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Wednesday, 3 April 1968

Mr KELLY (Wakefield) (Minister for the Navy) - Mr Speaker,one of the things that I learned early in my life is that if you are going out to get sheep you do not let the dog wear himself out running after rabbits on the way out. I will not run after all the rabbits that have beer put up in this debate, because firstly, there are too many of them; secondly, I do not know which way some of them went, and

I have a vague idea that they did not know, either; and thirdly, I have a suspicion that I could not catch some of them if I tried. The reason for saying this is to indicate that I am not an expert in this field. I have been Minister for the Navy only a short while. I admit that there is a lot about the Navy which I do not know. There is a lot about the two 'Voyager' inquiries which I do not know. For instance, I have not read all the transcripts. Each member has his own individual enthusiasms in this place and he concentrates on particular things. Each member, to quote the Arab proverb, thinks his own bug a gazelle. When the first 'Voyager' transcripts were pouring in I was poring over Tariff Board reports. On the second occasion I was Minister for Works. So, Mr Speaker, you see before you a self-confessed non-expert. But there are a few things I do know.

One is that in 1964 we appointed the first Commission and we accepted its findings. In 1967, after some hesitation related to our doubts about the quality of the Cabban evidence, we appointed the second Commission and everyone at that stage seemed pleased. As far as I can remember, no-one raised any doubts about the quality of the Commissioners. But now that the report is before us we find that a lot of people are dissatisfied with it - not all of it, but parts of it; a finding here is suspect and a finding there is said to be just plain wrong. In other words, most of the experts have found some particular part of the findings unacceptable. Really, I do not think this is good enough. It is no good appointing umpires and then accepting their decisions, except the ones you do not like. This is particularly so if you have agreed to their appointment in the first place.

So in the closing stages of this debate I, a non-expert, will give the House a synopsis of what the umpires did say. I will not give my opinion because really it would not be regarded as authoritative and probably it would be regarded as biased. 1 will not pick out the findings that I like or do not like. But I will take all the important ones one by one, then I will move on to describe what the Navy has done following the comments in the report. My first comment deals with the withholding of evidence. 1 do not set myself up as an authority, but the second Commission found, on the question of withholding evidence from the first Commission, that the only evidence of matters later appearing in the Cabban statement which was available to the first Commission was not improperly held from that Commission. I refer to page 217 of the report which states:

Counsel assisting the first 'Voyager' Commission made an honest and bona fide decision (with the concurrence of Sir John Spicer) that none of this evidence was relevant in the circumstances as then known, and should not be called. The decision was made only upon a proper professional consideration of the relevance of the evidence to the issues in the inquiry, and was not influenced by any other factor or by any other persons. The evidence was not in any way improperly withheld from the Royal Commission.

In this debate there has been a lot of comment about the quality of the Cabban statement and evidence. The Commission, while not in any way criticising Cabban's motives, said, referring to Cabban:

We therefore regard him in many instances as an unreliable witness, particularly as to matters involving any exercise of judgment or interpretation of a situation - not because, he did not tell the truth as he saw it, but because his vision of the truth was obscured by unreliability of judgment. We .were, therefore, for the most part not prepared to act on his evidence unless it was corroborated.

I know that honourable members have heard all this before, but I think it is worth spelling out crystal clear again. As to the allegations in the Cabban statement concerning the seamanship of Captain Stevens, it is sufficient to note that the Commission, on page 161, found:

There can be no doubt that the late Captain Stevens was a naval Captain of at least average competency, had notable qualities of leadership and succeeded in maintaining high morale on his ship.

The findings on the allegations regarding the drinking habits are also quite definite. Captain Stevens was not a drunkard or an alcoholic. I remind the honourable member for Hindmarsh that this is the decision of people who knew even more about the law than he does. I refer to page 127 of the report of the Commissioners, where they stated:

It is sufficient to say that the evidence enables us to make a clear affirmative finding that at all times other than the few occasions to which we have referred, Captain Stevens conducted himself with complete propriety and sobriety and carried out his manifold duties (both at sea and in harbour) with considerable credit to himself and to the entire satisfaction of those having administrative and operational command over him. He showed high qualities of leadership and the morale of the ship was good.

This is not merely a case where allegations of frequent drunkenness are not proved; not only is there no evidence to support frequent drunkenness, but the evidence positively establishes that this was not the fact.

Now I hope that is the end of that argument.

In view of remarks made in this debate concerning the alleged drinking of brandy on the night of the collision, it should be emphasised that the Commission, on page 228, found:

In fairness to the late Captain Stevens it ought not to be assumed that he had a drink at all on that night. If he did it was not more than 2i oz of brandy an hour and a half before the collision and it can be taken as certain on the whole of the evidence that he was in no way affected by this at the time of the collision.

Although finding that the seamanship and drinking allegations in the Cabban statement were untrue, the Commission, from the mass of evidence disclosed to it during this exhaustive inquiry, did find that Captain Stevens' health, because of his ulcer condition, was not good enough for him to be in command of the 'Voyager'. On page 224 the Commission states: the conclusion is inescapable that (answering the question as at 31st 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 (with its concomitant mental alertness) required of a Captain holding that command.

Accepting the Commission's findings under term of reference 1, as I do, I turn now to term of, reference 2a - whether the Naval Board knew or ought to have known of Captain Stevens' unfitness to retain command. On this aspect I can do no better than cite the Commission's finding. In view of the accusations that have been made in the House today, this point should be hammered home as a proper and effective defence of the Naval Board. The Commission found:

We find that the Naval Board did not know of any of the allegations in the 'Cabban statement' or of any unfitness of Captain Stevens to retain command of 'Voyager' . . .

Nothing came to the Commission's knowledge that ought to put it on inquiry. The Commission also investigated whether anybody whose duty it was to report to the Naval Board failed to do so. It found that both the Fleet Medical Officer and the medical officer of 'Voyager', neither of whom is currently serving in the Navy, failed in their duty to report on Captain Stevens' condition at certain times, although extenuating circumstances were mentioned in both cases. The Commission found that other officers concerned, including the Medical Director-General, had no knowledge or insufficient knowledge to cause them to take any official action but it did express the view that while his motives were understandable, 'the late Captain Stevens cannot altogether escape moral censure for failing to disclose what he must have known was a recurring condition of some seriousness*.

The next matter with which I want to deal is the Commission's findings on terms of reference 2(b) regarding Captain Robertson's responsibility. The Commission found:

We are satisfied that the criticism of Captain Robertson made by Sir John Spicer is not justified and that there should, be substituted for this criticism a finding that no blame or criticism attaches to Captain Robertson in relation to his conduct as the Captain in command of 'Melbourne' or as tactical operator in command of the joint operations on the night of the collision, the sole responsibility for which lies with 'Voyager'.

Similarly, the Commission stated that no blame should attach to other officers on the bridge of 'Melbourne' on the night of the collision - Acting Commander Kelly and Acting Sub-Lieutenant Bate. The Commission having exonerated Captain Robertson from all blame, the Government has made an ex gratia payment to him of $60,000, as was announced by the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) on 13th March. The two other officers have continued in their normal promotional pattern. I would point out to the honourable member for Ryan (Mr Drury), who raised this matter this afternoon, that Captain Robertson did not ask to be reengaged in the Navy. If he had there would have been considerable practical difficulties, as the Captain himself rather suggested.

I come now to the criticism made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitiam) about the Secretary, of the Department of the Navy, Mr Landau. The Leader of the Opposition has often exposed a fatal flaw in his character: He cannot keep his temper. He throws water when provoked and has an unbridled tongue if he thinks he can get away with it. I think I should give him some fatherly advice. Until he learns to control his temper, his future, his Party, this Parliament and, indeed, Australia will suffer. He is not now a spoilt boy who can be excused such excesses. He is the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and he should learn to behave as such. I turn to the matter of his criticisms of Mr Landau, not the manner of their delivery. The honourable member for Parkes (Mr. Hughes) and the Attorney-General (Mr Bowen) have dealt with this matter in exemplary fashion. The Leader of the Opposition used selective extracts from the transcript of evidence. He used what suited him and ignored the parts that he did not like. What emerges from this treatment gives a scurrilous and distorted picture. The Commissioner!! - honest and impartial judges - had all of the evidence before them. They said:

We think it proper to add that no sinister motive can possibly be attributed to Mr Landau in destroying Dr Tiller's original sketchy comments. lt would not be the first time that the author of an ill-considered letter or document has arranged with its recipient to destroy it and substitute another letter or document. It must be remembered that no Royal Commission was in contemplation at that time, and it was an entirely proper action for the Minister to take to obtain the approval of Tiller and others to a wider publication of their written comments than they had initially understood would be the case.

So let us have no more cowardly attacks - in this I bracket the honourable member for Hindmarsh with the Leader of the Opposition - on a man who cannot answer back. Let us have no more derogation of a capable and devoted officer who, in the Commission's view, acted with complete propriety and who never, to my certain knowledge, took a single step in these matters without the full knowledge and approval of his Minister.

Much has been made by the Leader of the Opposition of the discrepancy between the two memorandums on LieutenantCommander Cabban prepared by ViceAdmiral McNicoll. lt would have been strange if the two had been similar. The first, in 1965, was made up from Cabban's records up to the time that he left the Navy. It was a collection of views of other people, not those of Admiral McNicoll, and any consideration of the Cabban document was deliberately excluded. On the other hand, the second memorandum was written in May 1967 in the light of the Cabban statement. The picture painted by this statement was that of a chronic alcoholic who was also a bad seaman. This picture, which was rejected by the Royal Commission, obviously threw a new light on the credibility of the author of the statement - hence the difference between the two memorandums by Admiral McNicoll.

In its report the Commission made some observations and comments on a number of matters arising from its inquiry. I shall now refer to these and inform the House of the positive action that has been taken by the Naval Board to correct or improve various administrative procedures. I would like to draw the attention of the honourable member for Dalley (Mr O'Connor), the honourable member for Ryan and the honourable member for Swan (Mr Cleaver) to these points which they raised. Firstly, the Naval Board has readily accepted all of the Commission's suggestions in relation to the improvement of medical procedures and has given effect to them in appropriate instructions and regulations. Without going into great detail I mention in particular that regulations have been amended to provide that captains of ships and other key officers are to be specially cleared with the Medical Director-General, who may require specialist medical opinion, before posting to major war vessels. In the case of captains of ships the Medical Director-General will in future arrange for a medical examination to be carried out during the period of 3 months prior to taking up command. Annual medical examinations of officers of captain's rank and above will in future be undertaken by a medical officer of the rank of surgeon captain, or an appropriate civilian consultant physician. In addition, very special procedures and precautions are being introduced for officers who have had an ulcer. The instructions relating to the compilation and forwarding of all medical reports have been revised. Arrangements have been made to ensure that all naval personnel who may be serving overseas will be examined annually.

Secondly, the Naval Board has examined carefully the Commission's comments on the social obligations imposed on naval officers visiting overseas ports. This obligation is a goodwill obligation rather than a naval one. Honourable members may readily imagine that when authorities in foreign ports have kindly arranged hospitality for a visiting ship they could feel rather slighted if the captain did not attend. That is the difficulty - simply one of ordinary good manners and good relations. However, the Naval Board entirely agrees with the Commission's point of view and has sent an instruction to all commanding officers drawing attention to the need for adequate rest and relaxation in order to maintain the high standard of mental and physical fitness required of them.

Thirdly, an amendment to naval instructions has been issued to facilitate procedures under which officers and sailors may bring to the notice of higher naval authorities, by-passing their immediate superiors if necessary, complaints and representations on any matters affecting the well being of the service.

Finally, the Commission also considered whether ships of the Royal Australian Navy should be dry and stated: . . there is nothing which has emerged from the Inquiry itself to suggest that KAN ships should be made 'dry', or that there should bc any modification of existing disciplinary regulations as to drinking hours or otherwise.

The sale of beer to ships' companies is permitted under strictly controlled procedures at certain times. Hitherto, the bars of the officers' messes have been opened at lunch time and in the evening. The Naval Board has had these instructions under review for some time and, prior to the receipt of the report, had decided to amend the existing rules to provide that the bars of the officers' messes, which include the captain's quarters, will be closed at sea except when a beer issue to sailors is authorised under the approved conditions; the bars may then be opened for an appropriate period.

Mr Speaker,the collision was a grim disaster and its aftermath has been grim almost beyond relief. The Navy is a fine Service, well led by its administrators - I do not include myself - and well manned by a fine body of officers and sailors. I know I speak for all of them when I say: Let us now rule the book off and let the Navy get on with its job.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The Minister's time has expired.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Benson's amendment) stand part of the proposed amendment.

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