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Wednesday, 8 November 1967

Mr HAROLD HOLT (Higgins) (Prime Minister) - by leave - Before I come to the broad aspects to which my colleague the Minister for Air (Mr Howson) has referred and, if I may say so, referred in manly and dignified terms which I am sure have impressed all honourable members with his sincerity, there are two things that I should like to do. The first is to give a summary of recent statements made here and in the other place. The second is to give some fuller explanation to the House of the reasons why the honourable gentleman was not asked to return to Australia at a time when honourable members, particularly of the Opposition, felt that he should be back in his place here.

I believe we have now, after a series of statements and discussions, cleared the air of most of the aspects which have been raised by way of query and argument on this question of the squadron used for VIP purposes. I made a statement originally setting out the purposes of the flight and the extent of its use. I said at that time that I would see whether there could be some realistic dissection of costs which would enable the Parliament to make an effective scrutiny from time to time of the way in which the flight was operating, at least as to its costs. I subsequently referred that matter to the Treasury which, in my view, was the most objective and best equipped body to advise on it. I reported to the House the recommendation of the Treasury and indicated that the Government proposed to pursue a course of having costs assessed on an extra cost basis which would be available for periodical scrutiny. Whatever basis of cost was selected would produce some discussion, and indeed argument, but I felt that in putting forward the basis which had been recommended as a practical basis the House would be able from time to time to make its own useful assessment.

We examined the types of aircraft and the need for them. We discussed the use in particular instances which had been raised either in the Parliament or in the Press. I think that most fair-minded listeners who were able to pursue this matter through all this discussion will agree with me that we did clear in a satisfactory manner all the points of query which had been raised. I know of no substantial matter outstanding, subject to a particular matter which we have come to discuss here again today. I say that by way of preliminary because all along it has been my desire to see the House informed as fully as the Government could inform it without giving incomplete information which itself, because of its lack of completeness or because of inaccuracies inherent in the material, could lead to conclusions not justified on the data brought forward. It was this factor which prompted me to delay the answers to questions asked in the Senate in particular until the House had this general statement before it against which these questions could be viewed.

All the information which has come to the Parliament and the public has been information supplied by the Government. So if now the Parliament and the country have a full and detailed account of these matters, it is as a result of the data that we have supplied to them. I shall say a word or two more about that later when I come to the statement of my colleague. The second matter is the fact of this being raised in the House quite recently on a basis of a motion of want of confidence and at quite short notice. The House will remember that immediately after that motion had been moved the Parliament went into debate on it. It would not have been practicable in any event to have brought my colleague back from Uganda in the space of time and in the frame of body and mind from an exhausting journey of that dimension to deal with that motion unless there had been some considerable postponement.

Let me just tell the House why I felt it important that my colleague should remain in Uganda on the mission on which I had sent him. I happen to believe that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, this great organisation which is representative of all the Parliaments of the Commonwealth of Nations, has a potential for value in binding the Commonwealth together, greater I believe than any other of the Commonwealth institutions. I do not exclude from that meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. I think that over the long haul the Commonwealth countries, by this regular meeting of representatives of Parliaments of the Commonwealth at which there can be free debate, will build up a knowledge of each other and an intimacy which will be helpful to our continuing association inside the Commonwealth. This has become infinitely more important since we have had what is known now as the new Commonwealth which is so diverse, so large and has such differing attitudes to so many great questions.

As honourable gentleman may recall, at one time I was Chairman of this body for a period of 3 years. I felt its value then. I have done what I could in this Parliament to see that Australia supported its activities, that we were well represented and that we contributed where we could to a strengthening of it. One of the mediums which I used for this purpose was to ensure that we had some continuity of representation at a high level. This was given to us in a very distinguished way earlier by the President of the Senate and more recently by my colleague the Minister for Air. I have made my views known to him and have employed him in this fashion. I made it known to him that I wanted a continuity of representation so that Australian influence would be maintained and indeed increased, and that I was looking to him to exercise this role for this country. So I come to recent history. In October 1966 at Ottawa he was appointed chairman of a working party of the General Council of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. There was a feeling that the General Council had become too large for effective executive work and so a working party was appointed to make recommendations to the Council for improvements in the organisation. He was appointed chairman of it. Earlier this year, at Malta, he chaired the meeting of the working party. That meeting produced important recommendations for the future of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. These went before the General Council in Uganda. My information is that all the recommendations of the working party were adopted. People from countries I have visited during the course of my journeying have told me that he chaired the working party with distinction.

One of the principal recommendations was that an executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association should be appointed to conduct its affairs rather than to look to the General Council to do this in an effective way. The General Council continues but the Executive Committee is the hard core - a sort of cabinet - of the Association. My colleague - I say this proudly for Australia - was unanimously elected Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Association, which is made up of eighty-six parliaments with representatives from thirty-seven Commonwealth countries. It may interest the House to know that included in the Executive Committee, which he chairs, are Mr Thomson, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in the Government of the United Kingdom, Mr Connolly, Government Leader of the Canadian Senate, Mr Reddy, Speaker of the Indian Parliament, Mr Pindling, Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Mr Kalema, Minister of Trade for Uganda, Mr Ngaza, Minister for Social Services in Kenya, Mr McNeill, Minister for Home Affairs in Jamaica, Mr Ngkampoh, Assistant Minister for Finance in Malaysia and Mr Perera, the former Minister for Finance in Ceylon. I give the House that detail because, when it is sitting in judgment on my colleague and his conduct, it is relevant to know that he enjoys the respect and the trust of men of this quality from all these parliaments and that they have this confidence in him. In justice to him, these facts should be known.

He has come to us today and has explained how answers came to be supplied which, in the light of the tabling of information later in the Senate by my colleague, the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Gorton), who discussed the matter with me and had my authority, seemed to be at variance with the position. The information tabled in the Senate included the flight authorisation book and the passenger manifest. If my colleague had added the words he has just given to us, that complete and accurate particulars were not fully available, his answer would not only have been a precise statement of the position as it existed then but would have been in accordance with the facts as we still know them to this time. I gave the House a little detail on that when I spoke to it some time earlier. It was in his mind that these passenger manifests, ' maintained for limited purposes, were kept for only a short period of time. In fact, he has given a period of weeks as his understanding of the position. Our subsequent information is that a considerable number of them were kept, if not complete and wholly accurate, for a considerably longer period than this. When we discovered that this was the position, we made the information available. We thought at the time that to make it available in that form could lead to mis leading conclusions, wrong inferences and wrong statements of the facts. I have already dealt with that in some detail in the House because this in fact did occur. Our fears were well grounded. But the mistake existed in his mind and as a consequence of this the questions were answered in the form that he has just outlined to us.

Having discovered this, he has come to me and has had a full discussion with me. He came at my request to the Cabinet this morning and discussed these matters fully with his colleagues in the Cabinet. He has made his mistakes and he has frankly acknowledged them here today. He has acted honourably by placing in my hands his resignation, if I choose to accept it. To a degree my own Department and my own position were involved in this matter. Normally as Prime Minister I would deal with the situation of a Cabinet colleague who was in such a predicament as this, but in my judgment this was a matter that should be considered also by my Cabinet colleagues. This has been done. We have come to the firm conclusion that, whatever mistakes were made, they were made honestly. The Minister had no intention to mislead the House. We have known him over a long period of years and we have known of his record of service in other fields, in time of war and in time of peace. He does not strike us as a dissembler who would wilfully mislead not only the Parliament but me and his colleagues in the Cabinet. For our part we do not believe that these mistakes are of such magnitude that they would warrant us taking the step - a drastic step for him and his future - of requiring, his resignation or of accepting his resignation when tendered by him.

Much has been made of these matters over recent weeks and some molehills have been made into mountains. I hope that now the explanation given by my colleague can be viewed in its true perspective, as the whole matter should be, and that not only will he continue to receive the respect of all sections of the House but his explanation will be accepted as having been made honestly and in good faith. The measures he proposes will avoid any danger of a repetition of these events in the future. Supporting evidence that there was no intention to mislead comes from the fact that the original answer from which these other answers flowed was made to a question asked by Senator Gair about the former Leader of the Opposition (Mr Calwell). There is no question of protecting the Government or any member of the Parliament on the Government side of the House. An honest reply was given, it is true, with a mistaken impression of the facts, but the intention was to deal fairly with whoever was involved in the question. This being so, I and my colleagues believe that our colleague has been sincere in what he has told us and that he has acted in good faith and we have asked him to continue his services with the Government. I present the following paper:

Royal Australian Air Force VIP Flight- Minister for Air - Ministerial Statement by Prime Minister, 8th November 1967.

Motion (by Mr Snedden) proposed:

That the House take note of the paper.

Debate (on motion by Mr Whitlam) adjourned.

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