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Thursday, 10 September 1942

Mr MULCAHY (Lang) .- I bring to the notice of the Minister for the Army (Mr. Forde) certain matters affecting the administration of his department. I am aware of the need to maintain discipline in the forces, but I am informed that in certain cases harsh sentences have been imposed upon soldiers for offences which do not call for severity. Great distress has been occasioned to some parents by reason of the fact that their sons who have been called up on reaching the age of eighteen years or thereabouts, have been sent away to forward battle stations. I brought a case of the kind to the notice of the Minister a day or two ago. I wish now to bring to his attention the treatment meted out to a young man who had lived in a sheltered home. He fought in Libya and was in Tobruk during its seven months' seige. He enlisted when he was a little more than seventeen years of age. After his seven months service in Tobruk, he was granted two days' leave. His pay- book showed that he had a credit of £57 at the time. Unfortunately, he did not return to his unit in two days, but was absent for nine days, and it seems that during that period he altered his paybook so that it showed a credit of £59. At that time he was just over eighteen years of age, and had not long left hospital after an operation for hernia. On his return to his unit he was required to appear before a military tribunal, and was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. In the meantime he was transferred back to Australia. When his ship arrived at Durban he and five or six companions who were ordered to be detained on the ship went ashore to see the city. Apparently their guard went with them. They were absent for 24 hours. Subsequently this man was court-martialled and a Major Courteney sentenced him to another twelve months' imprisonment. On his arrival in Sydney he was sent to Long Bay gaol. I have no information about the offences for which men are generally imprisoned at Long Bay, but, I ask the Minister for the Army to inquire whether Long Bay is a proper place for this young man to be sent, and whether the offences of which he was found guilty justified such a vicious sentence. I do not know Major Courteney, but I am informed that he gives very little attention to the cases brought before him and is accustomed to sentence prisoners to six, twelve or eighteen months imprisonment for minor misdemeanours without giving them the opportunity to state their case.

Mr Beck - That cannot happen at a court-martial.

Mr MULCAHY - I know that courts.marital in Australia are very fair, and that a man charged with an offence has a better chance of getting off if tried before a court-martial than if tried in a civil court. However, I do not know anything about courts-martial held on board ship. I believe that the sentence imposed in this case was a vicious one, having regard particularly to the fact that this young man had served for seven months at Tobruk, and was only eighteen years of age when he left there. Upon my application, the Minister was good enough to have him removed to a prison farm, where he is now serving his sentence. That is not so bad, but I still think that the sentence was too heavy, and that it ought to be reviewed. I have here a letter from a man, not a relative of the soldier, but a man who fought in the last war, and who now holds a responsible position in New South Wales. This man, Mr. Brock, said that he visited the soldier last Sunday, and learned from him that there were five other soldiers in prison, all of whom had served together at Tobruk. One of them is serving his sentence in Goulburn Gaol. The major in question has the reputation of being a very hard man, and a strict disciplinarian. I recognize that we must have discipline in the Army, but I think that men who went through the hell of Libya are entitled to special consideration. I understand that two of the men referred to have been sentenced to four years' imprisonment. I do not know why ; they may have committed serious crimes, but the offence of the young men who left the ship at Durban, when all his comrades had been given leave, and possibly his guards also, was not so serious as to -warrant imprisonment for twelve months. The Minister should review these sentences, and take steps to ensure that men who have served in Libya are allowed to return to their units, where they are needed so much. Surely, in the light of their overseas' experience, such men are invaluable. This friend, who visited the young soldier in prison, states that, instead of being in prison, he should have been examined by a medical doctor "with experience in the study of nervous conditions. Writing of the young soldier, he states -

He was one of the gallant few repeatedly chosen to patrol and penetrate the enemy lines each night outside the boundary.

He is only a youngster after all - not yet nineteen years of age. I trust that the Minister will look into his case, and see what can be done.

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