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Tuesday, 16 August 1960

Mr DUTHIE (Wilmot) .- In view of the defence of this affair by honorable members on the Government side, the first point I should like to make is that the Opposition has the right to criticize any statements or documents that come before the Parliament. That is the first duty of an Opposition in a democratic country with a democratic parliament. Secondly, although I have listened to every Opposition speaker in this debate I have not heard one of them suggest that the Minister for the Army (Mr.

Cramer) was the cause of this accident. Honorable members opposite have completely exaggerated the statements made by speakers on this side of the House. My third point is that an Opposition attack upon the Government in relation to a particular matter is not in itself sufficient justification for the charge that we are merely seeking to make political gain. Our criticism to-day is not political criticism at all.

Any amateur who reads the Minister's statement - I am one because I am not an expert in marine matters - can see that very grave errors were committed! in the whole planning of this exercise. The relatives of the three boys who were lost must surely expect some expression of opinion from the Opposition in this Parliament. We cannot be expected to sit down and accept everything that is said or read by a Minister.

My fourth point is that the incident was a tragedy of the first order because it need not have happened. I wish to emphasize one or two points that were conceded in the statement by the Minister. First, there was the grave doubt of the coroner that the commanding officer knew what he was about. He said that the officer appeared to have studied the tides and to have fixed the time of departure for the exercise at 6.15 p.m., as he expected slack water then and for some time afterwards. For how long afterwards did >he expect slack water? This was a very critical time. Did he allow enough time for the crossing of this fifteen miles of one of the most dangerous waterways around the Commonwealth of Australia? How long did he expect it would take to cross the bar? Those questions have not been answered by the Minister, and they are very important in trying to assess the true position. How long did the commanding officer consider it would take to cross from Point Lonsdale to the destination on the other side of the bay? This being a night exercise, in my humble opinion it behoved the officer commanding to be absolutely sure of what he was doing - more so than in the case of a daylight exercise.

The next point is: How much did the officer in charge know about the moods of the Rip? This is one of the most treacherous stretches of water on the Australian coastline, as many ships have found to their cost. Many vessels have been smashed o pieces when trying to make the passage through this treacherous opening through which Port Phillip Bay pours out its waters into Bass Strait. One of the worst stretches of water on the Australian coastline was selected for a night exercise.

The next point that I want to mention is that the tide appeared to have run at a much greater rate than the officer in charge of the exercise had expected. This may have been due to the fact that the ebb tide commenced running sooner than had been expected, as the coroner indicated, according to the statement made by the Minister for the Army. Expected by whom - by the officer in charge of the exercise or by the people from whom he had obtained his information? The Minister's statement indicated that the coroner made the following point: -

The Officer Commanding failed to pay sufficient regard to the possibility of such a variation and it may be that he did not give due regard to just how dangerous the Rip could be and that the utmost care should always be taken, particularly when small craft are being used in its vicinity.

The Rip is no place for a novice, whether he is in command of a liner, a pilot boat, an ordinary rowing boat, a motor boat or amphibious vehicles like those used in this exercise. The officer-in-charge took into this dangerous stretch of water vehicles which, as we now know, could not by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as 100 per cent. safe. Even the vessels that were kept in reserve in order to protect the men if anything went wrong got into difficulties. It was a case of what happens when the tow truck breaks down. The happening of all these things at once, we agree, represented a combination of quite remarkable circumstances. The radio gave out when the troops engaged in the exercise were at a critical part of the operation. This should give the Army authorities a great deal of thought for future exercises.

Then we come to this misunderstood message from the lighthouse keeper, which was telephoned at 6.05 p.m., 25 minutes before the exercise was due to start.

Mr Cramer - Ten minutes before.

Mr DUTHIE - That is right- ten minutes before the exercise was due to start at 6.15 p.m. At five minutes past six, the lighthouse keeper telephoned to the Army a tremendously important piece of information - a warning that care should be taken because of the ebb tide. This information could have affected the judgment of the commanding officer as to whether or not the exercise should proceed as planned, and the fact that the information was not passed on to him indicated a lack of care on the part of Army personnel. That was a major dereliction of duty. To try to gloss that over in the way that Government supporters have tried to gloss it over to-day is to adopt what seems to me to be a dangerous attitude towards occurrences such as this. The very essence of a successful operation is possession of all the facts. No man should begin operations of this kind before he knows all the facts.

The key to the tragedy is the failure of the information about the tricky ebb tide to reach the commanding officer before he started the operation. Government supporters cannot talk away that fact no matter how loudly or how long they talk. The relatives of the deceased men would look upon this fact as the key to the whole inciden:. Had that information reached the commanding officer in time - it was telephoned through by the lighthouse keeper ten minutes before the exercise began - the whole thing might have been called off.

The Minister's statement indicated that the coroner made the point that, apart from the failure to make due allowance for the tides, the exercise had been properly planned. We on this side of the House do not criticize the overall planning of the operation, which was essentially a movement from point A to point B at night in certain Army vehicles, and which was a very important training exercise. But there is the coroner's point that there was a failure to make due allowance for the tides. Here again, there is indication of faulty judgment. We do not say that the officer commanding was reckless, but his judgment was faulty because he did not have all the facts before him when he started the exercise.

Could the message from the lighthouse keeper have been relayed to the officer in charge of the exercise by wireless at a later stage, and if so, why was not it done, in order that he would be warned of the ebb tide running that night? The lighthouse keeper would know the Rip better than would anybody else in the Commonwealth, and I should imagine that one ought to have the advice of the man who knows the area best before one begins an exercise at night on a dangerous stretch of water. Why was the lighthouse keeper's advice not conveyed to the leader of the exercise even after it had started?

Those engaged in the operation plunged on, and the tragedy is that although they were supposed to take a route 3,000 yards north of the Rip they soon found themselves in the middle of it. There must have been a tremendous drift to take them into it in the short distance that they travelled from Point Lonsdale, and they suddenly found that they had moved southwards in spite of all that they could do. Three thousand yards is really a long way to drift. The operation, as I have said, was planned to miss the Rip by 3,000 yards. That is a fair enough margin, perhaps, but a man who knew the ebb tide and the conditions of the Rip as the lighthouse keeper knew them ought to have allowed a margin of at least 6,000 yards.

Mr Chaney - What is the honorable member talking about?

Mr DUTHIE - The honorable member, with his one-track mind, would not understand. I am trying to point out to him and to other honorable members that the margin of 3,000 yards from the narrowest part of the Rip would have been reasonable had there been no drift caused by wind or tide, but at the time of the exercise one of the most dangerous ebb tides of all was running, and before the men knew where they were, they found themselves in the Rip. The safety margin of 3,000 yards was as nothing, because they were driven in so fast. If the commanding officer had known that the tide was so dangerous, he might have changed his route even at the last moment and allowed a margin of 6,000 yards from the Rip instead of the 3,000 yards for which he had allowed, and the accident might not have happened.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we on this side of the House are not trying to make political capital out of this tragedy, although it is our job to criticize and assess the statement made by the Minister for the Army. I, personally, consider that in this tragic matter he has possibly done all he could do as Minister. He acted within a very short time of receiving the first message about the tragedy. But much time is taken up when a matter like this is put into the hands, first, of an Army court of inquiry and, secondly, of a coroner's inquiry. Altogether, 47 witnesses were examined, and so many witnesses cannot be examined very quickly. I do not cast any aspersions on the Minister's actions in this matter and, as I have said, I think he has done everything that a Minister could do. But I ask: Will a lesson be learned from this tragedy? No lesson was learned from the Stockton Bight accident four years ago, despite the battle fought by the honorable member for Shortland (Mr. Griffiths), who tried, in this House, for more than a week to get to the bottom of that appalling tragedy. There was one tragedy. Now we have had a second. In another few years, we may have a further one, unless we learn a lesson from those that have already occurred. That is all that we on this side of the House are concerned about. We want to see that the same sort of thing does not happen again in similar circumstances. If ever the Rip is used again for an exercise, those in charge must be absolutely sure of the way the tides are running before the exercise begins.

I am sure that the officer commanding the exercise must have undergone a tremendous strain. The craft taking part in the exercise lost contact with each other. The operation was tragic from its very beginning. In the circumstances it is a miracle that more lives were not lost. The fact that more lives were not lost was due in no small measure to the courage displayed by the men concerned. I am sure that the man in charge of the operation cannot be blamed for what happened because he was not in possession of all the available information. I know whom I would blame; and I let the matter rest there. We on this side of the House have every right to comment on this matter in the way that we have during this debate. We extend our deepest sympathy to the bereaved. This is the first opportunity that we have had of doing so.

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