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Thursday, 9 May 1957

Mr ACTING DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr. Lawrence) - Order! The honorable member for Hindmarsh must cease his conversation.

Mr Pollard - Why do you not rebuke the Minister for talking to him?

Mr Whitlam Mr. Whitlaminterjecting,

Mr ACTING DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order! If the honorable member for Werriwa interjects again, I shall name him.

Mr BIRD - Thank you, Mr. Acting Deputy Speaker. May I proceed? To my mind, the bill is a confession of the failure of a scheme initiated with a fanfare of trumpets six years ago. The Government has beaten a strategic retreat from a system which has failed to live up to the expectations of its sponsors. I remember the introduction of national service training six or seven years ago. We were told that all sorts of advantages would flow from the operation of the scheme and that it was ushering in a golden age of military preparations. All sorts of " hifalutin " speeches were made in which it was said that the system represented the last word in the defence preparations of this country, and because we of the Australian Labour party, true to our traditions and to the principles upon which we were elected to this Parliament, pointed out what would undoubtedly be many weaknesses in the system, we were literally branded as traitors to the Commonwealth. Expressions to that effect were hurled across the chamber at us, but now the chickens have come home to roost, because the attitude of the Labour Opposition six years ago has been vindicated by the appearance of this legislation before the House.

The best that I can say about the bill - it is very hard to say anything good about it - is that it is a compromise to close a schism in the Government's ranks. The Government realizes that it must make some gesture to the malcontents in its own ranks - and there are certainly plenty of them, judging from their speeches during the last week. So the Government has trotted out this poor, still-born scheme, which is receiving praise from neither friend nor foe politically.

To me it appears that this scheme will be painfully inoperative and sporadic in its incidence. To talk about a universal training scheme and this bill in the same breath is to make a farce of the whole thing. It is only a shadow of the scheme that was launched so optimistically in 1951. If the Government were politically honest and had sufficient courage, it would give the scheme a speedy and decent interment. It would ensure that the energies which will be misdirected and the expenditure which will be incurred as a result of this bill were used to good account in some other avenue of our defence efforts.

The Australian Labour party is not suggesting that the money that would be saved should be used for anything other than defence. We realize that the modern conception of defence entails the expenditure of large sums of money, but this scheme will cause a gross, painful and wicked waste of public money. Money will be squandered on a scheme which will serve no useful purpose. Labour's attitude to this bill is supported by opinion in other parts of the world. After all, we are not the alpha and omega of knowledge of military requirements, although some honorable members opposite pose as experts on military strategy. We should be humble on oca.sions and take upon ourselves a mantle of humility. If we look round at other countries which know something about military preparation and have had far more experience of the actual business of war than we have, we find that there is almost universally a sharp move away from the conventional thinking about defence, which is exemplified in this bill, with its emphasis on man-power, to the new pattern that has been developing since the war. The old basic conceptions of warfare are being discarded and replaced by a new appreciation of the strategical and tactical demands of the nuclear age.

It has been felt for some time, both in this Parliament by honorable members on this side and by the people outside, that our system of national service training has long since passed the stage where it had any special value as an integral part of a modern defence policy. Great Britain has recently revised its conception of national service training, and the scope of the British scheme has been severely restricted. The money saved has been used to build up other branches of defence. That is the course that the Australian Labour party has advocated should be adopted here. If national service training is not of much importance in Great Britain - apparently the British Government does not think that it is, because the system has been cut to the very bone - it is of much less value to Australia. The British system required service for two years, and in many instances the trainee was involved in active service abroad. That system ensured the existence of a large pool of experienced men in the event of any large-scale national emergency. When we compare the British scheme and our previous scheme - which could have been called a scheme when it was fully operative - with this poor, paltry scheme that we are expected to support now, we find that our own programme of short and irregular training has provided little more than initiation into service life. By the time the trainee has become accustomed to his uniform and has learned the element's of discipline, the effective period of training will have come to an end. That certainly does not fulfil the purpose of establishing the trained reserve about which we heard so much six years ago, when the scheme was inaugurated. The scheme has cost the country an enormous amount of money, which could have been employed far more usefully in other defence activities. The weaknesses are so apparent, even to the blind, that this Parliament, in the interests of the national welfare, should abolish national service training. To prolong its life, as proposed by this bill, is to display a reluctance to face incontrovertible facts.

With a substantial partnership in guided missile research and development in the Woomera and Maralinga enterprises, the foundation for a transition to the new order has been laid. The emphasis has now been shifted from man-power to missiles, but this Government cannot seem to grasp that idea at all. As in most things, it is living in the mists of the past in relation to defence.

The Minister who introduced the bill is the only one who has shown any enthusiasm for it. He said that there was nothing very complicated about the measure. Well, 1 can certainly agree with him on that, because the reasons for the bill and its implications are quite simple. The Government is convinced, in spite of itself, that the scheme has not fulfilled its early promise, because it is cutting down the intake of men for national service to a truly remarkable degree - from 33,000 to 12,000. Because the Government is convinced that the scheme has not fulfilled its early promise, then, to that extent, Labour's prognostications in 1951 have been verified by events. In other words, we have been right once again. The weaknesses in the scheme have been so glaring that the Government realizes at last that the taxpayers are not receiving value for their money. The present bill spells the virtual abandonment of the system.

I suggest that the Government should take the advice given by the honorable member for Franklin (Mr. Falkinder) in this House about an hour ago. The honorable member said that all the bill was doing was deferring the indecent burial of the national service scheme. The Government's proposals are so bad that a front-line fighter, the honorable member for Franklin, who, in everybody's opinion, has some knowledge of defence requirements, thinks the present system ought to have burial as early as possible - " indecent burial ", he calls it.

I believe that the Government would like to scrap the whole scheme because it realizes that it has failed lamentably; but it has to placate a section of its own supporters. And it seems to me that this section is rather large, judging by the comments we have heard to-night and over the last few days. But, in attempting to placate its supporters, the Government has succeeded in pleasing nobody; because its efforts have not been successful in smoothing over the dissension in its own ranks. "1 submit, for the consideration of the House, that the true test of any facet of a defence policy is what purpose it will play in relation to the operation of the defence policy as a whole. Honorable members who accept the truth of that axiom will find it very difficult to sustain the argument that the present proposition - this poor, palsied scheme that has been submitted to us for our judgment - will play any useful purpose in relation to our defence.

Government supporters have pointed out during this debate the impotence of the scheme. Every member on the Government side who has spoken so far - with the exception of the Minister himself - has said that the scheme will not do this, that or the other; in other words, they have no faith in its efficacy.

Mr Anderson Mr. Andersoninterjecting,

Mr BIRD - I do not believe that the honorable member for Hume thinks it is an efficient scheme.

Mr Anderson - I do not like it, but I. say it is efficient.

Mr BIRD - Then the honorable member is a very exceptional man, because he is the first Government supporter I have heard, other than the Minister, who says that he approves the scheme.

I should like to ask honorable members who claim to have some knowledge of military tactics whether there is any military advantage in having an annual intake of 12,000 trainees. I want to know: Will this proposition be a positive contribution to our state of military preparedness?

Mr Cramer - It will.

Mr BIRD - I do not think it will.

Mr Cramer - I shall tell you about that.

Mr BIRD - The Minister will have an opportunity to do so later. Last night, he attempted to make some apologies for this proposal. I do not like telling the Minister this, because he is a friend of mine, but he made a very poor job of it. Nobody can dispute the fact that the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes) has some knowledge of military strategy and concepts. Yet, he feels that in its present form the national service training scheme is an unqualified failure. He made that statement in this House two days ago. Other honorable members have made similar statements. If an annual intake of 33,000 trainees over the last few years could not make the scheme successful - and, on the admission of the honorable member for Chisholm, it is not successful - surely, it follows that a reduction of the intake to 12,000 is a step further in the wrong direction.

I strongly suspect that when the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) prepared his second-reading speech, and gathered together his reasons for seeking the support of the House for the bill, he found himself in dire straits. Possibly, the hardest job he has ever had to do as a Minister has been to compile a speech to persuade the House that the Government's proposition is really worth while. In attempting to justify the bill the Minister stated what he thought to be the benefits of the scheme from the point of view of the individual. I should think that the scheme would have for its purpose a national plan for the national wellbeing and would not be designed to benefit individuals who take part in it. The benefit from the scheme should be a benefit in respect of our defence position and the lot of our nation in this very uncertain world.

I was very pleased to hear the Minister say that the discipline and health standards of the youth of the country have been improved by the scheme. That is very nice to know, but I have yet to learn that when a system is established to give us security in times of national danger and to protect our national sovereignty, we are very much concerned about improving the health and the discipline of the individuals who comprise any particular branch of the services. After all, what we should ask ourselves is: Is the acquisition of these very desirable qualities, discipline and health standards, an adequate return for the colossal amount of money that has been expended in this direction? That amount will be possibly £103,000,000 by the end of this year, and perhaps £125,000,000 or £130,000,000. There are any number of very estimable bodies in the community which render a signal service in improving health standards and giving the youth of this country good doses of discipline. In my electorate there is a branch of the Police Boys Clubs of Victoria, which is doing a splendid job in that direction. I understand that its activities are curbed because of the lack of finance, and I suggest that if the Government is obsessed with the idea of inculcating discipline and improving the health standards of youth, a decent subsidy to the Police Boys Clubs of Victoria would not be amiss. But, surely, it is fantastic to suggest that money expended ostensibly for the purposes of defence should continue to be spent on improving the health and discipline of the youth of the community. Such a suggestion leaves me entirely cold.

This expenditure of £103,000,000 could have been incurred in some other branch of the defence services with much more beneficial results for our defence plan as a whole. The Minister said that the requirements of 1957 are vastly different from those of 1951. He certainly was correct in that statement. The scheme started to creak most audibly in 1955. Certain alterations were made in the nature of the call-up. The universality of the scheme went by the board, because exemptions were given to certain privileged sections of the youth of the community. Since 1955 the position has got worse, because the creaking has got louder to such a degree that the whole structure threatens to collapse because of its total ineffectiveness in our defence system as a whole. Now, in 1957, we find that further fundamental changes are proposed - changes so fundamental that the whole structure of national service training is tottering and threatens to fall at any moment. I am satisfied that if the Government were courageous enough and were not frightened by the opposition in its own ranks, it would unhesitatingly agree to the Labour party's amendment and wind up the scheme forthwith. The scheme is unworkable; it is not producing any worthwhile results for defence. Why has not the Government the political honesty to admit that the Labour party was right in 1951 when it said that the scheme would be no good. If it did so, we would say that on this occasion it had done the right thing by the people.

The Minister has announced that the Navy and the Air Force will no longer be connected with the scheme. The reasons he gives for this change of front are logical. I hope that nobody will misunderstand me when I say that. The reasons that he gave for the exclusion of the Navy and the Air Force from the scheme, I repeat, were logical reasons; but I am very much afraid that the Minister went off the rails completely in attempting to justify the retention of the scheme in its application to the Army. This is the logic of the reason why the Navy and the Air Force were cut out of the national service training scheme: The value from a service viewpoint in continuing national service training would not measure up to the effort that would have to be expended, and the diversion of resources from other more pressing requirements. All 1 can say on that point is that if those conclusions can be applied to the Navy and the Air Force, they can be applied with equal force to the Army. The reasons that I submit why the Navy and the Air Force are no longer required to be participants in this scheme are the very reasons why the Government should remove the Army from it.

Apparently the Government believes that the complete abandonment of the scheme would mean that it would lose face. Members of the Government are determined that they must not lose face. They have such inordinate opinions of themselves as statesmen that they are not prepared to admit that they have made a mistake, although they know that that is the truth. They are not prepared to face up to mild public criticism or to criticism from members who sit on the back benches on the Government side, that would be voiced if they vacated the whole field of national service training, although they know that the money saved could be diverted to some other useful purpose.

The honorable member for Franklin (Mr. Falkinder) and the honorable member for Sturt (Mr. Wilson) condemned the military side of national service training because they want the whole military service to be used for civil defence. They think that this business of getting a rifle and bayonet, living in a tent and doing exercises with a bayonet is no longer necessary in this atomic age. They might have something there, but at least they agree with the Australian Labour party that the present scheme, with its methods of training, is not applicable to the problems that confront us to-day.

The Government's case for the retention of the scheme was demonstrated when the Minister for Labour and National Service said that the continuance of the national service scheme in a modified form was necessary for the maintenance of the Army as an effective force. That statement was not supported by any facts whatever. The Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer) made some futile effort to justify it, but, to be honest, I do not believe that he convinced one person in this House, and I doubt whether he convinced himself. lt is possible that his statement was prepared for him by somebody else, and he merely read it.

Nevertheless, the statement presented by the Minister for Labour and National Service is open to serious contradiction. No substantial or compelling reasons have been advanced in this debate to prove the point of view stated by the Minister. According to his statement, the Government appears to be hopeful, or even confident, that the plan to train an intake of 12,000 men will result in even better trained national service personnel. The Government has tried to convince us that that will be the result. It has said, in effect, that while the number of trainees will be cut down from 35,000 to 12,000 and that is deplored, at least the 12,000 will get training that will make them equal to 35,000. The reason advanced is that there will be a wider selection of instructors. The panel to be selected from will be bigger and possibly a better class of instructors will be available. The Government believes that they will be able to produce better trainees.

At best, that is specious reasoning - most specious reasoning. I would like to ask the Minister for the Army this question: While he might get better results from a wider selection of instructors, what will be the feeling of the 12,000 trainees who will be selected under the proposed ballot? The mere fact that it is a ballot will undoubtedly cause much resentment among the lucky drawers of the marbles because some will be required to serve and many will not have to do so. I cannot believe that the lucky 12,000 will march into camp full of enthusiasm because they were fortunate enough to have their names drawn in a ballot. While there might be more enthusiasm on the part of the instructors, there will be a dashed sight less on the part of the personnel who are selected because they will be discontented and annoyed with the whole system. The lack of enthusiasm on the part of the 12,000 drawers of the marbles will offset the increase of enthusiasm on the part of the instructors. The total result will be pathetic and not what the Minister expects.

There are to be exemptions. We are told that 66 per cent, will be exempted and 33 per cent, of those available to register will be called up. In any form of conscription, exemptions cause bad feeling. The liability to serve as a result of the ballot will not exactly cause any wild enthusiasm among the new trainees. The real weakness of the scheme is the effect that it has had on the numerical strength and efficiency of the Citizen Military Forces. I have been looking up the " Hansard " reports of statements that were made in this House in 1951 about the national service training scheme, and I had a good laugh when I read what we were told by supporters of the Government when the scheme was introduced then. I wish Government supporters would read their own statements of that time. They would have to admit that the forecasts they made then about the scheme were quite astray.

We were told that the national service scheme would strengthen the C.M.F. units considerably. That has not been the case. The honorable member for Chisholm and other honorable members on the Government side have admitted that. If the Government wants to do the right thing by the C.M.F., it should revert to the entirely voluntary basis upon which the C.M.F. used to be recruited. It should not have a mixed force of conscripts and volunteers because the attitude and the approach to service of the two sections are entirely dissimilar. Their ideas are as wide apart as the poles, and it is beyond my comprehension how any intelligent Government could expect to get a successful military training scheme to operate in that way. The Labour party is opposed to the bill, not because we /ire opposed to defence preparations, but because we think the present system is outmoded and inefficient.


Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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