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Thursday, 31 March 1966

Mr HARDING (Herbert) .- A debate on foreign affairs always reminds me of the time that I was mixed up in an argument between a Hindu and a Moslem as to who had the right religion. It was a good argument, but we were never quite sure who won it. The paper presented by the Minister for External Affairs (Mr. Hasluck) dealt more with the position in Vietnam than with anything else. It dealt briefly with the food problem of India which in itself is a major problem if taken in relation to the pressures of Communism at present in Asia, the relations between Malaysia and Singapore, the confrontation of Malaysia by Indonesia and the dispute between India and Pakistan, a struggle which was resolved by the intervention of the Russian Premier. The Minister's statement contained also a little about Africa in general and a little about Rhodesia in particular. The significance of most of these countries should never be underestimated because of their closeness geographically to Australia. Whatever happens there must of necessity have its effects on us here. Where I come from, of course, the main concern is the hot spot of Vietnam. I think this would also be the main concern of most people throughout Australia.

Having spent some time in Vietnam I thought I should say what I think about the whole affair. Before doing so let me say that 1 was with a delegation from this Parliament which spent about four weeks in that area. About ten days of the time was spent in Vietnam, some days were spent in Cambodia, we had a certain time in Laos and about a week in Thailand. We were travelling under the guidance of the Minister for the Navy (Mr. Chaney). I have always said, not only in this place but outside, that I think we should look at the problem of Vietnam through both eyes. Unfortunately, too many people in this place have a tendency to use only one eye; some use the right eye and some the left. As a consequence we rarely get a true picture of what is actually happening in Vietnam, nor do we get a balanced view, so far as I have been able to see and so far as I have been able to hear. The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Holt) said a few nights ago that the Australian Labour Party in claiming that the Government had over simplified the problem was itself guilty of over complicating the whole affair. With all due respect to the Prime Minister and to anyone else who may hold that view, [ do not think we can possibly over complicate the situation in the unhappy country of Vietnam. The whole situation is both complex and confused.

When 1 was in Laos with the delegation to which I have referred 1 think it was the British Ambassador to that country who said to me that anyone who came to Laos or. for that matter, the whole area of South East Asia, and did not go away confused had not been properly informed. In my opinion that is still the position. In Vietnam in those days there was a great need for military action that was of a concerted nature, and it was desirable from the political angle to keep the military structure divided to prevent coups. This was evidenced by the fact that a divisional commander might have half of his command in the north and the other half in the south. The idea was to keep the military divided as this was an advantage from a political point of view. However, as we know, this did not work out and there were coups despite that action. The military theory that they were working on at that time was that they would clear an area of all Vietcong influence and then, like a drop of water on blotting paper, the cleared area would extend until the whole country was clear. But like the theory of divided military command, that did not work out either.

When I was there I found that most of the Ministers seemed to be decent nationals and reasonable people, although from the way they lived it was not hard to believe that there had been a great deal of corruption and misuse of public money. That was obvious to anyone who cared to look. Honorable members opposite who have made statements to the contrary should go back to Vietnam for another look because it is obvious they are not reporting what they saw at that time. Since our visit the mayor of Hue has been accused of graft and corruption. He had a magnificent home surrounded by hovels. His home was situated on the Hue River and he was living like a king, but the people next door were living in conditions in which we would not want to see dogs live in Australia. In Laos there was a huge monument in the main boulevard to show how the money which had been given to them had been spent. There was a great building five or six storeys high which was unfinished and still surrounded with scaffolding. The reason why it was not finished was that the cement being used in its construction had been supplied by the Americans for the runways at the airport and the Americans had found out how the cement was being used. Since then General Phoumi has departed in a hurry with half the population of Laos after him. He had a magnificent home which in Australia would be worth up to $250,000. It was furnished to the same level of luxury, yet this Minister earned about £10 a week. When one looked across the street from his house and saw the standard of housing of the general public, one was left in no doubt as to why Communism was a welcome alternative for these people, despite the ideologies and the other matters that we have heard discussed across the chamber today.

The methods used by the authorities in this part of Asia to keep the people free were little different from those used by Communist authorities in Communist controlled countries, especially in Vietnam under Diem's regime. While we were there we were told that conditions were much like those in Germany in the days of Hitler and the Nazis when there was a so-called free society under non-Communist rule. In Thailand two or three years ago one had only to name a person as being a Communist sympathiser and that person went to gaol. The Minister had the power to keep him in gaol for as long as he wished without any evidence or any trial. At that stage of our visit we met a prison superintendent from New South Wales who was visiting Thailand and investigating its gaol system. He told me that one gaol in Bangkok held 1,800 political prisoners. All these facets of government and of the conditions prevailing in these places leave no doubt in my mind that many of the objectionable features of Communist rule exist already under non-Communist governments in that area.

For anyone to claim that the war in Vietnam is entirely a civil war is ridiculous, and to claim that it is 100 per cent. Communist aggression is, in my opinion, equally stupid. In my view it is a little of both, or perhaps I should say a complex of both. In Hue we saw heaps of captured weapons made in China, Russia and Czechoslovakia. We saw the same type of light machine gun in Cambodia where it seemed to be the standard weapon used. We saw 16 year old children being trained in the use of this weapon. It was obvious to me that the weapon was of Russian design. The bayonet was tapered with fluting down the -side whereas our bayonets usually are of a knife shape. The stock of the weapon also was different. Everywhere in Cambodia these weapons were evident. We were told that they had been taken from the Vietcong. There were, of course, a few American weapons at that stage. They were very old. I doubt whether a high percentage of the weapons used by the Vietcong today would have been captured. Perhaps when this affair started in 1955 or 1956 many captured weapons were used. But I believe that the dimensions of the war today preclude any possibility of 80 or 90 per cent, of the weapons used by the Vietcong being captured weapons. When I was there I could see no evidence that that was the position.

Further evidence of the aid from outside the borders was given to us by the Laotian Prime Minister of that time, Prince Souvanna Phouma, who, with his half brother, had been in the Pathet Lao, which was then the Communist Party in Laos. He said: " I know that these people in the Pathet Lao have been receiving aid from North

Vietnam because I was in the jungles with them for two and a half years ". He was the gentleman who said, as the honorable member for Brisbane (Mr. Cross) told us this afternoon, that it is rather foolish for us to persist in the unreal attitude of keeping Mainland China, Red China, or whatever you like to call it, out of the United Nations. His theory was that only by China being in the United Nations could we ever have any control over it; that only in the United Nations would China ever be made to face up publicly to the things that it has done over the years. He said that by keeping China out of the United Nations we are playing into its hands and making things worse for ourselves in the long run.

Mr Cockle - What would he do about Nationalist China?

Mr HARDING - I suggest that the honorable member keep quiet. I am in enough confusion already. One thing to be seen by anyone who went to Laos was that apparently American civil air crews were flying arms and equipment to the neutralist armies north of the Plain of Jars. It was common talk when we were there that these men were not civilians at all; they were army air force personnel. They certainly looked like army air force personnel to me. They were not civilians, as far as I could see.

The International Control Commission was just a big joke in Laos because, according to the Indian Ambassador who sat next to me at a function in our Ambassador's house in Vientiane - I have no reason to doubt his sincerity - before the International Control Commission can investigate any complaint about a breach of neutrality it must have the permission of the three official parties - the neutralists, the rightists and the Pathet Lao. Of course, if any of them were guilty of a breach of neutrality they would not want anyone to investigate, so they would not give permission. He said that if the Commission, with its white helicopters, went to have a look they were promptly shot at. I mention that only because it shows that without goodwill and sincerity these international agreements on neutrality and international control commissions are nothing more than a waste of time and money. The International Control Commission certainly was, from what I could see in Laos.

In my opinion, the whole trouble in this area boils down to the accumulated reaction to years of exploitation first by the inside ruling class in some cases and by the people who ruled this area under colonialism at a later stage. During that period, as far as I could see, there has never been any attempt to establish a middle class society which, as we all know, is the basis of any democracy. Unless there is a solid middle class society there are only extremes of thought one way and the other. In this area there are only two classes - a top class and a bottom class. They are very far apart. In my opinion, that is the main reason why these people are, if nothing else, fair game for any ideology, be it Communism or anything else apart from what they know at present.

A theory was put to us by General Khanh, who was then Prime Minister of South Vietnam, that the Vietnamese people should create a constitution and hold free elections within two years. Of course, he is now past tense like many of his successors, and things are still much the same. There is still talk about a constitution and there are still promises of free elections. Free elections were to have been held 10 years ago. But, apparently, had they been held then the Communists, or the Vietminh as they were then, being better organised, would have won quite easily. The Vietcong claim that they are only fighting for what they would have had if free elections had been held. That certainly makes sense to them, and I can see their point of view in that respect. It seems to me that any attitude on Vietnam can be justified logically, depending on where one starts chronologically. We see this done daily.

With regard to conscription in Australia, I have said before that if the Government was determined to send troops to Vietnam it should have sent volunteers. I do not agree with honorable members opposite in relation to picking up people who do not want to go to Vietnam and keeping at home people who want to go there. I believe that, had only volunteers been used, the moral issue would have been the only issue involved; but now a much deeper issue is involved. History has shown that volunteers have always been readily available in times of national need. If they were not available, or if the Government considered they were or would not be available, that does not say much for the efforts which, over the last year or so, the Government and its supporters have put into convincing the Australian people that this war is of vital interest to Australians.

The fact that no-one can even hazard a guess as to how long this war will last or when it will finish means that many lads who are at school today - 16 and 17 year old lads - are more than likely to be sent to Vietnam. That is worrying their mothers, who have a vote. Whilst many people demonstrate outwardly, I can tell the Government that many people in my electorate who normally vote for it will not vote for it at the next election merely because of their feelings against its policy of using conscripts in Vietnam.

Mr Cockle - That is rubbish.

Mr HARDING - Wait and see. Although these people are not ones for running around waving banners, their actions at the polls could be much more devastating. The honorable member for Bradfield (Mr. Turner) is interjecting. He has made his speech, which was full of the usual bunkum.

The honorable member for Wimmera (Mr. King) referred to the position of rural workers. I wish to refer particularly to the position of people in the sugar industry. I believe that every honorable member who represents a rural area has a great deal of trouble in respect of the inflexibility in the Government's policy with regard to the conscription of these kids. I think of the owner of a farm who is 65 years of age and is broken in health as a result of his work in the days when farming in the sugar industry was really tough. He has one lad who has been working the farm for years. The farm is not in the lad's name simply because these days no-one in his right senses would put a farm as valuable as a sugar farm in a young person's name without any strings attached. When the lad goes away, all that the Department of Labour and National Service will say to the farmer is: "There is plenty of labour available. Ask the Commonwealth Employment Service to find labour for you." The position in the wheat industry also applies in the sugar industry. Workers for sugar farms cannot be picked off the street. They have to know something about the work, and if a man knows anything about it he has a farm of his own.

I certainly hope - as I think we all do - that this war will not escalate. But, for the life of me, I cannot see any reason why it will not escalate. Today it is quite evident that, in order to pull North Vietnam away from China and under the wing of Russia, much more help will be forthcoming from Russia to Hanoi. That is as logical to Russia as aid to South Vietnam is to the United States. So, as far as I can see, there will be a stepping up of the war. I believe that the anti-aircraft defences of North Vietnam will be the first to benefit from increased Russian aid. The only persons to suffer will probably be the men of the American Air Force.

Before I finish let me say that Communism in Asia can be defeated in the long run only by the Asians themselves. Suppressing it by force of arms and doing nothing to remove its causes, as we have seen in so many other parts of the world, will only make its ultimate supremacy a certainty. That applies to virtually every country in South East Asia. I hope that the Indonesian Government, for its own sake, at last will begin to put economics before politics and will recognise that the Communist Party in that country will be contained permanently by proper land reform, education and administration aimed at improving the lot of the lower classes, and not by perpetuating a heirachy which is of use only to itself. If Australia as a nation can help Indonesia in this respect - I am sure that the Government is doing what it can - in the future we will save many millions of pounds which otherwise we would have had to spend on armaments.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Haworth) adjourned.

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