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Tuesday, 16 August 1960

Mr MURRAY (Herbert) .- 1 support the statement by the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. McMahon) that the Opposition is trying to make political capital out of this case. I do not think there is any doubt whatever about that. The honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns) went to great lengths to argue that no blame whatsoever should be attached to members of the forces. He wants the Minister for the Army to be the only one to bear the blame. He says, " Put all the blame on the Minister ". Yet he also says that he does not want to make any political capital out of the case! His speech was nothing but an attempt to make political capital out of a very unfortunate training incident.

Any one would think, to listen to the honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant) and the honorable member for Yarra, that the Minister sits in this House and plans in detail the operations of individual Army companies in distant parts of Australia and that he could not care less about dispatching men off to their death. Nothing could be more ridiculous or further from the truth. The Minister does not know what every company in the Army is doing at each moment. Nor could any Minister for the Army know that. It is not his place to know. He has a responsible chain of Army command. From time to time, we have unfortunate incidents of this nature.

The honorable member for Wills said that the Minister for the Army had contributed nothing to our knowledge of the incident. I would very much like to know what he expected the Minister to contribute. He did not make that very plain. One would almost have thought that the honorable member expected the Minister to inspect all troops before they went off on such an exercise to make sure that their boots were clean and their buttons done up. It is utterly ridiculous to attack the Minister for this sort of event. It was not the Minister's fault. It was certainly an unfortunate incident. I know that the honorable member for Wills does not need reminding that war is an extremely dangerous game and that, in order to achieve efficiency, training for war must be realistic. If errors are made, that is only human. A human error was made on this occasion. It is utterly ridiculous to blame the Minister for a happening of which he could not have had any knowledge at the time. The Minister is responsible for over-all Army policy but not for the detailed events of every day.

The honorable member for Wills also said that the equipment used in the exercise was inadequate. He knows full well that Army equipment is not changed week by week or year by year. There is extremely efficient testing of new equipment. The Army must be very cautious in making changes. It must keep in line with what our allies are doing, and equipment must be watched very carefully before it is adopted. Tremendous time is taken in usage trials before equipment is changed. Honorable members opposite would be the first to squeal and yell if, because of an accident of this nature, we scrapped that procedure and curtailed testing of new equipment.

Mr Cairns - This is very old equipment.

Mr MURRAY - Certainly, but it is very effective and it is still being used by the principal armies of the world. There is no argument when it is brought out to rescue someone in a flood. We do not say, " Do not use that. You will be risking lives ". People are very pleased to see the equipment used, but when something goes wrong, as it did on this occasion - once in the many hundreds of times it has been used - honorable members opposite jump up in horror, blaming the Minister and talking of inefficiency. It is utterly ridiculous. The duck is not obsolete although it is old. No better piece of equipment of its type has yet been put into service. The honorable member for Yarra is always complaining about the £1,700,000,000 that has been spent on defence. He knows full well that the Americans have spent a great deal more than that on defence and are still using the duck quite effectively.

The honorable member for Wills said that the Army is hamstrung by lack of money. What an extraordinary statement! If the defence estimates were raised as he apparently would like to see them raised in this connexion, what a squeal there would be from the other side of the House. Just imagine what the reaction of the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) would be!

The honorable member for Wills also said that the Army was on trial in this matter. But there have been two very full inquiries - the coronial inquiry and the inquiry by the Army court which heard evidence on oath from 47 witnesses. The court's report is most voluminous. It is a searching document which was immediately made available to the Minister and was studied carefully by him and by the Army authorities. Reports of Army courts of inquiry are not released to the public.

Mr Curtin - They should be. The public pays for them.

Mr MURRAY - Then why did the Labour Party not change the procedure when it was in office?

Mr Curtin - We won the war.

Mr MURRAY - And you kept details of Army courts of inquiry to yourselves. What were the findings of the coroner's inquiry? I do not argue with them. It seems extraordinary to seek to do so. Apart from failure to make due allowance for the tide, the exercise was properly planned. Who is to be blamed for the planning of this operation? Surely the Opposition is not going to blame the Minister for the Army. If any blame is to be attached to anybody, it should be directed against the Officer Commanding, but we know that the qualifications of the officer concerned in this unfortunate accident are very high indeed. An error was made, and I suppose that errors always will be made. The coroner stated in his finding -

An adequate number of safety craft was included and they were suitable for the projected exercise.

Are we to complain about that? The coroner also stated -

The men were properly equipped, particularly with life jackets, and all had received adequate training for the task.

Finally, the coroner found that the deaths were due to misadventure. The honorable member for Yarra said the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. McMahon) and the Government generally knew little about these matters. It might be as well if the honorable member for Yarra outlined his personal qualifications for criticizing those concerned in this incident. The honorable member also complained about political capital being made out of the tragedy. Actually, he himself attempted to make political capital by directing blame at the Minister for the

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Army. The Minister is not responsible for the detailed planning of operations such as this. In his statement, the Minister explained why commando units were introduced into the Army, and he said -

The two commando companies, one each in Sydney and Melbourne, were formed to meet an operation requirement for units trained in the techniques of small-scale air-borne or amphibious raids deep into enemy territory.

The aim is to train small self-reliant teams capable of operating far from their base. Each commando must be a highly trained infantry man, a qualified parachutist, a small craft operator and proficient in one or more skills such as cliffscaling and demolitions. These are qualifications requiring courage and initiative; the coveted green beret is not lightly earned.

That is very true. The honorable member for Yarra waved press cuttings in the air and said that the Australian press and the public were horrified by this accident. In fact, what was the sequel to the unfortunate incident? Applications for enlistment in the commando units rose rapidly overnight and they have not diminished. The men who form these units know very well why they are given training of this nature. 1 remember clearly that only three or four years ago, two officers and warrant-officers were selected from the Australian forces to go overseas to be trained by the Royal Marines for work in commando units. They were to return to Australia to train Australian commandos. During their training overseas, which lasted about nine months, one officer was killed and another officer broke a leg. Only one of the selected men finished the course. Did we hear any squeal from the Opposition about the toughness of that training?

Mr Killen - The Opposition are a lot of cream puffs.

Mr MURRAY - That is true. Judging from the remarks of members of the Opposition, one would expect to hear more from them about girl guide captains. This commando training is extremely tough and the accident rate is high; but nobody squeals about it. What about other branches of the armed forces? Do we hear a great outcry from the Opposition when a fighter pilot in training crashes a Sabre jet? Do we hear criticisms directed against the Minister for Air? Tn this case, a proper inquiry was held.

Mr Jones - It was a cover-up inquiry.

Mr MURRAY - That is a scandalous statement. Of course, risks are involved in training. As you train, so do you fight. If we want our servicemen to be properly equipped for war, they must take risks in training. This was an unfortunate event, but training with the same equipment is being continued all over the Commonwealth practically every day of the year. Seldom does anything go wrong. Reference has been made to the signals equipment that was used. The honorable member for Wills might be interested to know that 1 recently completed a camp at which no line signals equipment was used. We used only wireless equipment and all of it worked efficiently for the duration of the brigade camp. All exercises were carried out with standard wireless equipment such as that used during the exercise we are discussing. The fact is that this wireless equipment works efficiently.

It is unfortunate that honorable members opposite should attack the Minister for the Army and waste the time of this House in such a debate. In the light of the Minister's explanation it was not necessary to raise these matters. The Opposition should be satisfied with the statement. Honorable members opposite should be reminded that if our servicemen are to be trained effectively, they must be trained realistically. They cannot be trained without taking risks. The Opposition has simply tried to make political capital out of an unfortunate affair.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Haylen) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 5.58 to 8 p.m.

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