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Wednesday, 19 May 1920

Mr FOWLER (Perth) .- The Department of Defence under present conditions is of such importance, and probably in the near future will become so much more important, that I think the Committee might reasonably be expected to discuss at some length the Estimates relating to it.

Sitting suspended from 6.29 to S p.m.

Mr FOWLER - The war has left us many problems and difficulties, and no small proportion of these is concentrated in the Department of Defence. There is a very gravequestion before those responsible for the control of the affairs of this country as to what will be the nature of the expenditure upon our national defence, and it is about time the Government gave some indication of their intentions in this direction. There has been a good deal of more or less general discussion in the newspapers regarding the policy we may anticipate the Government will adopt, but the country at large is still very much in the dark as to the nature of the arrangements that will ultimately be arrived at in regard to the question of military defence. I hope, the Government will not attempt to keep Parliament in ignorance on these matters until a position has been created for Parliament by the Government which) we should have to accept. During the last few years there has been rather too much of a tendency to this. The Government commits the country and Parliament to a certain course, and then, and then only, does Parliament realize what has been done. 'There is this danger - that we may adopt an unnecessarily provocative attitude towards those with whom it is to our interests to live in peace. Our soldiers have made such a reputation for themselves as fighters that Australia, to use an everyday expression, is somewhat " cocky " in regard to its capacity to meet all and sundry in war, and as our Prime Minister is not possessed of altogether too much prudence in reference to international matters, I am anxious that at tha earliest possible moment Parliament should have an opportunity of considering the policy to be adopted by Australia in the matter of defence. There are many suggestions of danger in certain quarters, but it appears to me that for many years to come the world will be free from the possibility of a great and appalling; war such as that through which we have just passed. So far from seeing danger on any horizon, I look around and see nothing but a general desire on the part of all people to settle down once more to the arts of peace rather than take up the sword again. One of the most important' duties of the Go- vernment is to see that the jingoistic persons in- Australia, who are by no means few, and certainly are not lacking. in aggressiveness, are kept within some reasonable restraint. Not long ago I read an article in an Australian magazine which in the most pointed manner indicated the intention of a certain friendly Power, which was named, to take aggressive action against Australia at the earliest possible moment in regard to the Northern Territory. The certainty of that aggressive action was indicated as if the writer were entirely in the counsels of the statesmen of that country. Many years ago I pointed out in this House the danger to ourselves of adopting an attitude towards other nations indicative of either fear or antagonism. I trust the Government will realize that the policy we ought to endeavour to follow was indicated very clearly and emphatically a little while ago by that eminent British authority, Admiral Henderson. Some years before the war broke out Admiral Henderson gave us a very important report upon the policy of naval defence we ought to adopt, but since the war he has altered his standard with regard to

Australia. I have on record a saying of his that ought to be posted up in this Chamber permanently, and kept before the people of Australia for many years to come. He declares that since the war his ideal of a defensive policy for Australia is to build railways, make roads, open up harbors, and above all tilings, add to the population. Apparently, if we do these things we are, in his opinion., doing the best for Australia, and all our schemes with regard to the Army and Navy may be considered more or less futile, unless we first and foremost adopt a policy that will add as rapidly as possible to the mere handful of people who now hold this continent. Without that safeguard of increased population our condition is indeed dangerous, and I should be glad to hear from the Government that, along with a policy of reasonable prudence in matters of defence, they have also determined to embark upon & thoroughly comprehensive scheme by which we may add to our numbers from those portions of the Empire of our own kith and kin the settlers we desire.

The Defence Department will be a spending Department on a very large scale. It will have a great tendency to spend, but I am not satisfied that the gentleman who is in: control of the Department is likely to meet the requirements of the country and Parliament in effectively controlling that expenditure. 1 desire to go back into ancient history, but the record of the present Minister for Defence (Senator Pearce) is not one which gives me confidence for the future. Early in the war I pointed out that he would probably fall short in many regards, and, undoubtedly, my fears in, that direction. have been more than justified by the course of events. We have had one condemnatory report after another from Commissions which probably no Minister other than Senator Pearce would have taken without resigning his position, but he has not done so. I remind some of the Ministers who are sitting on the Treasury bench at the present time, that the opinion of the old Liberal party with regard to the necessity for bringing the control of the Defence Department into this House, was expressed some time ago in no unqualified language, and' I say. without hesitation, now that, in. the critical position of our finances, when there is such necessity for maintaining a strong control over the military authorities, the time has arrived when, the Minister responsible for the Department should be in this House. I feel sure that if the change were brought about it would give a certain amount of confidence to the people of the country in regard to the control of that Department not felt at the present time. I have no wish to detain the Committee, nor any desire to go into details in regard to these matters, but I maintain that the .Government must seriously consider the position in respect to defence in the immediate future, must announce its policy in that respect and in regard to the control of that policy; or otherwise they will be in a very dangerous position as regards their continuance on the Treasury bench.

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