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Thursday, 9 December 1971
Page: 4480

Mr BARNARD (Bass) - The Minister for Defence (Mr Fairbairn) has announced the commitment of about 150 Australian soldiers to South Vietnam after the withdrawal of the Task Force. There is little new in the statement that an Army assistance group will be retrained in South Vietnam. This was made clear in the statement by the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) on the future of Australian forces in Vietnam in this House on 18th August. Nor is there much novelty in the statement that this assistance group will contain a subgroup of 30 instructors to train Cambodians in South Vietnam. This stems from the extraordinarily ham-handed handling of negotiations with the United States Government before and during the Prime Minister's recent overseas trip. lt was made clear to the Parliament that this request to train Cambodians had come from the United States Government. The Government went to remarkable lengths to disguise and rationalise this approach. Even staunch supporters of the Government such as the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen) queried the Government's performance. This honourable gentleman has on the notice paper a motion in the following terms:

That this House is of the opinion that, until such time as evidence of a request from the Cambodian Government to the Australian Gov.ernment to provide instructors to train Cambodian troops in South Vietnam is tabled in this House, no Australian servicemen be ordered to instruct Cambodian servicemen in South Vietnam.

If the memorandum on the Australian participation in the training of FANK personnel in Vietnam is intended to satisfy the demands of the honourable member for Moreton, then 1 suggest that u falls somewhat short of evidence of a request from the Cambodian Government. lt is plain that this arrangement resulted from a direct approach by the United States Government to the Department of Defence, although all sorts of vague proclamations have been used in retrospective justification.

It is significant that New Zealand is not a signatory to the memorandum nor is there any indication that New Zealand is to participate in the scheme to train Cambodians in Vietnam. The Prime Minister at one stage committed New Zealand to this training scheme along with the United Slates and South Vietnam. This is an example of the sort of bungling and wrong information given by the Government on this extremely important policy issue. In the event the New Zealand Government has shown much more sense than this Government in getting out of Vietnam and staying out. The attitude of the Labor Party to these two announcements can be stated quite simply: We are opposed to the retention of an Australian assistance team in South Vietnam. We are opposed to the use of Australian servicemen to train Cambodians in South Vietnam. The Government supports the administration of General Lon Nol in Cambodia; the Opposition has very grave reservations about it. These are our attitudes and 1 do not want to elaborate them in any detail. - The main dangers of commitments of this sort is that they can be so readily used as the springboard for a massive escalation. An American army of more than half a million flowed on directly from the commitment of a modest number of advisers. Australian advisers have been used in Vietnam for just over nine years. With the Task Force out, there will be very little check on where and how these advisers will operate.

The Government is quite adamant that it will not commit Australian soldiers to Cambodia, but South Vietnamese units are in and out of Cambodia all the time. No one can say for certain that Australian advisers have not gone into Cambodia or into Laos in the operations earlier this year. These are the 2 dangers of maintaining such a presence; that it can be used as the basis for the re-commitment of Australian units, and it is not possible for proper supervision of their movements and activities.

Having stressed the Labor Party's total opposition to the 2 measures contained in the Minister's statement, 1 want to look at an important matter arising from the Government's policy of training South Vietnamese and Cambodian troops. This is the fate of the proposed jungle training school at Nui Dat. The Minister referred to the Nui Dat project in an oblique reference to the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at its new location in Van K leI] in Phuoc Tuy Province. When the proposal to establish the school was announced by the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) in April last year, it was to be in quarters vacated by reduction of the task force from 3 to 2 battalions. In October last year, the former Minister ' for Defence, the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser) said that the school at Nui Dat would be training 400 to 500 junior leaders for the South Vietnamese forces by early 1971. On 30th March in this House, the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) said the Nui Dat school had just completed its first school.

A report appeared in the 'Australian' on 23rd April, by Barry Wain claiming that a total of $600,000 would be spent on building the permanent training school at Nui Dat. This would include 60 married quarters, 5 student company areas, lecture rooms, a 500-man assembly hail and administration buildings, staff accommodation and mess halls. In his statement on 18th August, the Prime Minister said that the training school at Nui Dat would be retained if wanted and if satisfactory arrangements could be made. On 15th October the Minister announced in the baldest possible terms that the jungle training scheme would be moved to Van Kiep. lt was reported in the 'Sydney Morning Herald' of 18rh October that Nui Dat base including the training school was being destroyed by the South Vietnamese as the Task Force withdrew. This switch from Nui Dat to Van Kiep which is a major training camp conducted by the United States Army has never been explained in a satisfactory way.

The Government intended to maintain a flag force at the traditional Task Force quarters at Nui Dat. This was- made quite clear in successive statements by Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers and in statements given to the Press. Now. Nui Dat has been scrapped completely and the jungle training school dismantled. The Government should outline why it was not possible lo maintain the school at Nui Dat and why the training school had to be swiftly shifted under the American umbrella. It should also outline to the House how much was invested in the jungle training camp at Nui Dat and how much of the capital investment and equipment was destroyed when the camp was moved. A figure of $600,000 was reported in the Press and not refuted by the Government. If a sum of this size has been written off in a futile venture of this sort, then it adds new dimensions to the folly of the Vietnam commitment.

Another mysterious feature of this announcement is that no reference is made to the formation of the mobile army training teams which were to be formed for service in Vietnam as the Task Force withdrew. This was announced by the Former Prime Minister in his statement in April last year. According to the right honourable member for Higgins, these mobile teams would bear the brunt of Australian participation with 130 men formed into mobile training groups to Ii ase with and train regional and popular forces in the field. The next reference I have been able to find to the mobile training team was in an article in the Melbourne 'Age' on 16th October last year when it was claimed that these 130 men would be divided into 15 mobile training teams. There has been no further mention by either Government or Press of these 15 'phantom' mobile training teams. In a total commitment of 150 men with 30 earmarked for training Cambodians, a team at Van Kiep, a cadre providing advisory and training assistance to territorial forces and a number of engineers, it is not possible to get 130 men organised into 15 mobile training teams.

These are samples of the way in which this Parliament has been misleading repeatedly about the Government's actions in Vietnam. The history of the jungle training school and the disappearance of the mobile training teams are important matters which the Government is obliged to explain to the Parliament. The Government is practising an act of deception on itself if it believes that these important policy reversals can be allowed to pass without Parliamentary scrutiny. In summing up, I repeat again the Labor Party's complete opposition to any further military participation of any sort in the Indo China wars. The last vestiges of military assistance will be ended immediately by a future Labor Government. But on this issue and on this note may i indicate at once that while we have consistently stated our opposition in this Parliament to the Government's decision to have Australian training teams located in South Vietnam for the purpose of training Cambodians, just as we opposed Australian intervention in South Vietnam, and while we welcome the Government's belated decision to withdraw Austraiian forces before the end of this year, we do not believe that this should be the end of Australia's responsibility in Vietnam. 1 am now speaking of the period after the inevitable political settlement, which is the only way in which the war in Vietnam can be completed sal.isfactorily. The Minister and the Government must be fully aware of this.

This Government and any Australian government - no doubt the next government will be a Labor Government - will have the continuing responsibility of providing the kind of assistance that will mean something to the people in the devastated areas not only of South Vietnam but also North Vietnam, lt is a great pity that, in these ministerial statements which, of necessity, may be confined to one aspect of Government policy, there is too much emphasis on the Government's attitude in respect of what it will do in relation to its commitments in Vietnam and too little emphasis on the attitude that one would expect the Government to adopt as a humane approach to the problems of the people of South Vietnam. Irrespective of what attitude it may adopt if the Government is to be congratulated on any approach it has made in South Vietnam in the pas:, it should be on the basis of the assistance which it has provided which, J believe, will leave a lasting impression on the people of that country. This is an impression which has been created as a result of the attitude of those who have been in a position to provide projects of a worthwhile nature to the people of South Vietnam. In this way I believe that Australians in South Vietnam - quite apart from their general conduct as soldiers, to which I have referred on many occasions - have made worthwhile contributions.

I have taken the opportunity to state in this House tonight the Opposition's continued objection to the Government's decision to leave troops in South Vietnam, whether for training purposes or as advisers. We believe that the Government is wrong in this decision, lt should adopt the attitude that New Zealand has adopted and which I mentioned earlier. New Zealand has decided that it will no longer retain troops in South Vietnam. It has made a clear decision in this respect and we believe that Australia should have adopted this same attitude. This Government now is prepared to maintain 130 advisers in South Vietnam to train Cambodian and South Vietnamese troops. I do not want to repeat what I have said on other occasions, but this is the way in which a country can become involved in a conflict that is of no concern to it.

I conclude by saying that while I have slated the Opposition's objections, I reiterate that there will be a responsibility on any Australian Government to ensure that whatever assistance is required in the rehabilitation of the people of South Vietnam and of North Vietnam when a peaceful settlement to this problem has been found - I hope this will not be in the too distant future - it will be provided. The Australian Government should recognise that, because of the way in which it has been involved as a result of its commitment in that country, it should accept responsibility for the great task of rehabilitation.

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