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Thursday, 24 September 1942


Mr HARRISON (Wentworth) . - I commend the honorable member for New England (Mr. Abbott) for his excellent speech in directing attention to the state of affairs that exists in New Guinea. Although I do not go quite so far as he went, I say that the Minister should note fully the points that he raised; because the public has been lulled into a false sense of security by the extraordinarily optimistic .statements that have been issued in regard to the situation in New Guinea.


Mr Calwell - Not by the Government.


Mr HARRISON - By the Government's advisers. As far away as the other side of the world, those who appreciate the lack of strategy have been unsparing in their criticism of the foolishly optimistic statements that have been made in regard to New Guinea. Those made prior to the fall of Malaya and Singapore furnish the only parallel. I join with the honorable member for New England in saying to the Minister that the present position in regard to New Guinea is wholly and solely due to the Administration that occupies the treasury bench at the moment. It is not yet too late for that Administration to take an active interest in the lack of strategy displayed. If the Minister should find that the text-book strategy of the last war is being applied, he should place in charge one who can appreciate modern methods of jungle fighting. Men who have had that experience are prepared and have been trained to undertake the task, and it is his duty to see that they undertake it. We were amazed when we learned that Buna and Gona had been occupied by the Japanese. Why was that allowed? The reason was the lack of appreciation ot the possibilities of the one road or track that leads from the New Guinea side of the island across the range to Port Moresby. This was common knowledge, and not something that had recently -become known to Japanese secret service agents or intelligence officers who had investigated and mapped out the position. When I was Assistant Minister in Charge of External Territories, a commission was appointed to investigate the possibilities of combining the Administration of the Mandated Territory and Papua. When the Government was considering the establishment of a common capital for Papua and New Guinea, the question arose whether it was possible to link up Port Moresby with the New Guinea side of the island, and it was known then that there was a track across the Owen Stanley Range Every one in New Guinea knew it, yet nothing was done to protect Buna and Gona from the Japanese. When attention was drawn to this point by the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes), a hush-hush policy was immediately adopted. His statements were censored. He was not allowed to express his opinion on these matters, although subsequently they were discussed in every country of the Allied Nations. Clearly, some one must have felt insecure if such pains were taken to prevent this information from being circulated.


Mr Morgan - The statements were censored in Australia only.


Mr HARRISON - I am referring to their circulation outside Australia. It was forbidden to send the statements of the right honorable member out of Australia lest their publication should invite criticism of our strategy. I know something of the conditions under which our men are fighting in New Guinea. I also have had experience of fighting in the last war. I know that, with proper leadership, it would be a sheer impossibility for a situation to arise in which 18,000 of the best fighting men in the world should be taken prisoners as happened in Singapore. The fact that such a thing happened is a terrible indictment of our leadership, and of the strategy employed. It was a most abject surrender, though the men had no alternative because of bad leadership.

In New Guinea, the Japanese have solved the problem of camouflage. Their troops are so effectively camouflaged that they can move freely through the jungle without being seen. They can approach our positions with stealth, and infiltrate and outflank them, so that small numbers of Japanese can force comparatively large numbers of our men to withdraw to new positions. Our soldiers even yet wear khaki, which, after being wet in the jungle and bleached in the sun, turns very nearly white, so that it can be seen miles away. We must have young and virile leaders who can adapt themselves to this kind of warfare. In the final analysis, the Minister for the Army must accept responsibility for what is happening. We recognize, of course, that he has no knowledge of strategy, and must depend upon his military advisers. I now ask him whether he is satisfied with their advice. If not, he should get other advisers. The decision to change his advisers would have to be made by the War Cabinet, but it would be done on his recommendation. I wonder whether the members of the War Cabinet really appreciate the position. It is doubtful whether they even appreciate the situation in Australia, let alone in New Guinea.

Quite recently, the Prime Minister, in answer to a question about food supplies, said that if he had to choose between food and a few more hundred fighting men he would choose the fighting men. In my opinion, that answer proves that he lacks a proper appreciation of the real needs of our fighting forces. Napoleon laid down the axiom that an army marches on its stomach. If our troops are denied adequate supplies, they cannot fight effectively, and if the Government is prepared to sacrifice supplies for a few more fighting men, we need not wonder that the situation in New Guinea is bad.


Mr Lazzarini - The honorable member is misrepresenting the Prime Minister. He was not referring to food for the troops.


Mr HARRISON - If the Minister for Home Security (Mr. Lazzarini) cares to refer to Hansard., he will find that I have quoted the Prime Minister's statement correctly. Apparently, the Government believed that it has done all that can be expected of it when it sends the men to the front, but men need food and other supplies; they need leadership, not only on the battlefield, but also at home, so as to ensure them proper support. If the Minister is not satisfied with his military advisers, he can do one of two things: He can changethem, and continue to receive reports here in Australia, or he can go to New Guinea, and see conditions there for himself. If our troops, given proper leadership and adequate supplies, cannot hold their own against the enemy, it is a poor lookout for Australia, but I do not believe that they would be unable to do so. The Australian soldier, properly led and equipped, is the equal of any fighting man in the world. If the Minister for the Army believes that there is no need for him or for the Prime Minister to visit New Guinea, I remind him that, before the Attorney-General (Dr. Evatt) went abroad, there was much criticism within Australia of Britain's war effort. However, having visited Great Britain and America, the Attorney-General returned well satisfied with what was being done. He had seen for himself, and he came back with a wholly new appreciation of the position. I suggest that if the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Army were to visit the front in New Guinea, they would return imbued with a determination to remove the disabilities under which our troops are labouring. They would obtain a new understanding of strategy, and perhaps of leadership. Either they must accept full responsibility for what their advisers have recommended - or they must go to New Guinea, and themselves take a part in remedying the situation. Those of us who have friends and relatives in New Guinea are constantly receiving letters telling us that the men there are facing conditions different from those faced by Australian soldiers in any previous campaign. Such conditions are strange to our fighting men, and the military text-books have no rules for dealing with them. Our leaders in such a campaign, must be young officers, with clear intellects and initiative.Unforfortunately, men possessing these qualifications are relegated to comparatively minor positions where they cannot utilize their intelligence, experience and ability to the best advantage. I recognize that, in the present crisis, these matters could be better discussed at a secret meeting, but the position is desperate. I urge the Minister to heed the warnings of the honorable member for New England (Mr. Abbott) before it is too late.







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