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Tuesday, 16 August 1960

Mr McMAHON (Lowe) (Minister for Labour and National Service) . - I personally think it is to be deplored that some one like the honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant) comes into this House and, where human life and human suffering are involved, attempts to make political capital of what was an unavoidable incident. Of course we regret that life has been lost as a result of a military accident. None of us in this House ever likes to think that, where it is avoidable, human life has been lost. But I think, Sir, that if you look at the statement made by the Minister and consider carefully the course of conduct followed, you must be driven to the conclusion that he has acted reasonably and responsibly.

What did the honorable gentleman for Wills want to do? He first of all stated that the facts were not adequately presented to the House and immediately contradicted himself by saying that the Minister had given a rehash of the decision of the coronial inquiry. That sets out the facts and permits us to come to certain conclusions. But the Minister has amplified that decision and has, to my way of thinking, presented an adequate case for the consideration of the House. What emerges from what the honorable gentleman for Wills has said? He is not content with a civil finding of a coronial inquiry - a judicial inquiry by a highly trained and judicial mind. He is not satisfied with the finding of an Army court of inquiry, but asks that, in place of these judicial opinions, he should be given the opportunity to decide whether there has been justice and whether proper disciplinary action has been taken against those involved. I would never be a party to a suggestion of that kind, and I feel that the honorable gen.leman himself could not have known what he was suggesting when he said that this assembly should be placed in the position of a judicial committee of inquiry.

May 1 came back to the statement that the Minister has been guilty of delay and has not adequately consulted the House? Sir, this is the first opportunity that the Minister has had to put the facts and a considered statement before the House. He could not have acted earlier. He had to ensure that justice was done not only in the public interest but also in the interest of those officers who controlled the exercise and whose sense of responsibility and status in the Army were at stake. He had to consider their interest just as much as the public interest and the interest of the Army itself. I had the good fortune to be Minister for. the Navy and Minister for Air for some years, and 1 am well aware of the ease with which the Minister could have submitted to the great public and political pressure to make a statement prematurely. But I think honorable members will agree that in these very circumstances when the future of the officers involved is being considered, the greatest restraint must be exercised and a statement must not be made prematurely. The statement of the honorable gentleman, who should have known better, is regrettable. I have taken a conside able interest in this matter and I feel that this is the first opportunity to act that the Minister had. He has, I believe, shown a high sense of responsibility and has acted in the best interests of the Army and of the men themselves.

What happened here? A coronial court of inquiry and a military court of inquiry looked at the facts and made adjudications. The honorable member for Wills has criticized the equipment, but his criticism can not be sustained in the light of what has been said by the Army court of inquiry and the coronial inquiry. It is extremely regrettable that he has not seen fit to read and to understand intelligently what the Minister has said. If he had, he would have made no complaint about the equipment. What has been decided - not by the Minister or his department but by the two inquiries? The equipment is efficient, modern and effectively maintained. The coroner said that, in the circumstances, sufficient consideration had been given to the number of safety vessels that accompanied the expedition. 1 do not want to be too critical of the honorable member, because I think that he gabbled out his speech without adequate thought to what he was saying. However, criticism has been levelled at the office s concerned. I would not for one moment be prepared to criticize the officers, because they were highly trained overseas and were regarded as highly skilled officers of the Australian Army. The evidence is perfectly clear that when they were considering this exercise, both in concept and in planning, they gave adequate attention to it. So, on all counts, we are entitled to feel that the officers efficiently planned this exercise and thought that they could carry it out efficiently.

What happened? The equipment was there; the planning was there; the officers were intelligent and capable. Frequently in military life, in peace-time and in wartime, as you, Sir, would know, an unhappy and unpleasant association of conditions occurs, and the average mind cannot always be expected to forecast this. There was the fact that the Rip was running more strongly than the officer anticipated, and it is clear that he did not make all the allowance that he should have made for the effects that this would have on the craft engaged in the exercise. Any one can make an error of judgment of this kind. I can, you can, Sir, and the honorable gentleman for Wills can. If I am asked where my sympathies lie in this case, I must say that they lie with the officers concerned.

I am sure that they did their job and no one, I should imagine, regrets more bitterly than they do that this exercise led to the loss of three lives. So, I think we are driven to the conclusion that this is, to use the coroner's words, death by misadventure. It is a series of unfortunate circumstances. We have the fact, also, that unfortunately the engines of two of the ships failed - the tug and one of the other craft. In the case of the second type of craft, it is known that the engines are difficult to start, but they are modern and every known test was made to ensure that only the efficient craft were used on this expedition. Further, there was a failure by a warrant officer to convey to the commanding officer a signal sent to him by the lighthouse keeper, and there was a failure of some of the signal equipment.

Of course, we regret that this has happened, but we cannot deduce from these failures that there had been a failure by the commanding officer or that the equipment of the Army is bad and is obsolescent. The Minister can go into greater detail on this question than I can, and I am sure that he will be able to prove to the satisfaction of the House that never before has the equipment of the Army been better in peace-time than it is now. It is being steadily improved under the three-year plan announced by the Minister for Defence (Mr. Townley). I do take part in the discussions in Cabinet. One of our objectives, as the House well knows, is to increase steadily the equipment of the Army and to give priority to that equipment which will increase the effectiveness of the man-power.

There are the facts, as I see them. What emerges from the facts is this: After a civil inquiry, the coroner stated that there was no ground on which action could be commenced in the civil courts. That is the way in which this problem should have been dealt with, and it has been dealt with effectively, I think, by a civil court of inquiry, which exonerated those who took part in the exercise, who planned it and who commanded it. When a wider inquiry was held, particularly on the point of the technical equipment and other aspects, the effect of the decision was that there were no grounds on which disciplinary action could have been taken against the men involved. So, we find here what can be regarded as an effective presentation of the facts to the House. It is designed to show, in the first place, that the Minister acted with responsibility and as quickly as he could; and secondly, that the officers engaged in the exercise were proficient and highly regarded. Whilst there is some ground for thinking that perhaps if there had been a greater degree of flexibility and greater precautions had been taken the loss of life would have been avoided, we can all be wise after the event. I feel that the best thing we can hope for is that the Army command in Victoria will, in future, ensure that greater safety precautions are taken.

Finally I come to the question of the equipment itself. I am bold enough to say that, whenever I can, I do my best to see that the Army is given a preferential place in regard to equipment in my thinking about the future of the defence forces. I think it is true to say that the equipment here was good and that the Minister for Defence (Mr. Townley) and the Minister for the Army are doing all they can to improve the equipment of the Australian Military Forces. I bitterly regret there has been loss of life; but, having said that, we must recognize that these commandoes are a unique corps; they are men of much better than average mental ability and physical attainments. They know the risks they have to take in exercises of this kind. It is a regrettable risk of war and training for war, but I think that you, Sir, and most other people would agree, after hearing the Minister for the Army speak, that whilst it is regrettable that this accident took place, it was due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances and human error. I doubt whether very much more could have been done beforehand to avoid the disaster. I am glad that the Minister has tightened up the control system, and I hope that much more consideration will be given to the provision of safety craft in the future because we, as a government, do want to prevent a repetition of this sort of accident.

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