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Friday, 16 August 1974
Page: 1068

Senator WEBSTER (VICTORIA) -My question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs refers to the Ermolenko incident and is in 2 parts. I appreciate the strain that is on the Minister at this time. Firstly, did the Minister state in reply to a question this morning that it was he who instructed the Royal Australian Air Force? Would the Minister wish to have an opportunity to vary that statement to the Senate? Secondly, did the Minister or his Department on the morning of Thursday, 15 August- yesterday- inform the Soviet Charge d 'Affaires, Mr Smirnov, of the Government's decision to fly Mr Ermolenko by RAAF aircraft? Were other people advised? If that is so, did not the Minister consider that he had a responsibility to inform the Senate either yesterday morning or later in the day?

Senator WILLESEE -I did say, I think, that I instructed the Royal Australian Air Force. I did not instruct the operation. I arranged for the Air Force to be instructed through the proper channels. It was my decision that we would have an RAAF plane standing by.

Senator Webster - You are not shielding anyone? It was your decision?

Senator WILLESEE - Yes, absolutely my decision. Believe me, no one wanted to take this buck off me; they left me with it. There were no volunteers. As to why I did not advise the Senate, what I did was to arrange to send a plane to Perth because at that time there was still a ban by the Federated Clerks Union on the handling of any aircraft carrying the Russians. Subsequently, on Wednesday, Mr Coleman, the Secretary of the Trades and Labour Council, tried to arrange a meeting at the airport to discuss the question with the Federated Clerks Union following the lifting of the ban by the Transport Workers Union. He was unsuccessful. However, it was agreed that a meeting would be held the next day- but, as I understood it, the union executive did not call it. Finally, a meeting was held. People from both sides addressed it and after all present had heard the case the vote was put and the ban was lifted by 20 votes to 7, nearly a 3 to 1 majority. Several people told Mr Coleman that that was the first chance the union had had of hearing the question put before it fairly and squarely. When they did get the opportunity, the members lifted it, as I say, by a nearly 3 to 1 vote. So at that stage I had merely arranged to have a plane standing by. There was still a possibility that the Russians would go by commercial plane.

I think it should become obvious to honourable senators why I did not inform the Senate. I have acknowledged right throughout that a number of people were genuinely interested in the welfare of this person.

Senator Wright - It was your only way of using the armed forces to elude the unions, was it not?

Senator WILLESEE -No, it was not. I am answering Senator Webster's question; so just be quiet. The point is that what I did would have defied the union if necessary. In the statement I made last night- if the honourable senators opposite ever get around to reading it they will see this- 1 said that the Government had to govern. That was the attitude I took. Senator Webster, who I think is genuinely interested in this matter, asked why I did not inform the Senate. It is quite obvious that a number of people- I have said this several times-were jumping on the bandwagon, playing a political line and beating people up into hysteria.

Senator Durack - Who are they?

Senator WILLESEE -Senator Durack knows perfectly well who they are. According to the information I had there was a strong possibility of very ugly scenes occurring at the Perth airport should the Government attempt to get the Russian party on the commerical British Airways flight from that airport. For example, on the previous evening large crowds had gathered at the airport, even though the Russians were not present, and created angry scenes when union officials were considering their attitude to the ban. A large crowd gathered at the airport next day in anticipation of the Russians boarding an aircraft. The Government decided that it simply could not guarantee the safety of the Russian party in such circumstances. Concern for Georgi 's safety and welfare has always been, and remains, my principal objective throughout this whole matter and I was not prepared to put him at risk. I only wish that some others involved had shown a similar concern for Georgi 's wishes, as he clearly expressed them to a great number of independent and highly respected people over a period of several days. To answer Senators Webster's question, there were some of the considerations I had in mind. I think he would agree that having that knowledge and having that belief in my mind, it would have been plain suicide for me to inform the Senate. That would have then made the whole thing public. It had to be carried out in a manner that did not exacerbate a situation which was already very bad in that area.

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