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Tuesday, 22 March 1966

Mr O'CONNOR (Dalley) .- The honorable member for Macarthur (Mr. Jeff Bate) has given the House the benefit of experiences gained on a recent visit to South East Asia. I thought the speech might have been more aptly timed when the House was debating the statement made by the Minister for External Affairs (Mr. Hasluck). However, since the honorable member has taken this opportunity to speak of his visit I think that what he has said calls for some comment.

He told us that free elections were possible in South Vietnam. I think nobody would disagree with that proposition.

He also said that South East Asia is in need of assistance in the developmental field. Everyone also agrees with that. The pressing problem for Vietnam at the moment, however, is that of achieving peace, and the honorable member did not indicate at all clearly his support for peace efforts. What is needed in Vietnam is for the parties involved to sit down and negotiate. Unless we persist with the objective of achieving peace by negotiation the situation will drift into even worse chaos. I know that the task of peacemakers is not an easy one, but the achievement of peace is the only possible solution for the people of South East Asia, and particularly of Vietnam. Ali our efforts should be directed towards bringing about a just and lasting peace. I shall reserve further comment on this subject for a speech I hope to make in the House next week when we will be debating the statement delivered by the Minister for External Affairs.

The House is now discussing a statement made recently by the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Holt). It is the first statement we have heard from the right honorable gentleman in his capacity as Prime Minister. The statement was an extraordinarily long one covering many subjects each of which could in itself have been the subject of a single statement. The Government has announced the postponement of a referendum that the House last year agreed should be held. The views put forward for the postponement do not impress me. Arrangements for the referendum were at an advanced stage, a considerable amount of money had already been spent, and this announcement, being the first announcement made by the Prime Minister, did not mark a very auspicious beginning for the new Cabinet.

Reference was made to the visit of Mr. Denis Healey, the United Kingdom Minister for Defence. It is quite obvious that the United Kingdom is re-orientating its defence policy and commitments and will in the future focus greater attention on its immediate needs and look more to Europe than it did some 20 years ago. This is not an unreasonable viewpoint for the United Kingdom to take, as its destiny is tied up with European developments more than with developments in the South East Asian and Pacific regions.

For the second time in our history we have been visited by a Vice-President of the U.S. Vice-President Humphrey paid a visit here for the stated reason of bringing our Government up to date on happenings in South East Asia and Vietnam in particular. The American party strongly denied there was any truth in the statement that it was seeking additional assistance in the form of our military commitment in Vietnam. Subsequent developments would appear to make this the understatement of the year. The Government proposes to lift an active commitment in Vietnam from 1,500 men to a task force comprising 4,500 men and supports. The Government intends to obtain a formidable percentage of these men from national service trainees. It proposes to resort to conscription. This is a further extension of what was originally termed a scheme for national service. In the beginning this scheme set a specified period in which the trainee would serve. It was later extended, and this latest move is a further extention of the original scheme. In this country a resort to conscription in peace time is unprecedented. We have armed forces in Malaya and Vietnam, but in neither case has there been a declaration of war. Consequently, the Government's action in applying conscription adds further ambiguity to an already overloaded ambiguous situation. On the Government's statement, the number that will be required from the 8,400 national service trainees to make up the task force will be approximately 1,330, and this does not take into account replacements which will be required during the 12 months the force will remain in Vietnam. The action of the Government on this issue cannot be justified. The Prime Minister declared that we are spending .6 per cent, of our gross national product on external aid. We should be spending more. We are living in a part of the world where starvation in many areas is rampant. Millions of people die annually in Asia through malnutrition and five of every seven persons go to sleep hungry every night. The figure of .6 per cent, of the gross national product is well below the one stated by economists that we are capable of making.

In that part of the statement dealing with economic affairs, the Prime Minister seemed more intent upon making a political statement intended for consumption by Govern ment supporters rather than upon being factual. In the field of economic growth, many countries have records that surpass that of Australia, and the fact that our record is not better is because of lost opportunities by this Government, together with a complete absence of any worthwhile policy. Figures released by the World Bank and the United Nations Organisation confirm this statement. In the field of overseas investment, the policy of the Government is criticised not only in this House by the Opposition but also outside by its own supporters, including no less a person than the Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr. McEwen), who is the Deputy Prime Minister. Foreign investment which merely takes over an existing business does not contribute to our national growth; on the contrary, it can quite easily retard it. The Government refuses to impose a selective policy on this question. It believes that foreign capital in any form is good for this country. It is the kind of policy that might have some form of temporary reward in the short term so far as the Government is concerned, but in the long term this policy is fraught with danger and can have some disastrous consequences for us.

I do not find anything remarkable, as does the Prime Minister, in the fact that the two principal sources from which overseas investment comes are the United Kingdom and the United States of America, because both governments have imposed restraints on external development. The foreign capital coming into Australia is not because of some display of benevolence on the part of its owners; it is coming here because Australia is one of the few countries in the world at the moment that permits it and, at the same time, gives a measure of security that is not present in many other countries. In the field of building the picture is not quite so roseate as the one presented in the statement. In New South Wales, building permits for new home construction are down 20 per cent, when compared with the six month period as at this time last year. The statement claims that an additional amount of finance - approximately $24 million - has been made available for the latter half of this financial year. As yet the effects of that expenditure are not apparent and one can only surmise when they will show up in the economy.

The drought was dealt with by the Prime Minister. As bad as the effects of this calamity are at the moment, its worst effects have yet to be experienced. It is to be hoped that the lesson of this happening is not lost on the Government, or State Governments for that matter. The money that is being made available in the form of loans will be of some assistance, but unless an overall policy aimed at offsetting and mitigating the effects of drought is brought into being we will continue to be at the mercy of the elements. Primary producers are, at the moment, pursuing a policy which is one of calculated risk, depending on water. If a policy could be brought into existence which would minimise this risk, it would be worth the expenditure involved on the part of both State and Federal Governments.

In the field of national development there are two matters to which I wish to refer briefly - beef cattle roads and water conservation. On the question of beef cattle roads the Government is very vulnerable and the manner in which money has been expended is open to question. This Government always comes up at election time with some gimmick, and beef roads was one of these. The history of this scheme shows that many of the routes originally proposed have been proved to be unsuitable. If the policy of not sealing these roads is continued there will be a sheer waste of public funds. Quite a number of the roads that have been laid down have since been pounded into dust and the original capital outlay has just been wasted. More thought has to be given to this matter. It will undoubtedly take a much longer time to have these roads sealed, but in the long term such action will be more advantageous to the grower and the operator in the matter of cost. Water conservation is a subject that has been neglected by the Government with disastrous consequences. In the Northern Territory there is now an authority established. It is severely handicapped by its late entry into this field, and the lack of research in the past together with relevant data is proving a serious detriment. The investigation of water reserves is of the highest importance to everybody in this country and I hope that in the future the Government will give to this subject an impetus in the way of priorities and additional appropriations.

According to the statement the changeover to decimal currency went remarkably smoothly. This, in itself, must be regarded as an understatement. There were many unfavourable features associated with the changeover which find no mention. First, there was the extraordinary profit made by some operators, including State Governments. Among the latter is the New South Wales Government which, by raising the transport charges in a limited area, will benefit to the extent of $1 million. Private interests reaped a fortune by increasing their charges two or three months before the changeover date. To give one instance, in the pharmaceutical field increases ranged from 331 per cent, to 200 per cent, on some articles. There is no doubt that the changeover adversely affected the public, particularly in the lower income range. As a result of these increases it is hard to escape the conclusion that one of the achievements of the changeover was to increase the cost of living. I support the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell).

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