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Tuesday, 2 April 1968

Mr O'CONNOR (Dalley) - The honourable member for Higinbotham (Mr Chipp) accused the Opposition of attacking someone who was unable to reply. I do not agree with that practice and I do not propose to follow it. But I think it ill becomes the honourable member because on a previous occasion he participated in a similar debate and it was shown that his credibility was severely damaged. Secondly, he is not above attacking trade union leaders in this House. He stands up here time after time and names them. I recall only a few days ago that the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr McEwen) named a person in the Press Gallery as being a Japanese spy. On that occasion not one member of the Government had the decency to dissociate himself from the charge. So, tonight, 1 am not at all impressed by the approach of honourable members opposite to criticism of people who are not in a position to answer. I think it has to be taken into account that the person in question is the head of a department. He has figured very prominently in the report and in the deliberations of the Royal Commission. Consequently it was inevitable that he should come in for some kind of criticism.

I want to devote myself to some aspects of the findings of the Royal Commission. First I want to deal with the third term of reference, regarding the question of whether information was withheld from the first Royal Commission. 1 think that the members of the second Royal Commission were very generous in their attitude to Mr Justice Spicer and Mr Smyth in relation to this issue. The commissioners did not find that Cabban had no credibility at all. In fact they stated that his credibility could be accepted on some occasions. If honourable members read his statement which figured very prominently in the second Royal Commission, they will see that he went to Mr Smyth at the beginning of the first Royal Commission and practically laid before him the information that was available to the second Royal Commission. Mr Smyth and Mr Justice Spicer decided that they would not use that information. I submit that their failure to use it was responsible in some measure for the need to have a second 14418/68- R-m\

Royal Commission. They did not agree to permit this matter to be ventilated and they passed it over as of no consequence. I submit that to say that they were merely guilty of an error of judgment is to treat them very leniently. In my opinion, they erred seriously and were deserving of some censure.

I direct the attention of the House to an affidavit that was submitted at the second Royal Commission, though no mention of it is made in the report. That affidavit, which was Exhibit 172, was made by a gentleman who is now Judge Hicks and who appeared for Captain Robertson at the first Royal Commission. In the affidavit he claimed that during the hearing of the first Royal Commission the legal representatives of the Stevens interests approached him during one luncheon adjournment and tried to make an arrangement under which, if Hicks did not attack the Stevens family, those representing that family would reciprocate by launching no attack on Robertson. Another person who is a judge was implicated in this affidavit of Judge Hicks. I think it is fair to place on record the fact that this judge denied the implications in the affidavit. I submit to the House that these circumstances give rise to certain conflicts and that the issue is not as clear cut as some members of the Government would have the House believe. Frankly, I consider that the two Commissioners in the recent Royal Commission relied too generously on the evidence of Sir William Morrow, and their readiness to give credibility to his evidence is not shared by many doctors. If honourable members read the evidence of Dr Birrell, who is the police surgeon in Victoria, they will find that he disagrees with certain conclusions reached by Sir William Morrow. I have spoken to other doctors who have read Sir William Morrow's evidence and who laughed on reading it. Incidentally, I attended the Royal Commission on about six occasions and, during the last sessional period of the Parliament, spent 1± hours each day reading the transcript. From my own experience and what 1 have read of the inquiry. 1 submit that the Commissioners relied too much on the evidence of Sir William Morrow. Furthermore, they completely discounted the evidence of Dr Birrell, saying: 'The premises which you adopt and from which you argue are completely wrong. We do nol accept them.' The Commissioners were referring to the alleged drinking habits of the late Captain Stevens. They have gone to great pains to point out that the allegations that were made concerning his drinking habits were not true.

The Commissioners' treatment of the evidence in arriving at this conclusion does not impress me. Their treatment of the evidence concerning Captain Stevens' birthday party leaves me completely confused. If I have read the report correctly, they seem to think that one can drink and get moderately drunk, or that one can drink moderately. 1 do not deny the fact that one can drink in moderation. But how one can get moderately drunk is beyond my comprehension. As I have said, the Commissioners went to extraordinary pains to demonstrate that the allegations against the late Captain Stevens were groundless. They questioned the evidence of Steward Hyland. Let me recall to honourable members that this was the man who, before the first Royal Commission, stated: 'I think it was at dinner, about 3 hours before the collision, that Captain Stevens had a triple brandy'. The Royal Commissioners at the second inquiry went to great pains to throw doubt on Hyland's evidence. They stated that because of possible contradictions in it, his evidence about the triple brandy could not be accepted. Whether or not one accepts the statement that, even if Captain Stevens did drink a triple brandy 3 hours before the collision, the drinking of it would have had no effect on his capability to command, in my opinion, the Commissioners went to extreme lengths to cast doubts on the evidence of Steward Hyland.

I cannot for the life of me understand the attitude of the Commissioners towards Cabban. At one moment they say that he is a credible witness, and at the next they say that no credibility can be attached to his evidence. Honourable members who read the references to Cabban in the report of the recent Royal Commission will be struck by the number of times that the word 'dramatic' is used. I have counted up to seven times that it was used in passages of the report dealing with Cabban. It is obvious that the Commissioners seized on certain, aspects of his evidence and tried to discredit him completely. Honourable members will recall that, under cross examination, he likened himself to a central figure in 'The Caine Mutiny'. Because of his likening himself to that character, he immediately became the subject of some kind of ridicule or scorn on the part of the Commissioners.

I think it is obvious that many people are most reluctant to involve themselves in the allegations concerning the late Captain Stevens. The man is dead; he cannot defend himself. Consequently, it is embarrassing to talk about things relating to him. But the fact is that, no matter how embarrassing this may be, justice has to be served. And justice demands that honourable members speak their minds in this House fearlessly and without any inhibitions whatsoever. Moreover, it is not merely a question of one man involved in this episode. As a result of the collision, more than eighty-two persons are no longer with us. This country and the Navy have lost their services. As a consequence, it is of the utmost importance that one approach this subject without inhibition or embarrassment and that one try to do one's duty fearlessly in the interests of justice. I state that it is in the interests of justice and of posterity that all honourable members express their opinions on the issue no matter how embarrassed they may feel. The Commissioners have said that they have received letters from members of the community making allegations about the late Captain Stevens' drinking habits. The Commissioners are not peculiar in this respect. I have received similar letters. I have travelled around Australia and have heard similar allegations. There will be people who will not accept the decisions of the Commission.

Mr Katter - Does the honourable member want another Royal Commission?

Mr O'CONNOR - I do not want another Commission. I am just stating the facts. The Commissioners have brought down a finding which exonerates the late Captain Stevens in respect of drinking. They have said that he was medically unfit and that because of his medical condition he was not fit to carry on his command. I think it is quite obvious, irrespective of what the Commissioners might contend, that it is idle for them to try to maintain that his ulcer condition was not exacerbated by his drinking habits, no matter how moderate they might have been and no matter how mildly the Commissioners might describe them. The Commission has brought down a report that removes from Captain Stevens any stigma of drinking. It has imposed a responsibility upon the Naval Board to do something, but what the Naval Board will do, I do not know, nor do I know how i* will face up to the question of how a junior officer is to deal with a senior officer. How will a lieutenant deal with a captain, for example? I understand that the Naval Board has decided that henceforth captains shall be medically examined by doctors of a similar rank. How many medical officers hold the rank of captain in the Navy? How can a medical man be free of some of the inhibitions associated with naval officers? The responsibility of a medical man in the Navy is completely different from the responsibility of a career officer. He is not expected to have the same knowledge as an officer in the Navy, Army or Air Force. While there can be a situation in which a junior officer can be subjected to intimidation or influence, I am certain that the type of situation that prevailed in Stevens' case will continue.

The Commission stated that it was not in favour of dry ships; nor am I. I do not think this situation, or any other situation, will be cured by prohibition, but the Navy has some responsibility in facing up to what is involved. I feel that it was because of Cabban's attitude that he incurred the enmity of a number of people. One has only to read the background of witnesses to know exactly what line they were going to take in giving evidence. It was obvious that on a number of occasions Cabban ran into trouble not simply because he was failing in his duties or that his naval capabilities were inadequate but because of his attitude to drink. He had ideas about how a ship should be run in this respect. Others had different ideas. The Navy attitude is that the person to determine this matter on board ship is the captain himself. If it is going to be left to the captain, varying conditions will prevail on different shins. The Navy should try to straighten out this situation. If it is left to individuals, of necessity different conditions will prevail in different ships.

It is well worth reading the opinion of the Commissioners of the two principal characters in the recent hearing. At page 143 of their report the Commissioners state:

Stevens was the bluff, outgoing naval captain, impatient of formality and unwilling to stand on ceremony. Cabban was almost his complete opposite, quietly efficient but reserved and inclined to be self-centred and uncompromising, a near perfectionist to whom any departure by his Captain or fellow naval officer from the rigid standards of propriety he set for himself was abhorrent and inexcusable.

If that was the approach of Cabban and the House accepts it as such, is that to the detriment of Cabban? Have we reached the stage in society or in life where people who hold such ideals - ideals which may be a nuisance to some people - are to be castigated and thrown out because of their attitude? Quite frankly I say that it would be far better for all if there were more Cabbans around than there are at present.

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