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Thursday, 24 March 1966

Mr SEXTON (Adelaide) .- This debate is based on the report made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Holt) to the nation on 8th March, the opening night of this sessional period. It was a much heralded statement. The Prime Minister spoke for approximately one and a quarter hours. He could have reduced this time considerably and yet told the House his story much better. 1 recall that after the first 30 minutes his statement sounded to me more like a policy speech than a report to the nation.

Let us advert briefly to the scene tonight. The Prime Minister has found it necessary to make two speeches during this debate - a most unusual procedure. He commenced his speech by lampooning the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam). He made a personal attack on the Leader and his Deputy and tried to smear them with the aspersion that the Leader of the Opposition was unsure of his position and of his Deputy. Let me assure the Prime Minister that the Australian Labour Party will look after its own affairs without seeking his advice. Let me say further that there is a great deal of compassion within the framework of the Australian Labour movement. If, because of the human frailties to which we are all subject, mistakes are made from time to time, this compassion will have a very strong bearing on the decisions of the Labour movement. It ill becomes the Prime Minister to make a personal attack upon the Leader and Deputy Leader of a party which represents more than 50 per cent, of the Australian electors.

The main points contained in the Prime Minister's report can be reduced to three. The first is that the Government will provide more money to try to lift the home building industry out of its depressed state. The second is that it will give some financial assistance for drought relief, and the third relates to the Government's decision to send 4,500 combat troops to the war torn area of Vietnam. The last announcement has caused consternation in peaceful and peaceloving homes throughout Australia. Vietnam is a war area. A war is being waged there with all the ferocity and full blooded action of previous wars. It is equally as dangerous for the troops engaged in it as were any phases of our two world wars. It has been described as a cruel, dirty war. This emphasises the stark reality that our young conscripts who are being forced into this war jungle undertake a grave risk of never returning to our shores.

The Government has been challenged to say whether we are or are not at war. The former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, said that we are at war. The present Prime Minister states that we are not at war. The people of Australia have a clear right to know the truth and the Government has a clear duty to tell the truth and reveal to the nation the full story and implications of its military policies. An objective assessment reveals that we are at war. Therefore, the country should be geared to a war time regimen. All the forces necessary to prosecute a war should be mobilised and regimented. Our national resources should be harnessed so that no section can profit from the sacrifices of its fellow citizens. At the moment, only our 20 year old conscripts are regimented while manufacturers are demanding their pound of flesh for the provision of war materials and the necessities of war. The action of the Government in providing war medals and decorations for Vietnam soldiers is a clear indication that the statement by Sir Robert Menzies that we are at war is a statement of fact and that the nonadmission by the present Prime Minister that we are at war is a refusal to recognise the fact.

One of the sordid things about the whole business is that the Government continues to trade with the enemy. On the one hand the Government holds up mainland China as the enemy we are fighting, yet, despite this assertion, it continues to trade heavily with China - the enemy - and, in some cases, extends credit to this Communist enemy. Could anything be more heartless? Could anything be more disloyal to the men who are forced to risk their lives in an overseas war far from their own soil? Should we expect the young soldiers and their parents to be contented and satisfied when they know that the burdens of this war are not evenly shared; that they are being borne by one side only? A poignant reminder is the human story published in the Press yesterday. Mrs. Gwen Phillips, of Melbourne, whose husband was killed in Vietnam at the weekend, said -

I'd like to think that Tom's death has achieved something, but I know in my heart that it hasn't. I know that I am one of the thousands who are going to hear news like this. And when it's all over there will be a truce and nothing will have been achieved. Everybody thinks that men like my Tom volunteer for Vietnam. Tom didn't volunteer, he did not want to go. But they sent him anyway. Knowing that he died in a war that nobody seems to know anything about doesn't help me and it doesn't help the; children.

This is the thinking of a grieved war widow. How well it sums up the results of this Government's policy of military compulsion. Similar thoughts are present in thousands of Australian homes. The great principle involved is that of conscription for war service without the consent of the people. Conscription for war service, even in war time, was rejected by the electors of Australia on the occasion when the people were given a referendum. The Government has no right to assume that the people have changed their minds. It has no moral right to conscript unless it first has the consent of the electors. In peacetime conscription without first consulting the people is a high-handed and completely unjustifiable action. It is significant that the Prime Minister has not accepted the challenge thrown down by the Leader of the Opposition to hold an election or a referendum on this vital issue. The Government is afraid of the results of an election or a referendum. Observers could not fail to notice the Prime Minister's uneasiness in the past fortnight when asked questions in the House about the sending of conscripts to Vietnam. His attitude denotes uncertainty and fear. This uncertainty and fear are apparent throughout the Government's ranks. Many Government supporters who have spoken loudly in this debate have left the impression that they are whistling to keep up their spirits.

The rights or wrongs of the war in Vietnam are not the subject of this debate. We are considering the Government's action in conscripting the 20-year old men of this country to fight in a foreign land at a time when we are not officially engaged in war. This week a strong protest was made against the Government's policy by an influential Melbourne weekly newspaper - the Catholic " Advocate ". An article in that newspaper read -

The Government has no mandate whatever for the sending of conscripts into battle outside Australia, particularly since no war has been declared. Conscription is in itself an evil thing, justified only in an emergency, when other means for the defence of the country are inadequate. Military conscription without this necessity is a violation of a basic human freedom and leads to a militarisation of civil life and civil mentality, described by Pope Benedict XV as "for more than a century the true cause of countless evils". A conscript state is, in effect, a Slave State; hence, it is something to be resisted unless in a last resort.

That article by such an influential newspaper as the Catholic " Advocate " reveals that bodies other than the Australian Labour Party are thinking along the same lines as we. I believe there is a powerful wave of opposition to the conscription of young Australians who, in the main, are at 20 years of age just reaching the threshold of their careers and laying the foundations for a full and useful life in our society. A leading Church of England dignitary has publicly opposed this Government's conscription policy.

For a long time the Government has hidden behind the bogy of Communism, but it does precious little effectively to combat Communism. In fact, governments similar to this once ruled many of the countries that are now under the domination of the Soviet Union. Those free enterprise capitalistic governments were easy prey in the onrush of Communist takeovers. These are warnings that Australia may well note. I believe that Communism is an idea - a way of life - and the right way to stem Communism is to inject into society a better way of life than the Communist one. In Vietnam there is no stable government. There are no democratic procedures or freedoms.

There is just government by one junta after another. These governments are generally military juntas which, by intrigue, have organised an overnight military revolution. In many cases the attempted coups are successful. Corruption has a high priority in these ruling dictatorships. That is one good reason why there is no stable or democratic government in the area. This is one of the great handicaps that bedevil the United States action in Vietnam.

The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr. McEwen) referred to what President Johnson said to Prime Minister Ky at the recent Honolulu talks. But he did not and could not tell us that the Australian Government had urged the adoption of measures for a democratic and stable government in Vietnam as a prerequisite to action there. There should be democratic and free government by the people, rural and economic development and the provision of education and health services, as envisaged by President Johnson, but all these necessary measures have been missing under the corrupt military dictatorships which have ruled the country for years. Our Government is supporting the corrupt dictatorships that have assumed the government of Vietnam. There have been nine such regimes in the past five years. Is it any wonder that Communism has progressed under these circumstances?

I ask: Have our 20-year old conscripts been told the history of Vietnam? Do they know for what they are fighting? Do they know that if they killed every Vietcong soldier they still would not have solved the problem of Vietnam? Since they are conscripted to fight and, if necessary, die for a cause, they also should know that the cause is just and laudable. Today Australians are confused and divided on the Vietnam war. They do not understand the many contradictions inherent in the lack of leadership from our Government. They fear the new trend of dictatorship in our own free democracy. Conscription is abhorrent to the Australian outlook. There is a mounting wave of opposition to the body snatching of young men to fight in the cruel, dirty war of Vietnam.

The Prime Minister should have given a clear lead in his report to the nation on other matters of importance to Australia. He said nothing about the economy that will reassure us. We are going through a period of hesitancy, uncertainty and lack of confidence. It is well known that most industrial concerns have cut out overtime and are trying to hold their staffs with the business available. One business man said to me: " Trade is very peaceful ". In other words, trade now is dormant and lacks the dynamic drive that is necessary for progress. Unemployment is again becoming more significant, with all its attendant hardships and frustrations. Costs of goods and services are steadily rising. There have been many claims of price increases brought about by the changeover to decimal currency. These all are matters that this Government has closed its eyes to.

It is becoming crystal clear that since the Liberal Party lost the leadership of Sir Robert Menzies it has been floundering in a sea of uncertainty. Our present Prime Minister has not shown the leadership that is necessary to keep the people united and determined to forge ahead. That is why tonight in the course of his address the Prime Minister had to resort to personal abuse of the leaders of the Labour Party. The absence in the Prime Minister's report to the nation of any policy to overcome the poverty in our midst demonstrated another grave weakness in the Government's planning. The only oblique reference to poverty in this debate was contained in the speech of the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Sinclair). He relied on the present social service provisions without going into the wider incidence of poverty. It is indeed tragic that the present Government will not face up to and accept responsibility in this great human probem. It washes its hands of the matter and asserts that it is better for private agencies to inquire into poverty. Whatever is done by private effort does not relieve the Government of the reponsibility of facing the issue. In our boasted affluent society, thousands of our citizens are suffering various degrees of poverty, whilst they look in vain for governmental action. Since the Government normally follows the United States line, we could reasonably expect it to interest itself in the war on poverty programme of the United States.

Mr Calwell - That is the only war worth fighting.

Mr SEXTON - Yes. There are many aspects of poverty in Australia including our social services recipients and there is an obligation on the Government to remedy the position. For these and many other reasons the Government should be censured and the amendment of the Leader of the Opposition provides an opportunity to do just that.

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