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Tuesday, 31 October 1967

Mr CONNOR (Cunningham) - I feel, after hearing what the Prime Minister (Mr Harold Holt) has said by way of apologia, that if the House had confidence in him before it certainly will not have it now. Honourable members in this House, people in the Gallery and people throughout Australia who will be listening to the debate will have the opportunity to contrast the leadership and the leaders that we offer with the Prime Minister and this Government.

Sir, theright honourable gentleman's defence is one of the weakest that has been put up by a Prime Minister since Federation. It is the reply of a mini-Prime Minister. Abuse, bluster and equivocation have been his mainstays. He made quite a touching reference to being engaged in military operations. In his speech today the first casualty has been truth. His statements were those of a man with his back to the wall. May I remind honourable members that it was rebels of the Prime Minister's own Party - quite a number of them - who combined with the Opposition in the Senate to force this situation. It was only as a result of the threat of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Murphy) to call to the bar of the Senate a senior public servant that finally we got the whole truth, or sufficient of the truth to astonish the Australian people.

The Prime Minister made great play of a rather delicate constitutional position as to the rights of the Senate in ordering the tabling of papers. Were these documents and papers not in the public interest? Would any honourable member deny that they were in the public interest? As an example of his political casuistry he said that the Opposition could not complain about inaccurate answers because we have no right to ask for the papers on which the answers are to be given. His approach is authoritarian. It is the approach of a man who believes that he is a Prime Minister by Divine Right. We indict this Government. We arraign it before the court of public opinion; at the grand assize of the Australian nation. The charges are deliberate deception of Parliament, deliberate deception of the Australian people, giving false information, giving misleading information, suppression of the truth, equivocation, hypocrisy and contempt for the very institution of Parliament. No more serious charges than those could be laid against any government or any Prime Minister. They represent an attack on his veracity. The right honourable gentleman challenges us to attack his veracity. We will debate this issue with him in the forum of the Australian people at the forthcoming Senate elections. Let him then make the same limping reply that he has made here and put up with the consequences. It will be his political annihilation. The Government is on trial for its existence. I know that what I say is upsetting to Government supporters, and this is why they are interjecting. But what I say is true, and they know it. Their interruptions will not divert me from my speech.

The Opposition would be recreant to its trust if it failed to expose the Government's duplicity and deceitfulness on this issue. We have acted with a full sense of responsibility to defend and restore, if possible, the tattered image of Australian parliamentary democracy. The credibility gap between the Government and the Australian people and between the Prime Minister and the Australian people has never been wider than it is now and it cannot be bridged. It is the people of Australia who finally will decide this issue, not the vote of this House. It is the people of Australia who will decide this issue at the forthcoming Senate elections and who will pass judgment on this Government and on the credibility of its Prime Minister, its Minister for Air and its Treasurer. The Prime Minister spoke of the fantastic vote of confidence which the people had given the Government on an emotional issue. The Government's fall will be correspondingly great when the people of Australia have their opportunity to express their contempt of its untruths and prevarication. The instinct and capacity for self-government and traditional parliamentary procedures is the most outstanding attribute of the Englishspeaking people. We speak of Westminster as the Mother of Parliaments. As a result of today's proceedings will other nations speak of Canberra as the parent of parliamentary prevarication if this stigma is not removed and the good name and prestige of Australian parliamentary government restored by the extirpation of this Government?

The Ministry no longer deserves to hold the royal commission to govern. It is no longer a government; it is a conspiracy of prevarication, a conspiracy of silence - arrogant, incompetent, fatuous, smug, scheming and conniving. The issue being debated is not of recent development. In May 1966 the matter was first raised by the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly). This matter has been festering in the minds of members of the Government ever since. In May 1966, replying to a question on notice asked by the honourable member for Grayndler, the Prime Minister said:

After aflight is completed the list of names is of no value and is not retained for long. For similar reasons, no records are kept of the places to which aircraft in the VIP flight have taken VIP passengers. The answers to these questions are thus not available.

The first part of the answer was misleading and the second part was untrue. Falsehood has been piled on falsehood throughout this issue. Questions have been asked not once, not twice, but by many parliamentarians. They have been asked month by month. They have been repeated. The Government has relied on dissimulation and reticence. Worse, it has cynically, coldly, craftily and with utter indifference to the truth and without regard to elementary standards of public morality, done its utmost to thwart the will of this House and of another place. It has donesofloutingtherightsofparlia- mentarians to secure information in the public interest.

The questions that have been asked on notice have been well and carefully framed. As to the existence of the records, will the Prime Minister deny that they have been in existence for many years. The flight authorisation book produced in the Parliament goes back to 1965. I understand that it has been a long-standing practice within the Department concerned to keep such books. Does the Prime Minister deny that he had full knowledge of this when he gave his first answer? Does he deny that he had full knowledge of it when he made his statement in Parliament last week? What is his answer to these charges?

In the Senate the situation reached a climax on Friday last when we had the. ludicrous spectacle of one Minister contradicting another. I can well imagine what went on behind the scenes at the Liberal Party meeting this morning and the recriminations there. Was there ever an occasion before in the history of Parliament in any English-speaking country when, within a few minutes, one Minister would table documents flatly contradicting answers given by his colleague on the same issue?

Mr McMahon - Has the honourable member lost his place?

Mr CONNOR - The Minister will lose more than his place, I would say, before this issue is finished. What were the reasons behind the Government's reticence? Was it a matter of indifference or a matter of callousness? The Prime Minister made great play on the Government's remarkable role and its remarkable burden of defence and foreign policy. But were not the real reasons something of this nature, that these VIP flights were a charge on the defence vote to the Department of Air, as were also the purchase of the VIP aircraft, the cost of their maintenance and the cost of their operations all a charge on defence? The Government paid $21m for their purchase - double the original estimate. Was that the reason for the Government's real reluctance to give information, or were there other reasons of a personal nature? I think plenty has been said on that and I believe that the Australian people are fully aware of the situation in that regard. In point of fact the VIP flight has been an aerial taxi fleet charged to the defence vote by a government which claims all the virtues of record defence expenditure. This leads to a further issue.

We have heard solemn assurances from the Minister for Air in this House on many occasions about the virtues of the Fill. In the light of his rather doubtful credibility on this particular Issue, what store do we set on his assurances about this other celebrated aircraft which has not arrived. The further the people of Australia see this matter probed into the more there is on which to criticise the Government. In that regard the comment of the 'Sun Herald' on Sunday last is of great significance. Under a heading The Fleets Mount Up' an article stated:

The Government, pursued, and very properly, by eager Opposition questions, has had to do a lot of soul-searching about the use of VIP planes.

The result has been far more information than Mr Holt at first thought it possible to unearth.

And names such as Paddy first cook and Hazel housemaid have decorated Hansard and will pass into immortality. They win be remembered not as appealing names te a human story but as symbols of -the struggle between a vigilant Legislature and an extravagant Executive when the question becomes a footnote to future political science discussion.

Then there is this new problem which has been unearthed. It appears that there is another VIP fleet under the control of the Department of Civil Aviation and that that fleet is quite a remarkable one in its own right. It is valued at some $20m.

Mr Swartz - That is not correct; it is valued at only $3m.

Mr CONNOR - I dare say a little fiddling of value can be done with depreciation. But whatever the value, here are the details: There is one Hawker Siddeley twin jet, three Fokker F27s, one DC3, four Aero Commanders, three Beechcraft Bonanzas - quite appropriately named - two Cessnas, one Piaggio, one Victa Airtourer and one Piper Cherokee. Were these the reason why the Government was reluctant to give information to the House? Is this the reason why the Government deliberately thought it could brazen out the whole issue, why it thought it could clam up and close up? The Government is strongly contemptuous of Parliament and it is contemptuous of the rights and principles of parliamentary government. It brazened out this matter to a point where members of the Government parties in the Senate were prepared to vote with the Opposition to ensure that at least the people of Australia learn the truth. This Government deserves censure and it deserves contempt. It deserves to be tipped out of office unceremoniously. This issue will bc one of the first major steps towards its destruction.

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