of the capital cities at special times. I think it is a good thing for both the fleet and the people. I have been in many countries of the world where the people are very proud of their navy, army and air force as the defenders of their rights and liberties. That should be the spirit of Austraia.

Our armaments are for purely defensive purposes. No one can suggest that there is the slightest idea of aggression in the hearts or minds of our people. Our forces should be of such a kind and character as will enable them effectively to discharge their functions if, most unfortunately, it should become necessary for us to defend ourselves. .1 do not think that one member of this House desires armaments for their own sake'. We all deplore the necessity for expenditure of this nature, and could readily suggest other avenues for spending money which would be more desirable in many ways ; but the first duty of the Government and the Parliament is to make provision for the defence of the country. I ask the committee to approve of this item because it is an indication that the Government is recognizing that its primary duty is to defend the Commonwealth. [ also ask honorable members to believe that the best advice available anywhere in the world was obtained before this proposal was formulated.

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