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Wednesday, 29 September 1971
Page: 1628


Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) (Minister for Defence) - The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) said at the beginning of his speech that we still do nol know what is likely to happen in a few years time in South Vietnam. He said we do not know whether South Vietnam is likely to survive. All I can say is that there is no doubt whatsoever that without the help that South Vietnam received from the free world it would not have survived. That help was mainly provided by the United States of America but Australia and a number of our allies in the South East Asia area also provided assistance. Australia's help was provided despite the complete opposition of the Australian Labor Party. Had the Labor Party had its way and had its policy been carried out, not only as far as we are concerned but also as far as the Americans are concerned, there is no doubt that today South Vietnam would be a Communist state.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition said that this matter was raised as an exercise to look at the disposition of our present forces. He said that the Opposition wants to know whether regular units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam were being brought into Phuoc Tuy Province. It staggers me to think what would happen if we said: 'Yes, ARVN units are being brought into this area'. Immediately the Communists and the Vietcong would know that this unit is being taken away from somewhere else. It literally amazes me that the Opposition, which regards itself as the alternative government should be so insensitive to the needs of security. Security is essential in a military operation of this kind, and it is even more essential when we are in a situation of withdrawal from an area in which, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has said, enemy units are still operating.

The Government and its military advisers are doing everything possible to ensure a safe withdrawal. Following the Government's decision on the withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam, plans for the withdrawal were developed by the commander of the Australian Forces in Vietnam under the direction of the Australian Chiefs of Staff. These plans take into account the parallel planning by the South Vietnamese authorities for the redeployment of Vietnamese forces as appropriate in order that the South Vietnamese forces may assume in the very near future full operational responsibility for the security of Phuoc Tuy Province. Until the handover of responsibility takes place the Australian forces must meet their military obligations for the protection of settled areas within the province. At the same time, such action will reduce the risk of enemy interference during the stages of the Australian withdrawal. But the extraordinary thing is that the Opposition does not seem to realise this need for security. Opposition members seem to think that the men are just coming home from a trade union picnic or something and that the Government can give details of exactly where every units is going to be, how many will be there and at what time they will move out.

The Opposition has asked and continues to ask questions which, if answered, would be of little use to it but which would be of immense strategic value to our enemy. Let me refer to the question asked of me by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in this House yesterday. As I said at the time, I have no intention of breaking security. An honourable member is meant to ask only one question at a time but I think that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition asked four. His third question was as follows:

When will the withdrawal of the Fourth Battalion from Nui Dat to Vung Tau begin and when will it finish?

Could there by any more blatant question which, if answered, would warn the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese regiments exactly when and where the Australians were going to be? The next part of his question reads as follows:

Finally, what restrictions have been put on the operation of Australian units in Vietnam during the remaining months of the commitment?

Obviously, if I had said that the Australian task force is not to patrol any more, this would have been as good as saying to the Vietcong: 'You are right now, boys. Go to it.' What a stupid question! We have seen constant attempts by the Opposition to try to breach security in a way which does not help it. It does not help the Australians, because the best possible is being done by our highest military advisers. But it would help the enemy.

Let me refer to other instances. Some time ago the Deputy Leader of the Opposition asked the then Minister for the Army:

When was the construction of the minefield across Phuoc Tuy province begun?

When was it completed?

How long is the minefield?

How deep is it?

How many yards of wire were laid in the perimeter of the field?

What type of mines were laid?

What Australian units were deployed in laying the field?

What arrangements were made with the army of South Vietnam to patrol the minefield?

Were these arrangements ever carried out?

What Australian, South Vietnamese and other units have ever patrolled the minefield?

What aerial surveillance units have patrolled the minefield?

What units are now patrolling the minefield? How many Vietcong corridors across the minefield have been detected?

Of course, if the Minister had said that a certain number had been detected the enemy would know that a few others had not been detected. That would be a great help to them. The Deputy Leader also asked:

How many mines have been removed from the minefield by Vietcong?

Have sections of the minefield been destroyed by the Australian task force; if so, by what units?

What methods have been used in the destruction of these sections of the minefield?

Is it planned to destroy the whole minefield and its perimeter?

I ask honourable members whether anything could give more information to the enemy. The Iron Curtain countries and the Communist countries certainly do not need a spy ring in Australia. All they need is for the Government to answer the Opposition's questions. 1 say this in a most calculated way because I feel that it is true: It is tragic to find that there has been a constant attempt by the Opposition and by the members of the Australian Labor Party to undermine the morale of Australians in South Vietnam. The president of one of the State branches of the Australian Labor Party called on the national servicemen in South Vietnam to mutiny. Encouragement has been given by some members of the ALP to draft resisters to break the law. Gaol vigils have been undertaken by some ALP members and others have addressed and taken part in moratorium campaigns against the war in Vietnam. We have seen the shameful example of honourable members wearing moratorium badges in this chamber. I am told that about 75 members of the Opposition signed a moratorium statement against the Vietnamese war. One could go on and mention the attempts to break security at Pine Gap and the moves to abolish national service.

At this very moment there is awaiting consideration by the House an amendment moved by the Opposition which, if carried, would immediately reduce the size of the army from 44,000 to 28,000 men. I ask: Is this going to help the security of Australia? The ALP has decided that there should be no foreign bases on Australian soil. Honourable members know that this has been the policy of the Labor Party previously. Attempts have been made to denigrate the Fill aircraft.


Mr Barnard - Surely the Minister is not being serious.


Mr FAIRBAIRN - I have heard constant attempts by the Opposition to denigrate the Fill yet about 350 of them are flying in the United States Air Force today. The Opposition has tried to make out that the conflict in Vietnam is a civil war instead of one which was instigated and almost entirely supported - I would not say entirely supported - by the North Vietnamese. Every action is taken by the Opposition to reduce the strength of our defence and our commitment in Vietnam. The only action that I can call to mind at the present moment which would not have the effect immediately of reducing our strength was the statement made by the then Deputy Leader of the Opposition who is now the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam), (hat in some circumstances the Labor Party would be prepared to leave troops in Vietnam. He was very quickly hauled into line and the then Leader of the Opposition said that this was an attempt to knife him in the back and that Labor policy was 'out of Vietnam and out as soon as possible'. This occurred only a few days before the general election in 1966.

The present debate has been brought about by the recent major clash in the north of the central portion of Phuoc Tuy province. This is in what is known as the clearing zone'. As I said yesterday, the clearing zone is an area of remote jungle clad and largely unpopulated territory - where the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese have constantly assembled and have then moved to attack the more populated areas. The Australian task force still has operational responsibility for certain areas of Phuoc Tuy province and it is working with the South Vietnamese forces who have taken over most of the populated areas and will very shortly take over all of them. It is true that there has recently been a very considerable increase in activity in this clearing zone which is only about 11 miles from Nui Dat and only about 5 miles from one of the more populated areas.

There was a sudden movement of elements of the 33rd North Vietnamese army regiment into this area. It could have been that this movement was brought about by the Americans who were operating in the area previously occupied by this regiment which had moved further south as a result. The regiment may have been waiting to pounce or to interfere with the withdrawal of the Australians. It may have been there to dig in and to make certain that once the Australians handed over the responsibility, the regiment was dug in in an area from which it would be extremely hard for the territorial forces of South Vietnam to dislodge it. It may have been there to disrupt the elections which are to be held early in October.


Mr Morrison - It could not disrupt them.


Mr FAIRBAIRN - 1 could not hear what the honourable gentleman said, but if he is talking about the elections I would ask him how many elections are ever held in North Vietnam. At least many elections are held in South Vietnam. I have met heads of villages and hamlets who have been elected on a number of occasions as a result of free democratic elections. The regiment posed an immediate threat to centres of population which were only 5 miles away. The army does not believe that it poses a major threat to the impending withdrawal. Nevertheless, these people could harass and obstruct the withdrawal. So the commander very rightly mounted this operation. Of course we all know that it is an unfortunate thing that you cannot fight a war without casualties.

We also know that the casualties suffered by the Vietcong were considerably greater than those suffered by the Australians. So the Commander followed a reasonable and prudent course to ensure the security of his force and the security of the Province. The Task Force was fully supported. There have been allegations that some support has been withdrawn. This is not so. The Army still has call upon the Royal Australian Air Force. In fact, in this engagement the Army used RAAF gun ships which had not previously been available. Of course, it has call on the United States Air Force and on artillery. It is true that the tank squadron has been withdrawn but it has been replaced by Australian Army fire support vehicles. The 33rd Regiment of the North Vietnamese has been severely mauled and it may take some months before it can regroup. But very soon the responsibility for the security of this area will pass to the South Vietnamese.

The Labor Party has a consistent policy on this matter, lt has followed this policy ever since we first went into Vietnam despite the fact that it was not endorsed by the people at 2 elections. It has been a policy of get out. As I said earlier, had this policy triumphed initially and had there been no Americans assisting the South Vietnamese we know perfectly well that today South Vietnam would be another Communist country or Communist province. We believe that a great deal has been achieved by the Australian forces. They are leaving behind a province in which physical security has been greatly improved. Very much more land is under cultivation and much of it is now owned by the tillers of the soil and not by absentee landlords as used to be the case. New roads are there and are packed with Hondas. Hospitals and water supplies have been improved.


Mr SPEAKER -Order! The Minister's time has expired.







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