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Wednesday, 8 November 1967

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - lt seems that we have reached a very remarkable stage in this debate about the use of VIP aircraft and the Government's failure to provide to the House and the people of Australia information about the use of those aircraft. It seems that we have reached a remarkable stage indeed. It would seem that the fault all this time has really been with the Opposition, that it is the Opposition that has degraded Australia, to use the remark used by the little gentleman who preceded me - the Treasurer (Mr McMahon). It would seem that there is no fault on the Government side. The Minister for Air (Mr Howson) is a distinguished gentleman with a magnificent record. He has risen really higher today than ever before in his career. The Prime Minister (Mr Harold Holt) is a gentleman who gives everything he has got to the nation. It would seem that on the Government side we have all the perfections, the perfection of the church militant, the perfection of the Minister for Air. All the faults in the debate are on this side of the House. We should never have asked any questions. We should never have questioned these great gentlemen on the other side of the House. We should have taken their word at face value, lt was quite wrong for us to ask questions in the way in which we have done. The fault has been with us all the time. This is the state of affairs that has been reached in this debate.

What we are talking about tonight is something quite different. We are talking about the use of some aircraft which are very costly and which take a great deal of the taxpayers' money to run, aircraft which I think have had a certain veil of secrecy drawn over them in the past, aircraft which represent a certain measure of privilege and about the use of which a number of people have considered there ought to be a discreet silence. So about 17 or 18 months ago members of the Opposition began to ask questions about the use of these aircraft and the Government, with some kind of consideration, gave answers that no detailed records were kept, and maintained that position for just on 17 months. Then at the end of that period and not because of the goodwill, generosity or consent of the Government but because of the pressure of the Senate a whole pile of records was revealed and it was found that these flight authorisation books and passenger manifests have been kept continuously, it is now apparent that thousands of people all over Australia were well aware that these records had existed all the time. The Treasurer who preceded me in this debate, was Minister for Air for 3 years and he must have known of the existence of flight authorisation books and passenger manifests which Royal Australian Air Force orders require to be kept for 12 months. The Department must have known of the existence of these records. These people were aware that responsible Ministers of this nation had, in answer to questions in this House and in the Senate, said that no records were available. All these people presumably maintained silence throughout this 17 month period. No-one said to any of the Ministers responsible: You have made a mistake. You have misled the House. You have misled the Senate'. Nobody apparently at any stage drew to their attention that they had made a mistake of this kind.

We were not given the facts. We were given the facts only as the result of pressure in the Senate, and even then the facts are not complete. I direct the attention of honourable members to the flight authorisation books that have been presented in the House tonight. I remind the House that the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly) sought information about these aircraft last year when, in a question on notice, he asked:

Does the Government maintain a special aircraft for the use of the Prime Minister and VIPs?

The Prime Minister managed to answer yes to that question. It is perhaps amazing, but he did answer yes to that question. The honourable member for Grayndler also asked:

If so, what VIPs other than the Prime Minister used this aircraft during the past 12 months? In respect of each such flight during this period, what was the (a) name of the VIP who used the aircraft; (b) name of any other passenger, (c) destination, (d) cost and (e) purpose?

The question could have been answered substantially from the book that has been tabled in the House tonight - a book that the Minister for Air and many other people must have known for years has existed. They must have known that in this book is recorded the name of the VIP using the flight, the destination and the times of flight. Much of the information that was required by the honourable member for Grayndler could have been provided out of this book, but what was the answer that the Prime Minister gave to that question? The answer was that no detailed records were available. What he meant by that was that no detailed records were available that would have allowed this question to be answered, but the question would have been substantially answered out of this book without any reference to the passenger manifests at all.

What we want to know is whether the Minister for Air was aware that this book existed at the time that question was answered. Was the Prime Minister aware of it? What kind of inquiries were made? The Minister told us that when he proceeded to answer his questions he had discussions with members of his staff. The Prime Minister said that the usual thing that is done when a Minister is asked a question on notice is to refer the matter to the

Department to provide the answer. Does the Minister for Air really say that at no stage did he refer this matter to his Department and that he discussed it only with private members of his staff? Does he really want the House to believe that at no stage during this 17 month period did any member of his Department say to him: 'Look, Mr Minister, in answering questions about VIP aircraft you said that no records are available, but we know that records are available'? Was this fact never drawn to his attention at any stage? If it was not drawn to his attention the questions that arise are, firstly, did his Department know of the existence of these records that were produced last week in the Senate and, secondly, if it did know, did it know that the information that was obtained could have been obtained from these records? Of course the Department would have known about this. The staff of the Minister for Air must have known throughout the whole of this period that these books were in existence. They knew, too, throughout the whole of this period that the Minister responsible and the Prime Minister had, in answer to a question, said that no records were available, and so they went on in that situation. This is a position that I would find it very hard to accept.

When it came to the answering of questions by the Prime Minister, he answered a question asked by the honourable member for Grayndler. The answer that the Government chose to give, through the Prime Minister - the senior Minister of this nation - and the Treasurer was that it was not they who were at fault in any of this; it was the honourable member for Grayndler who was at fault. He, so they say, was really trying to get information to embarrass the former Leader of the Opposition. I asked by interjection how did the Treasurer know this. Of course, he does not treat any query of that sort seriously. The position is that throughout this period the honourable member for Grayndler was a close supporter of the then Leader of the Opposition and was not opposed to him in any way, and I verify this from very close observation. I say that what the Treasurer said tonight and what the Prime Minister said tonight was a completely false statement, made carelessly and without any concern for its consequences, like most of the other things that the honourable gentlemen were prepared to say this evening in defending themselves. It was not they who were at fault - it seems that it was the Opposition - the whole of this time.

The Prime Minister began his attempt to answer this failure of his Government to solve the problems which the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Gorton) was able to solve in a very few minutes only last week, by saying that the Opposition was trying to obtain the last drops out of the lemon of the political gimmick. But this is the lemon of a political gimmick which has made a Minister in his own Government seriously offer his resignation to the Prime Minister, who said that he was unable to adjudicate on the resignation because he, too, was involved in the circumstances. He therefore referred the matter to the Cabinet as though it was some impartial judicial authority which could reach some independent decision. This thing that he chooses to call a political gimmick has attracted the attention, and properly so, of people throughout Australia and it has brought one of his own Ministers to the point of tendering his resignation, a resignation which was not finalised, partly because of the natural concern of the Prime Minister and of the Cabinet to protect the Government from anything which would make it vulnerable, not because they have necessarily reached a proper judgment upon the situation that has come about.

When the Prime Minister turned to answer this question from the honourable member for Grayndler, how did he get his information? Was it conveyed to him only by the Minister for Air? Was this information obtained by him only from his personal staff? Was no reference at any stage made by the Department? When and how did the Government find out that this was wrong? For the whole of the 17 months it has been answering questions and misleading this nation to believe that no adequate records were made from which questions about these aircraft could be answered, and then suddenly last week the Government makes a change. How did the Government find out that this was wrong? To whom did Senator Gorton direct his queries and why was it that he got a different kind of answer from that which had been obtained by the Minister for Air and the Prime Minister in the 17 months that had preceded this? Why was it that Senator Gorton was able to get a different answer in just a few hours?

The position, I think, turns upon the role of the Department of Air in this matter and the relationship that exists between it and the Minister and the Prime Minister. This relationship goes to the root of this question and to the root of the integrity of the Ministry in this question. I find it difficult to accept that the records that have been now produced for the inspection of this Parliament have been in existence for 17 months in the possession of the Department of Air whilst the Minister responsible for answering questions in relation to those records and the Prime Minister, too, who at the earlier stages was answering questions, were able to give answers contradictory to the situation that the Department knew in its own mind of its own knowledge to be true, and yet nothing was brought to their attention to correct the position that they had taken. When was it discovered for the first time that wrong information had been given? Why could it not have been discovered at an earlier time?

This situation came about only because of what took place in the Senate. What a contrast there was between what happened on 25th October this year and what had happened previously. A question was first placed on the notice paper in December 1965, but that question was not answered for 5 months. How was it that a relatively simple question about the use of aircraft in a squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force waited 5 months before being answered? Is this not consistent with what I suggest the Government was seeking to do? Here we had aircraft being used by important people and the Government intended to keep the use of these aircraft away from prying eyes. It wanted to draw a discreet curtain across the use of these aircraft. This would have been consistent with its taking 5 months to answer a simple question about the use of one aircraft. I do not care who was in that aircraft. Certainly a Leader of the Opposition happened to be in that one, but if the Government was going to produce information about an aircraft used by a Leader of the Opposition it would have had to produce information about aircraft used by everyone else, lt would even have had to produce information about the fifty-four flights of the Treasurer between Canberra and Sydney during the last 9 months.

The Government was not trying to do any favour for the Leader of the Opposition. Does anyone in his senses believe that the Government was willing to try to keep secret the use of that particular aircraft because it wanted to do a favour for the Leader of the Opposition? That will be the day when anybody on the Government side seeks to do a favour for the Leader of the Opposition. The obvious reason why it took 5 months to answer the question, and why the answer was misleading when it eventually came, was that it was all part of a pattern that had been decided at pretty high level. I think that level was not the level of the Minister for Air. I do not think the Minister is nearly as blameworthy in many of these matters as are his seniors in the Government, not only since he has been a Minister but even before that time. The information on this matter was not concealed because the Government wanted to do any favour for the Leader of the Opposition. It was concealed, I believe, because it was part of a pattern of concealment, a pattern which the Government intended to maintain.

Then we come to the later stage of the questioning and we find that it took 3 months to answer a question asked by the honourable member for Grayndler. This was a general question, a question that would not have required a great deal of detail. It required no more detail than was obtainable from the flight authorisation books. Then we come to the morning of 25th October when finally in the Senate, in answer to a question by Senator Turnbull, the statement was made that no detailed record had been kept. This followed the constant pattern of keeping a veil of secrecy across the use of these aircraft. This, I believe, was no accident, but was because the Ministers responsible thought that this was wise and discreet and the proper thing to do. But during the time this veil of secrecy was drawn across the use of these aircraft the records were available in the Department, as anyone who has ever flown in the Air Force would have known they must have been available. Anyone in the

Department must have known they existed. People in the Department must have known that their responsible Minister and the Prime Minister had been answering questions incorrectly and had been misleading the Parliament. But apparently nothing was said about it. If you can believe that, Mr Deputy Speaker, you can believe anything.

This position stood and it would have continued. There was no reason why the position should have changed on 25th October. There was no reason now why it should be different to what it had been in the preceding 17 months, except for one thing. That was that on 25th October the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Murphy) gave notice that he would move a motion in the Senate. The text of his proposed motion appears on page 1666 of Hansard. It became known to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Gorton, that the Opposition in the Senate would have the numbers to carry the motion. The motion would require the Secretary of the Department of Air to be brought to the bar of the Senate. Everyone knew that if the Secretary of the Department of Air were brought to the bar of the Senate he would tell the truth and would say that the records existed - records which up to that very morning the Minister for Air and his representative in the Senate had been prepared to say did not exist. I believe that this was the cause of the change in the situation.

From then on the attitude of the Government was completely different. The Leader of the Government in the Senate produced the records. Having done so he was confident that this would be the end of the matter; that the complaints, publicity and interest of the Press would come to an end. But we still have not an explanation as to why for 17 months those records existed - records which are well known to Air Force people and to the Department - at a time when the Minister and the Prime Minister were answering questions in this Parliament inaccurately and improperly.

The Parliament cannot allow this sort of thing to pass unchallenged. It cannot accept the practice of Ministers deliberately refusing tq give information in answer to questions and treating question time with total disrespect. One good example of this practice was given earlier today by the Minister for External Affairs (Mr Hasluck).

If members of this House consent to allow this kind of practice to continue one of the most important elements in the conduct of this Parliament will be called into question. It seems to me that this matter is not yet cleared up. After 17 months and 3 weeks of intense questioning we still do not know the facts. Many of the facts have been concealed and remain concealed. The amendment moved by the Opposition should be carried.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The honourable member's time has expired.

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