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Thursday, 21 March 1968

Mr STEWART (Lang) - The honourable member for Lilley (Mr Kevin Cairns), who has just spoken, spent the first 10 minutes or so of his time in criticising the speech by my leader, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam). Irrespective of what the honourable member might think about the speech, he cannot dieny that the Leader of the Opposition Party has spoken. He has indicated in the Parliament what he thinks and what this Party thinks, about some of the national issues confronting Australia. The Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) has made numerous appearances on television, has given numerous Press interviews and has made many vague statements outside the Parliament, but so far he has not made his first policy statement inside the Parliament. I understand that he is not to speak in this debate. The honourable member's criticism of the Leader of the Opposition falls down completely. The Prime Minister has not even paid the Parliament the compliment of making a public statement to honourable members on all the issues that are before this country today. An honourable member opposite says that we will hear from him soon enough. I only hope that when we do hear from him, the comments that he makes have far more substance than the comments made on his behalf by His Excellency the GovernorGeneral almost a fortnight ago.

I want to add my sympathy to the expressions of sympathy of other members of Parliament on the loss of the late Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Harold Holt. He was a diligent parliamentarian and an active, sincere and capable Prime Minister. He was aware of the importance of the Asian countries to our north and in the couple of years during which he was Prime Minister, he did more to enhance our name and reputation in those countries than his predecessor did in a period of 18 or 19 years. I want also to congratulate the new Prime Minister upon his election. However, I must say that it is a sorry commentary on the Liberal members in this House. Not one of them was good enough to take over the reins of office. The Prime Minister has made history. It is the first time a Prime Minister could not be found from within the ranks of members of the House of Representatives. It is the first time a senator has ever held the office. Until now there were very few members in this place who had a high regard for the Senate or for senators. Now the coalition Government is controlled by a former senator.

But this is not his only claim to fame. He is also a former Minister for the Navy. This chamber is gradually becoming cluttered with former Ministers for the Navy. He makes the third. The other two Ministers were dismissed from the Ministry, one by him and the other by his predecessor, following the findings of royal commissions into the 'Voyager' disaster. Neither of those two former Ministers for the Navy could be held to be responsible in any way for the disaster, because both of them assumed ministerial responsibility for the Navy after the 'Voyager' disaster had occurred. The present Prime Minister was Minister for the Navy from 1958 to 1963, a period of 5 years in all, and it was during that time that the decline in various aspects of Navy life, which was indicated in evidence before both royal commissions, really began. The Prime Minister denies completely any blame at all for what happened in the 'Voyager' disaster. On 23rd September 1964, as appears at page 695 of Hansard, in a debate in the Senate, after criticising, quite violently, Mr Smyth, Q.C., who was counsel for the commission, in reply to an interjection from Senator Cavanagh, who had said: 'It was a Government appointment,' the then Senator Gorton said:

Yes, that is so. That is something for which I will accept blame. But it is the only thing in this whole affair for which I will accept blame.

He still maintains exactly the same position. He not only refuses to accept blame but he also says that the Government's reputation has not declined in the eyes of the community since the 'Voyager' disaster. This can be seen clearly from an answer to a question that I addressed to him last week.

In order that the Australian people and lae also might appreciate that this is not only my opinion but also the opinion of many thousands in the community, I quote from the 'Sydney Morning Herald' of Wednesday, 20th March 1968, in which an editorial headed The Untouchables' states, in part:

Those who listened to or read the evidence at the first Royal Commission on the loss of HMAS 'Voyager' must have been struck by the ill-concealed resentment of senior officers of the Navy at having their actions and methods questioned. It might have been supposed that this foolish arrogance would have been tempered by the revelations of naval inadequacies which emerged in the course of the two 'Voyager' inquiries.

Later it states:

In this instance criticism of the Navy ha's been directed at naval policy, at the management of the Navy and at the curious interpretation of their responsibilities by certain senior officers. The attitudes of the two admirals unhappily suggests that the higher echelons of the RAN have still to learn their lesson.

The editorial concludes: "The Navy ought to be allowed to let things settle and get on with its job.' To be sure - provided the job is done efficiently and defects are remedied, not perpetuated, in order to avoid unsettling things. The admirals and their fellows should be interested not in stifling criticism but in seeing that there is no cause for it.

I think the point is taken. If the Prime Minister, himself a former Minister for the Navy, declines any blame when he was responsible for the Navy for 5 years, surely it is reasonable to claim that the honourable member for Higinbotham (Mr Chipp), who was Minister for the Navy immediately before the present Minister and who was dismissed by the Prime Minister, is also in no way responsible for the 'Voyager' disaster. So, in looking for a reason for the dismissal of the honourable member for Higinbotham from the Ministry, we have to look further than the 'Voyager' disaster.

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