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Friday, 6 March 1942

Senator COLLETT - On this subject I desire to read the following extract from to-day's Canberra Times.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission correspondent in Malaya (Mr. Stokes), who is in Sydney, said to-day that he had heard completely unfounded criticism in Australia of Major-General Gordon Bennett. Pointing out that every man in Malaya respected their commander, he added that if any of the Australian Imperial Force hoard the critics he would knock them down or shoot them.

Senator COLLETT - 'One of the things which make for a good and efficient army is discipline; and discipline is based on mutual understanding and respect between all ranks of the services. Major-General Bennett had that respect. He is now back in Australia in circumstances which prompt the question : " Did he leave Singapore before an armistice was agreed to ? " If he did, he deserted his men. If he did not, another question which may -be asked is: "Did he remain in Singapore until after the signing of the terms of surrender and then leave ? " If he did so, it may be assumed that he disobeyed the orders of the commanderinchief on the spot. If, however, he left after the surrender, and after being placed in open arrest, which is the equivalent of close confinement, he is to be congratulated on making his escape. I want to put the case impartially. Major-General Bennett was our general in Malaya, and was responsible for the care of some thousands of our men. He has been brought back to Australia and promised a good post here where he can exercise his talents. I repeat what I said earlier that discipline and efficiency are based, not only on training, but also on mutual confidence and respect between all ranks. It is only fair to this country and to Major-General Bennett that the proper course should be taken, namely, that a court of inquiry should be convened to ascertain the circumstances in which he left Singapore. That, at least, was thecustom in my early years in the service. Whenever a man's conduct came into question, a court of inquiry was convened, and the man concerned was either acquitted or otherwise dealt with. Should an officer of the Navy lose his ship, he is brought before a court of inquiry, and either cleared of blame or suffers the consequences of errors. The Government owes it to itself, to the country, and to Major-General Bennett to convene a court of inquiry which, I remind the Senate, would be composed of Major-General Bennett's peers, and would be impartial.

I endorse the remarks of Senator Poll in regard to the control of the liquor trade. Some of us who have been in the services know the effects of the indiscriminate sale of liquor in time of war. My suggestions to meet this problem are simple, namely, that the hotels should remain open until 9 p.m.; that their control should be tightened; that the sale of liquor in bulk should be forbidden; and that the hands of both the civil and the military police should be strengthened. If those remedies were taken, I think that most of the trouble would quickly be removed.

I come now to a question which I asked in November last and repeated to-day, hut to which I have not yet received a reply. It relates to the Government's policy in respect of preference in employment to returned soldiers. I know that this question has placed the Government in a dilemma, but I ask the Government to come to a decision in regard to it. In view of the number of men in uniform to-day, and of the number who at the end of the war will have done front-line service, and also of the possible clash between the interests of those men and the interests of other men who have stayed at home, I hope that the Government will give earnest consideration now to the granting of preference to the men who run the risk and take the blows. Four months should suffice for the Government to make up its mind. I ask for an early decision in this matter.

Having dealt with those important issues I now turn to a more prosaic matter, namely, the transport of Western Australian members of this Parliament to and from Canberra. I suggest to the Minister for the Interior (Senator Collings) that he should consider the setting aside on the Western Australian railways of certain accommodation for the use of members travelling to and from that State, so that the continual bargaining and worrying about accommodation on trains may he eliminated. My appeal should have some weight with yon, Mr. President, as you know the difficulties associated with travelling to and from Western Australia.

SenatorFrASER (Western Australia - Minister for External Territories) [3.28]. - This morning Senator Aylett asked the following questions of the Minister representing the Minister for Supply and Development: -

1.   Is it a fact that contracts for floor-boards for military camps in Tasmania have been let in Melbourne?

2.   If so, were such floor-boards unobtainable in Tasmania?

3.   If not, why were the floor-boards not obtained in Tasmania?

I am now able to supply the following answer : -

1   . 2 and 3. No contracts for the supply of tent floors for delivery to Tasmanian camps have been arranged in Melbourne. All Tasmanian requirements of tent floors are being manufactured by Army personnel from Tasmanian hardwood flooring purchased in Tasmania.

As to those questions which so far I have been unable to answer on behalf of the Minister for the Army, I point out that it is common knowledge that MajorGeneral Bennett interviewed the Prime Minister and members of the War Cabinet in Melbourne recently. A sufficient answer to any criticism which may be levelled against Major-General Bennett is provided by the statement made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin). For that reason I fail to see the need for an inquiry. I feel sure that appropriate action would have been taken by the War Cabinet and the General Staff had there been any ground for the suspicion which the honorable senator says exists in the public mind that Major-General Bennett left his troops before the armistice was actually signed.

Senator Collett - I am sorry to say that those rumours are increasing.

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