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Wednesday, 8 November 1967


Mr ANTHONY (Richmond) (Minister for Primary Industry) - This afternoon members of this House witnessed one of the most emotional spectacles that any of us can remember. We saw one of our colleagues, the Minister for Air (Mr Howson), make a statement in this House. Unfortunately he was away from Australia last week when this issue reached boiling point. Since this issue was raised last week and crystallised into one small matter of substance the name of the Minister for Air has been bandied across the nation in newspapers; he has been portrayed as a man who has committed a grievous crime against the Parliament.

We all know the Minister for Air. He has been in this place far longer than I, but I have watched him here for about 10 years, performing his duty as a member of the Parliament. In debates he has given no quarter and asked for none. He has been a good Minister. He has had difficult tasks to undertake but he has defended the Government and acted with probity and integrity at all times. This afternoon he made a clear and sincere explanation of the circumstances which led to his giving a slightly inaccurate reply to a number of questions on the notice paper. He accepted full blame for doing this, so much so that in his opinion if the Prime Minister (Mr Harold Holt) did not like to accept his word and integrity or accept his replies and reasoning he would resign from the Ministry. The Prime Minister, feeling that this was a matter which should be discussed by the whole Ministry because he was partly involved, brought the matter before the Ministry. The Ministry listened carefully to the reasoning and explanations stated by the Minister for Air and felt that although on a minor point there may have been some error, that error was not nearly great enough to warrant asking for his resignation or expecting him to resign.

This issue has become a political gimmick. It has been a political football now for some weeks. The Australian Labor Party is not content to leave it alone until it has smashed the reputation of one of our Ministers, a man who has committed possibly a very slight misdemeanour. But he is not just apologising. He has said that it has happened and that it was his fault. He is not passing the blame to anyone else. Just how severe was this misdemeanour? The Minister was asked numerous questions which all came down really to one question about the giving of names in a list of passengers on VIP aircraft. In his various replies he said that the record was not accurate, was not complete, was not available or had been destroyed. In differing degrees this was the sort of answer that he gave. Today, as a result of certain documents which were tabled in the Senate, he got up in this place and told ns that he was not aware that there had been a passenger manifest. I take his word when he says that he did not know. I am sure that if he did know he would have told the House and would have answered these questions much earlier.

What is this passenger manifest? It is not a book but is a series of sheets of paper. It is a guide to the officers in charge at the point of embarkation or the officers at the destination. Its purpose is also to enable the crew of an aircraft to know who is on the plane. It is a record in case there is an accident. As we can see clearly now from the documents that have been tabled in the Senate and in this House, these records were not complete and were not accurate. There are plenty of cases in which they can be shown to be inaccurate and incomplete. It has been possible to obtain only about 76% of them. After hearing the Minister's explanation this afternoon, feeling that it was a very good one, that it was sound and convincing - I am sure that it is accepted completely by all Government supporters and will be accepted by the Australian public - the Labor Party felt that it had lost a point. Consequently it decided to change horses in midstream and to swing its attach to somebody else. Tonight the Labor Party has swung the attack back on to the Government and on to the Prime Minister. Honourable members opposite had their bayonets out ready for a kill today. They started screaming like madmen after blood and when they missed with the Minister for Air they had to go charging on somewhere, after anything. They had been making an issue of this for weeks and they had to resolve the situation somehow or other. On every issue that they have raised - the extravagance of VIP aircraft, the lack of need for or abuse of VIP aircraft - they have been beaten.

Last week, as the culmination of these debates, the Opposition arrived at one point of substance. This was that the Minister for Air did not give an accurate reply to a question on notice - that he did not completely accurately inform this House on that matter. It is a pretty fine line of demarcation. Just how accurate can one be when one has not accurate records and one knows that the records are not complete? The Minister for Air did not know that these records existed. Perhaps there were some people in the Air Force who thought that these records were not accurate and were not complete. Knowing this, they may have thought that these records should not be given to the Minister for him to table. I can understand this sort of thing happening in a department. When a department advises its Minister at all times it wants to be absolutely right.

Tonight on the television programme This Day Tonight", Professor David Butler, an English political scientist who is visiting Australia, was interviewed. He was asked about the debate that took place in the House today on VIP aircraft. He said that the Opposition was making a mountain out of a molehill, that it was just a lot of nonsense, really, to expect a Minister to resign on such an issue. He said that there was no comparison between this case and other cases in Great Britain or other countries where a Minister had been expected to resign or to tender his resignation. What has the Minister for Air done wrong? Has he been lacking in responsibility in the way in which be has administered his Department? Has he not been carrying out Government policy? Has he been acting against Government policy? Has he done anything corrupt? Are these the issues? Of course they are not. What he has done is in a grey area. The Minister gave a reply that was not absolutely right but which could be interpreted as being right because the figures were not available as far as he knew. The Minister for Air admitted his error in not having these figures. Do not ask me why he did not have them. He did not even know this himself. He told the House that he took the blame for this.

The Labor Party has been making a furphy of this matter for some weeks. Why has it done so? It has done so to try to divert attention from the big issues in the coming Senate election campaign. This matter would never have come up except for the fact that a Senate election will be held in 3 weeks time. I refer to big issues such as Vietnam. The Labor Party has not wanted to debate this subject in the House. When a statement was made to the House a few weeks ago by the Prime Minister concerning Australia's commitment in Vietnam, the Leader of the Opposition did not seek a debate on the matter. Last week, when a very short debate took place on Vietnam at what we thought was the close of the parliamentary session, the Leader of the Opposition did not give us one indication of what the policy of the Labor Party was. When a statement was made last week about the grants to be made by the Government for the Emerald project and the Ord River scheme, what did the Opposition do? It spent half the day trying to accuse the Government of playing politics. The Opposition scorned the projects. It almost appeared as though the Opposition did not want to see these dams constructed and that it was sour about this happening. I know why the Opposition was sour. It is quite amusing. The fact is that the Labor Party had already written its policy speech and had probably recorded its television and radio publicity criticising the Government. The Opposition will now have to change all that. This is quite clearly the reason why the Opposition was so concerned.

I come back to the VIP flight issue. How did it all start? It was not started by the Austraiian Labor Party. That Party cannot take any credit for starting the issue. The Opposition cannot take any credit for the Australian public being informed about who uses VIP aircraft. I repeat that it was not the Australian Labor Party that started the issue or that can take credit for getting this information. It was the Australian Democratic Labor Party which raised the issue in the Senate. That was the Party which initiated it, but it did so, of course, on devious grounds. It wanted to get at the Leader of the Opposition because of rumours that he had misused an aircraft. Then follow up questions were asked by the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly), who was trying to get at his own Leader at the time. Further questions were then asked by an Independent in the Senate who wanted to gain certain political kudos.

But the big issue at the outset was why we should have a VIP flight. It was suggested that this was an extravagance and the question was posed: Why should Ministers use VIP aircraft? I will answer the question in this way: If VIP aircraft are good enough for generals to use when they travel around to ensure that we have good, effective and efficient defence forces, if VIP or executive aircraft are good enough for the top men of big companies in Australia to use so that they can ensure that their rate of development increases and that they can meet competition from other countries, then VIP aircraft are good enough for the people who are managing this nation of ours. If we want to have a dynamic nation, a nation with drive and go, the Ministers in charge of it ought to be given all the services and assistance they need so that they can give the proper direction to the nation and so that they can get around the nation, meet the people and see the enterprises that are under way. That is why we need a VIP flight.

The top Ministers - men like the Prime Minister, the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) or the Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr McEwen) - whose duties are most onerous and who can be called upon at any time during the day, cannot be expected to coordinate their activities with normal air services. If they must attend a Cabinet meeting, if they need to interview officers of their departments or if they have arranged to meet deputations or groups of people, they do not have any idea of the time that they will cease work. They may continue working into the night. If they have engagements for the next morning in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, they must get there. Only by using VIP aircraft can these Ministers do their work efficiently. If the Parliament wants to slow down the tempo of the nation and to have it develop at a slower rate than it has been, it need only stop the Ministers from getting around the country to see what is happening and to meet people. If it is good enough for companies to have VIP aircraft of their own and if it is good enough for top military personnel to use such aircraft, it is good enough for the Ministers who run the nation to use them.

The second issue related to the misuse of the aircraft. Opposition members wanted to see a record of the use that had been made of them. So we obtained a book that contained a record of all the flights. This was presented in the Parliament. But this led to rumours being bandied about that Ministers had misused the aircraft. This did not carry any weight at all. There was a flutter about it for one day and then it ended. All the Opposition had left was an allegation about the poor Minister for Air who had given a slightly wrong answer to a question that had been placed on the notice paper. I suggested before that this was not an issue of great substance. I do not deny that there was some substance in it and I do not deny the right of the Opposition or the newspapers to attack the Government on the use of VIP aircraft or on any other matter. The newspapers have a duty to watch the interests of the taxpayers. They have a duty to attack members of the Parliament if they abuse their privileges. Every one of us in this House has a responsibility to be sure that we do not abuse the privileges that are given to us. I do not hold any grudge against the newspapers for attacking us. Somebody must do so and the newspapers are the official opposition of the members of the Parliament. I do not complain that we have been attacked over the use of VIP aircraft. But the issue todayis the credibility and the integrity of one Minister.


Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Two.


Mr ANTHONY - One Minister. The substantive issue last week was whether the Minister for Air had given an honest reply to a question on the notice paper.


Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - And the Prime Minister.


Mr ANTHONY - The honourable member refers to the Prime Minister, but the substance of the reply given by the Prime Minister came from the Minister for Air in the first place. That has already been stated in this chamber. The Prime Minister obtains his information in that way before he presents it to the House. The fact is that the Minister for Air did not know that there was a passenger manifest. He stated that in this chamber. The Prime Minister last week said that he was not going to prejudge the case of the Minister for Air until the Minister for Air returned and gave his reasons. Nobody knew then why the Minister for Air had given that reply. The Minister has now explained that there was only one reason - he did not know there was a passenger manifest. As I said earlier, it can be understood why certain people in the Department of Air may not have given this information to the Minister. It was not accurate or complete. It was not a book or log. It consisted of sheets of paper on which the records were entered. Apparently it was not widely known in the Department of Air or in the Air Force that the manifests are to be kept for 12 months. It came as news to all of us that there is an Air Force publication which lays down that the manifests should be kept for 12 months. The Minister has said that he will see that these records are kept accurately so that if ever in the future Parliament wants the information it will be obtained.

I listened to the explanation given today by the Minister for Air. It was a humble, honest and sincere explanation. He took the blame and offered his resignation if people were not prepared to believe him. But we are prepared to believe him. We believe that he made an honest error. It was a slight error, not a great error. Realising that, I reject the amendment moved by the Opposition. The Opposition is merely playing for more time to divert attention from the big issues on which the Senate election will be fought. I refer to Australia's commitment in the conflict in Vietnam and our treaty obligations to the United States. They are the big issues, together with the development of this country. Our economy is so sound and so much development is taking place so successfully that the Opposition cannot find an issue on which to attack the Government except a minor misdemeanour of the Minister for Air. He has clearly explained his error to the House and it is plain that the matter contains nothing of great substance.







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