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Thursday, 9 December 1971
Page: 4483

Mr BRYANT (Wills) -! should like to emphasise the points that my friend, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) has placed before the House. As I see it, an important principle is involved. It is not just the question that a small number of Australian soldiers are to be left in South Vietnam. Australian soldiers are not for lease, loan or sale. Australian soldiers are not available to carry out other people's diplomatic or political tasks. That is the principle that is before the House and that is the one which the Government fails to acknowledge. I believe that there is great dissatisfaction in Australia at the continuing location of Australian troops in this area. This has been a long and traumatic experience for the whole nation and one in which the Labor Party was involved right from the beginning in resisting the presence of Australian troops in South Vietnam. The Government has reluctantly at last come to the right decision to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam but we thought it would be a complete withdrawal from the area. However, that is not to be the case.

It may be said that the people of Cambodia are entitled to the kind of support that the Government's decision would give them. I believe they are entitled to support as a people. Like my colleague, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, 1 have serious doubts about the Government and I will say a few words about that in a moment. But the facts are that it is only in the diplomatic field that I believe that Australia can effect useful results in this area. I believe that from the very beginning we prejudiced our strongest position in this matter by committing ourselves to military action. While we have any troups in the area, nobody will listen to us as a neutral, impartial and objective country. It will only be by our appearing to be neutral, impartial and objective and on the side of humanity that we will mobilise world public opinion on behalf of the Khmer people. With the accession of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations, there is a totally different diplomatic scenario. All of the people and all the forces involved are available to discuss the situation around the tabic in the international forum. By failing to use the diplomatic initiative, I think we are abdicating our responsibilities to the Australian public.

I have a deep feeling for the people of the Khmer Republic - the Cambodian people. They are being overrun in somebody else's war. and therefore the Opposition resents the continuing commitment of Australian troops to this area. We believe that it removes us from the possibility of effective diplomatic initiative. On the other hand, I think we . should be doing something to relieve the physical suffering of the people in that area. We should be doing more in this regard. I know from my visit last year that the people were suffering severely, the hospitals were overcrowded, there was a shortage of beds, materials and doctors and hundreds of civilians were accommodated on the floors of the hospitals. We are doing very little about this situation in Cambodia. 1 personally hold the view that people have the right to defend themselves, and this was the reason for the position which I took last year and which in general I still sustain. But I believe it is little enough that the people will be able to achieve. By some means or other we have to entice the Vietnamese people, the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese and the governments of both countries, to leave Laos and Cambodia, and this will happen only as a result of extraordinary pressure being exerted by the people who support either side. We should be trying to get the South Vietnamese to the conference table. We should be trying to get the Russians to exert what influence they can. We should be trying to get other countries, such as Canada, to influence the Chinese to influence the North Vietnamese, and that is the only answer. 1 just want to place on record my disappointment at the collapse of parliamentary democracy - what there was of it, although it had the basis of a democratic system - in Cambodia. This Government ought to be attempting to convince the Lon Nol Government that it must revert to the democratic procedures which were part of the Cambodian situation. My friend the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Kennedy) who visited Cambodia earlier this year has reported to me that the people at that time were becoming deeply concerned about the situation in Cambodia. 1 believe that we have a role to play in this part of the world that has nothing whatsoever to do with a military commitment, lt is with deep despondency that we note the Thai situation and the collapse of the parliamentary system in Thailand, meagre as it was. This Government has been silent about this question. I believe that we should exert all possible pressure and influence on the Thai Government in order to restore the meagre parliamentary system which existed in that country. In this instance I suppose our Vietnam com mitment is a symbol of our inadequacy and our false approach. We have always gone for the military commitment when in fact the best that Australia could do would be to help the people themselves. This goes for the people of Pakistan and the suffering refugees who, more than ever, will become the responsibility of the world community.

Earlier tonight I perhaps put the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairbairn) and my colleague the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) in an embarrassing position in this discussion. I believe that it is bad parliamentary practice to produce in this House an important document on defence or anything else that has to do with our associations and international commitments in this part of the world in such a way that it cannot be adequately discussed. One of the weaknesses which have appeared in the last few years has been the inadequate time allowed for the discussion of public affairs. Discussion of foreign affairs and defence matters has been most inadequately treated. That was one of the reasons why I put on what might be termed a demonstration in this chamber a little while ago, and I can give honourable members the assurance that while I am in this place I will sustain that view.

None of us can abdicate his responsibility. Honourable members opposite cannot abdicate their responsibilities by leaving matters to the Ministers. They have very definite personal responsibilities to the people whom they represent, and they have definite personal reponsibilities because they are a part of the Australian community. The continual silence on issues such as this, when ministerial statements are made, I believe, is an abdication of our parliamentary responsibility. So I want to place on record my disapproval of the procedure. I support the view of the Australian Labor Party, that this is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent which we are following in the training of Cambodian troops. I only hope that no Australian life is sacrificed thereby. It is again one of the issues before the public that Australian soldiers are not for sale, lease or loan, and we cannot commit people to war without losing lives. In this instance not one drop of Australian blood should be shed.

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