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Thursday, 14 March 1968

Mr CREAN (Melbourne Ports) - I could find myself in agreement with the Minister for Snipping and Transport (Mr Sinclair) that this is a debate centered on a filthy war, but it seems to me that we are losing sight of certain basic points in this rather sad debate which was begun by the Minister for the Army (Mr Lynch). With all respect to him, in almost his maiden speech as Minister he delivered a truculent but basically unsure statement about the situation. He was followed by the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton). To my mind his performance was appalling because he did not seem to want to admit that what had happened, in fact, has happened. In due course, he was followed by the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairhall) and finally we have heard from the Minister for Shipping and Transport (Mr Sinclair). I ask: 'Justifying what?' We have been told what has taken place, and I shall use the words of the Minister for the Army:

The specific incident of the Nui Oat interrogation, to which the book made a hearsay reference, was not known to me at the time.

That is, not known to him as Minister for the Army. I suggest it was not known to a lot of other people at the time. It was not known to most people until the publication quite recently of the book. He went on:

Why this was so when some information was in the hands of my advisers-

They were not his advisers until a few weeks ago. They had been the advisers of at least two former Ministers for the Army. He continued: is an internal matter which I shall resolve with the office us concerned.

It seems to me that this is the Government's attitude to a lot of things. Things that ought to be made public and objectives that ought to be openly espoused are dealt with as though they were internal matters that can be resolved with the officers concerned. Of course, when that sort of statement is made you do not have government at all; you have bureaucracy, dictatorship, or something else. Those who suggest that what is now being done is being done because it might endanger the lives of Australian soldiers should have begun to ask a lot earlier what endangers the lives of Australian soldiers. What primarily endangers their lives is the act of going to war. At least that is something that ought to be considered. Even if foolishly you decide to go to war, at least you should acknowledge that in the battlefield lives will be endangered. But I think also that sometimes, even in the heat of battle, such things as civil liberties and human decencies ought to be considered.

The ignoring of civil liberties and human decencies has been abhorred not only by the Australian public but also by a lot of other people- la view of the revelations in this book, conceding that the events referred to happened 18 months or 2 years ago, surely we should ask: 'Ought those events to have happened at all, and are those events likely to happen again?' It is somewhat difficult to ascertain the facts of the situation. I find a rather curious dichotomy in the suggestion of the Minister for Defence that something was a minor misdemeanour, when a few sentences earlier he had said that some woman had what he called a 'powerful radio transceiver'. Apparently nobody has had any chance to identify how powerful the transceiver was, but we are supposed to accept the fact that what occurred was a minor misdemeanour. 1 suggest that the Australian public does hot think it is a minor misdemeanour to pour water down a woman's throat. Somebody suggested that the interrogators had attempted to pour only five pannikins - not cups - of water down the woman's throat and that only one of them eventually got there. We are told too that this happened away back in 1966. Whether it happened in 1966 or 1968, it may happen again, ls this supposed to be only a minor thing? Or is it something which offends what may be called civil liberties and human decency? At least there is no argument on this side of the House. We are not debating whether we ought to be at war in Vietnam or not. That is not at issue tonight. What we are discussing is whether, if we are supposed to be fighting for democracy and freedom, we can maintain democracy and freedom by taking prisoners and then using methods of this sort to interrogate them. It may be that this was an isolated incident, but the Government has made no attempt this evening to show that it was an isolated incident.

Mr Giles - You were not listening then.

Mr CREAN - I should like the Minister for the Army (Mr Lynch) or the. former Minister for the Army (Mr Malcolm Fraser) to correct me if I am wrong. I have been given the information, rightly or wrongly, that in the course of training Australian troops for service in Vietnam, certain instructions are given as to how they should interrogate prisoners. It was said this evening - the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) was one who said it - that this sort of interrogation infringed standards that were supposed to be observed. If interrogation is part of the order of battle, why not lay on the table the conditions under which interrogation is supposed to be carried out? The honourable member for Yarra (Dr J. F. Cairns) has implied that there are some people who, if they were honest enough to get up and say so, would say that in warfare anything is justified. That is not the stand that is taken on this side of the House. I have heard plenty of people brag when it suited them about what they did or would do or would like to do if somebody were found in some sort of circumstance that endangered the lives of men on their side rather than the other. There may be some justification for the stand that in warfare all means are fair, I for one do not maintain that and I suggest with all respect that ultimately that is what this debate is about. It is not a matter of isolating one event in retrospect and doing so only because some journalist wrote about it. The Minister for the Army (Mr Lynch) spoke of the incident as a matter of hearsay, not known to the Government at the time. Apparently it was known to some people in Australia at the time, but was considered to be best left hidden. Apparently it was known to some people in Australia at the time, but because it was thought better not to say anything about it it was left hidden. If that is the way members on the Government side think that the war should be conducted, fair enough; but let them get up and say so. It is not the attitude of members on this side of the House, and I do not think it is the attitude of certain members of the Australian Press who have reported this incident.

I refer honourable members to the wording of the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition. The amendment states:

The House is of the opinion that the Government should table the evidence-

And why not table it? The amendment continues: . . given before and the report made by the major whom the Task Force commander appointed to investigate the allegations and should commision a judge-

And he should have full power to summon civilian and military witnesses in Australia and should have the facilities to bring civilian and military witnesses to Australia -

.   . to inquire into and report on the following matters:

We are dealing with something that happened almost 2 years ago. Has anything happened in the 2 year interim that no journalist or reporter has written about or that no journalist has been able to see? Has the Government anything to hide? The Government made an awful mess of what was referred to as the VIP nights. What fool ever called them VIP I do not know, and in the ultimate I do not know what the Government had to hide. If it has anything to hide in respect of this interrogation - and if this has been the only interrogation of this kind - why not come out frankly and say what it is? Is the Government fearful of tabling the instructions given to Australian troops concerning the interrogation of prisoners in what the Minister described as a filthy war? Why not let us know the details of such instructions?

Dr Mackay - would the honourable member let the Vietcong see all our training?

Mr CREAN - If, as the honourable member suggests, it can be suggested that such action would be telegraphing our intentions in advance, then he should say so. If the Government persists in its attitude of sending decent Australian youths to these foreign places, the Australian public should know in advance what is expected of these gallant young gentlemen. I have never thought that war anywhere was lovely. No war has been more unlovely than the war in Vietnam, and I doubt whether in aggregate, when history is written, there will be any war less lovely than it. However, we are participants in that war. We are considering an incident which seems not to be an incident in isolation but one that was unlucky enough to see the light of day. The Government has suggested that this incident was a minor event. I do not regard it as minor. I think it is abhorrent to civil liberty and human decency. What the Government is concerned about is that the incident has received . the full and in the Government's mind unwelcome, light of publicity. The only way that the Government can clear itself is to have the sort of inquiry demanded in the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition. Let me refer to the terms of the amendment that he has proposed. The list of matters for inquiry commences:

Whether the prisoner-

If she were only 'the prisoner' perhaps the whole thing was an excess of zeal on the part of some democrat who thought that by being excessively zealous he would cause the day of democracy to dawn sooner, particularly if he tipped some cold water on the inspiration underneath. I return to the proposed amendment:

Whether the prisoner was subjected to torture or inhuman treatment.

I suggest honourable members on the Government side would have some difficulty in defining 'inhuman'. If they boggle at the word 'inhuman' then at least 'torture' remains. If anyone is prepared to suggest that in certain circumstances torture is justified, let him stand and argue it. Let him tell us just how far he thinks torture should go. Perhaps when torture goes far enough it does become-

Dr Mackay - Every speaker in the debate has denied that.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member for Evans will cease interjecting.

Mr CREAN - If every speaker has denied it, I do not know why there is so much shamefacedness about the situation.

Mr Giles - The honourable member is not justified in saying that.

Mr CREAN - The honourable gentleman has suggested dishonesty.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member for Angas will restrain himself. I have already warned him about previous interjections.

Mr CREAN - I listened to a debate last evening in which the word 'dishonest' was used rather freely, if I may say so, by honourable members on both sides of the House. At least 1 am not being dishonest this evening. Misinformed I may be, ill informed I would think I am because of the way in which the Government approaches these situations. If I am misinformed and ill informed, what about the people of Australia? Surely the Parliament is the place in which information should be given and in which misinformation should be queried. Perhaps members such as I are misinformed or ill informed. I do not claim to be an expert in everything - perhaps the honourable gentleman does. I have a degree of modesty in some things.

The Minister for the Army used the unfortunate word 'scintilla'. There is more than a scintilla of doubt as far as I am concerned about whether the incident now before us was the only one of its kind. I hope that I am wrong. If I am wrong, perhaps the light of publicity which this debate has turned on the incident will prevent such incidents occurring in the future. Some of my colleagues have suggested that prisoners who fall into Australian hands may bs well treated, but what about the prisoners who are handed over by Australians to others? Surely that is another aspect that should be considered.

The next part of the proposed amendment reads:

Why reports of her interrogation were classified as secret.

Were they so terrible that if they had been revealed there would have been repercussions or- a destruction of morale? The remaining part of the amendment states:

Why war correspondents who observed or filmed the interrogation were not asked to give evidence before the major.

Why the matters disclosed to him were not promptly brought to the attention of the Attorney-General and the Minister for the Army. presumably they were brought to the attention of the Minister for the Army only after someone had published a book. If that was the first occasion on which they were brought to his knowledge, it certainly was the first occasion on which they were brought to the knowledge of the people of Australia. That is why we are here tonight -to scrutinise only one aspect of this filthy war.

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