Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Friday, 11 December 1914

Senator MILLEN (New South Wales) . - I am sure that the Committee, must feel not a little mystified by the* sharp contradiction presented between the very definite statement of Senator McDougall and the very clear and official statement of the Minister of Defence. The latter, I think, has made it quite clear that, so far as officialdom is concerned, no such plans exist as are alleged by the former to exist. Yet Senator McDougall said that he presented us to-day with a tracing obtained from plans which were in the office at Cockatoo Island only a few days ago. That, I think, is only stating bare facts. I do not believe for a moment that the honorable senator made a statement in excess of what was warranted by the facts. I feel that in this matter he would take notice of the seriousness of the statement he intended to make, and therefore would come well buttressed with a knowledge of what has taken place. If it is a fact that, the document on the other side of the chamber is a copy of some other document in the office at Cockatoo Island, and which was there three or four days ago, it must fill one with mystery that the Minister should be in a position to bring here a very clear and definite and official statement to the contrary. I think that the Minister himself will see that there is room for a good deal of wonder. I of course accept the general manager's statement as being, so far as he is aware, absolutely accurate. But, in saying that, I cannot dismiss as being utterly worthless and not entitled to consideration the very definite assurance of Senator McDougall that he obtained within the last few days a copy of plans which were then in the office at Cockatoo Island. His statement, I think, gains a little weight from his frank admission that he obtained the plan by illicit means. That is the candid confession of a man who felt that he had been driven to adopt an extraordinary expedient to get at the truth. I am unable to unravel the mystery. At the same time, the Minister has shown that he recognises the conflict to be so sharp and so serious that he has regarded it as an obligation to probe the matter further. I pass on for the moment from that rather sinister aspect to the proposition itself. A good deal has been said about an expenditure of £30,000. I am by no menas an apostle of reckless expenditure, but I remind the Committee that the expenditure of £30,000 on an undertaking which to-day involves us in more than £1,000,000 is not really the point to consider. The proposed expenditure, as against £3,000, or £5,000, or £7,000, is quite immaterial, provided that it can be shown that the Commonwealth will get value for the money. I am not troubled as to the cost of this undertaking.

Senator Needham - Was such cost necessary 1

Senator MILLEN - It comes down to that point. The dockyard involves us today in a sum of about £1,250,000, and I venture to say that before it is completed there will not be much left of £2,000,000. If the expenditure of the £30,000 pertains to the permanent working of the dockyard, it is a sum about which we need not concern ourselves. We come down to the point as to whether the expenditure of the money is necessary or not.

Senator Guthrie - Or whether Cockatoo Island is the best place at which to build ships?

Senator MILLEN - It is rather too late now for the honorable senator to raise that point.

Senator Guthrie - That is the point.

Senator MILLEN - The point is that the Senate approved of the purchase of Cockatoo Island Dockyard, and the honorable senator gave the acquisition of the island his blessing-

Senator Guthrie - As an emergency absolutely.

Senator MILLEN - In what way as an emergency ?

Senator Guthrie - Because there was a dock ready, and nothing more.

Senator MILLEN - There was no emergency.

Senator Guthrie - The dock was the only thing on Cockatoo Island.

Senator MILLEN - Whatever were the reasons which induced the honorable senator to approve of the purchase of the dockyard, it is not now within his competency to question whether or not we should proceed to make the dockyard as efficient as we can.

Senator Guthrie - You cannot do so, because there is not the water available.

Senator MILLEN - I frankly admit that I am unable on the evidence presented here, and such knowledge as came to me when Minister, to determine whether or not a coffer-dam was necessary. I do. not claim - any more than I suppose the present Minister claims - personal knowledge of the matter; but I have always been troubled with the belief, and, in spite of the Minister querying my statement last night, I believe it is a fact, that coffer-dams are not found in shipbuilding establishments throughout the world. I am not saying that the provision of a coffer-dam is wrong on that account. I am not expressing an opinion. I do not feel competent to do so, but I must admit that I am more than a little puzzled that it is found necessary before we can launch the Brisbane to resort to an expenditure which is not found necessary in the case of similar undertakings in other parts of the world. I cannot determine that question, and I will not attempt to do so. There is one other aspect of the matter to which I desire to refer. Last night the Minister said, with a good deal of regret, that delay had taken place in determining this matter. I share that regret, and, to that extent, I am entirely with my honorable friend ; but I cannot resist the conclusion that, unintentionally or otherwise, in the statement he made to the press he would suggest that the delay was a responsibility which I must shoulder. If that was his intention there is absolutely no warrant for it.

Senator Pearce - A charge waa made that the delay was due to the Labour Government, and I showed that at the time Senator Millen went into office the general manager raised this question, and there was delay subsequent to that. When we came into office again, the matter was practically where it was when we left office.

Senator MILLEN - I am very glad to get that statement, because the Minister has forgotten the documents from which he has just quoted. I intend to show that the matter was not where it was when Senator Pearce went out of office, and that it was not in a position to be dealt with until after I had left office. First of all let me say that I had been there for the major portion of my term, when it came as a shock to me to be informed that the Brisbane could not be launched until some provision had been made for her taking tie water.

Senator Pearce - It was soon after the honorable senator took office.

Senator MILLEN - It was not soon after. .

Senator Pearce - The matter came up in March, 1914, and the honorable senator took no action till June of the present year.

Senator MILLEN - I will show that action was taken, but even in June of this year it was not competent for any Minister to give a decision. The Cook Government, as a matter of fact, assumed office in June, 1913. It was many months after I became Ministerial head of the Department before it was brought to my personal knowledge that the Brisbane could not be launched without some expedient being resorted to.

Senator McDougall - According to the papers available it was six months after the honorable senator took office.

Senator Pearce - It was the month of March when the general manager raised the question.

Senator MILLEN - -All right. I have not had an opportunity of referring to the official papers to refresh my memory as to dates. I am speaking generally, but I believe quite accurately, when I say that it came as a shock to me after I had been in the Department some months to learn that the Brisbane could not be launched until some expenditure had been incurred, and some preparation had been made - and when I say " preparation " I do not mean the normal preparation which takes place in a properly equipped dockyard. I shall not ask anything more than the papers quoted by the Minister to-day to prove that even if I had wished to give a decision upon this matter, I could not have given it earlier than I did. The Minister has stated that the new general manager raised the question in March of this year. That is quite true. But the manager did not raise it in such a way as to enable me to say " Yes " or " No " to it. He did not put before me any plans. Later on, however, the Director of Naval Works was deputed to visit Sydney and confer with Mr. King Salter, not merely as to this work, but as to quite a number of other works which were alleged to be necessary in order to place the yard in an efficient position. It was on the 13th May last that a report was presented by him. But even that was not sufficient, because in July of this year Mr. King Salter wrote, pointing out that it was necessary for a considerable amount of marine survey work to be done before the question of the necessity of constructing a ooffer-dam in connexion with the launching of the Brisbane could be determined.

Senator Pearce - It is only fair to say that in June the officials asked the honorable senator for authority to spend money out of the Loan Act, and that he refused to grant it.

Senator MILLEN - I shall deal with the loan expenditure later on. I desire no greater confirmation of my statement that if any delay occurred, the officers of the Department must shoulder the responsibility for it, than is afforded by the interjection of the Minister. He says that in June the officers asked me for authority to spend money on this work out of the expenditure authorized by the Loan Act. Now the loan fund of £170,000 was appropriated for certain specific undertakings on Cockatoo Island. It contained no provision for the erection of a cofferdam there.

Senator Pearce - The statement that it was authorized for specific items is challenged.

Senator MILLEN - Is it likely that I should have placed £170,000 on the Loan Estimates - particularly in view of the opinions entertained by my honorable friends opposite who were likely to challenge those Estimates - without being in a position to tell the Senate exactly how that amount was made up.

Senator Pearce - The Loan Act shows that the money was to be spent upon machinery, workshops, and the construction of wharfs.

Senator MILLEN - That is exactly my point. If the Naval Board officials knew at that time that some expenditure was necessary to provide for the erection of a coffer-dam to enable the Brisbane to be launched, why did they not make provision for it in those Estimates?

Senator Guthrie - Then the honorable senator blames the Naval Board?

Senator MILLEN - I should not have spoken but for my impression that the Minister in a newspaper interview had sought to make it appear that I was responsible for the delay which has occurred. His interjections now confirm that impression.

Senator Pearce - I sought to make it appear that Mr. Cook was responsible.

Senator MILLEN - The Minister would have the people believe that I am responsible. But the facts are, that when the Estimates were prepared at the end of 1913, which, amongst other matters, provided for machinery, workshops, &c, at Cockatoo Island, my responsible officers did not put before me any proposal for the expenditure of a single penny on this undertaking.

Senator McDougall - The honorable senator never saw the plans at all.

Senator MILLEN - Exactly, and I never knew anything about the matter until months afterwards. When Mr. King Salter did raise it, and when it began to dawn upon somebody in the Navy office that there would probably be an outcry about it, I waa asked to authorize the expenditure of some portion of the loan moneys to which reference has been made, upon the erection of this cofferdam. I declined to sanction that course. I was not prepared to go behind the back of Parliament and to divert the expenditure of money, which had been authorized for a particular purpose, into some other channel. The fact that no provision was made on the Defence Estimates which T presented to this Parliament is a clear indication that at that time the official mind waa either in a state of sleepiness or of ignorance in respect to this matter. I come back now to the point at which I was switched off into dealing with these financial matters. I would point out that on 13th May a report was presented by Mr. Fanstone, as the result of a commission which was given to him to confer with Mr. King Salter as to the whole of the engineering works required at Cockatoo Island. I thought it better that the whole of these works should be dealt with in a comprehensive way. As a result. Mr. Fanstone visited Sydney, consulted Mr. King Salter, and presented his report upon them. But, as late as July, a report was received from Mr. King Salter, in which, he pointed out that considerable marine survey work would have to be undertaken before the plans for this coffer-dam could be prepared. I do not know that I need go any further. Within two or three weeks of that time certain things happened, and I am quite certain that thereafter this matter was not presented for my consideration again. But even in November we find that Mr. Swan presented still another report. After inspecting the island, he made a recommendation. All these things, I submit, indicate that the departmental mind had not then finalized itself, that there was still floating about in that Department a very grave doubt as to whether this form of preparation should be made. It was only in November that Mr. Swan made his report, and I understand that it was early this month when the Minister of Defence gave his decision upon it.

Senator Pearce - Can the honorable senator tell us how Mr. Swan came into the matter?

Senator MILLEN - I cannot. All I know is that some time ago he was appointed to a position at Cockatoo Island, which he was prevented from taking up owing to an illness which he developed in the West. Whether he went to Cockatoo Island in pursuance of that appointment I do not know. But, irrespective of whether or not his proposal is approved, I have no hesitation in saying that he is an officer of whom I have a very high opinion indeed. Even though his recommendation may not be approved, I still think he is a gentleman of considerable experience, whose opinions are entitled to some weight.

Senator Pearce - The impression I got was that the honorable senator had sent him there with a view to ascertaining whether an alternative proposal could be made.

Senator MILLEN - I cannot say without reference to the official papers. I do not think that that was so, but, even if it were, it is quite clear that there was an alternative proposal floating about the Department somewhere. From where did that alternative proposal come? I did not originate it, but it is quite clear to me that there was floating about in the Department somewhere an alternative proposal. I cannot remember what particular officer mentioned it to me. It is one of those things that one knows, although one is unable to say what was his particular source of information. "But I now wish to direct attention to another matter. From the papers which the Minister has read, it appears that the Naval Board first thought of the necessity of these launching ways as early as 1912. They then wrote to the State Government to inquire what steps were being taken in regard to them. What were they doing during all the period that has elapsed in the interim? Were they content to allow the cruiser Brisbane to be built, and to raise the urgency of this matter only in June last?

Senator Pearce - It was raised before June.

Senator MILLEN - By whom ?

Senator Pearce - There is a minute by the first member of the Naval Board, which is dated May last.

Senator MILLEN - That was after Mr. King Salter had presented his report. Then the Board, which had been asleep for two years, suddenly found it imperative to write a minute upon the matter.

Senator Needham - But the honorable senator was in charge of the Department during one of those years.

Senator MILLEN - I did not know that the launching ways were not prepared. How was I to know if the mattor was not brought under my notice?

Senator Guthrie - The honorable senator knew that the Naval Board was at sixes and sevens.

Senator MILLEN - Sometimes they were at sevens and eights. At any rate, I did my best to straighten things up. I repeat that in 1912 the Naval Board thought of this matter, and communicated with the State Government upon it. In such circumstances, why is it that it was only in May of this year that they suddenly put a minute before the Minister affirming that the question was urgent? What were they doing in 1913 when they put the loan Estimates before him for his consideration ? It was only when this matter was brought up again by Mr. King Salter, and when it had dawned upon the authorities at the Navy Office that they might get a rap over the knuckles concerning ib, that- they raised it as if they had made a brand new discovery, when, as a matter of fact, they had forgotten all about it for eighteen months. I should not have spoken on this subject had I not been compelled to do so, because I have a very strong disinclination to criticise the actions of a Department which at the present time is very busily engaged as the result of the war. I have endeavoured this session to adopt a role of silence with that object in view. I have adopted this attitude from a sense of what I regard as a public duty. I should not have ventured now to offer one word of criticism of the Naval Board had I not felt that I was fairly entitled to do so when an effort was made to reflect upon me, and suggest that I was responsible for delay, the responsibility for which must rest entirely with the officials who control the Navy Office.

Suggest corrections