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Friday, 15 May 1970


Dr PATTERSON (Dawson) - Since becoming the Prime Minister of Australia the present Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) has exhibited a sort of cavalier, contemptuous arrogance for those who disagree wilh his convictions. He seems to believe that he is always right. A Prime Minister has the right to do so if he wishes but he docs so at his own political risk. Despite the powers of a Prime Minister of this nation, the person who holds that position has never possessed the right, nor will he ever possess the right in a democracy such as ours, to break and dishonour undertakings given or made for him or for his Government.

An intensive study of the official evidence on off-shore matters which is now available reveals that an unqualified and unambiguous agreement with the States was entered into by the previous Minister for National Development, the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Fairbairn), acting on behalf of the Commonwealth Government and with the authority of the Cabinet. This undertaking, which committed the Commonwealth, was unreservedly understood and agreed to by every State Minister acting on behalf of his respective government. The essence of this undertaking was that before any legislative action would be taken on this matter the Commonwealth would consult with the States. The commitments entered into by a responsible Cabinet Minister were, firstly, that the Minister for National Development would arrange for the views of the States as expressed through the State Ministers to be considered by Federal Cabinet, and secondly, a meeting would be convened between the Commonwealth and the States to consider further the Commonwealth proposals because of the serious Commonwealth-State relationships in this proposition.

The proof of the Commonwealth's pledge is revealed by the official records of the meeting held on 26th September, the letters exchanged between the Prime Minister and the previous Minister for National Development, and the subsequent bitter statements made by State Premiers and responsible State Ministers, all in condemnation of the Gorton Government for an inexcusable breach of faith. To argue that no breach of faith occured in the face of the official evidence, in the face of the State Ministers and State Premiers, is nothing more than a stubborn refusal to listen to the truth. The charges simply enunciated by the exMinister for National Development last Friday in this House when he condemned this Cabinet are true. They are fully substantiated by the official facts at the Commonwealth and State levels. They are fully substantiated by every State Government in this country. No person in this House should say that the words are not true. The words cannot be twisted to devise ambiguous meanings, as the Prime Minister has attempted to do. Six State Ministers and a former Federal Cabinet Minister have revealed the unpalatable facts that not only have the Prime Minister and his Cabinet breached a serious agreement, but the same Government has continued to maintain this attitude of Commonwealth infallibility. This type of behaviour and abuse of power is degenerating the national Parliament to a level where it is being openly treated with contempt by the State Governments and in fact by the people who elect us.

The evidence shows clearly that not only was a serious undertaking given by the Commonwealth to consult before any legislative action was taken but also the actual dates of the proposed future meetings were considered in detail by the Ministers present. It is patently clear that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have been guilty of gross incompetence in the manner in which this high handed action has been conducted. Even if the Cabinet admitted that it was unaware of the firmness of the commitment until after the unilateral action had been taken by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, the inescapable conclusion to be reached is that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are guilty of neglect and incompetence. This incompetence is illustrated further by the attitude to this whole affair of the former Attorney-General, now the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Bowen), who has adopted a rather strange silence in this matter. The former Attorney-General was present at the meeting between the Commonwealth and the States. He was present when the ex-Minister for National Development unreservedly committed the Commonwealth to this meeting prior to legislation. The former Attorney-General is a Cabinet Minister. Surely he was fully aware of the serious complications which would arise with the States at the time when Cabinet was considering its decision.

If the former Attorney-General did not warn the Prime Minister and his Cabinet of the undertakings to the States then he is guilty of incompetence. If he did in fact warn the Prime Minister and the Cabinet then the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, by ignoring the warning by the former Attorney-General, have shown a dictatorial and inexcusable abuse of power. I shall now deal with the new Minister for National Development (Mr Swartz) who seems to be an uncomfortable pawn in this whole game. I find it incredible that the new Minister for National Development did not become aware of this undertaking until after the Cabinet had made its decision to legislate, that is, towards the end of February. In the words of the Minister for National Development uttered in Parliament last Friday:

The full details referred to by the honourable member for Farrer did not come to my knowledge until well after the Cabinet meeting . . .

He went on:

It was not until some time after that meeting that I realised that the previous Minister for National Development had firmly believed that an undertaking to discuss this matter further with the States had been given.

One would have thought that the Minister for National Development would at least have made himself familiar with the records of this most important meeting. The only excuse that can be offered on the part of the new Minister for National Development for this very curious and staggering omission of ministerial responsibility is that in this ruthless game of politics, of ministerial sackings, reappointments and new appointments, and reshuffling of portfolios, the new Minister had not time to do his homework. One must have grave doubts also whether the Minister for National Development had actually studied the official records before he made his statement in the House. If he had read them and digested their contents, why would he make the admission, after the document had been tabled, that he was not aware of the undertaking to the States until after the Cabinet decision had been made. The proof of the commitment is in the very documents which he tabled. If the Minister is telling the truth, then by his own admission he has clearly stated his neglect in not familiarising himself with the facts.

But let me say this: As a former senior public servant whose job it was to advise Ministers, I find it completley unacceptable to believe that officers of the Department of National Development did not acquaint the new Minister for National Development of the undertakings given by the previous Minister for National Development almost 5 months before this fateful Cabinet decision. I have not attempted to quote from the official records; this was done at length by the ex-Minister for National Development in this House last Friday. The evidence is there for all to see. In addition, last Friday I revealed the contents of a letter from the Victorian Minister for Mines, Mr J. C. M. Balfour, which completely substantiated the undertaking given by the previous Minister for National Development. The letter appears in last Friday's Hansard in full, but I repeat thi.s part of it:

.   . further discussion and consultation would take place as between the Commonwealth and the States before agreement was reached or a decision made . . .

Is there any need for me to belabour to this House the mistrust that is presently being felt by State Governments on this matter, the bitterness towards the Prime Minister and his Cabinet because of this arrogant abuse of power. It is there in full to be seen in the minutes of the March meeting this year. I do not have time to quote those minutes now. Is it any wonder that the State Ministers treat this high handed attitude with some contempt?

Let me dwell on the position of the States in the matter because this is most important. Every State Government knew, after 26th September, that before any legislative action would be taken by the Commonwealth the States would be consulted in order to achieve maximum co-operation between the States and the Commonwealth. This undertaking was given by the former Minister for National Development. Because of this unqualified Commonwealth assurance the States did not engage in any public controversies or criticism of the Commonwealth along the lines expressed by the Ministers at the meeting of 26th September. They did not engage in lobbying or pressure tactics with the Commonwealth because they respected the views of the Commonwealth and they respected the undertaking entered into between them and the Commonwealth. But the Prime Minister and his Cabinet nevertheless, taking advantage of the truce, seized the opportunity to go the whole hog by making a Cabinet decision to legislate for the ownership and control of all resources below the low water mark. Perhaps the Prime Minister thought this was a smart political move which would catch the States completely asleep. But responsible governments do not adopt such dishonourable tactics. They do not act in this way. In effect, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, through what it was evidently believed was smart politics, scuttled the States. They ratted on promises made by a responsible Cabinet Minister and accepted by the States. Is it any wonder that the State Ministers treated this dishonourable action with dismay and contempt - contempt expressed publicly.

Let me quote just one reaction in the time that I have left. The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in Queensland, Dr Delamothe, who is the Queensland Minister for Justice - and this is recorded officially in the minutes of March this year - said:

There has been an arrant and, I believe, considered breach of faith on the part of the Commonwealth.

Mr Speaker,by continuing with this display of stubborn, unrelenting arrogance, by refusing to admit that he was wrong, by refusing to admit that the former Minister for National Development is right, the Prime Minister is denigrating his Cabinet, his Party and this Parliament to an intolerable situation. This is a Cabinet of dishonour. It cannot be trusted. The Prime Minister, by his dictatorial and unrelenting action, which has been backed by a subservient Cabinet, has revealed to the nation and the Parliament, including members of the coalition Liberal-Country Party, that he and his Cabinet are not fit to honourably govern this country. How can any person, let alone a State government now, ever trust this Cabinet when serious promises which have been made have been so flagrantly dishonoured? This Cabinet cannot be trusted. It is unfit to govern this country and the Prime Minister, the principal actor in this sorry, sordid affair has shown that he should not be the Prime Minister of this nation.







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