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Wednesday, 22 March 1961

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The Leader of the Opposition was given a good hearing. In the circumstances, I remind the honorable member for East Sydney that he must obey the Standing Orders.

Mr McEWEN - The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) almost immediately after he started his speech, said - this appeared very noticeable to me - that I had used words that were acceptable when I dealt with this matter the other day, and he then sought to establish a contrast between my words and those of the Prime Minister. I assure the honorable gentleman that nothing he can say, and no device that he and his party can resort to, will succeed in driving a wedge between the Government parties. We know where we are going as the Government of this country. We are solid and coherent, and I have not the slightest doubt that the solidarity of the Government parties is the envy and dismay of the disunited Australian Labour Party and its fragments about the country.

The Leader of the Opposition applied the term " arrogant " to the Prime Minister, but he cited nothing to substantiate the charge of arrogance. Those of us who watch what goes on in the electorate see that the Australian Labour Party obviously is seeking to attach this word to the name of the Prime Minister. This is a trick, but it is one that will get the Opposition nowhere. The Prime Minister has done a statesmanlike job at the meeting of the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth countries. What he stood for at the conference, and what he has been espousing since, is a principle which touches on the vital interests of the Australian people. That the Commonwealth of Nations - what we used to speak of as the British Commonwealth - of which Her Majesty the Queen is accepted as the head, remain strong and coherent is in the interests of the Australian people. That this Commonwealth remain strong and coherent is good for all, and it is good for each. What has happened recently has been the first evidence of dismemberment.

The Australian Labour Party representatives in this Parliament, instead of expressing regret and proposing some formula for the solution of the problem - as I hoped would be done as a result of the last address to the House on this issue by the Leader of the Opposition, which encouraged me to expect some efforts by the Opposition to discover some way of preserving the coherence of the Commonwealth - have adopted a stratagem which can only serve to weaken the Commonwealth of Nations. Surely, the central point of the Commonwealth is the periodic meetings of the Prime Ministers of its sovereign states. They meet, each with his own distinct policies on political issues, economic problems, racial matters and international affairs. All have different problems of relationships. When they meet, all are conscious of their domestic problems. They have a healthy respect for each other's problems and a willingness to have their policies discussed at such conferences, but they do not accept that their policies shall be torn up or subjected to direction by others. It was only on the occasion of the most recent conference that we saw this attempted. Mr. Verwoerd, the South African Prime Minister, raised no objection on this occasion to having the policies of his government discussed. The South African Prime Minister raised no objection a year ago, at the 1960 conference, when, incidentally, my colleague, the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck), was present with the Prime Minister. Indeed, reference to the policies of South Africa is to be found in the communiqué which emanated from the 1960 Prime Ministers' conference. However, after that conference, a referendum of the South African people was held and the government - and presumably the Parliament - of that country decided to change their form of government from the monarchial to the republican. The South African Prime Minister, following the rules of the game, informed the conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers of this fact and indicated that South Africa would seek to remain in the Commonwealth with its new republican form of government.

The real issue then arose, when some of the Prime Ministers present sought to relate an internal procedural point - the decision to change to a republican form of government - to the internal racial policies of the South African Government, and used some forms of words designed to criticize the internal policies of that Government and to impose compulsion upon it. The Prime Minister of South Africa, I say, as our Prime Minister has said - leaving aside the merits of the policy of apartheid, from which we have both dissociated ourselves - was completely justified in contending that neither this policy nor any other domestic issue should have been used for the purpose of laying down a condition upon which his country would be permitted to remain a member of the Commonwealth.

That is right! That is clear! What people on earth has more at stake in the principle that was brought into issue than the Australian people? We have our controversial policies. It is betraying no secret to name them, as the Prime Minister has done, or as the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) has done to-day. But is it in the interests of the Australian people that some policy that is followed at their wish should be produced in the forum of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference as an issue upon which a decision should be made as to whether Australia is to be permitted to remain within the Commonwealth?

I have stated the issue. It does a grave disservice to the Australian people to have this Parliament apparently split on that issue. Frankly, I do not think it is split. I think that the Labour Party either misapprehends the situation or is taking advantage of a convenient occasion. I do not know which I would prefer to believe - that it misapprehends the reality of the situation, or that it is practising a political trick to make a political point. Let us be quite clear on this matter. The Australian people, I am sure, would wish to see the Liberal Party, the Country Party and the Labour Party completely cohesive on the point that what is decided as good for the Australian people by the Australian people is not challengable nor subject to direction by any outside person or nation. That is the issue, and that is the principle that we stand by.

This conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers is an invaluable meeting point. I have accompanied the Prime Minister to such conferences on more than one occasion, and I have seen how the debates are conducted. I have seen the freedom with which every country expresses itself, and, on occasions, dissociates itself from the policies of other member nations. Prime Ministers, knowing the policies of their own governments and the desires of their own peoples, will not agree to change their policies, but will leave a conference, where free discussion has taken place, not uninfluenced by what others have said. When they get back to their countries they are able to recount in their own cabinets and parliaments and in the public forums, not under compulsion or duress, but because of having been influenced in free and open debate, the points of view of the other countries and the extent to which, in their judgment, it might be desirable that certain domestic policies be modified in order to preserve harmony within the Commonwealth. This is where we see the great British political wisdom working at its best. No one is compelled; everyone feels free. Everyone, in point of fact, has such a sense of freedom that he is not inhibited from being influenced by someone else's point of view, and from explaining the extent to which he has been influenced in the central point of government in his own country - the cabinet or the parliament.

This is what we stand for, and we believe it to be completely right. We would regret the carrying of any resolution in the Parliament condemning the Australian Prime Minister for voicing his protest against a course of events which has had the outcome of compelling a member country to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Nations. A resolution having that flavour about it would be wrong in the Australian Parliament, and I have not the slightest doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Parliament will vote against it, and that the Labour Party will feel very sorry that it ever proposed it.

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