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, 7 December 1938

Mr SPEAKER - Order !

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Am I to understand that you rule that it is improper to suggest that this House is not being given adequate opportunity to debate the defence proposals?

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member is not in order in referring to the time taken up on other debates or to the method in which those debates were conducted.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - I must content myself with the generality that, thanks to the way in which the business of the House has been conducted, we have been afforded inadequate opportunity to debate defence proposals at the proper length, and in a proper atmosphere.

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member is out of order. He is at liberty to debate this question at any length within the Standing Orders.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Having congratulated the Minister for Defence, I desire now to congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his fearless statement in which, in effect, he indicated that he was prepared to admit that the expenditure by the Government -was essential.

Mr Brennan - He did not say that.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - I do not wish to misrepresent the honorable gentleman. He qualified his statement by explaining that he did not have the information in his hands which the Government possessed.

Sitting suspended from 6.15 to8 p.m.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on the courage he showed in stating that the proposals put forward by the Government did not differ in any great degree from the proposals that he had put forward as being necessary for the defence of Australia, because I realize how repulsive to so many of his followers that statement was. I agree that the proposals of the Leader of the Opposition do not differ appreciably from the proposals of the Government, but I do not get a great measure of content from that, because I consider that both policies are inadequate. The only difference between the Leader of the Opposition and the Government in this matter is that the Government can get the support of its followers to carry out its proposals, whereas I do not believe that the Leader of the Opposition, with all his courage, could get the unanimous support of his followers to carry out his proposals if he were Prime Minister of a Labour government.

Australia, therefore, in one of the most dangerous times in the history of the world, possibly on the brink of Armageddon, is in the most uneviable position of having to choose between two inadequate policies.

Mr HOLLOWAY (MELBOURNE, VICTORIA) - The people have no choice at all. The honorable gentleman's party is in power.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Well, if the people should ever become impatient with the policy of this Government and decide to turn it out of office, it could only turn it out in favour of a party which, in theory, has the same policy, but the unfortunate new Prime Minister would not he able to carry out that policy because of the lack of support of those whom he would have behind him.

The pronouncement of the Minister for Defence is not only the most comprehensive that has been made to this House, but also in a great many respects a tremendous improvement on any proposals that the Government has previously put before Australia. I wish to refer to four specific improvements, not because they are of the greatest note, but because they come readily to my mind in the limited time that I have had to study the statement. I am pleased at the decision to station an air squadron at Townsville, instead of Cairns, which was previously rumoured to have been selected. My experience of Cairns is that its weather conditions and rugged mountainous surroundings would have been a death trap to any air squadron stationed there. Townsville with its better climate and less rugged terrain will be much more suitable.

I am pleased to hear that the destroyers whose effectiveness I queried in a question which I asked in this House, are to be replaced by more modern destroyers. I cannot share the contentment of the Minister for Defence at the report that was made to him, because the rumours that I suggested I had heard came from sources with expert knowledge. Since the Minister's reply to my question was made, I have had the rumour confirmed by retired naval officers of very high standing. I suggest that while our new destroyers are being built the Minister should make certain that the inadequate destroyers are more adequately maintained than they have been.

I share the gratification of every person who takes the defence of the Australianterritories seriously, at the decision to fortify Port Moresby and to establish there a station for flying boats to assist, in the defence of not only Port Moresby itself, but also the two territories, Papua and the Mandated Territory of Sew Guinea. I hope that the decision to establish a garrison at Port Moresby will lead the Government to take the small steps necessary to make it not only a suitable base for the defence of the territories, but 'also a suitable capital for both of them. If a garrison is stationed there, the Government should make the small outlay necessary to ensure to the town an adequate water supply.

I suggest further that the well-trained and loyal Papuan constabulary should be equipped with rifles that will shoot. I found on my visit to Papua that the rifles with which the native constabulary is equipped were like the torpedo tubes of our destroyers. Only three out of 300 of the rifles were serviceable. Having watched the men at exercises, I can say the Government would be well justified in equipping them with modern rifles.

The most important matter on whichI congratulate the Government is its decision to provide a dock in Australia which will cater for a capital ship. For many years, I have been particularly conscious of Australia's lack of such a dock. The provision of a dock for a capital ship was one of the first things that 1 advocated in this Parliament. I later had the privilege of supporting the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Holloway) when, some four or five years ago, he led a deputation to the then Acting Minister for Defence to urgethe provision of a dock for a capital ship. A long time has passed, but better late than never! Now that the Government has decided to build the dock, I hope it will not allow the grass to grow under its feet, because, conscious as I. am of the value of the Singapore Base to Australia and of the fact that British battleships based there could prevent a serious invasion of Australia, I still feel that it might well be possible for Japan, which, of those aggressor powers in the world, is the one that is closest to us, to send to these waters a ship which might render our cruiser squadron more or less, if not completely, impotent. If it is not possible for us to have a battleship of our own, we should be able to dock a British battleship here. The Minister should make himself sure in the near future that the British Ministry, in the event of an emergency, will be prepared to send a battleship to Australia. He should not be content to take the advice of his experts, but should ask for an assurance from the British Cabinet itself. I am concerned because, whenever I have suggested to naval experts that Japan might send to Australian waters, not necessarily a battleship - it might not risk the loss of a battleship - but a battle cruiser or a pocket battleship which could outrange and outfight our cruiser squadron and that our vessels would be rendered more or less impotent, the reply has always been, " But Japan has neither a battle cruiser nor a pocket battleship." The answer sounds convincing, but, strangely enough, there . are two pocket battleships on the stocks in Japan to-day. Is it most reassuring to know that they are being built for that great naval power, Siam? If the Minister is satisfied that Japan would have no vessel available to render impotent our cruiser squadron, I am not. It is essential for us to know that a British battleship can bc sent to Australian waters in the event of an emergency. If we cannot be satisfied on that point, whatever be the cost, we should build one battleship, or even two battleships, ourselves.

I have mentioned some of the aspects of the new programme which please me. I turn now to some of the aspects about which I am less satisfied. We have been told by the Minister for Defence that he cannot visualize a position in which tho United Kingdom could not come rapidly to our assistance. That means that Great Britain could not only send battleships but' also hold Singapore as a base for them. I bow to the Minister's greater knowledge and I feel that it might be possible, whatever were the alignment of forces in Europe for Great Britain to send battleships to Singapore, which would mean that, so long as Singapore stood, an invasion of Australia would be impossible; but I, and, I feel, every thinking person, can visualize the position in which Great Britain could not send reinforcements to reinforce the- Singapore Base. In order of precedence, therefore, the first glaring omission from the programme is that there is no proposal whatever for a force to be sent to defend Australia's first line of defence. We must remember, accepting the Minister's word for it, that the Government, in its defence policy, visualizes Singapore in being, and bases its policy on that assumption. If that be the total provision, Australia ought to make trebly certain that Singapore will continue in being. We have been told by the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has assured us of the co-operation of Great Britain in the event of war. I am quite certain of the goodwill and the wish of the people of the United Kingdom to come to our assistance if we are in danger, but what I have looked for over and over again - and perhaps the Minister can enlighten me on the point - is some assurance that, particularly during the last crisis, the Commonwealth Government communicated to the Government of the United Kingdom the nature of Australia's co-operation if Great Britain were faced with the trouble into which so many people in Australia seemed to be urging it. We were cheering Great Britain on, but I have not yet heard of any great effort having been made by the Government of Australia to co-operate in any defensive measures. I suggest that our co-operation should take the form of assistance in the defence of Singapore, which is of vital importance to Australia, and would be of the very greatest assistance to the Government and people of the United Kingdom.

One other matter, provision for which would have to be included in the civil aviation estimates, but which, nevertheless. is of considerable importance to the defence of Australia, is the ability to overhaul the Empire flying-boats in Australia. I raised this matter the other day by means of a question, and it was airily dismissed by the Minister for Civil Aviation (Mr. Thorby). I realize, of course, that because of his greater opportunities to gain information, his know* ledge of civil aviation matters is greater than mine. When the Empire air-mail agreement was being debated in this House, I expressed the keenest regret, for many reasons, at the fact that the Qantas organization had been, in effect, broken up, and that it was no longer to be a selfcontained unit servicing and overhauling its own aircraft. I appreciated the arguments against this; but the last crisis made it abundantly clear that it was a very grave omission from the airmair agreement, because the Qantas company indicated that, had war broken out in Europe, and had the air route to Europe been blocked, as it almost certainly would have been, no Empire flyingboat which found itself on this side of the Mediterranean could possibly have had its engines overhauled. The engines of these flying-boats require overhaul at a minimum of 240 hours and a maximum of very little over 300 hours of flying. A trip to Singapore represents 30 hours' flying. Therefore, the maximum flying time between Australia and Singapore in any of these flying-boats before they needed overhaul would have been five trips there and back. Had war broken out, a number of them would have been approaching the period of overhaul, whilst others would have been half way towards it; therefore, the average flying time still available would have been 150 hours. These flying-boats cost £50,000 each, yet had war broken out Australia would have had practically no commercial or defence use out of them. They would have had either to he laid Hp or to make their way to 'Great Britain for service there. This matter merits more serious contemplation than the Minister for Civil Aviation deigned to give it when I raised it by means of a question.

The subject upon which I most particularly disagree with the Government is that of our land forces. The Government pins its faith to a paper militia of 70,000 men. I showed in a speech that I made on the last defence estimates that 70,000 men would give our most important strategical point - New castle, where Australia's great steel works are situated - only 1,077 militiamen for its protection. I pointed out that Japan, for example, could put almost double that number of men into one transport. If Singapore were to fall - the Government seems to be quite prepared to allow it to do so, because it has shown no evidence of a desire to help in its defence - Japan would have control of the seas in the Pacific, and in that event invasion of Australia would be a real possibility. It is said that distance lends enchantment to the view. The Minister has said that it lends security. One of the reasons why three nations in the world to-day are aggressor nations is that they are starved of raw materials and colonial territory in which to 'find an outlet for their surplus population. What more suitable area could be found for an outlet for surplus population and the production of raw materials than is to- be found in Western Australia? With a militia of 70,000 men, the whole of that State, extending from Wyndham to the electorate of the honorable member for Forrest (Mr. Prowse), would have a total quota of 4,600 militiamen. I direct the attention of tho House to -the fact that, in one set of transports, on one day, Japan recently landed, 30,000 men on the south coast of China. With command of the seas, it would be just as easy to land men on the coast of Western Australia as an the coast of China. I suggest that a force of 70,000 is entirely inadequate. The Minister said that it is only a nucleus. It is a nucleus which will dwindle daily, because only enthusiasts will remain in it year after year. There are men who served with the Australian Imperial Force who have been in the militia ever since their return to Australia. Other recruits have served for a few weeks and then left the force. This system gives no reserves, and reserves are essential. With some system of universal training under which every man, upon reaching a certain age, would- be taught how to defend his country, reserves would be built up each year. I could mention quite a lot of arguments against a voluntary militia force. There is the very real argument of unfairness to the best section of our community, the young men who are prepared to make great sacrifices in order to learn to defend their country. A very grave objection to a voluntary militia is its inefficiency. When the well-meaning militiaman is asked by his girl friend to take her to the pictures, the girl will almost certainly win and the defence of the country will lose. I also realize that 50 per cent, of the militiamen, through no fault of their own but for other reasons upon which I need not dwell, never go into camp, which is the most important part of their training. 1 have discussed the militia with men who, like the Minister for Defence, served with the compulsory forces before the war, and with the Australian Imperial Force during the war, and who at great personal sacrifice- have served with the volunteer force since the war. I have spoken to every one I could get hold of, and have not yet found one who agrees with the contention of the Minister, that voluntary training is either adequate or efficient. Apart from its inefficiency, it is the most expensive form of training that could be adopted. I have in my electorate some excellent infantry units. I take off my hat to every man who serves in them, for his efforts to train himself under most unattractive conditions. Infantry training, I consider, is apt to be always unattractive in comparison with other specialized forms of training. When ten or fifteen enthusiasts attend for training night after night without the provision of a drill hall, they are making a sacrifice which is too great to ask of them. I quite realize that drill halls cannot be built for every ten or fifteen men who wish to be trained; which is one very good reason why the voluntary militia is the most expensive form of training we could have; but if it be intended to restrict the number to 70,000 men, which we may get owing to the patriotism and enthusiasm of the young men of Australia, and if the conditions are to be made sufficiently attractive to keep them in the force, drill halls by the. hundred will have to be built to house units of ten or fifteen. Otherwise they will be asked to serve under hopeless conditions and it will not be possible to carry out their training efficiently. These are arguments that I have had confirmed by every militia officer to whom I have spoken.

What are the terrible arguments advanced against the form of universal training introduced by a far-sighted and patriotic Labour government years before the war, which I think I am right in saying has never been repealed bu't has merely been suspended? Some persons object to it because it is compulsory. Is there any objection to compulsory education? If it be right to educate people to take their place in civil life, surely it is right to educate them to defend their homes and their country ! If there is any section of the community which thinks it is wrong for its young men to rub shoulders with all classes of Australians, the sooner those young men are put into camp with a fair average sample of Australians taken from every walk of life in country and town, the better it will be for them. I can see no argument against universal training from the point of view of efficiency, and there are tremendous arguments in favour of it from the point of view of the social good it would do to .the people of this country. I have never known any young Australian who has come out of camp without a much more broad-minded appreciation of his fellow Australians than he held when he entered camp. I know lots of Australians who have gone into camp with a definite prejudice against other sections of the community with whom they had never previously come into contact', and have come out of camp realizing that those with whom they had been associated were as good as and possibly better than they themselves were. In order to make Australia into a nation, nothing could be better than for Australians to ru£ shoulders with one another in camp, and to realize that from whatever part they come one is as good as another. I would not suggest reversion to a compulsory system on the lines of that introduced before the war, although the training then given was of great value to Australia and had much to recommend it. I believe that we could greatly improve upon it. We could evolve another system of universal training which would mean far better training and far greater efficiency, and would interfere with the life of the individual much less than the old system of Saturday afternoon drills year after year. I suggest that our boys should learn the elements of drill at school so that when they started training in the citizen forces they would not need to go through the tedious business of learning to form fours and to shoulder a rifle. They might also learn something about shooting while at school. At whatever is considered the most convenient age for young men to go to camp, they should be required to undergo three months' intensive training. It would be of tremendous advantage to every young Australian, irrespective of whether he ever had to fight. This would have physcial advantages and would ako enable him to come to know his fellow Australians in a better way than is now possible. Every one who had spent three months in a continuous camp should be required, at stipulated periods, to take a " refresher " camp course in order to keep in touch with efficient training methods.

I congratulate the Minister for Defence upon having made to us the most comprehensive statement that we have yet had the privilege to hear on defence. I regret that the House has not been afforded an opportunity to discuss the whole subject in something different from the holiday atmosphere that now seems to prevail. The programme of the Government is, however, still inadequate. The Government lias shown itself prepared to spend money m defence, but it is not prepared to display the moral courage needed to implement its programme. It has not shown sufficient courage to declare that Singapore is our first line of defence, and that we must be prepared to defend it. Wor has it shown sufficient courage, for some queer reasons of political expediency, I presume, to declare that the' most efficient means of training the young men of this country for defence is by national military service.

Suggest corrections