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Tuesday, 31 October 1967

Mr FAIRHALL (Paterson) (Minister for Defence) - The honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly) has invited me not to worry about who was on the aircraft we are discussing this afternoon but to get down to the matters germane to the motion. I am quite capable of dealing with the subject and I propose to traverse some matters that have not been touched upon in great depth this afternoon because I am sure that the House will have been satisfied by the explanations given by the Prime Minister (Mr Harold Holt) and the Treasurer (Mr McMahon).

There will not be found on this side of the House any shortage of people with a deep and abiding appreciation of the responsibility of members and Ministers to this parliamentary institution or to its members. Speaker after speaker from the Oppo sition this afternoon has disclosed the real purpose of this motion. It is not to censure the Government for other than political purposes. The honourable member for Grayndler thanked the Senate for bringing this matter to light. The more often it can mention the Senate in the context of a debate of this kind the happier the Opposition will be, because there soon will be a Senate election. If there is a little political mileage in a question of this kind, of course the Labor Party will be anxious to extract it. This is a perfectly legitimate political ploy. We on this side of the House know what it is about and I do not imagine that honourable members opposite are pulling the wool over the eyes of very many electors in this country. A Labor Party which aspires to office and wants to play its politics in this low key and sees in this kind of debate an avenue or a platform on which it might lever itself into office might be expected to use the forms of the House to bring forward a completely exaggerated motion of this kind at this time.

Speakerafter speaker on the Labor side has talked about our running a diversionary move and our talking about things other than the text of the motion. But the whole exercise is a diversionary one designed to take the mind of the people away from the major issues in a community about which we will be in the heat of discussion in the next few weeks. I seem to recall that the honourable member for Cunningham (Mr Connor) said that he would be quite happy to debate this issue all over the country. I bet he would, if it would save him debating the real issues of substance which rest before the electors of the community at this time. The Prime Minister exposed the nice little matter of timing in which this matter was brought foward in the Senate. It was brought forward on a Friday so that the newspapers, leaning just a little towards the Opposition, would be able to give it Press publicity without answer for 2 or 3 days. There is a Press which is in part subservient to the Opposition on this matter. The honourable member for Cunningham referred to some articles which had been published in the Sun Herald*.

The honourable member for Grayndler had a whole sheaf of texts taken from various newspapers in the last week or two.

I remember that on Friday last there was an important national function at which we opened a new military barracks at Holsworthy. My name is in the book of the famous because I ordered a VIP aircraft. It took to Sydney the heads of our military services, there to participate in a great military function. I asked that the aircraft should be put into Bankstown because that is 5 minutes away from Holsworthy. Yet on the back page of the same Sun Herald,' quoted with joy and pleasure by my friends opposite, was a scurrilous paragraph which was not very big but which disclosed the attitude of the sometimes subservient Press. I cannot quote the paragraph verbatim, but it hinted that we put the aircraft into Bankstown hoping to avoid public attention. As though we could sneak an aircraft into an airport, unload all the people into Government cars and take them off for a function like the opening of Holsworthy without attracting attention. That is about as ridiculous, as pointed and as blatantly dishonest as the kind of Opposition argument that has been put in this House this afternoon.

It is quite an interesting insight into the level of values of members of the Opposition that, in the broad range of all the Government's responsibilities in this country which have brought forth no public concern but only public acclaim, they would choose an issue such as this on which to move what is certainly a tremendously serious motion in a democratic Parliament. The issue is whether information was given in error. In the exaggerated offerings of my friends opposite, this has been referred to all the afternoon as lies. T venture to suggest that if every bit of information which comes into Parliament from the Opposition and which is incorrect is to be branded as lies, misleading and misrepresentation, the public would have a fine opinion of those who sit on the opposite side of this Parliament. The fact is that what we are testing at the present moment is not whether information was given in error because clearly information has been given in error. What we are measuring really is the intent, whether the Minister or the Department which gave the information intended to mislead the Parliament. I shall come to that in a moment. In comparison with the great issues facing this country, the matter we are debating today is not an issue on which to challenge whether or not this Government retains the confidence of the Australian people.

As I mentioned a moment ago, it is quite clear that information has been given in error, but it was in good faith, as I understand it. We will not clear this matter until the Minister whose responsibility it is to run the Department of Air is available to give us information and perhaps to look into the circumstances surrounding the situation. Perhaps it will disclose only a weakness in that administration. Is this the kind of intent that comes out as misleading, as misrepresentation or any other of the list of crimes which have been put down by the Opposition this afternoon? It was very interesting to hear the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam), his great heart full of concern and charity, say that any Minister may be the victim of incorrect advice from public servants. I am not saying that there was incorrect advice from public servants. I am not here to criticise the Public Service; I am here looking for the facts. In due course, as the Prime Minister has said, when the responsible Minister is available the matter will be looked at and information will be given to the general public.

How could these statements have been made over the past 12 months or so in anything other than good faith? Let us consider the situation. The moment that the records were known to be available - I do not know why they were not available earlier - they were put down immediately in the House, despite the fact that they indicated that a mistake had been made previously. We could not do better than that. One would have to take a long, hard look at a situation of this kind before one would be able to find any good reason why any department, any minister or any government would seek to mislead the Parliament or the public on an issue of this kind. After all, it concerns the use of VIP aircraft which are provided for the proper conduct of this country's affairs. They are in the hands of responsible Ministers of the Government who have been elected by the people, in most cases with overwhelming majorities, and appointed by a Prime Minister who has, through his whole parliamentary career, carried the undoubted confidence of the Australian electors, and no more so than in the results of the election of 12 months ago.

Our colleagues have explained ad nauseum in this House in recent times the use of VIP aircraft - one honourable member opposite has even counted up the hours over which the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) and the Prime Minister have explained their use - and there has been no real complaint from the public on this issue. There will be no public condemnation on this issue. But there is one thing that I do know. I am sure that governments all round the world and people in other parts of the world will be utterly astounded that in this young country of ours, which is growing at an enormous rate and putting great responsibilities on the Parliament, of which the Opposition is an important part, and certainly putting great loads of responsibility on the Government, the Parliament would seek to submit its responsible Minister to this kind of inquisition on a petty matter such as that which has occupied the time of the House in the last week of a session when there is an enormous agenda still before the Parliament and great events still to follow that. I know also that governments all round the world will be tremendously envious that in this fortunate country this is the biggest issue which can be found to excite the political public.

I have had some experience of overseas governments and overseas commercial organisations in the use of aircraft. No matter where I have gone around the world, whether I have been dealing with governments or with commercial organisations, there has never been any difficulty about putting a modern aircraft at my disposal so that I could carry on with comfort and with speed the kind of business I had come to pursue. In all these things we are being forced on by technological developments on the one hand and by the sheer weight of effort which must be carried out by administrators in all fields nowadays, government and business. We are forced to provide this modern means for conducting the nation's business.

One of the big bugbears in parliamentary life, as I have learned, is the time taken in travelling and the time wasted at airports. But I am rather unfortunate. I am one of the Ministers who is carrying decentralisation into effect. I represent a rural electorate. It is one to which the means of transport are not good, and this is no fault of the electorate. My friends can be home in Adelaide or Brisbane long before I get out of Sydney. I have learnt to do my work sitting in airports, travelling on trains and in aeroplanes and so on. But inevitably it must be an inferior kind of work and the inferiority must be compensated by long hours of hard work at times when other people are enjoying recreation. I am not complaining about this because I have my remedy. When 1 get tired enough of it, I know exactly what to do.

But I am afraid we underestimate the commitments that fall to Ministers in these days. There is not a Minister of this Government or of any other government whose day is not completely fragmented. By the time he gets to his place of work, meets the officers of his department, attends to departmental affairs, attends to the affairs of Cabinet and the committees of Cabinet, looks after his electors and his electorate matters and then takes care of the commitments that, by virtue of his participation in public life, fall to him, his day is not only fragmented but becomes long and tiresome. My colleague, the Treasurer, has pointed out how important it is that, on his trips between here and Sydney, his home port and the place where much of the business of his department is concentrated, he seizes the opportunity to discuss the effect of the business-

Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Mr Speaker, I take a point of order. I ask you whether the Minister for Defence, who is speaking about the justification for using VIP aircraft, is in order in dwelling on this subject rather than on the matter before the House, which is whether the Government has told untruths in supplying certain information. The matter before the House-

Mr SPEAKER -Order! What is the point of order?

Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - The matter before the House is not whether Ministers are entitled to use VIP aircraft but whether certain Ministers told untruths about the use of the aircraft.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! There is no substance in the poin t of order.

MiFAIRHALL - Mr Speaker, I thank you for your forbearance and wisdom. I am merely giving the facts about the responsibilities that fall to Ministers; they should be understood. My colleague, the Treasurer, has been accused of carrying various people in his aircraft, because they are not listed on manifests and so on. I have been a passenger with the Treasurer on several flights to Sydney. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the business of the Parliament and the Government with him. Every Minister here, to the best of my knowledge, is as busy as he can possibly bc. Work fills all the time there is and very frequently we wait for days for the opportunity to settle down for 5 minutes with a ministerial colleague with whose department we have some business before we can get the matter settled. I can well understand that the Treasurer would want to use these periods of movement to settle down and, without the presence of other people, discuss most important business of Cabinet.

The honourable member for Cunningham said that the Prime Minister declared that he was here by divine right. He is not here by divine right, but he has been here for a long time by the second most powerful right there is in a democratic community and that is by the election of the people. I have never known of an instance when the Prime Minister has had any occasion deliberately to mislead the people in this community and there is not the slightest evidence that he has in fact misled the Australian people on any occasion. Obviously, it would not matter how much explanation was offered by my ministerial colleagues in answer to the quite exaggerated accusations that have been made in this chamber all afternoon. The Opposition would forget any explanations and continue to bang away on the same drum, making the same exaggerated accusations and not worrying that they had been properly answered. In this kind of diversion they mislead the public in the way that they accuse the Government of misleading the public. That is the object of their entire political exercise on this occasion.

We do not seek to divert public opinion from a consideration of the use of VIP aircraft. I have dealt with the use of these aircraft and I have given the reasons for it. I have shown why use of the aircraft is so valuable and I have shown that we cannot be behind the rest of the world in the use of these modern facilities. I have accepted the fact, which is perfectly plain and needs no explanation, that by mischance, by misadventure, wrong information has been given to the people and to the Parliament. The moment that the information was found to be in error it was corrected. I come back to the point that ought to be accepted in the House and I know will be accepted in the community. The real question is intent. No government and no Minister would be fool enough to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the people about the use of such a public facility as aeroplanes. After all, the aircraft must fly into public aerodromes. People must get out of them and generally get into Government motor cars. All over the country, people have these aircraft, their operations and those who travel in them under constant observation. For what reason would a government want to mislead the people about the use of the VIP aircraft by the people npt only best fitted to use them but the most responsible people in the community, having upon their shoulders the most enormous work load?

While ever VIP aircraft can be used to further the business of this nation and while ever the Ministers who use them are responsible people - certainly they are; there is no evidence to the contrary - I am perfectly certain the public will accept the explanations that have been given. I am certain the public will accept the use of VIP aircraft and will reject, as this House most certainly will, a motion of no confidence that is put forward for purely political purposes.

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