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Tuesday, 31 October 1967

Mr HAROLD HOLT (Higgins) (Prime Minister) - Mr Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) has moved what by parliamentary practice is the most serious motion within the capacity of any member or section of the Parliament to move. He has moved that the House has no confidence in the Government. If that motion were carried, of course, the Government would go out of office. This is not an unfamiliar parliamentary technique; we have witnessed it many times over the years. It has became almost traditional in relation to the Budget brought down by the Treasurer. But with the whole gamut of Government policy to range over, with all the varied activities of a Commonwealth Government involved in military operations, involved in far-reaching foreign policy relationships, with the conduct of a great buoyant developing economy, with the problems of employment and social welfare - the whole gamut of national policy to seize on as a ground for attacking a government in office - the Opposition has not found an opportunity to do this until now when it comes to us on this particular issue. I am glad to think that the Commonwealth of Australia is regarded by honourable gentlemen opposite as being in such good state in its domestic., ' foreign and defence situation that they have to turn to this issue in order to attack us.

I welcome the motion. In point of fact I had intended not to anticipate it but to deal with what I believe were thoroughly unjustified and cowardly allegations made in the Senate last Friday against me and others. It is a welcome change to find the Leader of the Opposition, who throws out his chest and says 'I. will debate with you in any forum of the Commonwealth', coming into this Parliament and debating with us here in the place where these debates should be conducted. If he really believed, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Murphy) believed, that I had lied to the Parliament and that my colleague the Minister for Air (Mr Howson) had lied to the Parliament or that the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) had lied to the Parliament, the proper place for him to state that was here before me where I could hear the charge and answer it. But the Leader of the Opposition let his hatchet man in the Senate get the run on us. He let the matter run all round Australia on a Friday when we were not sitting, knowing that there would be no effective opportunity for me to deal with this matter at length and to have it on the record until the Parliament met on the Tuesday.

As soon as I saw these reports I let it be known through my own Press secretary to the Press Gallery in a formal set of words that I not only repudiated these charges but also that I would be seeking an opportunity to comment on them. The Leader of the

Opposition said that he did not know that I was going to make a statement here today.

Mr Irwin - He is a liar.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The honourable member for Mitchell will withdraw that remark.

Mr Irwin - I withdraw it.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - I do not know how far the honourable gentleman consults his colleagues. He says that he sought information from the Leader of the House (Mr Snedden). We were not able to ascertain until I had returned from lunch what the Opposition was doing. The Leader of the Opposition could have ascertained as soon as Cabinet rose what we were doing. I have here not notes prepared to answer the honourable gentleman in relation to a motion of no confidence but notes for a statement which I was to make to the House in which I would have dealt with the position which had arisen in the Senate.

Mr Daly - Make it now.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - I will, and I shall take longer to do it than the Leader of the Opposition who went through one of the most laboured performances on a motion of no confidence that I have heard in this place. The irony of it is that a motion of no confidence on the ground of the Government's untruthfulness is presented by a man who, as Leader of the Opposition, has established a record for lack of credibility unequalled, in my experience, in the history of Federation. He is the man who says: The Government cannot tell us the facts or the truth.' There is not a man on this side of the House who has not challenged the credibility of statements made by the honourable gentleman opposite. I mention only one in passing. He told us the other day that only one government in South East Asia supported the bombing policy of the United States of America. I will not elaborate. There will be another occasion when we can examine his statement in more detail. But should we move a motion of no confidence in the Leader of the Opposition because he so wilfully misstated the facts of that situation? There are scores of illustrations.

In the statement I proposed to make to the House I wanted to deal with three aspects. One was the important constitutional issue raised in the Senate. I hope that honourable members of this House of Representatives who have some regard for the authority of this chamber will allow me to develop that, because it concerns where we stand and where governments drawn principally from this chamber stand in relation to the Houses of the Parliament. The second aspect of my intended statement - I felt almost apologetic at having to do this - dealt with what I can describe only as the trivia raised in the Senate discussion. I had made two statements to the House on this subject. After the second I replied to the Leader of the Opposition who had spoken following my statement. So, had I made another statement today, it would have been my fourth statement - and I hope a reasonably comprehensive statement, in four weeks on the VIP fleet.

I think it was in my second statement that I said: 'I hope we can avoid the pettifogging and concentrate ob the pertinent*. The need for this comment is apparent to anybody who takes the trouble to read the debate in the Senate. It is true that two issues of substance were raised. I have mentioned the constitutional issue. I will deal with the other later. It relates to the information given by the Government. Much of the rest of the debate was devoted to the pettifogging trivial matters that had led me to warn the Parliament, and long before that to warn the Press, that the answers to the questions asked of us, if given by us in the form sought, could only create a quite misleading impression and give a distorted view of what is happening. That is why we delayed the answers to the five questions asked by Senator Turnbull. Unless the Parliament had a background knowledge of how the flight is actually conducted and an authoritative statement on the subject, the answers would be hopelessly misleading and in some respects, for practical reasons that oan be instanced, would be to a degree inaccurate. What I feared would happen did happen and I will come to some of the detail of it in a moment. As I said, while I apologise to the House for taking time to deal with matters which to fair minded and sensible people must seem pretty trivial, they are on the record and while they stand uncorrected I know the use that will be made of them by honourable gentlemen opposite.

Mr Courtnay - You bet your boots.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - 1 know that boots are a weapon of offence with which you would be familiar. We do not act in that way. Your philosophy is boots and all. But we do not think that is the way the Australian people would like to have their fighting done. Let me just deal - and 1 will try to do it quite speedily - with these aspects. Firstly, the attack on my wife and my family. I concede that the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, the only other honourable member who spoke at any length on this matter, the honourable member for Hindmarsh (Mr Clyde Cameron), said that there was a need for the VIP flight and that it was proper that the Prime Minister, going about his official duties, should use it. The honourable member for Hindmarsh conceded the same right to the Leader of the Opposition, as indeed I have always done myself. The honourable member said - and I give the honourable member for Hindmarsh, who is not usually liberal minded in these matters, credit for saying - that he did not see anything improper in my wife or my family accompanying me; that he was not churlish in these matters, if I can quote his own phrase. In point of fact I have exercised a good deal of care in relation to this, because . I have had no wish either to embarrass my colleagues or to give the public any impression of abuse.

When I drew on my own recollections the other day - and I say at this point of time quite clearly that I was drawing on my recollections - I had no knowledge of the papers which were subsequently produced in the Senate chamber. I have never misled this Parliament wilfully or wittingly in the 31 years during which I have been a member of it. I have never had an attack that was established or, for that matter, as far as 1 can recall, seriously pressed against my good faith in providing information to this Parliament. If honourable gentlemen opposite try to dredge through the Hansard records over these decades, let them find the examples where my own good faith and the information I have given to this Parliament have come under attack. When I was speaking df my family I said that there had been only one occasion on which a flight had brought them on a journey without my personally being present. I have since had an opportunity of checking through the records and I find there were two other occasions, and I will mention them.

One was an occasion on which an aircraft had been ordered for me because I was accompanying President Johnson to Melbourne on his official visit to Melbourne and as I was about to go on the aircraft - and my family were to accompany me back to Canberra in order to take part in official celebrations here connected with the President's visit - the President asked me whether I would join him on his aircraft so that we could have talks together. This flight appears on the manifest as a flight for my family, but it was a plane ordered to take me back to Canberra. This is one of the illustrations I have given of how, even when we present all the documents to the Parliament, misleading interpretations can still be brought into a matter. It may interest the House to know that the whole of my family returned the following day by commercial aircraft at their and my expense.

The only other occasion - and my wife reminded me of this one - was on the day which preceded a 7.30 a.m. takeoff for Western Australia where we were going for several days of official visit to Perth and to developmental projects in the west. My wife had a speaking engagement in Sydney and she had to be there and back in time to get ready for this early morning takeoff the next day and to undertake all the necessary preparation for what looked like being a week's absence from either Melbourne or Canberra. As she was going to Sydney on this occasion she invited two of her daughtersinlaw to go with her for company. I do not know whether she was expected to make the flight alone and just sit and meditate, but anyhow, if it was a crime, she committed the crime of asking two of her daughtersinlaw to go with her on the flight there and back. I invite the honourable gentleman opposite to name any other occasions. They are the only two that I have been able to ascertain in addition to the one which I mentioned. I said then that no flight had been ordered especially for members of my family. When Princess Alexandra was here she was entertained by me at the Lodge. I wished to have my family with me while I provided this entertainment. The next morning an aircraft was going to Melbourne to pick up at least three Ministers. Two of the boys went off by commercial aircraft in the morning because they wanted to be back at their offices in time. The rest of the family went down in the aircraft which was going to Melbourne anyhow to pick up the Ministers. I know of no occasion when an aircraft was positioned to take members of my family, other than my wife, to any occasion whatever.

When not accompanying me, my wife has flown far more by commercial aircraft than she has by VIP aircraft. She does this when she goes about her official occasions. I think it proper that if she needs to have a VIP aircraft to make one of these trips it should be available to her. My wife has made two journeys to Whyalla. The first of these trips was made entirely by commercial aircraft. In order to get from Canberra to an aircraft which would pick her up at the appropriate time to take her to Whyalla and the function, and then wait till the chain of connections could be established, it took her the best part of 3 days to do the job. She said to me what a boon the new Mystere was because it left Canberra at 9.30 on the one morning, arrived at Whyalla by lunch time and returned to Canberra by lunch time the next day. I might add that this was an occasion when something was made of the fact that the passenger on the flight was the Ambassador of the United States of America, affectionately - or was it derisively - referred to by one of the honourable member's party colleagues in the other place as the 'Talking Horse'. That was his reference to this particular flight. Honourable members opposite may laugh about it if they wish, but those were the circumstances.

I will not go through all the details as far as my colleague the Treasurer is concerned - he will speak for himself - except to say that he is one of the most hardworking men who has ever held a ministerial portfolio. He is handling a Budget of $6,000m apart from all the other financial transactions of the Treasury. He does not travel by himself, apart from the officials. The honourable gentleman made no mention of the fact that Ministers were frequently with the Treasurer because it sometimes happens that after a delayed Cabinet meeting they go in a group together. The Treasurer is named as the applicant for the flight and that is why he has clocked up such a record. He is the applicant. Ministers go along with him. If we were able to save an hour a day in working time for the Treasurer, I would think that any business organisation handling that kind of money would regard the saving as very well incurred.

Reference has also been made to a gentleman who caught an aircraft that was going to pick up my colleague the Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr McEwen) to bring him back to Canberra, so that they could talk on the trip back to Canberra. This was presented as a flight which this man had just managed to secure for himself. If honourable members look through these records which deal with people such as Hazel Craig, members of my own personal staff and others, they will find that in every instance the positioning of the aircraft that was being used for a particular flight was sought and obtained by somebody who was entitled to secure it. I could go through a mass of detail in this regard. However, I am not going to burden the House with it. I do not know of any occasion where it can fairly be said: 'There was an abuse in that particular instance'. I said earlier that the responsibility for this rests with my colleague, the Minister for Air, and with myself.

Finally, I wish to refer to the point made by the Leader of the Opposition about the ordering of aircraft. Well, he has a point of semantics here, and I acknowledge it. What happened was that the aircraft for the flight were decided upon by Cabinet in the period of office of my predecessor. I have never run away from that decision. I was a party to it and I approved of it. But once the Cabinet decision had been taken, so far as I was concerned the matter was in the machine. I did not care when the aircraft were ordered. That was a job for the Minister for Air. The decision had been taken, and if the honourable gentleman wants this strictly on the record, as it should be, I make an amendment and say that no aircraft for the VIP flight was decided upon and added to that flight during my period as Prime Minister of Australia. I hope that satisfies him.

Let me just turn to the other matter which is, I believe, of some importance to this country constitutionally. I refer to the quite arrogant statement-

Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Can you deal with the statement that the material was not available?

Mr HAROLD HOLT - Yes, 1 am coming to that. T still have nearly 25 minutes left, even without an extension of time.

Mr Cross - And you are uphill.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - Well, 1 have been uphill most of my life and 1 have got to the summit. I doubt that any honourable member opposite will ever get to it. The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in opening his speech said this:

Responsible government means thai the Government is responsible for its administration to each House of the Parliament For that purpose each House has an undoubted authority to require the Government to answer questions and to supply records bearing upon that administration. Each House is entitled to full and truthful disclosure by the Government. To deny this is to repudiate responsible government; to depart from it is to break down responsible government.

The point I want to make is that it is the duty of a government to give as much information as it can which will be of assistance to either of the two chambers. Neither chamber has authority to require of an executive the tabling or presentation of documents or information which the government feels it would be against the public interest to table or present, or the tabling or presentation of which would constitute a breach of confidence which the government should preserve. But take this statement of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate - an arrogant statement, I repeat - at its face value. He could demand the tabling of Cabinet minutes or of Cabinet documents. Of course he has no authority to do this. Or he could demand the tabling of confidential exchanges between the Premier of any State and the Prime Minister. Mr Odgers, the Clerk of the Senate, who has never been laggard in presenting the claims of that chamber, has had something to say on this matter which I regard of some constitutional importance. That is why I mention it. I quote from his book Australian Senate Practice' at page 428:

Upon a motion being agreed to for the tabling of Papers, the Clerk transmits a copy of the resolution to the responsible Department. The Paper is then delivered to the Clerk of the Senate, and by him laid on the table. The practice of moving for the tabling of papers was more common in the early years of the Senate.

Then some precedents are given, and Mr Odgers continues:

The question may one day arise: What happens if the Senate orders the production of certain papers and the responsible Minister refuses to table such papers? Technically, disobedience to the orders of the Senate is a contempt of the House. However, it is an issue yet to be resolved as to whether the Senate would take the matter further if, notwithstanding an order of the Senate, a Minister claimed he was entitled to refuse to table papers on the ground that certain documents were of & confidential nature or that disclosures would not be in the public interest.

I am going to quote to the House - because, as a person who has been a member of this chamber for very many years and who is jealous of its rights and of the rights of a democratically elected Government I want it on the record - a statement made by the Minister for Education in the Tasmanian House of Assembly on 17th May 1960. This is a statement that I think might well be adopted as sound policy in this chamber. It is in these terms:

The particular practice which has caused the Government to consider this matter is the practice of requiring the return of a departmental file or of all papers and correspondence relating to a particular matter. If acceded to, such an order would bring before the House a number of papers some of which may be of a kind which should not be disclosed. The Minister is entitled to oppose an order for the tabling of papers of that kind, and if an order is made in the same circumstances he is entitled to refuse to comply with it.

Considerations of public policy and a due regard for the interests of the State may require the Minister to withhold information either sought for or ordered to be returned. Were it otherwise, it would be impossible to carry on the Government with safety and honour. To disclose certain information may endanger the interests of the State or of individuals whose conduct or affairs are not in question, and to disclose information given in confidence would be dishonourable and, moreover, would stop any more information being given in confidence. The Minister concerned must of necessity take responsibility for decisions on these matters and so long as the House gives him its confidence its confidence must extend to such decisions. The same principles which apply to giving information to the House apply to select committees, which are not entitled to information which the House cannot demand or receive.

It is possible that on some occasions a Minister would be willing to make available in his office, or some other appropriate place, a file or particular document for perusal by members of the House, thus avoiding publishing the file or documents by laying them on the table of the House.

I desire to make it clear to the House, however, that the Government has no wish to withhold from the House any information it is entitled to and that Ministers will not, without very good reason, refuse it any information.

Having read that, Sir, I say that I agree with the sentiments expressed. So far as it has been within my capacity, I have sought to give to this House the information that it required. That brings me to the matter on which the Leader of the Opposition has dwelt in relation to the answers supplied to the question which was asked in this place by the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly) but which actually followed in point of time, as I recall it. a question asked in the other place by Senator Gair, the Leader of the Australian Democratic Labor Party. The interesting thing that the House will find about this business is that the answer given by us was not one that somebody could interpret as an answer protecting the position of the Government. In point of fact, it was an answer to a question asked by Senator Gair about use made by the then Leader of the Opposition of an aircraft on a flight to Western Australia and the people whom he took with him. The Leader of the Australian Democratic Labor Party asked about this. I suppose that if the Government had had . the information readily available and had wanted to score some point off the Opposition, it could have said: 'Here is the information. This is what it is'. But the answer given at the time was that the particulars were not available.

I hope that I do not do the honourable member for Grayndler an injustice, but he put his question during a period when he had ideas - not for his own advancement for he is, perhaps, too modest for that - that some change in the leadership of the Australian Labor Party might be desirable. When he put his question on notice, rightly or wrongly, it was freely interpreted at the time as another attempt to give a bit of a nudge to the then Leader of the Opposition.

Opposition members - Oh!

Mr HAROLD HOLT - The honourable gentleman received that same comment by way of reply.

I move on from there to the answers given to Senator Turnbull, who had put several questions on the notice paper in another place. I tried to make available the detail that could be secured. I may say that the practice, as is well known in this House, is normally for a department to prepare a draft of an answer, submit it the the Minister and for the Minister then to settle his draft which is initialled by him and comes into the House. My own Department, which is asked questions which feed out into virtually every Department of state in one form or another, has to lean very heavily on the information supplied by the other department concerned. When the questions had been asked by Senator Turnbull - and I repeat that I mentioned a little earlier - I felt that before they were answered in detail, because to take them as they stood could result in the giving of misleading information, I should make a statement to the House. I set out, then, the way in which the fleet operated, the background to it and the history of it. The House will be familiar with those circumstances. Indeed, previously, as I told the House only the other day, the then Leader of the Opposition has notified my predecessor that the then Prime Minister would not find the then Leader of the Opposition questioning his use of the VIP fleet. After I had made my first statement neither the Leader of the Opposition, nor any of his colleagues, saw fit to take the opportunity then presented to discuss the matter. I believe I interpret their attitude correctly. As of that time honourable members opposite recognised the operation of the fleet as a necessary adjunct of modern government, as it is in so many other countries of the world.

In between the time that I made that statement and the next one the honourable senators had been busy. They could see some political mileage in this, particularly with a Senate election forthcoming. Somewhat half-heartedly, when I had made my second statement, the Leader of the Opposition rose and made some comment. As I recall it, the principal ground of criticism was the Government's purchase of the B ACI Ils, a matter that I dealt with by way of reply. The honourable member for Hindmarsh followed the Leader of the Opposition. His principal complaint was about the frequency of the use made of the aircraft by the Treasurer. The honourable member confirmed that this facility should be available for the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. He believed that it should not be used too frequently by other Ministers, and in particular it should not be used by junior Ministers except in some abnormal circumstance.

In my first statement I had said that I would examine the feasibility of getting costing done on this. I was not looking to conceal information; I was looking for ways and means by which this Parliament could be supplied with additional information on which there could be some periodical scrutiny of the costs of the service and some discussion as to how it operated. That statement was, I think I can reasonably state, well received in the House and produced only , these two speeches of a not very penetrating kind from the Leader of the Opposition and his colleague. At that time, in addition to giving the story about dissection of costs, we dredged through the information available, or so I was given to understand, and I tabled a document which, of its very nature, was too unwieldy to incorporate m Hansard and said that the House could see the details which this statement produced.

The matter then went to the other place. Honourable senators were not satisfied with the information that had been supplied. They said: 'No. We want details about passengers.' It was in relation to the point about passengers that in each of the answers we said that the details were not available. To the best of my knowledge and understanding they were not available. I had always been given to understand that details of passengers were not kept for any length of time but were destroyed shortly afterwards because they were kept mainly for safety and recording purposes.

The official book which is preserved, and preserved for a continuing period of years, is what is known as the Flight Authorisation Book. I have a copy of it here in my hand. I saw it for the first time last night. I did not know of the existence of this book or of the manifests which I also have here - manifests of a similar form if not related to identically the same matters, were tabled in the Senate - until my colleague, the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Gorton), told me that he would be tabling this information in addition to what I had already supplied following the request from honourable senators for papers. I inform the House, and I think the louse will accept my statement, that the first time I knew of the existence either of this Flight Authorisation Book or of these manifests was when this was mentioned to me by the Leader of the Government in the Senate. The first time that I actually set eyes on them in this form was last night when I asked the Secretary of the Department of Air if he could make them available to me for inspection.

Honourable members will find that this Flight Authorisation Book sets out in considerable detail matters such as action before flight, action after flight, serial number of order, date, type and number of aircraft, pilot or pilots, navigator, crew, the duty or practice ordered, time ordered to start, duration of flight, initials of flight commander ordering flight, initials of pilot that he understands the order, time of take off, time landed, day or night, task training sequence, DCO - whatever that means - and initials of pilot as having reported to flight commander on landing. That book contains no details of passengers except that where a VIP flight is involved it mentions the name of the Minister applying for the flight. If the Leader of the Opposition cares to look at this book he will see that many of the tasks listed are not VIP tasks but tasks associated with the operation of No. 34 Squadron - training flights, the instrument landing system and so on.

I now refer to the manifests. These do set out the lists of passengers. Copies are made so that when a flight goes from one point to another a copy is left at the departure point and one is retained by the Squadron. If any amendment is necessary because of changes in the passenger composition then adjustments are made. Originally I was told that these were not kept for any great length of time and that the time they were kept might vary. I understand that there is an order that they should be kept for 12 months. How far that order is strictly observed 1 am in no position to say. But I have been told by the Secretary of the Department of Air that because once these manifests are used by the Squadron they are then used by other sections of the Air Force from time to time, it is doubtful if more than 70% of them can be put together in one heap at any one point of time. Others are scattered right throughout the Air Force for various purposes. They may be in the possession of a person checking on the instrument landing system, a person checking on the hours the aircraft has flown or a person checking for any other purpose. I do not claim to be a technician in Air Force matters; I am merely passing on what the Secretary of Air informed me. He only put the figure of 70% as a guess because nobody could be authoritative about it. The Secretary would not claim more than about 80% accuracy for the detail shown on the manifests themselves because of sudden changes in movement. The Leader of the Opposition gave an example of this himself when he said that a Mr Wyndham was shown on a manifest. I understand from the Leader of the Opposition that Mr Wyndham did not travel at the time; nevertheless he is shown on the manifest.

Mr Whitlam - He has never travelled in VIP aircraft with me.

Mr HAROLD HOLT - I am merely making the point that these things are not necessarily precise and it has never been claimed that they are precise. I am not going to prejudge what the Minister for Air will have to say about these allegations. We have a good tradition in Australia that before we find a man culpable we give him a chance to speak in his own defence and to make his own explanation. The Leader of the Opposition has launched a no confidence motion against me, against the Minister for Air and against the Treasurer, but the Minister for Air has not yet had an opportunity to give his explanation. 1 admit readily to the House that 1 am troubled by the fact that answers were given in a form which did not accord with information which the Government itself has supplied. I emphasise that point; this was not something that was found somewhere around the country; we supplied this information as soon as we knew it was available and we did it after consultation between the Leader of the Government in the Senate and myself. We were not trying to conceal this information from the Parliament.

Information on this' matter can be misleading. The Leader of the Opposition was shown, as he will recall, as having had relatively few flights compared with the Treasurer. In point of fact if we apply the tests of hours in the air or mileage flown the result is not quite the same. We find that the Leader of the Opposition flew about 60% of the mileage flown by the Treasurer - if positioning is taken into account - and had about 80% of the Treasurer's time in the air. Yet on the facts which were given the House in quite good faith - but with the warning that they could be misleading - one gets the picture of eight flights made by the Leader of the Opposition as against fifty-four flights made by the Treasurer. I just make known to the House the problem which the Minister for Air has had in facing up to these matters. He wanted to give accurate information. He was asked about passengers. It may be that he felt that because of the incompleteness and, to a degree, the inaccuracy of these records he could not validly say that a list of passengers was available. I am not trying to interpret what his thinking was in the matter. I merely say, for myself and for the Government, that we have tried to keep the House fully informed. Of course, I will seek an opportunity to discuss with the Minister for Air how this matter developed. As a result of that discussion I hope to make such further information as arises available to the public and to members of both Houses of this Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition has moved a motion of no confidence. The effect of that motion would be, if carried, to throw this Government out of office and to put into Parliament and into government honourable gentlemen opposite, whose policies represent such a gulf of thinking between ourselves and themselves, and which were rejected wholeheartedly by the Australian people, that on a sober consideration of the facts I have no doubt about the position this House will take.

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