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Thursday, 14 March 1968

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - The Minister for Defence concluded his speech on a very high note indeed. He suggested that the people who are concerned about this - or some of them - are wringing their hands in mock horror, and he quoted a soldier who had written to one of the newspapers about the difficulties that our servicemen face in Vietnam. There is no question about these difficulties, and I regret that Australians have been put in this position. This is a cruel war. Many cruel things have happened in the course of it, and many more will happen. This is inevitable and I suggest that when the Australian people and the Australian Government have been willing to send Australians into such a situation, they had better expect that things like this incident of the water torture will happen, and will probably continue to happen. I believe that in, this House there is a good deal of support for this sort of thing and that if a number of these back bench members who scream for blood had the courage of their convictions they would get up and say that they support it.

Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes (CHISHOLM, VICTORIA) - Name those who support it.

Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - You are one for a start.

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - If these people were honest this is what they would do.

Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes (CHISHOLM, VICTORIA) - I rise to order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I said in my interjection: 'Name those who support it', and an honourable member opposite said that I was one. That is most offensive, untrue and unfair.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - You are asking for the remark to be withdrawn?

Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes (CHISHOLM, VICTORIA) - To accuse anybody in this House of being in favour of water torture, which no honourable members opposite experienced but some of us on this side experienced, is most contemptible and I demand a withdrawal.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -The honourable member for Chisholm has asked for the withdrawal of an interjection, but ( am afraid that I did not hear it.

Mr Barnard- The honourable member is out of order by interjecting while he is out of his place.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -The DeputyLeader of the Opposition should know that that is not strictly so in this House. The honourable member for Chisholm has asked for a withdrawal of a remark made by interjection. I did not hear the interjection and, in any event, interjections are disorderly. I think that is where the position should stand.

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - We are concerned here not to stand for our country right or wrong, but to see that our country does right. I think that the honourable member for Chisholm, in view of his background in two wars, ought to be very careful to ensure that the provisions of the Geneva Convention relating to prisoners of war are observed. We are concerned to ensure that the Geneva Convention shall be observed. Tonight we listened to probably the only Prime Minister of a civilised country who would try to diminish the significance of the Geneva Convention. He began by diminishing the significance of this incident altogether. Those who believed that the Prime Minister was going to take a stand in this country in some way upon moral grounds will be very disappointed by the speech that he made tonight. He began to diminish the whole incident, giving a version, or authorising a version through the Minister for the Army, which has considerably downgraded the evidence upon which it was based. At the same time he said that he substantially accepted the evidence of this man Sorell.

The Prime Minister tried to downgrade the whole incident. He said that the man who interrogated this girl raised his voice and banged on the table. He was suggesting that this was a very minor incident. But if that had been all that was involved, the matter would never have come to the attention of the House at all. The Prime Minister, after having attempted to downgrade the whole incident began to slither away from the Geneva Convention. He suggested that perhaps it should not apply to a woman such as this one. I do not know whether the Prime Minister knows much about the Geneva Convention but the last time he had the opportunity to discuss it in the Senate he took up U columns of Hansard. He began on that occasion by saying that he supported the Bill that had been brought in at long last after 10 years by the Government to ratify the Convention, but that he did so with reservations. Then he took li columns of Hansard to explain his reservations. I think the people of Australia will have the right to be somewhat disappointed in the attitude of their Prime Minister towards the Geneva Convention. Perhaps the right honourable gentleman does not know that the 1949 Geneva Convention applies without qualification to a spy as well as to anyone else.

Mr Jess - Where does it say that?

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - If the honourable member wants to look it up, he will find it. He knows where a copy of the convention can be found - in the library of this Parliament. The Prime Minister wants to slither away from the Geneva Convention, yet at the same time he was suggesting that this woman was an integral part of the Vietcong, whom we are supposed to be fighting. That Convention was brought up to date in 1949 to cover civil and revolutionary wars - the wars that are now said to be the main ones with which we are concerned. Does the Prime Minister want to argue that the Geneva Convention does not apply to many people in wars of this sort? ls he preparing the ground to allow Australia and others to slip out of the application of the Convention to certain aspects of this war in Vietnam? He says that he wishes he could say that this sort of thing will not happen again. Is he actually inviting people to go ahead with this kind of treatment?

There is an atmosphere underlying the attitude of the Government in this matter that seems to suggest that there is a lot of support for action of this sort. I should feel a lot better about this if those members of the Government whom I feel might have that attitude were willing to bring it out into the open. I should have thought much more of the Prime Minister if he had been prepared to come into the House and say: 'Wrong has been done in this incident in Vietnam, lt is one of our main responsibilities to ensure that the Geneva Convention is applied to all prisoners in our possession and we will ensure that this is done in the future. There will be nothing of this sort again.' However, he and the rest of his Ministers and many of his supporters on the back benches have left many of us on this side in doubt about whether that is the position taken by the Government. I suggest that when this debate is over this evening we will be left in a state of serious doubt about what did happen in Vietnam on this occasion. An Australian serviceman has been put on trial by the inefficient procedures of this Government, by Press comment and by the refusal of the Government to appoint a judge to clear up this matter once and for all. I think tonight's discussion will leave some doubt in the minds of the Australian people about where many people around the Government stand on this issue.

This morning the Prime Minister was asked a question by the honourable member for La Trobe. He asked whether the Prime Minister would give details of the brutalities and the cruelties that had been committed in Vietnam by the Vietcong. What was the point of this? lt seemed to me that the point of it was to suggest to the Australian people that because the Vietcong were brutal and cruel, and they very often are, there was some justification for us to be brutal and cruel also. There is some implication in this that in the kind of war that we are fighting, in which we have to face the brutalities and cruelties of a civil war, an ideological war and a religious war, we also may have to act in this way and are justified in taking this kind of action. This, I think, is implicit in the position which the Prime Minister took very aggressively in the House tonight. It was a position taken also by many honourable members who support him.

I should like to know what members of the Government, like the Minister for Repatriation (Senator McKellar) and the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Anderson), who have been prisoners of war, not to mention the honourable member for Chisholm, think about this attitude and how much they are concerned to see that every prisoner of war is given full protection by the Geneva Convention. Men and women who have had to live in prisoner of war camps under the Geneva Convention and with practically no other protection should not be prepared to support the kind of attitude that has been put to the Parliament tonight by the Prime Minister, by the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairhall) and by those who have supported them. In my view it is a very callous and unconcerned attitude, and I am not satisfied with it in any way.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

Mr Jess - Mr Deputy Speaker, the honourable member for Yarra (Dr J. F. Cairns) has misrepresented a question which I asked today and said that it was asked so that the Geneva Convention could be subverted. He said also that what I said was justification for Australian troops to subvert it in the future. I explained this afternoon that I asked the question with one intent and one intent only, so that the Opposition would be given the opportunity to show when it had ever protested about any action of the Vietcong.

Dr J F Cairns (YARRA, VICTORIA) - Mr Deputy Speaker, there is no point of order involved in what the honourable member has said. The meaning of the Minister's speech is a matter of debate. I am as much entitled to my view and to express that view as the honourable member is entitled to put his view.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! In regard to the point raised by the honourable member for Yarra, the honourable member for La Trobe was given the opportunity to explain the question that he asked this afternoon.

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