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Wednesday, 3 April 1968


Mr CLEAVER (Swan) - Mr Speaker,if in my contribution to this debate there is some significant repetition of word or of reference, may I make it clear that on my own I prepared my notes some days ago after a careful study of the report of the second Royal Commission and that I have not been closeted with any others who have participated in this debate; and therefore none of my words have been stolen and none of my views have been copied from others. I ask for a balanced attitude in this debate and I suggest that such an attitude is essential. Last evening, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) lost his balance and, using extreme terms in criticism of a public servant, earned a reputation which, I believe, will stay with him for the rest of his career. The Opposition will use every devious means to turn this debate to its own advantage for party political purposes. I am aware of that, but my awareness of it should not mean that I must clothe my words with so much care as to cause my convictions and the point of my remarks to be lost. It should be apparent to all that the conscientiously held views of many in this House must be recognised although they are divergent and are based on divergent aspects of the report. We can have divergent views and we can hold them conscientiously. I believe that the House must learn to respect those who conscientiously hold divergent views. Those of us who are involved must extend respect and I trust receive the same sort of respect from others. After all, the wording of the report supports widely opposing views that have been expressed in this debate. Some of my colleagues whose views are different from mine can quote from the report and believe that it supports their views. I have read the report and I believe that I am entitled to use portions of it to substantiate the views that I put. The broad brush should not be used in this House to suggest that Press headlines have developed our convictions without any intense study of this report. I think that most, if not all, of us who are participating in the debate have literally spent hours grappling with our consciences, endeavouring to evaluate what others have written, taking the transcript of evidence and trying to see where it may lead us.

The Parliament is indebted to a number of people for this report and for the action taken by the Government on the report. Let me declare quite openly and emphatically that the reason for my participation in the debate at this stage, after having refrained from participating in earlier discussions, is to ensure that my own thanks, and, I trust, the thanks of the Parliament, are recorded in the proper manner, and that some individuals and some basic principles are not overlooked.

For one reason or another quite a crosssection of the Australian public was not keen that this second look at the 'Voyager' disaster should be taken. There are those in this House who were of a like mind. Sorrow and distress, doubts and fears, pride in and concern for the Royal Australian Navy, and other legitimate stirrings of the conscience, could have motivated such an attitude. AH of these feelings we must respect. On the other hand, there were those who believed that the search for truth and justice must always be supreme, and whilst I am a member of this Parliament it is the search for truth and justice that will, I trust, dictate my outlook.

The layman picks up a report of this kind, running to some 229 pages, and is at somewhat of a disadvantage without legal training because this deals with evidence given in public. It is a complex and well written report but I for one wish that those who compiled it had numbered every paragraph and had given us back references from findings. In going through it, when I came upon a finding and wanted to check on it I took up to half an hour going through the bulk of the report. One wonders why it was not made a little easier for the purposes of reference. However, the Commissioners appointed by the Government performed a long, laborious and most responsible task. They have produced a report which is in parts A to K, and in a moment I want to deal briefly with part I and, later, part J. Honourable members are required to exercise a responsible judgment on this kind of report. Some would suggest that we must simply take it and swallow it, but this I will not accept. Whether equipped with legal training or not 1 believe that each one of us is responsible to the people we represent to evaluate the findings, to satisfy ourselves that no undue emphasis has found a place in those findings and that the findings fairly reflect the evidence. To do this 1 believe we have to put the matter into simple perspective. So I want to take a moment or two to run through the sequence of events.

Shock and genuine distress were registered by the whole of the Australian nation when news of the 'Voyager' disaster was flashed to the public on 11th February 1964. As bit by bit the story of the previous night unfolded, this event was referred to as an incredible happening. Now with a greater measure of hindsight and with further evidence available many would feel that only incredible factors could have brought about such a tragedy. This gives us licence to form our views, because we are talking of the incredible. Precious lives were lost in the disaster and a prompt decision was taken to appoint a royal commission. Here I join forces with my honourable friend from Mitchell (Mr Irwin) because in retrospect there would be many who would hold the opinion that a complex technical matter such as this should preferably have been the subject of a Naval Board Court of Inquiry as a first step, with a royal commission appointed later to give close attention to any disturbing features of the report of that Court of Inquiry.


Mr Buchanan - It would not have been needed.


Mr CLEAVER - That may be the honourable member's view. The House will recall the developing doubts amongst members of the public as the first Royal Commission proceeded. Then with the eventual release of the report concern was expressed generally because of the criticism of the captain of 'Melbourne'. We remember the resignation on principle of Captain Robertson and later the publication of

Admiral Hickling's book 'One Minute of Time'. We remember the increasingly strong and persistent representations of my colleague, the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Jess) to have the findings of the Royal Commission reviewed. Suitable reference has been made to the honourable member's persistence and courage.

With the decision by LieutenantCommander Cabban to sign and make available his statement - which had previously been a confidential statement - because of the injustice he believed had been done to Captain Robertson, a new dimension was introduced into the whole affair. After prolonged negotiations and commendable persistence the decision was taken to debate the Cabban statement. No member of this House needs any reminder from me of the claims and counter-claims that were made in that debate, the personalities that entered into it and the bitterness of the occasion. Let it be remembered, and, 1 trust, imperishably recorded, that what the Parliament was that day seeking was the truth. Was the first Royal Commission deficient? Was any essential information or evidence withheld? Had anything been covered up? As we searched for the truth, as we tried to determine the correct action to be taken, too often the question arose: Is the full story being presented to the House? It became evident to many that only a second Royal Commission could clear this matter, perhaps once and for all.

It was feared by some that the executive was of the mind that no further inquiry was justified. Many private members thought otherwise, and be it to the eternal credit of our late Prime Minister, Mr Holt, that he made up his mind that the request for a new judicial inquiry should be met. So I come to the third stage of this short summary. We had the appointment of the second Royal Commission, with its clear-cut and relevant terms of reference and its team of highly qualified Commissioners and counsel. It engaged itself in a meticulous probing of the evidence, old and new. It undertook an examination - not undesirable - of Service people. Some have said that this should not be done, but I think that in cases of tragedy it is most desirable that Service people should be brought to express their views and give their evidence. I believe that this applies also to public servants. In any case I am of the opinion that this was necessary as the search for the truth proceeded.

As others have said, and as I say again, the Cabban statement was dissected probably more thoroughly than any other document in out memory has ever been dissected. Time does not permit me to comment on the fluctuation of public opinion during that long inquiry. But at last the Commissioners' report was available, and the review was evidently justified. I will proceed to show why I say this. The criticism of Captain Robertson by the earlier Royal Commission was expunged, and the Government promptly approved of an ex gratia payment of $60,000 to Captain Robertson. Now the Parliament has the report of the Royal Commission in its hands and it has a responsibility to use that report for the benefit of the Royal Australian Navy and probably also of our other Services, with, I trust, a prayer that what has been done will remove the possibility of a similar tragedy occurring in the future.

We must note these aspects of the report: The Commissioners in part I offered some general observations and comments before they proceeded to their findings in section J. They said that a rigid medical examination with complete disclosure of mode of life, symptoms and other matters should be required of a captain or other responsible sea-going officer who has suffered from a duodenal ulcer, before he is permitted to resume sea-going duty. I, in common with others, hope that this finding will have a place in future thinking and application. The Commissioners went on to say that such an examination should be the responsibility of a senior medical officer with a specialist knowledge of the disease. They referred, too, to the necessity for a special medical form so that detail could be correctly recorded. One other suggestion that I think ought to be noted is that the Naval Board should give consideration to some modification of the heavy social obligations imposed oh naval officers visiting ports on an operational cruise.

Turning to the findings, we see that the Cabban statement and the character and credit of Lieutenant-Commander Cabban appear first. I believe that the concluding words of the report relative to these headings on pages 222-3 are worthy of emphasis. Indeed, I suggest that if they are not borne in mind it would be extremely easy to fall into an injustice respecting this officer. The report states:

We were therefore for the most part not prepared to act on his evidence unless it was corroborated. We add that neither the 'Cabban Statement' nor his evidence was coloured by any dishonest motive or by any malice towards the late Captain Stevens.

In the findings we are not given a clear measurement of what is corroborated evidence and what is not. It is a pity that we cannot grapple with a percentage. Would it not have been possible for some indication to have been given as to what is corroborated evidence, because there are some who would virtually lead the House to believe that nothing was corroborated? For the critic who would rubbish LieutenantCommander Cabban, this point and others should be remembered, particularly as the Commissioners state explicitly that his statement and evidence were free of dishonest motive and malice..

The drinking habits of the late Captain Stevens attracted these words from the Commissioners:

The late Captain Stevens was not ' a drunkard or an alcoholic. Nor did he periodically become intoxicated when 'Voyager' was in port.

I ask myself: Why were the words periodically' and 'intoxicated' chosen for this finding? When I searched the evidence I found that they appeared to be offered upon the analysis of the evidence on pages ' 128-9, where moderate or mild or slight intoxication is the assessment in respect of instances which the report claims LieutenantCommander Cabban was in error in magnifying. Perhaps some people will not agree fully with the judgment which prompted this particular choice of words - moderate, mild, slight, periodically and intoxicated.

The finding in respect of Captain Stevens' health is constructed upon the occasions of illness, as tabulated on pages 129-30 and the related evidence. Significant indeed are the words of the finding:

But the conclusion is inescapable that his unwise drinking habits ... did contribute to the reactivation of his duodenal ulcer.

If time permitted I should like to comment on other points of the finding, but as time does not permit me to do so I shall refer to one question in respect of fitness to retain command of the 'Voyager', which is answered by the finding on page 224. The Commissioners said: the conclusion is inescapable that (answering the question as at 31 December 1963) the late Captain Stevens was then unfit to retain command of 'Voyager', because his physical condition did not conform to the very high standard of physical fitness . . . required of a Captain holding that command.

What is the undeniable result of this second inquiry when these and other findings are so presented? I suggest to the House that the following points are undeniable: Firstly, a serious injustice to Captain Robertson and others has been corrected. Secondly, deficiencies in checking on the physical fitness of sea-going officers has been revealed. Thirdly, two medical officers have been found lacking in their duty. Fourthly, social pressures upon a captain whilst in port during an operational cruise might well be modified, as has been suggested. So I believe that the second Royal Commission was justified. The parliamentary system has again demonstrated that the wishes of the majority must prevail and that truth must always predominate in our search for justice.

But as I conclude with words of appreciation again to the late Prime Minister, the honourable member for La Trobe and those who supported him, to the Commissioners and to the counsel, let me point out that these desirable results would never have come about had it not been for a man who under deep conviction signed a statement of what he believed earnestly at the time to be true and relevant information. That man, as we now know, was none other than Lieutenant-Commander Cabban. I ask: Did he do it for payment? Was he prompted by self-aggrandisement? Did he do it for any unworthy motive? Did he seek publicity? If we turn to the report we will find the answers to all those questions. Indeed, the Commissioners themselves have emphasised that Lieutenant-Commander Cabban acted without malice and unworthy motive. So he will be remembered, I trust, for his courage in the face of vilification, of intense pressure, of searching, probing questions upon a statement which was never prepared originally with the precision which one usually applies to an evidentiary document. There was another witness who had his .original statement, destroyed and replaced with another. I believe that Cabban was a man who, wanting to sleep at night with a clear conscience, thought first of an injustice to another man in particular and chose deliberately - cost what it may - to speak what he believed to be the truth. This Parliament and the people we represent should be grateful to LieutenantCommander Cabban and should never discount the basic principles which were inherent in this particular inquiry and report.







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