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Thursday, 14 March 1968

Mr FAIRHALL (Paterson) (Minister for Defence) - The House will recall that the former Leader of the Opposition expressed in this House his disagreement with Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war but gave an undertaking that in no circumstances would Australian troops in the field suffer from the displeasure of the Labor Party. I am sure there will be a wave of revulsion amongst all Australians who have worn a uniform, and amongst those who love them, against the expressed determination of the Labor Party this evening to put on trial for a minor misdemeanor one of their compatriots who is at this moment looking after the security of Australia.

We are dealing with charges of torture. The word 'torture' has been drastically overdrawn, as was disclosed by the report represented by the Minister for the Army (Mr Lynch). It is true that the means of interrogation were harsh. The report disclosed it; the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) confirmed it and, of course, it is a fact. It has been admitted in the statement. But there is also evidence that the matter was dealt with immediately and adequately and the incident was closed without comment from those who might first be expected to report it because this is the first war, as far as I know, in which pressmen have had complete freedom to see everything going on in the field, at headquarters, in camp or wherever they might be.

Mr Barnard - That is not so.

Mr FAIRHALL - What do you mean, it is not so? It is quite true.

Mr Barnard - I had experience in the last war and I know-

Mr FAIRHALL - The fact is that during this war the Press has presented a steady diet of sensation. If a matter of this kind had been sensational it would have attracted the interest of pressmen there and it certainly would have been reported at that time, but the fact is that the incident was of so little significance that an international journalist on the spot thought fit to make no report upon it. lt was not until 17 months later that an undistinguished journalist wrote a book dealing with this particular matter. But it must be remembered that the story was based on the acknowledged hearsay evidence of another journalist whose credibility has been seriously challenged by his contemporaries who were with him at the time of this reported incident. That indicates just how penetrating and authentic it was. Mr Sorell said that he was a witness to these events which we are now told were so serious as to shake the reputation of the Australian armed services and indeed of the Government. Mr Sorell said that he was asked not to report the matter, and I give him his due. If he was so asked and did not in fact report the matter, all credit to him. But it is an odd circumstance that other international journalists present there were not so asked to suppress the story. And they still did not consider it a story worth reporting throughout the world in any detail whatsoever.

The story is a simple one. There was a captured spy. It is interesting that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam), knowing that there is a grey area about an undeclared war, knowing that there is a grey area about the application of the Geneva Convention - and wondering what really is the classification of this spy, should have sought to upgrade her. On whose side is the Leader of the Opposition in an argument of this kind? The fact is that for 3 months, before her capture she had been sitting in this tunnel with a powerful radio set communicating every move on the Saigon to Vung Tau road overlooking, as it was ultimately shown, the whole of the activities of our Task Force in Phuoc Tuy province. She was undoubtedly reporting to other units of a radio network of an intelligence group, and to active units of the Vietcong. She was referred to by journalist Geoffrey Murray as the 'barefoot Vietnamese Mata Hari'. If it is reasonable to quote the Press in one instance, let us quote this journalist who took her to be a spy. It is reasonable to assume that her spying activities were directly responsible for a considerable number of casualties. Her task was to operate with the network of intelligence agents in order to kill allied and Australian servicemen. Let us keep that in mind.

She was taken back for interrogation. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) made great play in saying that there could not have been any urgency because she was not taken back until the next day. The fact of the matter is that she was captured late in the day. I flew over this area a week after the event took place. I was shown the area in which this woman was captured. It is jungle covered hillside. There is one jutting rock on it and this is the only place where, with skill, determination and a great deal of luck, a pilot might be able to land a helicopter. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition has suggested that that should have been done in the dark. That is a great tribute to our Australian flyers.

The woman was captured and questioned. Does any honourable member with any appreciation of these matters really believe that it was unimportant that we should find out from her quickly, if it were possible to do so, the whereabouts of the other radio installations with which she was in communication and the whereabouts of the Vietcong groups that she was directing with her spying intelligence? It is clear that it would not have been very long before her comrades found out that she was no longer on the air and had been captured. They would then have slipped into the jungle, as they usually do, and would have been left alive to serve another day and threaten the lives of allied and Australian soldiers. It was of the essence to get from this woman as quickly as possible all the information that could be gained. She was interrogated. To use the words of journalist Sorell, the interrogator did not play according to the rules. He trangressed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. Despite the fact that there is this great grey area of doubt as to whether she was a spy to whom the Genera Conventions did not apply or whether she was a prisoner of war to whom they might apply in an undeclared war, we gave the benefit of the doubt. We said that we would apply the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

Charges of torture are made, no less. This is such exaggeration as to be laughable. Any decent and reasonable Australian in this community will be completely reassured that this questionable behaviour was immediately stopped when it was known. Adequate steps were taken to prevent a recurrence. The officer concerned was transferred to other duties so that he would not again be tempted even under the most powerful provocation which a soldier in a fighting theatre of war can meet and which perhaps, in this peaceful and happy country, we cannot fully understand. The provocation stirred him to do all that he possibly could to preserve the security and, maybe, the lives of his fighting compatriots. But our friends of the Opposition complain about that.

I have taken the liberty and the precaution of checking, by signal to Vietnam, personally among those who have been in command in Vietnam throughout the war in order to determine whether somewhere there might be a record of a similar incident. There is none whatsoever. The Leader of the Opposition demands an inquiry into an isolated incident, the facts of which have been admitted. Such an inquiry cannot do any more than establish facts already admitted. The honourable gentleman knows very well what would flow from an inquiry of that kind. There would be unlimited headlines and unlimited opportunities for the anti-Vietnam, anti-Government and proCommunist group to bang the propaganda drum. It would be done all round the place. Such an inquiry would provide unlimited occasion to promote and sharpen the psychological offensive that goes on throughout the world, and no less in our own country. This offensive is designed to attack the reputation of our own fighting men and to weaken their morale. This is the end product of such an exercise.

Only today the 'Sydney Morning Herald' published a photograph of a London pantomime in which a group of people gathered with banners flying. They were conducting a pantomime about the water torture. In the nature of things, the incident will be reported all round the world. Does anybody believe that such demonstrators are really concerned about the atrocities in Vietnam? If they were, they would be carrying their demonstrations to the North Vietnamese and to the- Vietcong, who have made torture and atrocity an article of faith and an instrument of their kind of war. I remind honourable members that the Vietcong have directed such activities against the very people of their own race whom they say they have come to liberate. Is it any wonder that the people of South Vietnam do not like this kind of liberation and have asked us for help against it?

Let us understand the situation. The Leader of the Opposition is very critical about the water treatment. Somebody said a little earlier this evening that there had been a water throwing incident in this Parliament in which none other than the Leader of the . Opposition himself was involved. Here was an occasion when the honourable gentleman threw water with no more lofty purpose in mind than to provide an outlet for his own instant temper. We all know that he has been guilty of using the most intemperate language to honourable members on this side of the House - all because of his uncontrollable tongue. I am not terribly worried about that. It is one of those things that happen. I do not hold it particularly against the Leader of the Opposition. He made his apology to the House at the time. In words reported in the Press he said: T was provoked into an incident of this kind'. How much greater was the provocation of an interrogating officer in the circumstances with which we are dealing? He had before him a captured spy who was herself an instrument of the death and destruction of the fighting compatriots of that man - of our allies and, indeed, of Australian soldiers. If one is able to understand that kind of provocation, then how much more excusable is the indiscretion of this interrogating officer?

The Leader of the Opposition - surprisingly, unbelievably - is reported in today's Press as having urged that we should give safe passage to this Vietcong spy, that we should bring her to Australia to give evidence against one of our own compatriots who was guilty of only a minor indescretion

The honourable gentleman has taken leave of his senses. He offers an insult to every Australian serviceman, past, present and prospective. He and his Party, by their demand for an inquiry, aim at keeping open an avenue that can produce only injury to the Australian serviceman in the field. I appreciate that in this community today there are people who are honestly and deeply concerned about the matters charged on this occasion, but I also know that there are many people in this community whose motives are not by any means so pure. For the benefit of those who want to wring their hands in mock horror - and it is mock horror - over these charges, I wish to quote from yesterday's issue of the 'Sydney Morning Herald' words wrung from the heart of a serving soldier. He signs his letter Serving Soldier'. These words might be equally the cry of everyone of the 8,000 Australian servicemen in the Vietnamese theatre. I ask honourable members to listen to what he wrote. These are his words:

It is easy to judge, back here in Australia, it's : easy to judge when you are in base areas in Vietnam. You can be as self-righteous as you like. - Things change, though, when all you have between you and eternity is a rifle, and your senses. When you have to go out and kill the enemy. When you have to patrol through the jungle, and your next move could be your last.

Why don't you leave the Digger alone to fight the war? Why do you have to interfere and tip the balance more in favour of the Vietcong?

I ask honourable members to take in these words:

We're fighting a war! We're fighting it as fair as we can, and the Vietcong fight dirty, but we get all the knocks. Nobody kicks if the VC torture anybody.

These words ought to be written on the heart of every honourable member. There was a day when patriots, so understood, had a slogan. They admitted the weaknesses of their country and they said: 'My country, right or wrong.' But the new leftist patriots on the other side of the House have rewritten that magnificent set of words. They have paraphrased the slogan: It is now: 'My country is always wrong.' The statement by the Minister and the exposition by the Prime Minister show that the matter is not one of real substance and do not indicate any departure from the accepted code of behaviour under the circumstances set out. Those statements prove that the matter was dealt with immediately and no reasonable person who wanted to know the facts of the matter would dare say that it had not been dealt with adequately.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition sought to attack a young Minister who has recently come into office. In the first place the Minister was misinformed. He admits that, and he will make amends and take action. But the Minister did not know the background of this particular event because information on it had not been sent to Canberra. If the secretarial work of a hardpressed and over-stretched army in a base, which is constantly at risk, is a little behind time then no charges will be issued about that. If the matter had been reported when it happened it would have been accepted then, as it is now, as an incident in a wretched war, leaving reasonable, understanding people in this country to wonder how it came about that so little has come out of the war which might cast any shadow over the magnificent performance of this country's fighting men.

I am reported in this morning's Press as having persuaded the Government not to hold any inquiry. But I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Government needed no persuasion not to hold an openended exercise which would be of benefit only to the Vietcong and our other enemies, which could denigrate and sap the morale of our fighting men and which could lead to more and more losses in this wretched war.

I hope that the community as well as the House will take a responsible view cf the situation and understand the deep-seated reasons why an inquiry should not be held. An inquiry would not produce more facts than have been admitted in the House this evening. It could, as everybody will know, open up the psychological warfare referred to by my friend, the Minister, who has a vast knowledge of these matters, and it could be to the detriment of our fighting men and of our country's effort to save and secure democracy in South East Asia.

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