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Tuesday, 31 October 1967

Mr McEWEN (Murray) (Minister for Trade and Industry) - The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) has merely asserted and re-asserted a series of allegations. He has not proved anything. A motion of censure against the Government is one of the serious occasions that the Parliament can be confronted with. In the words of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) this is based upon questions of the veracity and credibility of the Prime Minister (Mr Harold Holt) and certain Ministers of the Government. On the issue of credibility I say that this debate makes one thing crystal clear; it is beyond doubt that this is not a debate upon the credibility of the Prime Minister who, after 32 or 33 years in this place - most of those years as a Minister - has never before been charged with telling anything other than the truth to the best of his knowledge. The debate today is part of the Labor Party's Senate campaign. Let us be perfectly clear what this debate is all about. It is the initiation of part of Labor's Senate campaign. The debate is not concerned with policy. It is a debate designed and contrived for one purpose only; to enable Labor to avoid discussing policy. That is the real reason. This tactic, motive or objective is being employed by the Labor Party to avoid a discussion in this Parliament of the critical issues of security and the wellbeing of this country. The Opposition has switched across to something which has a plausible public interest and a measure of substance in it merely to avoid talking about serious things. When this is appreciated, we get this debate and the attitude of the Labor Party into the correct perspective.

When the Prime Minister the other day announced that additional forces were to go to Vietnam the Leader of the Opposition sat silent. Notwithstanding all of his denunciations, allegations and posturing and that of the whole party, when he sat silent it was clear that honourable members opposite were not going to face the issue which they faced 12 months ago to their utter downfall. Here was a major issue which the Opposition found it prudent not to debate publicly. The Leader of the Opposition remained silent and then with a bit of abracadabra produced from up his sleeve the issue for another debate on a different matter entirely. And the Opposition's tactics have succeeded to this point: Having ducked an issue of real Australian policy last week in the Parliament, the Government has now confronted the Opposition with a discussion of that very point of policy. This was initiated by a statement by the Minister for External Affairs (Mr Hasluck), and the debate on this major policy issue is scheduled for tonight. What has the present debate achieved? It has brought about a situation in which, if the business of the country is to proceed, the debate scheduled for tonight will have to be deferred until Thursday.

Labor has succeeded to this extent: it has ducked the real issue and has succeeded with a trick in postponing a debate in which the country wants to hear Labor spokesmen giving their views. The Opposition has ducked this debate until next Thursday when the House is due to adjourn, and with a little bit more skill or a little bit more luck the Opposition may not have to debate it even on Thursday, and honourable members opposite may then go away and think they can live happily ever after. But it will not work out that way. This debate will take place in the Parliament; it will take place on the hustings in the election campaign. The members of the Labor Party will have to stand up and be counted on the issue. They will have to show where they stand on this real matter of policy rather than on the smokescreen that they are attempting to set up now.

This debate is not on an issue that should be viewed in isolation. It is part of a sustained campaign. It was initiated some considerable time ago, perhaps as much as 17 months ago, when questions were first asked. Let us remember the questions that were asked then and those that have been asked since. They made it quite clear that the issue as Labor saw it at that time was whether or not it was extravagant for a government to have a VIP flight, and whether or not the flight was being conducted at an extravagant cost. That was the critical question. Some public attention was turned upon the VIP flight and the cost and the use of it, and every newspaper that I read came out in support of the existence of a VIP flight. Even the Leader of the Opposition and others of the Labor Party have been impelled to squirm away from the original criticism and to say in this Parliament that they support the existence of a VIP flight. They could not say otherwise because they use it.

That original issue soon died, although it looked for a time like a jolly good runner. It had all the elements of the classic issue of politicians extravagantly wasting public money. Nothing can ever command headlines as readily as an issue of that kind. I am old enough to remember a major issue in an Australian general election which turned on whether the spending of £25 to build a dog kennel for the Prime Minister of the day was not so gross an extravagance that the Government ought to be thrown out. The Opposition of the day squeezed every bit of politics out of that issue that it could, and I am bound to say that practically every newspaper in Australia also squeezed out of it every bit of politics that it could. This issue is in the same field. A bigger dog kennel is involved but it is the same political trick, nothing else, and it must be recognised as such. It is a good gimmick. It is more than a good gimmick, it is a good smokescreen. Today's debate, taking up the whole of the time of the Commonwealth Parliament throughout the afternoon, has proved that it is a very successful smokescreen. This has caused already a deferment of the debate on the main issue with which all Australians are concerned. This issue concerning the VIP fleet has been blown up out of all importance.

I say that it is the duty of the Parliament, the Government and the Opposition, and the duty of the three political parties in this Parliament to face up to the real issues of the security and well being of the Australian community, and of our security and our relationship with our allies. The present burning issue at the moment is whether it is right that we should be in Vietnam with our American allies or whether we should, as the Australian Labor Party proposed at the last election for the House of Representatives, withdraw our troops from their association with Americans in the front line and break the American alliance. This is the only alliance that, in my view and in the view of any thinking Australian, any Australian who will be honest in his statement of his attitude, could save us if we were ever again in desperate straits under attack. This is the real issue. It was a loser 12 months ago. The Labor Party would be glad to get away from it.

But what has happened? The Adelaide Conference of the ALP has really re-affirmed that policy. Today the Australian Labor Party is in a state of torment. I do not believe for one moment that all the members of the Labor Party believe that its policy is right. But it is a party that imposes ruthless discipline on its members. There is no future in that Party for anyone who says that he does not agree with that particular attitude to a major issue of policy. So we find in the ranks opposite those who believe that it would be right to take such action as would break the American alliance. There is only one world group that is absolutely clear where it stands on that point. That is the Communist Party. This would be meat and drink to the Communist Party if Australia should break the American and Australian alliance. There are those within the ranks of the Australian Labor Party who would like to see this happen. There are good Australians within the ranks of the ALP who know that if this happened it would be disastrous.

Here is the condition of mental torment in which this once great political party stands today, not able to face up to the issues and to argue genuinely and validly because the Party believes in the issue. But the Australian Labor Party is squirming, turning and twisting to find by some political gimmick something by which it can dodge the issue and thinks it can delude the Australian people into believing that the use of VIP aircraft is the major issue of the day. Let those who think and listen realise that this motion to censure the Government and the Prime Minister is merely a political gimmick and a smoke screen to avoid a discussion on major foreign policy. So, I say that up to this point the trick has succeeded. But it will wear thin. This Government will see that there is a debate in this Parliament on the issue of foreign policy. This Government will see that the election will not run through without the Labor Party in its official stand having to stand up and be counted and having to say where it stands on this issue; what its attitude is today on our troops in Vietnam; and what its attitude is today on our foreign policy. It is not the Government's foreign policy; it should be Australia's foreign policy, for it is built for the survival of Australia and for no other reason. This small, desirable, lucky country, remote geographically from its friends, and sparsely populated, should know that in an hour of crisis Australia has a great friend who will come to its aid. This should not be just the Government's policy. It should be Australia's policy. And the Australian Labor Party will find, when the votes are counted, that it is Australia's policy. This is what the Labor Party found ] 2 months ago when the votes were counted and it was reduced to such a diminished force as sits in this Parliament today.

I know that outside the Parliament skilful politicians experienced in debate can delude people who have not the time to concentrate their thinking, but in this place they cannot delude people. In this place, the smokescreen is wafted away and the pretences are exposed. This is the place where the Leader of the Opposition should be prepared to stand up and lead a debate on our foreign policy and our attitude to our allies, if he himself believed in Labor's policy and thought that it was persuasive to the Australian people. I do not think that he himself believes in it. He failed in Adelaide to have the policy changed, and he knows perfectly well that Labor's present policy is a loser if presented to the Australian people. However, honourable members opposite believe that some allegation that politicians are extravagant and a suggestion that their veracity can be questioned will tickle the ears of listeners and win headlines in the newspapers. Up to that point, this approach has worked. But it has been adopted not altogether with straightness. I am bound to refer to a reference in the Senate by Senator Cant to a member of my own staff. He said: on a flight from Darwin to Gladstone a Miss Burns, whoever she may be, is listed as having flown in a VIP aircraft. I think this person was a typist or stenographer. Miss Burns must be a pretty popular person because on 3rd August 1967 she flew from Canberra to I do not know where; it was impossible for me to decipher the destination of the aircraft.

Miss Byrne, who is the person referred to, is one of my private secretaries and I think she is known to most members of all parties. She sits in the advisers benches during question time on every sitting day. Members of all parties interview her occasionally to get some aid. She is the liaison between me and the Department of Trade and Industry. She and Mr Hamilton, my Press secretary, flew with me to western Queensland on a mission that I had and from there to Rockhampton. I wanted to fly to Gladstone, but there were no night landing facilities there and I had to fly to Rockhampton. I intended to fly down to Gladstone in the VIP plane the next morning for the opening of the alumina works there. The companies associated with the works, which had chartered a number of aircraft to take people to Gladstone for the occasion, asked me not to fly there in my own aircraft because the Gladstone aerodrome would be encumbered with a lot of chartered planes. They asked me would 1 fly from Rockhampton in one of their planes, which I did. That left my aircraft at Rockhampton and helped to prevent the Gladstone aerodrome from becoming too cluttered with planes. My aircraft then flew the two members of my staff whom I have mentioned, not from Darwin to Gladstone, but from Rockhampton to Gladstone, where I rejoined the aircraft and flew back to Canberra in it. That is the story of that occasion.

On another occasion when I. had urgent business, I had a VIP plane go to Mangalore, which is within an hour of my farm by car, to pick me up and bring me to Canberra. I asked Miss Byrne to travel down on the plane and to take some important documents with her so that I would have the advantage of being able to study them on the flight back to Canberra. On that occasion she flew alone in a VIP aircraft. The Opposition's attitude is pretty poor. The Australian Labor Party can conduct its business without dragging a young woman into the act like this, I am sure. It would have taken only a simple inquiry to find out these facts. I have had to mention them to clear up the situation.

I now return to the main point, Mr Speaker. There has been no evidence at all adduced in this debate to sustain the charge of untruthfulness against the members of the Government. I have been a Minister a long time, as honourable members know. I am experienced enough to say quite often, in answer to a question, or in a letter, 'I am informed that . . .', making it perfectly clear that the knowledge is not within my own possession but that I pass on the information given to me in good faith from my Department. I will recurringly say this. I have answered questions in the House on that basis and come back into the House and asked for leave to correct a statement I have made. Honourable members will know this, lt is not impossible in good faith to be given some information from a most reliable department which turns out not to be factually correct, and this has happened to a minimum degree in this respect. The Prime Minister has, so soon as it came to his knowledge, stood up and put it in that perspective, and a party which wanted to get on with the real affairs of the country would accept that and get on with the business. Instead of this, we are treated to a stunt.

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