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Thursday, 13 October 1921

Senator GARDINER (New South Wales) . - My attention has been called to the f act that in this morning's Argus appears a rather important statement regarding the proposed scrapping of the Australian Fleet, and the establishment at Singapore of a strong fleet of the British Navy to defend the British interests in the Pacific generally. Seldom do I notice in this Chamber matters that are published in the public press, but I think it would be unwise to delay for one moment in asking, I might almost say demanding, from the Government a statement as to the truth or otherwise of this newspaper article. If it be true, as stated in the Argus, that this matter has been discussed ; if the inference as to the probable discontinuance of an Australian Navy controlled by the Australian Government be correct, and the proposal has been discussed at the Imperial Conference, the Government should be in a position to say now whether the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) participated in such discussion, and whether he has reported to Cabinet that there is a proposal to dispense with the Australian Fleet and substitute a branch of the Royal Navy at Singapore. If the Prime Minister has participated in a discussion of that character and has reported the result to his Government, the Minister leading the Senate should not lose a moment in taking Parliament and the people of Australia into his confidence, and saying whether the Government intend to proceed on the lines indicated or adhere to what has been the policy for the last ten years-'-the building and establishment of an Australian Navy. I realize that my enthusiasm for Australia frequently leaves me open to more than a suspicion that. I am opposed to things British. I disclaim that accusation although I know it is useless to do so. It is my great love for Australia, and not any hatred of Britain, that makes me always desire to put Australia first, but I am particularly anxious that the Government should not make a mistake in regard to future Naval policy. We have only to cast our memories back to the years 1908-10, when the alternatives of a continuance of the subsidy of the Imperial Navy or the establishment of an Australian Fleet were threshed out. We know the miserably inadequate subsidy that Australia was paying to Britain for Naval protection, and we know that it was paid without interest, and without enthusiasm. We recollect how bitter was the feeling aroused when Sir Joseph Cook, the then Liberal Leader, in 1909, made his political cry to the electors, " We nail our flag to the mast of a continued subsidy to the British Navy," and when Andrew Fisher was conducting a campaign on behalf of the establishment of an Australian Navy. The present Speaker (Sir Elliot Johnson) said on one occasion that the Labour party wanted an Australian Navy only for the purpose of turning its guns against the Motherland. What has been the experience during the last ten years? When. Mr. Andrew Fisher formed the Labour Government, which took over from the Cook Government the control of Commonwealth affairs, shortly after the outbreak of war, he used the most earnest and bitter expression I have ever heard from his lips, when he said that, but for the fact that he had been out of office for twelve months, Australia would have had another capital ship to defend its shores. I am not assuming that all the statements published in the newspaper article this morning are correct, but where there is smoke there is some fire. If the intention is to scrap the Australian Fleet with the Australian Naval sentiment that is behind it, the Imperial Conference, the" Imperial Government, and the Imperiallyminded Commonwealth Government are travelling in the wrong direction. What defended Australia's shores during the' war? In answer to a question the Minister told me that it was the five ships of the British Navy, of which four represented the Australian section. I warn Ministers that if they are seriously preparing to scrap the Australian Navy they will at the same time scrap the sentiment that makes it possible to finance an Australian Navy, and if they do scrap that sentiment they will not improve the Empire defence. During the five weeks in which Senator E. D. Millen was Minister for Defence following the outbreak of war - and I have several times referred in not unfavorable terms to his conduct of the Defence Department at that time - the thing that caused him more anxiety than any other was the uncertainty as to the whereabouts of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and other ships of the German Pacific Fleet. And the knowledge that gave him most relief and satisfaction was the fact that the battleship Australia carried bigger guss than' did any of the German vessels. That superiority of guns alone saved the Australian seaboard cities from destruction. The Australia would not have been in existence but for the Australian sentiment' which established an Australian Navy. I am not in the habit of discussing matters in this Chamber merely because the press has been giving publicity to them.; but in this morning's press statements have been published which vitally concern the Australian Navy and its future. It is announced that following upon a Naval Conference at Singapore, and upon discussions at the Imperial Conference in London, it has been practically decided that the chief Naval Base of the Pacific shall be established at Singapore, and that the Australian Navy shall be disbanded, and that the Australian authorities will for the future devote naval expenditure to the building of docks to accommodate the biggest war vessels. In fact, the defence of Australia is to be conducted from a point outside of the Commonwealth, and is to be the concern of the British Naval authorities. If there is any truth in the press statements, and I invite the Minister for Repatriation (Senator E. D. Millen) to immediately inform the Senate whether there is or not; the proposals amount to one of the most serious backward steps which could ever be taken by Australia.

Senator Drake-Brockman - The honorable senator can scarcely reconcile the Budget figures having to do with the Navy with the particulars contained in the press article.

Senator GARDINER - Since his return from England the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) has made several statements concerning what he did at the Imperial Conference and during his stay in Europe generally, but he has not referred to anything of the kind respecting the Australian Navy. I trust that I shall be officially informed that the press announcements are all wrong. Indeed, I cannot conceive of the Prime Minister returning to Australia, reporting to the National Legislature on the events with which he has had to do, and refraining from making any mention of so serious a proposed alteration ofpolicyas has been to-day fore- shadowed. I am inclined rather to accept his silence as a proof that the newspaper report is far from the truth. As an Australian I am bound to say that I read the articles with considerable concern. What is therein suggested amounts to a very drastic change, a dangerously retrogressive step, from Australianism to Imperialism. I feel sure that the Australian people would refuse to follow any Government backward along the indicated lines of Navy control. Australia's defence in the early stages of the war was undertaken by the Fleet which Australia had created. I recall to the minds of honorable senators that the light cruiser Sydney was stationed during the first few months at Thursday Island. Australia's first Expeditionary Force was about to be convoyed to the other side of the world, but at the last moment one of the Japanese war vessels, which was to have formed part of the escort to the transports, broke down. At full speed the Sydney steamed down to Sydney. She put into dock, was cleaned, and was out again in time to take her place in the convoy. Every Australian vividly remembers the historic outcome of the presence of the Sydney in the convoy, for she was the first to strike a decisive blow in the war as a unit of the Australian Navy. If Australian sentiment is now to be submerged in Imperial sentiment the result will not be successful. Australian ideals will be harmed - Imperial interests will suffer. If the Prime Minister has entered into secret negotiations for the establish- ment of the Pacific Base at Singapore and for submerging Australia's naval policy in an. Imperial scheme, the matter, of course, is one for the Government, and the time for making any public announcement upon the change of policy is also entirely a matter for the Government; but, as an Australian, I warn the Government that any step such as is outlined in to-day's press, will be a wrong one. The best way in which Australia can be expected to remain as a valuable unit in the Empire Naval defence scheme is to permit her to retain her independence, as she has enjoyed it, and not to try to take away her naval individuality. I again appeal strongly to the Government to make at once a definite announcement.

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