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Wednesday, 5 May 1965

Senator McKENNA (Tasmania) (Leader of the Opposition) . - On Thursday last the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) made a brief statement in another place regarding Vietnam. He announced a proposal to despatch to that wartorn country a battalion of the Australian Regular Army. That statement was repeated here yesterday. The Opposition's view of the matter was put by the Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party, Mr. Calwell, in another place yesterday when he announced the complete opposition of our party to that proposal for the many reasons which he gave.

On 25th March last in this place I addressed myself at very great length to the troublous position in South Vietnam and the adjoining area. I reviewed it, T thought, most extensively. I set out then what was the outlook of the Opposition in relation to Vietnam on 18th February this year. When 1 spoke on 25th March last the situation had changed as from 18th February in that there had been excursions from South Vietnam into North Vietnam and sundry bombings of North Vietnamese targets. We expressed concern that this escalation of the war might lead to a world holocaust. After speaking about the bombing, I said -

What we have to consider is this: If it fails-

That is, if the bombing fails to induce North Vietnam to stop the infiltration and the delivery of supplies to the Vietcong - and attacks on Vietnam are intensified to a point where they cause Chinese intervention and war wilh the United States of America, it will be the worst kind of world disaster, lt is going to be very difficult for anybody to determine exactly where thai flashpoint is - the point that might bring in Russian troops or Chinese troops and arms and extend the present situation into a world holocaust. That is a real danger. That is why we of the Australian Labour Party are so very concerned that our allies should move in that area with great caution and with great restraint.

Since I spoke on that occasion there has been a further lifting of the activity in relation to North Vietnam, there has been the participation of aircraft from the American Fleet, and there has been the landing of combat troops in large numbers in Vietnam. I refer to combat troops of the United States of America. Now, there is the development which has provoked this debate, namely that Australian troops are to join the combat forces of South Vietnam and the United States of America.

That decision runs counter to the view of the Australian Labour Party as to what should be done in Vietnam. At that stage the Labour Party pressed for the holding of negotiations. We hoped that the limited further activity of the United States of America might induce the North Vietnamese to cease whatever activity they were sponsoring in South Vietnam. Apparently, they have not stopped that activity. But the Opposition, when its members spoke in February and on the 25th March, wanted Australia to join those who were urging that the parties involved should go to the conference table and should accept the invitation of U Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. We said that, even though the end result might be obscure, it was worthwhile trying to get them to the conference table.

Now, the projection of our forces into this conflict certainly takes us out of the role of any kind of mediator. Whereas, hitherto, there has been our moral support for the activity in South Vietnam, backed by the supply of some 100 military advisers and a limited number of Caribou aircraft, now the Australian nation is actively committed in combat in the area. As one of the combatants we are certainly out of the field of negotiators. We are one of the active participants in what is plainly war.

We are involving a battalion of some 800 men of the Australian Regular Army. The first objection of the Opposition is that it is dangerous to the survival of the security of this country that further Australian troops should be sent abroad. We are already committed in Malaysia to the extent of one battalion of the Australian Regular Army and, of course, it needs reinforcement and relief from time to time. This battalion is mainly now in Borneo. Most of our troops are concentrated in the north of Borneo. Apart from the battalion of the A.R.A. there are other combat units from Australia in the area as well. Recently, the Government indicated quite publicly that in supplying those troops for Borneo we were overstraining our resources and that it was not practicable to supply another battalion to Malaysia. Now, with quite dramatic suddenness, the Australian Government does commit one more battalion of our limited number of battalions to South Vietnam. That battalion, in turn, will need reinforcement and replacement as our men are killed, injured or become sick and in due course relief, no doubt, will have to be given to it.

Considering the complications for Australia immediately to our north - and I am thinking of the confrontation of Malaysia by Indonesia - I look with concern at the fact that Indonesia has repudiated one of the main terms of the agreement upon which she was given control of West New Guinea. This was that by 1969 an opportunity should be given to the native people of the area to determine in what direction their future should lie - whether with Indonesia, with Australia, or with their fellow New Guineans on the eastern side of New Guinea. That part of the agreement has been completely repudiated. In those two situations there are all the possibilities of trouble between Australia and Indonesia. I pray that those two situations do not develop but a government which does not have regard to the possibilities of trouble in that area, particularly when our own troops are confronting Indonesian infiltrators in Borneo, is not doing its duty to this country. If those who know something about military matters are accurate in indicating that for every battalion serving abroad another battalion at home is required for reinforcements, then we have committed the major portion of our front line army personnel to service abroad, leaving the home defences of this nation in a dangerously inadequate state.

Looking further at the position of our defences we find that the Government has for many years been deficient in its provision of modern and adequate defences. It was recently prodded into activity, but even the steps which it then took and which are now in train to an appreciable extent will not come to fruition for at least three years or, in some cases, for another five years. So we are at a point where we need immediately to build up our defences and where we will not be adequately equipped - according to the plans that the Government has in mind - for quite a number of years. Yet we are now sending abroad the major portion of our front line troops. We think that this is dangerous, in the present situation.

When the National Service Act was recently revived and amended in this Parliament and then action was commenced to conscript certain Australian youths into the armed forces we were told that after six months training they would be drafted into existing battalions of the Australian Regular Army; that they would not be kept together and trained as new battalions so that they could mature and work together. I believe very strongly that if battalions so composed have to move into the difficult terrain and the difficult circumstances in South Vietnam that will not be good for their morale. It will tend to undermine - I do not say destroy - their efficiency and effectiveness and it behoves the Government to tell the Parliament its view on that proposition. Will the conscripts be drafted, after six months training, into battalions that are abroad? Does the Government consider that the type of experience they will gain in their six months training will fit them, no matter how courageous or physically fit they are, for the rigours of the campaigns in the areas concerned?

We, of the Labour Party, think the Government has taken an entirely erroneous view of the nature of the war in Vietnam. Various expressions by the Government seem to indicate that it thinks the whole trouble is caused by the activities of the North Vietnamese; that North Vietnam is the mainspring and prime cause of the trouble, and that the action in South Vietnam is to resist that aggression. Nobody argues that North Vietnam has not had a finger in the pie. I think that the trouble began with the formation of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam back in 1959. Whilst the North Vietnamese are undoubtedly interfering and are and have been providing key personnel and supplies to the Vietcong in South Vietnam, there is no doubt that there has been no major infiltration from North Vietnam. We were told for the first time quite recently that a battalion of regular North Vietnamese army personnel had been located and identified in South Vietnam. That is infiltration; it is a form of overt aggression. But at the same time it does not mean that the North Vietnamese are the mainspring of activity on the part of the Vietcong in South Vietnam. The truth is that the Vietcong, comprised almost wholly of South Vietnamese themselves, are dedicated Communists. There is quite a large number of them. We were told a year ago by the then Vietnamese Premier that they had 34,000 regulars in the field and the numbers undoubtedly have increased. The truth is that if the North Vietnamese ceased aggression of any kind tomorrow the problem in South Vietnam would still remain.

Senator Mattner - What problem?

Senator McKENNA - The problem of the South Vietnamese who are opposed to Communism working against South Vietnamese who are dedicated to the cause of Communism. In effect, what is happening in that unfortunate country is civil war. The Communists who want political and economic change - and revolution if need be - are striving in a most dedicated way for those ends and the two sides are combined in their activity to destroy the Government of South Vietnam. And what a government it is. I point out that if the current activity caused the cessation of aggression from North Vietnam, the problems within the confines of South Vietnam would still remain. The civil war would go on. 1 invite the Minister who joins in this debate to say what is the Government's thinking on that matter. At that point, will the Australian troops continue? Will they fight on the side of the government of the day - whether it is the one that now holds office or the one that may come into being tomorrow - solely because it is nonCommunist? Is the Government prepared to stand in the way of economic, political and social reforms in South Vietnam? Will Australian troops join in that activity or will they not? The Government must carry its thinking to the point of what will happen when North Vietnam is out of the conflict altogether.

I indicate straight away that it can be no solution to kill all the members of the Vietcong in South Vietnam. That will not solve the difficulty. After all, there is violent conflict of ideas in that unfortunate country and it is completely true that you cannot kill ideas with bullets, however wrong you may think they are. You are more likely to create martyrs and more dedicated people that way. The Government must carry its thinking to a point where it tells the Australian people just what it thinks of the internal solution in South Vietnam and what contribution its present action will make to the solution of that problem which seems likely to persist for a very long time.

The pursuit of the Communists into the jungles and swamps is most difficult. They have spies everywhere throughout the whole of South Vietnam. They can dissolve among the ordinary people - their countrymen - at will. They are exceedingly difficult to identify and even the most optimistic must envisage prolonged activity to resolve the conflict between the people of South Vietnam themselves. One must see that situation clearly to have any appreciation of the position in South Vietnam. We are told that we in Australia have been invited by the Government of South Vietnam to send troops.

Senator Kennelly - Which South Vietnamese Government?

Senator McKENNA - Whether one looks at the present Government of South Vietnam or the eight or nine which have preceded it, one knows that that government has not been elected by any section of the South Vietnamese people but has been appointed and removed by the military chiefs of that country. In other words, despite the fact that there have been bloodless coups, it has been a matter of military determination and then probably only by a junta of military chiefs.

Senator Hannaford - Would that absolve us from our S.E.A.T.O. obligations?

Senator McKENNA - No. I shall say a word or two about S.E.A.T.O. obligations before I conclude. One must question whether what has happened, or is happening, in South Vietnam is the type of thing that was contemplated in the South East Asia Collective Defence Treaty. It is not a situation in which there is overt aggression, as in the case of Korea where there was open and active aggression - open for the world to see. Australia joined readily - our party concurred in the Government's action - in resisting that overt aggression. The situation in South Vietnam is not like the position in Malaysia; it is entirely different.

Senator Hannaford - The honorable senator cannot deny that there is overt activity in South Vietnam.

Senator McKENNA - I have already acknowledged that there is activity on the part of North Vietnam which could be described as aggression. Whether it is the type of aggression that should invoke the might of S.E.A.T.O. is a matter to be determined. I say to the honorable senator that there is doubt about whether the provisions of the South East Asia Collective Defence Treaty apply in this particular case.

Senator Kennelly - Apparently the United Kingdom, France, and quite a number of other countries do not regard them as being applicable.

Senator McKENNA - Senator Kennelly is quite right in saying that many of the signatories to the Treaty do not regard themselves as being under an obligation to provide forces, and as far as I know the request for assistance has never been put to Australia on the basis that she is bound under the Treaty to supply forces.

Perhaps at this stage I should refer to what the Minister for External Affairs (Mr.

Hasluck) had to say in London only yesterday. The following report appears in the " Sydney Morning Herald " of today's date -

Australia told her S.E.A.T.O. allies today that military strength and action alone would not solve the problem o£ Communist aggression in South East Asia.

The people of South East Asia also have to be convinced that the defeat of Communism would mean a better life for them.

I repeat that Mr. Hasluck spoke in that strain while addressing a S.E.A.T.O. Ministerial Council meeting in London as late as yesterday. The report continues -

He said the people's confidence could best be achieved by extensive economic, educational and other developmental schemes through organisations such as N.A.T.O. " We have better to offer than Communism ", Mr. Hasluck said. " We can give these people a better standard of living and freedom."

Australia's overriding objective in S.E.A.T.O. was to curtail the spread of Communism and to this extent China was the " real problem ". " We cannot win by military strength and action alone. " We must show that victory against Communism means a better life while defeat means a poorer life."

I would agree with every word that has been attributed to the Minister for External Affairs on this occasion. There was a time when he predicted military action as the only possible approach. We took him up on that point and I am glad to learn that he has been converted to the viewpoint of the Australian Labour Party. But it does not appear that that line of thought has permeated among the other members of the Government. They are concerned at this moment only with military purposes and achievements. As the Minister acknowledges, they alone are not the solution. The possession of atomic weapons, or the beginning of atomic power, by China and its certain possession by Russia, certainly cause us to halt before we push active developments in Vietnam to a point where we might bring nuclear war, not only upon ourselves, but upon the whole world.

We cannot deny that we are in South Vietnam at the invitation of a government that has no democratic base whatever. We are there at the invitation of a government that might be removed next week and that might ask us to take out our troops. It is a most insecure base and it is astonishing that the Australian Government has taken a step so fateful and important to this country at the request of a government that depends for its existence upon the whim of a junta of military chiefs in South Vietnam. We are certainly on insecure ground in acting upon an invitation of that kind. What happens if the next government immediately after we reach Vietnam asks us to take out our troops? Do we ignore that government and stay there, or do we obey its behest to take our troops back home?

It is quite certain that if the bombing is continued to a point where North Vietnam is defeated and beaten to its knees - and perhaps destroyed - America cannot stay there forever. Nor can we. It is quite certain that foreign troops ultimately would have to move out. Who, if we did nov out, would move in? Nobody else' but Communist China, to which the Vietnamese people have been opposed down through the centuries. The result would be a Communist government in North Vietnam. Those opposed to Chinese Communism would be replaced by a world Communist power - China. A vacuum could not remain there. There is no point in going on until North Vietnam is beaten to its knees, because this area will then be filled by China and South Vietnam will still have the problem of civil war on its hands. There is no escaping it. It is an exceedingly difficult position and it is equally difficult to determine what is the best thing to do.

Two points are completely clear: In common with those assisting South Vietnam, we should be prepared to move with very great restraint and caution. The other point is that we should be using every power and piece of influence that the Government possesses to induce a cessation of hostilities and a solution that could lead to peace and security for South Vietnam and to honorable withdrawal by the United States of America. Undoubtedly that would involve the establishment of some kind of peacekeeping force. That should be established by the United Nations.

It is in contemplation in the United Nations Charter that that type of thing could be done. It is a tragedy for the world that the United Nations at the moment is not functioning as it should function, but that does not prevent us from endeavouring to achieve the two purposes that I have stated - peace and security in South Vietnam and honorable withdrawal by the forces from outside Vietnam which are already there and which it is proposed to send there. The Government, quite obviously from the way it has spoken regards China as a real threat to Australia. It regards the activity between North Vietnam and South Vietnam as a Chinese thrust down through the Malayan Peninsula and ultimately to Australia. It may be that there is a threat from China. Let us accept that there is, but also let us analyse how immediate it is.

Here is a country with an enormous number of people, an enormous number of soldiers and armed military personnel, but completely deficient in shipping and in armaments and, one might say, sadly lacking in industrial potential. That latter is a position that might be rectified but it will take years. We have seen what happened with Russia, when its industries on its western border were wiped out in the fighting with Germany - completely erased. In that area were 10 million people under the age of 30. What did Russia do? With its industries all gone, it moved away from its vulnerable European border behind the Ural Mountains and started to build its industries afresh. It took the Russians 15 to 20 years to develop impetus and they have made a most rapid technological and industrial approach in the intervening years. That is the type of thing that cannot be done overnight, in months, or in a year or two. In the case of China, with its great needs, it may well take longer. So, from the viewpoint of the things that make for efficient prosecution of war - industrial potential and assurance of lines of communication - I would say that there was no real impetus in a threat from China at the moment. China itself, apart from its excursion into Tibet and its threat to India, has not started major wars. It proceeds by subversion, but it would be difficult for the Government to indicate in relation to South Vietnam how China has interfered there to any appreciable extent. If the Government regards China as the real body to be stopped, whose expansion must be prevented - and we of the Opposition would certainly join with it in that - I should like the Minister to say what evidence there is that China itself has supplied arms or personnel to South Vietnam. If the Government can not point to that, quite obviously it is wrong in pointing to the Chinese threat as the reason for sending our troops to South Vietnam.

Who is going to pretend that America, with all its might, needs 800 of our personnel? America, one might say, has almost unlimited personnel. It has a colossal power that it has not even begun to exert ;n South Vietnam, and it is fortunate that it has not done so. America could well do without our 800 troops. I do not believe that America wants them because of the unquestionable value of a contribution that they might make militarily. The Americans have probably concurred in the going of Australian troops. They might even have inspired the invitation, but that would be rather for propaganda value, to indicate that this was not an American activity alone. This does not arise out of the need of the United States for assistance. I think that we can all safely say that. We can say, further, that the contribution that 800 men will make, no matter how good or how well armed they are, will be in the whole context of the war there relatively insignificant. I suggest that had our Government considered the defences of this country and the need to safeguard our own home frontiers, in addition to our commitments in several directions to the north, it would recognise the fact that we were overstretched to supply .these personnel and that it would not be safe to do it. The Government could have been brought to the viewpoint that it was far better not merely for us in Australia but also for the Americans themselves and for the world at large that we, the one European community in this area, should stand free of active combat in Asia. There is opportunity for misunderstanding, for hatreds and fears and resentments that will be generated by active participation, and that might have results for generations between us and the rest of Asia. We think it is bad propaganda. We do not think it is good for the allied cause that Australia should be in there in active combat.

We have declared - and the Opposition has concurred in it - our moral support for America. We have concurred in the sending of advisers and in the sending of Caribou transports. We have concurred in the provision of aid of various kinds and we have paid tribute to the United States, of America for the extraordinary part that it has played in upholding countries all around the world, not merely with arms but also with financial aid of the most massive proportions that history has ever seen. No country has done so much and given so much aid to so many other countries in the history of the world. We acknowledge the part that the United States has played, but we consider that our best role and our best contribution is to do what we have been doing up to date. We gave America our complete moral support. It got that from both sides of the Parliament. There is no need, from the viewpoint of giving moral support, to supply a battalion from our very inadequate and sketchy forces.

We put the viewpoint that what has happened is a diplomatic calamity for this country. We should have been joining with other partners in the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, such as the United Kingdom and France, with such persons as U Thant, and with Canada, in trying to get the parties together to find a solution. Something was achieved in this area at the Geneva Conference in 1954. It is worth trying that again. Anything is better than war and all the bitterness that flows from it. We throw our lot in with those who today, behind the scenes and in the open, are using their influence to bring to an end the hostilities in South Vietnam, to bring peace and security to that troubled area, and to end the discomfiture of the United States in a situation in which, whilst it cannot afford to lose and be humiliated, it certainly cannot see a possibility of winning to a point where all the obstruction to any government in South Vietnam is wiped out. The truth is that so far as economic, social and political matters are concerned, there is need tor a violent change in that country, and we should be concerned about having that put in train just as soon as it can possibly be achieved.

Only quite recently the Prime Minister rejected quite violently suggestions that there should be negotiations in this matter. He was certainly confounded a few days later when President Johnson announced that he was ready to negotiate at any time at all and without conditions of any kind. Now there have been formal rejections of that offer. That does not prevent a continuance of efforts to bring about a conference and this is where the main effort should be made. This is the field in which, I believe, a country such as Australia, remaining aloof from active hostilities, could have exerted a tremendous influence.

My leader, Mr. Calwell, directed attention to the extraordinary position taken up by this Government which claims, on the one hand, that by fighting in Vietnam ii is opposing the onward march of Communist China while, on the other hand, it is sponsoring the sale to Communist China of vast quantities of strategic materials - materials such as wool, wheat and steel that contribute to the furtherance of war as well as supplying ordinary human needs. I hope that in the course of this debate some honorable senator on the Government side will reconcile the military and practical wisdom of trading with China for cash or reward in materials of such significant importance from a military aspect, while at the same time committing the lives of Australian youth to stopping the onrush of Communist China. That is something the Government should face and comment upon. I do not understand why it has taken up those two seemingly opposed positions. I am sure there are many others in the Australian community who want to hear from the Government on that aspect.

I acknowledge that we in this country are heavily dependent upon the United States of America for our security, even for our survival, in this part of the world. From time to time I have paid tribute in this place to America's generosity and to the part that she has played in helping us and other countries. But when we do not see eye to eye with the United States, our friend and ally, in a particular activity such as the one under way now, is there any reason why we should not firmly express our opinion? I believe that an opinion along the lines that I have indicated today, expressed clearly and forcefully, would have been accepted readily by the United States of America, which would have seen the wisdom of leaving us to run free, as a scout in and out of Asia, rather than have our immediate active involvement. We of the Opposition regret this and think that it is a colossal error on the part of Australia, our country.

I make my next comment with some diffidence: I think that the timing of the announcement of the decision to send troops into South Vietnam was bad. I regret that it was made when it was made. It supplied powerful propaganda to the people opposed to us. In the newspapers on the one day - Friday last - there appeared the announcement of the decision to send troops to South Vietnam, and a report from Washington of the seeming success of our Treasurer, Mr. Harold Holt, in persuading the United States Administration to exempt Australia from the rigour of the restrictions on capital outflow from the United States to Australia.

Senator Kendall - The honorable senator surely does not believe that story.

Senator McKENNA - No. I do not suggest that element did obtrude, but it is a most powerful propaganda point for our opponents.

Senator Morris - Whom precisely does the honorable senator regard as our opponents?

Senator McKENNA - I am speaking particularly of the Communist powers. I am speaking of the North Vietnamese and those associated with them. After all is said and done, the Government can blame only itself because it has put the most powerful piece of propaganda into the hands of people who may wish to use it - the charge that the Australian Government has traded bodies for dollars. It is a simple proposition. It is most unfortunate that on the one day those two matters came into juxtaposition because an edifice of propaganda can be built upon them. One would have thought that a Government looking realistically at the situation would have realised that the fight in the world today is for the minds of men and women. That is the real fight today - Communism against antiCommunism. How easily can the minds of people be captured? How easily can they be made to follow a thought such as the one that has been expressed? What damage can such a thought do?

Senator Sir William Spooner - Particularly when the message is spread, as the honorable senator is spreading it now while at the same time claiming that he does not believe it.

Senator MCKENNA (TASMANIA) - The message has been spread completely. I have indicated that I do not believe it.

Senator Mattner - Then why mention it?

Senator McKENNA - Because it has been mentioned in every newspaper in Australia. There would not be a person in Aus tralia who can hear who has not heard it; there would not be a person in Australia who can read who has not read it. To ignore it would be stupid. To draw it out into the light of day and repudiate it is far better. I invite the Government to be very firm in its repudiation of that particular message. The juxtaposition of the two events on the one day is one of the most unfortunate happenings. It shows how blind the Government is to the real conflict in the world - the fight to capture the minds of men either for or against the cause of Communism. We have been put in an entirely false light by the Government's timing of its announcement.

I should like to raise a few questions which I hope some member of the Government will answer. The Government ought to tell the nation what is intended as the role of the Australian force in Vietnam. Is it to be a force which will guard bases and the important air strips that are used for military aircraft and the rest? Or is it to pursue the Vietcong into the jungles and swamps in various areas? We should know the answers to those questions. They would not give away any strategic information.

We are entitled to know also who will be in command of the Australian force. Will its commanding officer be able to veto any undertaking which he thinks may be unwise or impractical? Or, once committed, will the Australians be bound to obey the direction of the commander to whom they are committed? There should be no hesitation in making plain to the nation just where our troops will be committed, whether they will be committed to the South Vietnamese forces or to the American forces and, in either case, what right the Australian commander will have to veto a particular activity that may be presented to him.

Senator Mattner - What right did we have in the Second World War when our forces were commanded by others?

Senator McKENNA - There is such a right in relation to our force at present in Malaysia. I hope that the Government has given some consideration to these aspects. I believe that the Australian people are entitled to replies to the questions that I am now posing. In the light of what I have said, it behoves the Government to try to give to the people of this country some clear picture of where it hopes to finish with this activity in Vietnam. At what end is it aiming? Assuming that they knock out North Vietnam, what then? What will be the role of our troops in South Vietnam? Are they to remain there until all differences between all sections of the Vietnamese people are settled? Above all, it behoves the Government to say what solution it sees to the problem. Is there any alternative in the Government's view to continuing for more and more decades the unfortunate cruel war and the disfigurement by brutal atrocities on both sides of the people in Vietnam? Is that to continue for more decades and are our troops to be committed there for those decades? I do not expect the Government to be able to see through the whole mass of events in that area. But at least when it commits Australian troops to the area it should know at what it is aiming and where it hopes to come out iri the end struggle. We in the Parliament and all the Australian people are entitled to be told.

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