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Tuesday, 16 August 1960

Mr FORBES (Barker) .- The honorable member for Parkes (Mr. Haylen), and also some of his colleagues who spoke earlier to-day, took umbrage because some honorable gentleman on this side of the House had suggested that they were playing politics by bringing this matter forward and trying to make something out of it. They were hurt by this. The honorable member for Parkes said, " We are not playing politics. We are doing what the Opposition should do. This is a matter of great importance. Obviously there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the Government or the Minister, and it is our duty to bring the matter to the notice of the House. It is our duty to oppose in this

Parliament." That is quite right; it is an opposition's duty to oppose. But an opposition can play its role either responsibly or irresponsibly. The Opposition here has played its role in a most irresponsible way. That is the burden of the complaint by honorable members on this side of the House, with whom I join wholeheartedly. We say that in bringing forward this matter the Opposition is playing politics.

Whether the Opposition is to be regarded as behaving responsibly or irresponsibly in again raking up this matter in the House depends on whether it can make out a good case. I submit that the Opposition has not made out a good case. Honorable members opposite should bear in mind, first, that they are grating the sensibilities of the bereaved people by suggesting that this accident would not have happened if things had gone in a different way, and secondly, that they are undermining the confidence of the people in the running of our defence forces. If the Opposition has a good case, it has a duty to state that case, whatever the consequences may be - however much it may hurt the relatives of the unfortunate men who were drowned, and however much it may affect momentarily the confidence which the people of Australia have in our defence forces. If the Opposition has a good case, and if it accepts its duty to bring the matter before the House, it will point to improvements which could be made. But the case which has been advanced by honorable gentlemen opposite is not a good one.

Let us consider the points which the Opposition has used as the basis of an attack which could seriously hurt the feelings of the bereaved people in this case and also undermine our defences. The Opposition criticized the timing of the Minister's statement to the Parliament. The Minister could not reasonably have made his statement to the House earlier than this afternoon. Do honorable gentlemen opposite suggest that it should have been made before the coronial inquiry had been completed? In that event, there would have been a risk, as the Minister has said, of prejudicing that inquiry or prejudging the case. Does the Opposition suggest that the Minister should have done that? That is one basis on which it could claim that he failed to discharge his responsibility to this House by not making his statement to the Parliament earlier than he did. If I remember rightly, the coronial inquiry was completed after the House rose for the winter recess. Alternatively, does the Opposition suggest that the Parliament should have been recalled to hear the Minister's statement after the inquiry had been completed? I have not heard either of those suggestions from any honorable member opposite, but the so-called delay in bringing this matter before the Parliament is one of the grounds on which the Opposition feels justified in raising this matter now.

Another point made by the Opposition is that the report of the Army court of inquiry should have been tabled in this House. Can honorable members opposite point to any precedent in the history of the Australian Army for this? I certainly have never heard of it. Such a thing has never been done, and for perfectly good reasons. Nothing could do more damage to our defence forces or to the morale of the men, than to table the- report of a court of inquiry and so give to ill-intentioned honorable gentlemen opposite the opportunity to quote passages out of context and to play politics in a matter which is largely domestic to the service concerned.

The Opposition has criticized the Government and the Minister for the selection of the site for the crossing during this exercise. I have not heard one honorable member opposite state that if mistakes in planning and judgment had not been made this exercise would have taken place 3,000 yards away from the Rip. That is entirely different from planning the exercise in the part of the Rip which is dangerous. Honorable members opposite have said that although training of this kind must be undertaken by commando units, it should be done in still water. The unit concerned had carried out many exercises in still water. This was not the first time it had had exercises in these waters. This exercise was a further stage in the unit's training. At some point in training exercises you must go out of still water and into more difficult conditions if you want to reach a satisfactory level of efficiency.

The other major criticism which the Opposition has levelled at the Government is that the Government did not provide this unit with satisfactory equipment. That aspect has been dealt with pretty adequately by my colleagues. The Opposition has made much of the fact that the unit was using ducks, which came into being in 1942. The Minister, in his statement, has pointed out that although there have been considerable developments since the duck was introduced, no suitable alternative craft is yet available. Ducks of the kind which were used in the exercise are still in current use in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. When confronted with a statement to this effect by the honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Murray), the Opposition says lamely that if the United Kingdom and the United States cannot find anything better than the duck, Australia should invent something better for itself. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? The United States, whose defence expenditure is measured in terms of billions still considers the duck to be a satisfactory craft for use in operations of this type, yet apparently we in Australia are not satisfied with it. The suggestion made by honorable members opposite is that we should have invented something better.

Criticism has been levelled by the Opposition against the equipment that was used in this difficult part of the Rip, but if it is remembered that this exercise was planned for a position 3,000 yards away, that criticism falls to the ground. The wireless sets that were used have also been criticized, and it has been suggested that the men of this unit should have had something better. As honorable gentlemen opposite are well aware the Minister for Defence (Mr. Townley) stated in his defence statement to this House not very long ago that more than 800 new wireless sets of the latest type were being procured. So far as I am aware the wireless sets used on this exercise were of that pattern.

I have dealt with the items of criticism that have been used as a justification for bringing this matter before the House, and I would suggest that not one of those items has any substance whatsoever. Because of that I repeat that I believe that honorable gentlemen on this side of the House are perfectly justified in saying that the Opposition is raising this matter for purely party political purposes. I do not believe that the points brought forward by the Opposition, are of sufficient importance to offset the damage that may be done to the feelings of the bereaved relatives and to public confidence in the defence services.

I should like to mention one further point, which has already been made by the honorable member for Herbert. One of the effects of this sort of criticism will be to produce pressure which will seek to eliminate, or to reduce to an absolute minimum, risks in service training. As the honorable member for Herbert said, training where no risks exist is no good at all. Anybody who has taken part in Army training, knows that operations, to be valuable, must involve some element of risk. The risk should not be such as we expect in training during war-time, but nevertheless there must be a certain amount of risk. One of the things that frustrated training in the pre-war period and, indeed, in the period immediately after the Second World War, was the constant emphasis by the authorities concerned that no risks whatsoever should be taken. As a result, the value of the training was reduced by 75 per cent, during the period when we were trying to make the Citizen Military Forces no less than the regular forces, highly trained units ready for movement in the shortest possible time. The form of training and the risks involved in it, must be such as to bring about that result.

So, Sir, I hope that we will continue in our training to take risks of the kind taken in this case. Obviously every attempt must be made to reduce those risks to a minimum, but I do not agree with any criticism which is based on the supposition that in training we should take no risks at all. I do not believe that that would be in the best interests of achieving defence readiness in this country.

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