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Wednesday, 19 May 1915

Mr CHARLTON (Hunter) .- I wish to draw attention once more to the regulation recently issued regarding the age of officers permitted to serve at the front. The Assistant Minister has already promised to have an inquiry made; but, in my opinion, a great injustice is being done to officers in our Forces who are under twenty-three years of age. I admit that we must be careful in the matter of selecting officers to take charge of men in the fighting line; but there are many quite capable young men who are desirous of going to the front, and who would volunteer to-morrow if they could be accepted. It seems to me only fair that the young men of Australia who have had five years of training since the initiation of our compulsory system should have the opportunity to accompany those who volunteer from their companies, and to hold commissions. It is urged that they are too young to hold commissions in such circumstances. 1 venture to say that the great majority of the officers who have taken part in the operations at the Dardanelles are under twenty-three years of age, and that when we get the full account of those operations we shall find that these young men have done excellent work, showing plainly that they have a full knowledge of the responsibility devolving upon them, have good judgment, and are, consequently, well fitted to hold commissions in the fighting line. To bring in such a regulation at this stage and prevent others who are desirous of going to the front from doing so is not fair to them. A man who has just reached the age of twenty-three years can go; but one who is a month under twenty-three, though in every respect quite as capable as the other, is debarred from going.

Mr Jensen - No.

Mr CHARLTON - Well, we have had no intimation given to the House to the contrary, though I did read a statement from the Minister of Defence the other day in the press to the effect that provision had been made whereby a young officer could be accepted if the Commandant approved. But, in my opinion, we should make the matter clear, and not compel the officer to ask for the Commandant's approval. The time may come, though I hope not, when it will be necessary to amend this regulation, in order to meet the stress of circumstances. Since I spoke on this matter previously, I have received a letter from a gentleman who states that he knows of a father who went to an officer and asked for a commission for his son. The son was taken, and placed for a month with the Instructional Staff, with a view of receiving a commission, though I understand that only commissioned officers are allowed to go into the Instructional Staff. This man got a commission while others who have been training ever since the compulsory system came into force are deprived of the right to go to the front. Who are the better men, I ask? Those with one or two months' training, and probably with sufficient education to pass the theoretical test, or men who have not only passed the theoretical test, but, in addition, have had five years' training, and know every military rule? I maintain that it is a shame to prevent young men with that knowledge from going to the front, and that this matter should receive the earnest consideration of the Government. One of these young men was accepted, and was in camp, and was appointed as an officer, and even got married on the eve of his departure to the front, when this regulation came out, with the result that he was not permitted to go, though he had been an officer in our Citizen Forces for a number of years. The hardship which this regulation inflicts on our young men should appeal to the Minister. I think it will appeal to the people when they know that, though we have young men quite capable of taking charge of the soldiers at the fighting line, they are debarred from going to the front.

Mr Sampson - What reasons have been advanced for reducing the age?

Mr CHARLTON - We have heard of none. Tlie regulation simply appears prohibiting persons under twenty-three years of age from holding commissions, although already men under twenty-three years of age have been permitted to go, and although some of the very best of the officers of our Citizen Forces are men who have been in training since the establishment of our compulsory system.

Mr Poynton - If you say that men who have had no military training are appointed as officers, it is a scandal.

Mr McGrath - I have known of cases of men who have never worn uniforms being given commissions.

Mr CHARLTON - All these things go to show that this matter should be probed to the bottom. There should be no favour to any one in our military system. At least, if there is any preference shown, it should be to those who have been in our Forces since the inception of compulsory training. Who is the best man to lead our soldiers at the front, a man brought up among them, whom they all know, and who is fully qualified, or a man who, because of some influential friend, is able to get into a position of this kind ? I hope these matters will be looked into, and that nothing will be done to prevent any capable young Australian from taking his position in the battlefield as an officer.

Mr Thomas - Do you not think that twenty- three years is a young enough age for officers who are to be put in charge of men ?

Mr CHARLTON - The question to be considered is the capability of the man. Men may be appointed at thirty or forty years of age, who ought never to have charge of men. The door is being left open for the appointment of men who have no practical training at all. The only test applied to them is a theoretical one in conjunction with a little drill for a month or two while they are in camp. I would prefer the appointment of a competent young man, even though he be under twenty-three years of age. to a man of forty years of age who has not had the necessary training.

Mr Thomas - Other things being equal, fE is better to appoint as officers men over twenty-three years than men under twenty-three years of age.

Mr CHARLTON - I am not denying that. But I wish to give the young man who is fully competent an opportunity against the man who has had no training at all. There is one other matter upon which I desire to touch. Port Stephens is considered by Admiral Henderson and other experts to be one of the most suitable places in Australia for a Naval Base, and I think I can safely say that it has one of the best harbors in Australia, a harbor which, if developed, would be equal to that of Sydney. No honorable member who has visited Port Stephens will deny my statement. Money was voted on the last Estimates for the carrying out of the preliminary work for the creation of the naval sub-base there ; there is a further vote of £5,000 on the Estimates now before the Committee, and we are informed that a survey is about to be made, or is being made. I believe that a survey was made a considerable time ago, and I am at a loss to understand why it is necessary to make an additional survey. To have two surveys seems like incurring a good deal more expenditure than is necessary. The work at Port Stephens ought to be pushed ahead just as rapidly as that at Western Port. At the latter place a considerable sum of money has already been spent; a report submitted to-day by the Public Works Committee deals with a proposed further heavy expenditure on buildings, and other proposals for works there are to come before us ; yet nothing is done in regard to so important a place as Port Stephens, which it is admitted will be one of the most important Naval Bases in the Commonwealth. I ask the Minister to give this matter consideration, and not to continue talking about making a survey, having regard to the fact that a survey has already been made, and that land has been acquired for the purposes of a Naval Base. This work should be carried out without delay, because if it is ever necessary to defend Australia, Port Stephens will be one of the most important strategic points on our coast. It will be the base from which we shall have to control the whole of the coast from Sydney to Newcastle, and thence northward, to Brisbane.

Mr Page - That work should be proceeded with at once.

Mr CHARLTON - There is no doubt about that. We are spending money in many other directions, whilst one of the most important naval works we could undertake is being neglected. I ask the Government to proceed with this work, and do something in reality, so that if our coast is ever attacked this Naval Base will be available to assist in its defence.

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