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Tuesday, 31 October 1967

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - No doubt the Government is in a very desperate position when it is defended by the Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr McEwen) who in recent months has made a point of not defending the Government but rather of showing very obviously his discomfort about the disagreement that exists between him and other members of the Government. But no doubt the Government is in a very desperate situation this evening when it has to call upon the Minister for Trade and Industry to complete its defences in this debate in which the Government has been unable to defend itself. The Minister for Trade and Industry, we know very well, is in a desperate position when he can talk for almost 20 minutes without dealing once with the subject at issue. For the whole of the time he was speaking he tried to divert the attention of the House and everyone else from the point of issue. But everyone knows why the Minister for Trade and Industry spoke tonight. He proposes to leave the country very soon after this debate finishes and to take no other part whatever in the Senate election campaign. So if the right honourable gentleman is tight, that this debate has been raised as part of the Senate election campaign, it has given him an opportunity to take part in the campaign, one which he would not otherwise have. He has chosen to leave Australia so that the issues that exist between him and the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) will not emerge for the observation of the people of Australia.

This is the policy speech of the Minister for Trade and Industry, delivered in the House before he leaves for overseas, so he wm not have to take any further part in defending the Government to whose defence he has been drawn in at a desperate stage today. He talks about a smokescreen. The Opposition, he thinks, does not want to debate the question of Vietnam. This comes rather as a surprise to me tonight, following as I do the Minister for Trade and Industry. Does the Minister think that I would be slow to want a debate on the question of Vietnam? I say to the right honourable gentleman that there is no reason in the world why that debate should not take place tonight, except one. I challenge the Government to put the debate on this evening, as it planned to do. The reason why the Government does not want the Vietnam debate to take place tonight is this: It knows that if the debate does take place tonight that debate will be submerged by this debate upon VIP aircraft. It wants to move the debate to next Thursday so it will have the opportunity to get into the Press its unsupported allegations about the Opposition in the debate on Vietnam.

The Government very well knows, and the Press knows, that this issue that has been before the House this evening is the more important of these issues this week. This week the House has been concerned, the Senate has been concerned, and the people of Australia have been concerned not with Vietnam but with the use by the Government of VIP aircraft, the lack of accountability by the Government and the strong suggestions that the Government has deliberately been deceiving the House, the Senate and the people about the use of these aircraft. This is the issue. Does the Minister for Trade and Industry consider that this issue has no importance at all and ought not to be debated in this House? Should we allow it to pass without notice? No! The issue before the House now has taken 17 months to mature. I heard the Minister say, speaking for himself, that he has come into the House and said that he has been informed that such and such a thing happened; that he has been informed by his Department and he has discovered later that the information was inaccurate and has come into the House and corrected that. Of course he has - but within the space of a few days. This matter has continued for 17 months. It has taken the Government not a few days hut 17 months to correct this. When did the Prime Minister (Mr Harold Holt) and the Minister for Air (Mr Howson) discover that these records had been kept? When did they discover that? Was it only the other day? Did the Prime Minister, the Minister for Trade and Industry and the Government expect the House, the Senate and the people of this country to believe that it has taken 17 months for them to discover for the first time that that wealth of records recently tabled in the Senate recently existed? Have they just discovered that in the last few days? It was 17 months ago that the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly) raised this question in the House and asked for details. It was 17 months ago that the present Prime Minister - the Treasurer as he then was - answered the question by saying:

Passengers' names are recorded only so that aircraft may be safely and properly loaded. After a flight 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 take VIP passengers. The answers to these questions are just not available.

That was 17 months ago. The matter has been raised continuously in the intervening period in the Press and in the House. It has been spoken about often. Always the Ministers answering questions continued to give the impression that there was no information about VIP aircraft. Why was that? It was because the Ministers wanted to hide the use of VIP aircraft and because they had a motive for saying that no records were available. So the pressure continued. In the Senate on 25th October 1967, last Wednesday, 17 months later, Senator McKellar, the Minister representing the Minister for Air, who is responsible for providing answers to such questions as this, said:

No detailed records have been kept of who travelled with an applicant on a particular flight.

This was 17 months after the question had first been raised. It has been raised continuously. It is incompetence on the part of a government if it cannot discover in 17 months that such voluminous records as those that were brought into the Senate last

Wednesday did not exist. If anybody knew that those records existed, the veracity of the Government is in doubt and the Government may well have been deceiving the House and the Senate. Where did they all come from? That is the issue that is in question in this matter; not Vietnam or some other issue that the Government perhaps would like to use as a smokescreen to hide the embarrassment that this situation has created for it.

When was it discovered that these records existed? Why was it only last week, after 17 months, that the Government discovered these records? No explanation is given. Surely it would be relatively easy for the Minister acting for the Minister for Air to contact the Department to see why it was not known that these records existed. There is no explanation of this. The Government, after 17 months, is still hiding information from this House. The Government would have no difficulty at all in ascertaining this information if it wanted to do so. It does not have to wait, surely, for the Minister for Air to return to find a simple answer to a simple question. Why was it that this I cwt of records was kept for 17 months and nothing was said about it? Did the Government and the Department not know that this matter was in question? Did not the Government know questions had been asked about it in the House? Did not Ministers read the answer to the question asked by the honourable member for Grayndler? Did not Ministers read the answer given by the Minister in the Senate? Did those things not happen? Did those members of the departmental staff who were serving the Minister for Air remain unaware that the matter was in issue? These are the questions that we want to have answered here and we have not had them answered here; instead each of the Ministers who has spoken has endeavoured to hide the situation by discussing whether Ministers are right in using aircraft or not.

The Minister for Trade and Industry, in the main diversionary action in the debate, has tried to shift the whole matter away from the subject of VIP aircraft altogether. The Parliament this afternoon has been treated with contempt. This should not be permitted to continue. How long must we wait to get the answers to the questions which so far have not been answered?

I put the issue clearly: Why has it taken 17 months for the Government to discover that these records existed? Does the fact that it has taken 17 months suggest that the Government has been hiding the situation all that time? Has the Government been aware of the existence of these records and has it adopted this stand so that it can hide any implications that might flow from them? These are the matters in which I believe the people of Australia are interested and in relation to which we need the answers.

Not only members of the Opposition but also the newspapers have been concerned with this. The leading article in today's Sydney Morning Herald' has this to say:

Mr Holtmust answer the following questions. When did the Government become aware that the flight authorisation books and passenger manifests existed? Was Mr Holt aware of it when he said in his first statement on VIP flights: 'I have no wish to deny to the public or the Parliament information which should reasonably be available to them'? Was he aware of it when he made his second statement the day before the manifests were tabled? Was Senator McKellar aware of it when he gave his answer a few hours before they were tabled? Was Senator Gorton aware of it when he tabled his first set of information last Wednesday, a few hours before he tabled the manifests? Who prepared the information in the answers given by Mr Holt last year and Senator McKellar last Wednesday?

Mr Holtand his Ministers may have been the victims of bureaucratic incompetence: Parliament and the public may have been the victims of ministerial deception. Either way, someone must accept responsibility.

None of these questions has been answered in the debate this afternoon. The Parliament and the people of this country are in the same position as they were before this debate commenced. The Government has not satisfied either the Parliament or the people in respect of these important questions.

What is the real explanation? Does the Government expect that it can continue to brush aside the Opposition and the people in these matters? Does it expect to continue to govern this country bureaucratically in the fashion in which it has governed it in the past? The Minister for Trade and Industry, when commencing his statement this afternoon, said that the Opposition had asserted and reasserted this proposition. Of course we have, because we have been unable to extract from the Government or any of its Ministers the answers to any of these questions. The Opposition will continue to assert and reassert the necessity for these matters to be dealt with.

This afternoon the Government has continued its attempt to avoid the substance of this matter and to conceal the use of VIP aircraft by its own Ministers and by other people. I believe that it was the Government's intention at the beginning to conceal the use of VIP aircraft and to avoid that use being fully explored by the Opposition. This afternoon the Government, through its Ministers and its supporters, has merely continued this attitude, so the Opposition has moved a motion which will test confidence in the Government and which calls the Government into question, because it believes that it's case has been proved to the hilt. It believes that the Government has failed the people of Australia in that, while having supervision of the operation of the VIP aircraft for 17 months, it has continuously, through its responsible Ministers, denied the existence of full and adequate records relating to the use of those aircraft.

The records have emerged under pressure. They have not been brought out willingly by the Government. Several times Ministers have claimed that the Government's actions could not be faulted because it had willingly produced these records. The Government did not' produce them willingly. They were produced in the Senate last week because the Government knew that unless it produced them the Senate intended to call officials to the bar of the Senate and crossexamine them about the existence of the records and about other matters. The records were produced in the Senate - not willingly - with the Government's consent - to avoid that happening. This evening the Government continues to apply the same means to divert the attempt of the Opposition to obtain information - truthful information to which an Opposition is entitled. This want of confidence motion should be carried.

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Whitlam's) be agreed to.

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