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Wednesday, 3 April 1968

Mr DRURY (Ryan) - Most of the important facts relating to this motion have already been traversed in the course of the debate last night and this afternoon. What I wish to do in particular at the beginning is to join with those who have expressed congratulations to the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Jess), the honourable member for Warringah (Mr St John) and the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Turner) for the part that they played in helping to bring about the appointment of the second Royal Commission. I feel in particular that, as the honourable member for Bradfield has stated, special honour should be bestowed upon the honourable member for La Trobe, who showed great courage, great tenacity and great pertinacity over a period of 3 years or so because he believed that there had been a miscarriage of justice, and being the man he is, he would not let up until he felt that justice had been done or that steps had been taken to see that justice was done. A tribute is due to my colleague and friend the honourable member for Warringah, who, in his maiden speech, which was a brilliant speech, dealt with the situation as he saw it. I pay a tribute also to my friend the honourable member for Bradfield who has made his contribution this afternoon. I believe this has been a firm and resolute stand on the part of three very courageous parliamentarians. It has been a notable exercise in parliamentary democracy whichever way one looks at it.

I join also in paying a tribute to Lieutenant-Commander Cabban for his statement. I am glad that the honourable member for Bradfield brought out the particular points that he did with regard to the comments of the second Royal Commission on Lieutenant-Commander Cabban's credibility, for the most part, as a witness. In particular I think it should be underlined that there would not have been a second Royal Commission had not Lieutenant-Commander Cabban been most anxious that justice be done. He felt that something had not come out in the first Royal Commission that should have come out in evidence and, following discussion with my three colleagues whom I have mentioned, the matter was brought up- in Parliament, as honourable members will recall, and the Government then, agreed to appoint the second Royal Commission. I want also to commend the Government for being big enough and fair enough to see things the way it did. I quote a very brief extract from a very lengthy statement made on the night of 17th May 1967 by the then Prime Minister, the late Mr Holt:

I do not ask the House to judge these events tonight. I believe that not only is the dead man Stevens in a sense on trial in this Parliament in this debate, together with others to whom I have referred and over whom a cloud has been cast, but also the Parliament itself is on trial as an institution. We are expected by the people of this country to behave with a sense of responsibility and a spirit of fairness in relation to this issue.

Two days later the then Prime Minister, in a further Statement regarding the appointment of a second Royal Commission, stressed that the purpose of the Government was 'to see that the truth emerges and that justice is done'. I therefore again say that I commend the then Government, the Holt

Government as it was at that time, for its decision to appoint the second Royal Commission in order to pursue the purpose that the Prime Minister then expressed.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since that statement and the second royal commission has completed its task. I think it would be agreed that the truth has emerged as a result of the holding of the second Royal Commission, .or perhaps should I say that the truth has emerged and has been ascertained as far as it can possibly be ascertained, having regard to the fact that Captain Stevens and certain other key people involved in the tragic loss are no longer with us. What many of us have been concerned about is that not only should justice be done but that it should be seen to be done in accordance with the findings of the second Royal Commission. It is at this point that I would like to add a few further comments. At page 208 of the Report the commissioners set out their reasons for finding that Sir John Spicer's criticism of Captain Robertson was not justified and that the whole responsibility for the disaster lay with the 'Voyager'. Likewise, on pages 210 and 211 of the Report the commissioners found that criticism of two of Captain Robertson's officers, namely the Navigating Officer, Acting Commander Kelly and the Officer of the Watch, Acting Sub-Lieutenant Bate, was not justified either.

It is well known that Captain Robertson, having been relieved of his command of the 'Melbourne', resigned from the Navy on a matter of principle. rather than accept a shore-based job. The honourable member for Bradfield has strongly .emphasised this point so I need not underline it any further. Captain Robertson claimed- quite rightly as it now appears - that certain findings of the first Royal Commission and his transfer to a shore job were unjustified. As a result, Captain Robertson resigned and lost his full pension rights. In addition, he abandoned a senior position in the Navy with prospects of promotion to flag rank and possibly ultimately to the top position of Chief of the Naval Staff. In a television interview early last month Captain Robertson is reported to have said: 'It is not for me to expect compensation. I did what I thought was right at the time.' Speaking of the findings of the second Royal Commission, Captain Robertson is reported further as having said:

I think the right answer has been achieved now. The important thing is not to pin the blame on someone, but to find out what happened, why it happened and see appropriate steps are taken to avoid it happening again - even retraining if necessary.

I submit, Sir, that these are fine and gallant words, stated by a fine and gallant ex-naval officer, as he is now. It is clear that Captain Robertson was badly wronged. But he was not complaining. As a matter of principle, because he felt that it was what he should do, he did what he did. I happen to know one or two persons in my electorate who served in the Navy during World War II and who know Captain Robertson and knew Captain Stevens and other key people in this whole matter very well indeed. I am quite sure that what I am saying is based on fact.

In a statement dated 13th March of this year, the present Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) announced to the House that after careful consideration the Government had decided to pay Captain Robertson the sum pf $60,000 'as an act of grace'. This was referred to by the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) in the speech that he delivered to the House last night. I should like a letter to have been sent to Captain Robertson, perhaps by the Prime Minister, but at least by the present Minister for the Navy (Mr Kelly). I should like him to have received a personal letter in addition to the official letter that, apparently, was sent by the Department of the Navy when the sum of $60,000 was forwarded as an act of grace. The record states that that official letter was acknowledged in suitable and, indeed, very generous terms by Captain Robertson. Having read earlier of an estimate that the loss of salary for extra years of service and of pension rights would represent for Captain Robertson a total financial loss of more than $100,000, some people, including myself, have wondered whether, in all the circumstances, $60,000 is fair and just compensation to him for all that he has forgone, present and future.

Another extremely important consideration, Mr Speaker, is the serious loss to Australia and the Navy of Captain Robertson's services as a very senior and experienced officer. Here we have a thoroughly trained, highly skilled, senior naval officer, very popular, extremely efficient and almost certainly destined for flag rank. He is now out of the Service altogether because of what appears to have been unjustified criticism by the first Royal Commission, followed by certain action on the part of the Naval Board. I realise that some practical difficulties may be presented by certain promotions that, I understand, have taken place since the date of Captain Robertson's resignation, but since the findings of the second Royal Commission were made known, I have believed that it would be in the interests of the Navy and of the country if Captain Robertson were offered full reinstatement in a suitable command with an assurance that he would suffer no loss of seniority or pension rights and that he should be able to enjoy every prospect of promotion in accordance with his training and capabilities. I repeat that I realise that there may be practical difficulties in the way of this, but I ask the Minister for the Navy to make some comments in this debate on the points that I have just mentioned. I know that representations proposing such an offer were made to the Cabinet, and I have no doubt that all possible consideration has been given to them. If such an offer had been made and had been accepted by Captain Robertson, the Navy and the country would have regained a first rate officer on whose training a lot of money was spent over many years. I believe that the complete reinstatement of Captain Robertson, had it been feasible and had it been acceptable to him, would have been approved by the Navy generally and certainly by the people of Australia, who, above all else, like to see fair play. I understand that the two officers under Captain Robertson's command in Melbourne' whom I mentioned earlier have already been promoted. The Treasurer assured the House of this last night and I for one was delighted to hear that it was so.

Like many others, Sir, I trust that the Naval Board will consider very carefully the suggestion by the second Royal Commission that the policy under which heavy social obligations are imposed on naval officers visiting foreign ports be reviewed. It is clear, from the evidence given before the second Royal Commission, that in the opinion of the Commissioners such a review is desirable. In view of all the tragic circumstances of the disaster, which caused the loss of so many lives, the naval doctors who failed to report that the late Captain Stevens had a serious ulcer condition have been criticised by the Commission also. I hesitate to interpose my own opinion, but I say that had the medical officers done their duty properly, Captain Stevens would almost certainly have been relieved of his command in 'Voyager' at some earlier time. It is quite possible that if the naval doctors had acted as it is suggested they should have acted, the whole tragic chapter that we have lived through would have been averted.

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