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Tuesday, 15 March 1966

Mr HAROLD HOLT - I think the honorable gentleman has been long enough in this House and close enough to the processes of government to know that the question he has put is quite misleading in its implications and in fact constitutes a mischievous attempt to convert a quite serious national issue into an item of party political propaganda. I hope the House can approach this matter in a realistic and balanced fashion. I do not think it is fair either to the young men concerned or to their parents to create an entirely false and misleading impression as to what is involved in the decision of the Government.

I am asked, Sir, whether this country is at war. This country is engaged in military operations at a number of points. We have joined with the United Kingdom forces in resisting Indonesian confrontation in Malaysia. We have joined with American forces and those of South Vietnam and certain other countries in resisting the Communist expansion and the repression and terrorism from Communist sources which are occurring in South Vietnam. We regard the issue as one of critical importance for free peoples throughout South East Asia and indeed for free peoples everywhere. As part of an Australian contribution in this area we have announced the despatch in the near future of a task force group and the Minister for the Army has pointed out that about 30 per cent, of this task force group, totalling about 4,500 people, will consist of national service trainees.

There are 80,000-odd young men in this country in the relevant age group, of whom 8,400 are to be called up for national service training. Approximately one in six of those, on the scale of a task force of 4,500, would be in South Vietnam at any one time. I am speaking in round figures on the basis of the scale that is in contemplation in the planning which has been undertaken. The tour of duty would extend for approximately one year. Before undertaking that service the trainees, as I understand the position, would undergo a period of at least six months initial training followed by three months training of a corps character. A number of national service trainees, after undergoing this training, would then serve in South Vietnam, the total number representing about 30 per cent, of the 4,500 Australian servicemen engaged there.

Mr Calwell - Call them conscripts.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - Well, the Leader of the Opposition calls them conscripts. I would say that they are responding to the decision by this Parliament that there shall be provided in this way a necessary component of the regular forces to maintain the most effective fighting force on a limited scale, commensurate with the limited nature of the operation that this country has undertaken. Does the Leader of the Opposition advocate that we should have something less than the most effective fighting force that we can put into the field? This Government has acted in accordance with the recommendations of the highest order of military advice that it has been able to obtain. Our decision is based on legislation that has been passed by this Parliament. The honorable gentleman who leads the Opposition said that he would make this the issue at the last Senate election.

Mr Calwell - We shall make it the issue at the next one.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - The honorable gentleman will not find the Government running away from the issue then any more than it did at the last Senate election, at which the Australian Labour Party was decisively defeated. All I ask is that honorable gentlemen opposite treat seriously, in a balanced way, an issue that is of concern to all people in this country and not attempt to make that issue a tool of their own political propaganda in an effort to conceal the divisions on foreign policy so evident among them.

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