Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 1 December 1976

Mr KILLEN (Moreton) (Minister for De fence-by leave- I table a paper prepared by Major-General Stretton concerning relief operations in Darwin and dated 14 April 1975. Mr Deputy Speaker, may I begin by thanking my honourable friend from GreyMr Wallis) for his courtesy and the Parliament for its corporate courtesy is allowing me to interrupt this quite important debate on Aboriginal matters. I have interrupted the debate, Sir, perforce, because the report that I have just tabled has reached certain sections of the media and I would adjudge it proper that Parliament should have the report before it so that Parliament in its own way may direct its attention to the report and to its contents.

The report which I have just tabled was prepared by Major-General Stretton during the administration of the last Whitlam Government. Because of that fact, I have sought the approval of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr E. G. Whitlam) to table the report. That approval has been given by my friend, the Leader of the Opposition. I spoke to the honourable gentleman last week. I told him that, because the report was an administrative one and not a public one, I deemed it proper that I should have his approval before I used the report publicly. I told him that my assessment of the report was that it was completely innocuous but nevertheless I would send a copy to him. Subsequently, I wrote to him officially and my honourable friend replied giving me his approval to use the report. It may be an old fashioned point of punctilio; nevertheless, I do not believe in using administrative documents belonging to another government unless I have the approval of the lineal heir or successor of that government.

The report is entitled Lessons and Recommendations from the Darwin Disaster. The tabling of this second report means that the only written departmental reports prepared by MajorGeneral Stretton before the publication of his book have now been tabled. As honourable members are aware, Major-General Stretton, the Director-General of the Natural Disasters Organisation within the Department of Defence, has recently published a book on the first 7 days of relief operations in Darwin following cyclone Tracy in 1974. Mr Deputy Speaker, matters raised in the book have been the source of questions and personal explanations in the Parliament. As a result, I undertook to report more fully on this matter. It may be helpful, if I first put some matters in perspective. The book was written by a still serving senior Crown employee. It is relevant to record that Major-General Stretton did not attempt to follow the normal procedures laid down for a Government employee wishing to publish a book or otherwise to make public comment and use official information on matters concerning his duties as a Crown employee. Neither his departmental superiors nor I were aware of his intention, nor asked to approve, nor given an opportunity to study the accuracy and propriety of his text.

It should be said, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the book is a substantially subjective account, essentially of Major-General Stretton 's own involvement in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy. In no way could it be said that it is a complete and authoritative record of the disaster, nor of the total relief operations which indeed began in Darwin as soon as the storm subsided. I remind honourable members that on 6 March 1975 the then Minister for Defence, the honourable Lance Barnard, tabled in this Parliament a documented report prepared, as was to be expected of him, by Major-General Stretton. This factual report described the way in which the people of Darwin, the Natural Disasters Organisation, the defence forces, various Commonwealth and State authorities, and indeed the nation as a whole reacted to provide immediate and generous assistance following the worst natural disaster in our history.

It will be apparent from a cursory examination of the paper by Major-General Stretton- that is to say, the paper I have tabled- that it is of a formal and factual kind, discussing problems which occurred during cyclone Tracy, some analysis of the reasons for these problems, and his ideas and suggestions as to action to be consideredwhether by the Commonwealth Government, State governments or local Territory legislatures and authorities- to reduce further risks and problems. I say to my honourable friends that his suggestions ranged from the establishment of lesiglation in this field- if I may indulge myself the luxury of a personal observation, I would have considerable doubt as to whether this Parliament could legislate in the manner suggested by the General- to increasing the level of first aid training in schools. I would hardly have thought that that would have been the preoccupation of this Parliament. I mention this to indicate the range of suggestions made by Major-General Stretton- not to denigrate them, but to indicate the generality of them and, if I may say with respect, the innocuity of them.

The report I have tabled, in its general form and content, is quite different from the book which has now been published by MajorGeneral Stretton. Neither in the formal report on the Darwin disaster dated 10 February 197S and tabled in this Parliament- I trust that it would not be an impertinence on my part if I were to observe that Parliament is entitled to the truthnor in this further submission dated 14 April 1975 which I have tabled this evening are there any suggestions of inadequate or improper conduct, concerning Ministers and other persons involved in the relief operations after cyclone Tracy, of the kind made in the book.

I am not seeking to defend Ministers on my side of politics; I am speaking about Ministers who served in the last Government. Ministers are not, as some people suspect, malleable and given to being swept here and there; neither, may I venture the view, are Ministers disposed to resorting to public concealment. I go further to make this observation: Quite apart from the fact that in neither of these 2 reports are any critical comments made of Ministers- that includes my friend the honourable member for Oxley (Mr Hayden)- critical things are said in the book of unfortunate officials and servicemen in Darwin who, in many cases, with their wives and children, felt the full fury of cyclone Tracy. MajorGeneral Stretton described in the book the effect on him of what he saw when he arrived there after the cyclone had passed. I have already given the House one example of the inaccuracy by Major-General Stretton in his description in the book of the non-availability of the then Minister for Defence, that is to say Mr Barnard, to exercise his authority. The House may recall that in the book the author said that the then Minister for Defence, Mr Barnard, was incommunicado. All my inquiries would indicate that that was simply not true. May I observe that there are other graceless references to Ministers which appear in the book for the first time.

I should comment here on another matter raised by Major-General Stretton in his book, because it bears on the defence preparedness of this country. Major-General Stretton referred to the temporary failure of defence communications and on page 24 of his book observed:

It was unbelievable that the Defence Forces, with all the millions of dollars spent on signals equipment, could not communicate with their units in Darwin. What if there were an enemy attack? The rest of Australia may not know that Darwin was in enemy hands.

I am advised by the Chiefs of Staff- they are the professionals in the field- that the deployment of mobile transmitters and receivers would be an obvious military precaution whenever an attack appeared likely and such action would provide essential alternative and back-up circuits. Such mobile equipment would be located so that damage to the permanent communications stations would not affect effective communications. I observe in passing that as a senior military officer Major-General Stretton, I expect, would understand that such an obvious military precaution would have been taken.

As will be clear from the submission dated 14 April which I have just tabled, action on MajorGeneral Stretton 's recommendations involved, firstly, the Natural Disasters Organisation itself and, beyond that, a large number of other Commonwealth and State departments and instrumentalities, and, as well, organisations outside the Government altogether. It is here that I observe that the Natural Disasters Organisation has a general co-ordinating function. As to the content of his report to the Minister in the preceding Administration which I have just tabled, the merit of the various suggestions has been examined by the relevant authorities. I instance to the House that the suggestions range from legislation to first aid training in schools. I assure the House that all these matters have been examined. This examination was initiated by the previous Government and it has been continued by the present Government. It is a matter of some substance to observe that some of the matters referred to by Major-General Stretton plainly belong to State authorities. The writ of this Parliament does not run in some of the fields to which he referred.

My attention has been drawn to a claim by Major-General Stretton that, in addition to the report which I have now tabled, he made one further report to the then Chief of the General Staff concerning the performance of 7 Military District in Darwin. Upon inquiry I have been informed that, in the course of a short de-brief soon after he returned from Darwin, MajorGeneral Stretton did mention this matter to General Sir Francis Hassett, now the Chief of Defence Force Staff. General Hassett did not regard Major-General Stretton 's oral- I repeat oral'- observations as being matters which required further action, particularly where they affected individuals. I emphasise 'particularly where they affected individuals'. For myself, nor do I. The book makes several ungenerous references to the Army but ignores some circumstances that were relevant to the. situation during and after the cyclone.

In conclusion, I am concerned to ensure that the Natural Disasters Organisation- which can be directed adequately only if it enjoys the confidence of, and an atmosphere of co-operation with, State and Territory administrationsshould get down to the work of disaster relief planning which is waiting to be done without the distractions that have lately been imposed upon that Organisation. I am therefore confirming as an instruction to Major-General Stretton that, as a senior serving officer with tasks demanding his effective performance in this civilian establishment, he- like any other military or civilian officer- is not to make public comments on matters of policy or administration pertaining to his official duties without prior approval from designated authority. The latitude which MajorGeneral Stretton has lately improperly claimed for himself does not exist.

Mr Hayden - I feel embarrassed commending the Minister for Defence (Mr Killen) again.

Suggest corrections