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Wednesday, 16 September 1942

Mr DRAKEFORD (MaribyrnongMinister for Air) (12:25 PM) . - Honorable members have raised a number of issues in connexion with this matter on which I do not feel competent to offer an opinion. I occupy the position of Minister controlling the department in which Aircraftman Falstein is serving, and it is my duty 1k> see that the law enacted by this Parliament is upheld. I cannot do anything else. This is a painful subject for me as it is for other honorable members. I am concerned that any member of this Parliament should be involved in something which gives rise to a great deal of criticism. The honorable member for Melbourne (Mr. Calwell) covered a wide field in introducing this subject, and made a number of statements, or allegations, concerning which I know nothing. Some of his statements would appear to be based on hearsay, but whether or not he knows that they have foundation in fact I cannot say. I imagine that he has taken some steps to verify them, but I have no knowledge of the facts. Reference has been made to Squadron Leader Gorrie, who is alleged to have provoked the situation which has caused a sentence of 2>S days to be imposed on Aircraftman Falstein. I do not know anything about what Squadron Leader Gorrie had to do in the matter, except that he is the officer who was directly responsible for the observance of discipline, and that when a dispute took place he had the duty of hearing Aircraftman Falstein. Out of that hearing some argument appears to have arisen, with the result that certain charges were made. Other than certain allegations, no charges have been made against Squadron Leader Gorrie. There are no charges against him under the Air Force Act. If that officer has done something wrong he can be charged. Nothing has come to my notice to prove that he had taken advantage of his position. That puts me in a difficult position in dealing with the representation of honorable members who urge that action should be taken by me. I have no power to take action, because the Air Force laws provide clearly the course that is open to any person who has been dealt with by a properly constituted tribunal. I think that it would be disadvantageous to the person concerned for me to offer any opinion on the merits of the case, or on the statement furnished to the House.

Mr Rosevear - Has not the Minister an overriding authority?

Mr DRAKEFORD - No. There w no such overriding authority in respect of the Navy, the Army or the Air Force. Honorable members ought to acquaint themselves with the powers of Ministers before they make such suggestions. Under section 57 of the Air Force Act Aircraftman Falstein has the right of appeal to the Air Board, and subsequently to the Governor-General, if he so desires.

Mr Calwell - The Governor-General means the Governor-General in Council, which in fact means the Minister.

Mr DRAKEFORD - In previous cases which have occurred since I have been Minister that right of appeal was exercised, and it resulted in a reduction of the sentence in each case. Aircraftman Falstein may appeal immediately, and should he do so his appeal will be heard expeditiously. One thing that the Minister can do is to expedite the proceedings which may arise out of the charges. The Minister, however, has no right to interfere with the decision of a tribunal. I am prepared to take whatever criticism is offered for declining to interfere. I do not propose to interfere with the decision. I regard it as my duty to see that the Air Force laws are upheld and are properly observed. Should there be evidence that they have not been properly observed, I should regard it as my duty to see that action is taken to see that they are observed. As Aircraftman Falstein has the right of appeal, first to the Air Board, and, if he so desires, subsequently to the GovernorGeneral, I do not think that I should take any action at this stage. As honorable members have suggested that he was tried by persons with certain sympathies, I place before the House the particulars of the positions and service of the members of the court. The President, Wing-Commander G. Mitchell, was a pilot in the war of 1.914-18, and is a qualified barrister. The second member was Squadron Leader F. L. Rothe, who was a member of the Australian Imperial Force in 1917 and of the Australian Flying Corps in 191S. The third member was Flight

Lieutenant D. A.. Levy, who was a member of the Irish Guards before and during the war of 1914-18, and held a commission.

Mr Rosevear - Why was the officer so concerned about what Aircraftman Falstein would say?

Mr DRAKEFORD - I have not seen any evidence on that subject, although I do not suggest that the honorable member for Dalley (Mr. Rosevear) has not some evidence to justify his statements.

Mr Rosevear - The story has appeared in the press.

Mr DRAKEFORD - The only newspaper report that I have read was that in the Sydney Morning Herald. The men who were appointed to try this case had experience in the last war, but whether or not they had certain sympathies I do not know. However, in view of the fact that their decision is open to review by two authorities, it is the duty of friends of Aircraftman Falstein to advise him to take action, rather than suggest that the Minister should exercise an authority which he does not possess, thereby bringing himself and the Government into disrepute.

Mr Calwell - The appeal to the Governor-General really means an appeal to the Minister.

Mr DRAKEFORD - The appeal to the Governor-General may be made only after an appeal has been made to the Air Board. As it has been suggested that that body might be influenced by rigid adherence to outworn traditions and prejudice, I mention that during the last four or five months several new members have been appointed to the Air Board.

Mr Archie Cameron - By the present Government.

Mr DRAKEFORD - These new appointees are not likely to be influenced by traditions. I repeat that this is a very painful subject to me, because the person concerned is a colleague and a member of the party to which I belong. That, however, does not give me the right to depart, from the principles which I accepted when I became a Minister and when I undertook to uphold the laws controlling the department which I administer.

Mr Sheehan - Was not the sentence too severe for the offence ?

Mr DRAKEFORD - On that subject I express no opinion. I ask the honorable member for Cook (Mr. Sheehan) to try to place himself in my position. The merits of the sentence can be dealt with by two authorities, and their aid should be invoked before anything else is done. According to my ability, I shall endeavour to see that justice is done without delay, and that every man in the department under my control gets a fair deal.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

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