Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 20 November 1913

The PRESIDENT - Is it the pleasure of the Senate that the Minister of Defence have leave to make a statement?

Honorable Senators. - Hear, hear !

Senator MILLEN - In making public . the reasons which have led to the termination of Captain Hughes Onslow's appointment as second member of the Naval Board, it is desirable that the duties of that Board should first be set out. Clause 7 of the Naval Defence Act states that (1) the Governor-General may appoint a Board of Administration for the Naval Forces to be called the Naval Board; and (2) the Naval Board shall have such powers and functions as are prescribed. Under the above powers regulations were issued which declared, inter alia, that the members of the Board shall act as a whole'; but in matters of routine a special sphere of supervision shall be allotted to the different members.

From this it will be seen that an essential factor for the effective working of the Board is the existence of harmonious relations between individual members. Although members were given seniority as indicated by their being first, second, third, and finance members respectively, not one of them has greater executive power than another. The recommendations of any or of all of them are subject only to the decision of the Minister. Under the circumstances, therefore, with every member on a practically equal footing, it is manifest that a good understanding must exist between them, together with the ordinary courtesies of official intercourse, if the administration by the Board is to proceed satisfactorily.

On my taking office, however, I soon discovered that this essential harmony was entirely absent, personal friction, and, indeed, hostility, existing in its stead, and these had assumed such proportions that the members as a whole were not on speaking terms, apart from the intercourse necessary for the discharge of official duties.

Recognising that this was absolutely fatal to a proper discharge of the duties for which the Board was created, and, further, that its responsibilities were daily increasing, and were likely to be still further increased with the arrival of the remaining vessels of the Fleet Unit, I endeavoured to bring about better personal relations between its members. To that end I interviewed them individually, and invited their assistance in the task I had undertaken. I was gratified by receiving an assurance that they would be only too pleased to do anything to bring about an end so desirable in itself, and so essential to the welfare of the Department. I regret to say, however, that hardly had these assurances been given when I became convinced of the futility of any efforts that I might make towards the restoration of peace, at least, so far as Captain Hughes Onslow was concerned .

Although I had by this time quite made up my mind that certain changes on the Board were necessary, in view of. the great magnitude and importance of the work to be accomplished, I still thought it desirable to bring about these changes in a less drastic method than that which circumstances have compelled. It did not appear to me to be in the public interest that publicity should, at this juncture, be given to the very unfortunate state of affairs that existed on the Board. Admiral Patey was shortly to arrive, and for the first time the vessels of the Fleet Unit were to assemble. I was extremely anxious, therefore, that what can only be described as a truly historical event should pass off without the disturbing factor referred to obtruding itself, and until I should have had an opportunity of taking further counsel as to the future of the Board. However, circumstances compelled earlier action.

Captain Hughes Onslow's attitude regarding the Board, his method of expressing himself towards certain of his colleagues, and my personal observation of his demeanour, gradually compelled me to the conclusion that he was primarily responsible for the unfortunate state of affairs to which I have already referred, which was rapidly reducing the Board to a state of paralysis, and seriously jeopardizing the administration of the Department.

Hisown minutes abundantly prove that the Board, owing to the differences between its members, was unable to properly discharge its duties, and as a matter of fact was not so discharging them. Even before I had arrived at the conclusion that action was necessary, Captain Hughes Onslow himself had recognised and intimated that it was impossible for him to continue his duties except under certain conditions which he indicated. I was not prepared to meet his stipulations, nor can I admit the right of any officer to dictate to the Government as to whom it should employ, or whom it should cease to employ.

The cumulative force of these several matters finally made it clear that my duty was to take the step which appeared to me to be necessary to render the Board capable of discharging its high and responsible duties. I therefore suggested to Captain Hughes Onslow that he should tender his resignation.

As he declined to do so, the only course open was to relieve him of his duties, which was done by Executive minute on the 3rd October, 1913.

Immediately following, matters connected with the arrival of the Fleet took me to, and detained me, at Sydney for some little time. Shortly after my return, communications were addressed to me, which suggested the possibility of Captain Hughes Onslow returning to the Board under conditions, holding out reasonable promise of its future smooth and efficient working. However, as Captain Hughes Onslow, in the last of certain interviews which followed, re-affirmed his inability to act upon the Board as at present constituted, I again suggested that he should place me in a position to accept his resignation. As he declined, there was forced upon me the unpleasant but only alternative of securing the termination of his appointment.

One of Captain Hughes Onslow's complaints, which I state in fairness to him, is the fact that the duties of both finance member on the Board and of Naval Secretary are discharged by one officer. The view taken is that this places undue power in that officer's hands, who, first as finance member, shares in the deliberations of the Board, and then later on, as secretary, places the Board's recommendations before the Minister.

Captain Hughes Onslow frequently voiced this complaint.

It is only right, however, to say on behalf of Mr. Manisty, who at present is finance member and Naval Secretary, that I have never known him to express an opinion upon a Board recommendation until I asked him to do so; and, further, in presenting a recommendation from which he disagreed, he invariably placed before me any minutes, or other documents, supporting the view from which he differed. It appeared to me, indeed, that he was punctilious in this regard. .

One other matter, perhaps, calls for comment. The opinion has been expressed in certain quarters that the trouble on the Board has arisen owing to the inability of Australian officers to work with British officers. The facts of the case disprove this, as {he division among the members of the Board has been on quite different lines.

In connexion with this matter, as was quite naturally to be expected, considerable press comment has appeared, and some speculation has been indulged in as to the future of the Board, with pointed references to individual members.

While the rapid expansion of its responsibilities requires that the future of the Board, and the duties intrusted to its members, should be brought under early review, it is neither fair nor right to regard such review as being consequent upon, or connected with, the events previously referred to. It is a matter of simple fairness that I should take this opportunity of emphasizing this point.

Suggest corrections