Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 21 November 1912

Senator MILLEN (New South Wales) . - I think that we are entitled to express some surprise that on a matter of this kind the Minister of Defence has not ventured to address the Senate. I can quite understand that there are occasions here, as in other Houses of Parliament, when a Minister may reasonably ask for time to consider a proposition concerning which he is called upon to speak. But this is not a new matter for his consideration, and seeing that he has already declared his policy elsewhere, one is tempted to ask why it was that he, instead of repeating here what he has said elsewhere, took a course which, if successful, as 1 presume it will be, will undoubtedly prevent the Senate from arriving at a determination on this matter. Because we cannot disguise from ourselves the fact that the time must shortly arrive when the Minister will be justified in asking the Senate to give up the time which is now devoted to the consideration of private business. It does appear to me that his action tonight was taken with the express purposeof denying to the Senate an opportunity of taking a vote on this matter. Now, in order to demonstrate my remark that he has arrived at an opinion on the matter, let me remind the Senate that it is only three months ago that a deputation waited upon him at the Department, and pressed upon his consideration the very matter which Senator McColl has brought forward to-night. Had he, in reply to thedeputation, displayed an open mind; hadhe declared that he was prepared to consider the matter, I could have understood even now, after the lapse of three months, a request for further time, knowing that any one who is called upon to administer the Department must have a great manycalls upon his time and attention. But, on the 16th August last, the Minister made no secret, in addressing the deputation, of thefact that his mind was definitely made upon this point. If that is so, why thissilence on his part to-night? Why was it that instead of giving us an opportunity of carrying this matter through, he is adopting a course which, as I said just now, will prevent the Senate from arriving at a determination? Let me remind both theSenate and -the Minister of what he said upon that occasion, and his declarationthen will stand repeating, because it is verydefinite as to the attitude which he lookup. If he does think of re-adjusting his: opinion, if anything has happened which causes him to withdraw from the position- he took up, he might very properly have: told the Senate and the country that he is contemplating or considering the possibility of some change. But on the 16th August,, he said -

He took the full responsibility of the change. Lord Kitchener's report had to a large extentbeen his chart and compass in introducing the new defence system, and it was wrong to say that it recommended the retention of national regiments. It did not deal with national regiments as such. Its only key was territorial' organization, and with such organization national regiments could not be retained. He had recommended the retention of. territorial designations- and the traditions associated with territorial regiments, but that referred to such district regiments as the Kennedy Regiment in Queensland, and not to national regiments. When the deputation grasped the fact that the basis of the scheme was territorial organization it was up against the first and greatest difficulty of maintaining national regiments. That was that the recruits in the areas were Australians and must be brought into the Australian scheme. Lord Kitchener had given no hint' as to any way of meeting this difficulty, and they would agree that if he had thought it advisable to make a special provision for the retention of national regiments he would have proposed a way of meeting the difficulties. He had never contemplated the continuance of national regiments.

That statement by the Minister on the 16th August justifies my remark that we can only arrive at one conclusion, and that is that, up to that time, he had arrived at a hostile attitude regarding this request; that for the reasons which he set out then, he was not prepared to entertain the proposition, and so convinced was he of the correctness of his attitude that he did not even do as many Ministers do - say that he would consider the matter. He told the deputation distinctly that the proposal was, so far as he was concerned, an impossible one. In these circumstances, unless he is prepared to revise his views, he should not have required an adjournment of the debate, because he was in a position to tell the Senate at least as definitely and as clearly as he told the deputation, what he thought.

I wish now to deal with some of the reasons advanced by the Minister for his hostile attitude to this proposal. I do not know that I can go very far wrong if I take the very statement I have read, because there the Minister's summary of Lord Kitchener's report was his interpretation of what it means. He said that the report did not deal with national regiments as such, and without going over the quotation again, I would remind honorable senators that the Minister urged that if Lord Kitchener had wished to retain national regiments, he would have made some specific recommendation on that point. That is not conclusive. Lord Kitchener did not deal with national regiments, and did not make a specific recommendation on that point. But one is entitled to ask whether he had brought before him as definitely as we have had brought before us to-night the evidence of a strong desire to maintain them. There is nothing to suggest that the matter which we are now discussing was ever pressed upon his attention. I venture to say that the Ministry of the day, of which

I had the honour to be a member, was not at that time confronted with that difficulty, lt seems to me to be impossible to believe that, from any outside source, Lord Kitchener should have had brought) before him this strong and laudable desire to retain national identity. If the matter had been brought under his attention, and he had turned down the idea, we might have considered his advice as being worthy of our consideration. But there is no evidence that Lord Kitchener was, as a matter of fact, called upon or asked to consider the question that has been raised by Senator McColl's motion. Passing from that consideration, I come to an argument used by the Minister to the deputation which waited upon him, to the effect that, our military organization being territorial, it is impossible that national regiments should find a place in it. I say at once that if there were no alternative, I should stand by the territorial organization. But I am convinced that it is not impossible to graft the one on to the other. Let me make clear what I mean. I say at the outset that I would not be one to impair the efficiency of our present defence system, even by yielding to the very natural demands of our Scottish and Irish friends. But I want to make a suggestion. Without going too much into details, it appears to me to be possible, at all events in the larger centres of population, to maintain the integrity of the territorial system, and at the same time make provision for gratifying these national desires on the part of the regiments referred to. Let me illustrate the point in this way : The smaller military areas are bracketed with others, and a certain number of them are placed under one military control. There is an area officer who has to deal with the units in his area. A certain number of training areas are again bracketed for other purposes. In a city like Sydney, where you have a number of training areas, surely, without destroying the territorial character of our military organization, it would be possible to say to the recruits in an area, " If you are willing to incur the inconvenience and trouble yourselves of going from the area in which you are being trained, in order to form a national regiment, you are at liberty to do so." In places like Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, it is quite possible to do that. That would merely mean a slight enlargement of the geographical area over which the officer had control. Let us suppose that there are 5,000 recruits in a given area being dealt with by one set of officers. We will assume that they are divided into five units. Surely it is possible, on the assumption that there would be 1,000 who desired to join a national regiment, to say to them, "You may form a unit of yourselves if you choose ; the inconvenience is yours; if you like to travel into another district for your training in order that you may be members of a national regiment, you are at liberty to do so." That would not destroy the territorial organization, and it is a system that might very easily be carried out. Another argument which has been advanced is on the ground of expense. How much increased expense is involved in maintaining the Scottish regiments I am not in a position to say. We might have expected the Minister to furnish us with information on the subject. He must know. Otherwise, he would not have been in a position to make the reply he 'did to the deputation. I am entitled to believe, however, judging from the experience of Australia and of other countries, that the matter of expense alone is not an insurmountable difficulty. The Scottish regiments themselves show a disposition to bear any extra cost which might be entailed. For these reasons, I feel, under the circumstances - especially as no clear case has been made out against Senator McColl's proposal - that I must support it.

Senator Lt.-ColonelCAMERON (Tasmania) [9.24]. - I wish to support Senator McColl' s motion. Senator Stewart has given us a very interesting speech, though he hardly touched on the merits of the question. I would urge the Minister not to deal with this matter lightly. I know that he has a very difficult position to handle. But surely there are not the difficulties in maintaining these national regiments that he made out in his reply to' the deputation that waited upon him. I feel that the Minister is doing this Commonwealth a very grave injustice in the attitude he is maintaining towards the question. The abolition of the Scottish regiments would place a slight on all the traditions of the past. It is a matter fraught with more tragedy, as far as the future is concerned, than the Minister has yet grasped. When we realize that Australia has practically no history except that which has been made for us by the Mother Country, we should do our utmost to stimulate, rather than to lessen, the feeling of regard for the past. I know what it means for a regiment to have a spirit of emulation: I have seen the results of it with my own eyes on more than one. occasion. The best black troops in the world are the Gourkas. I have seen one of the finest white regiments in the world, the Gordon Highlanders, racing shoulder to shoulder with a regiment of Gourkas to see who should be first to reach a position under assault. That scene was due to the spirit of emulation and rivalry animating both "regiments. It is to the advantage of any country to encourage such a spirit. The expense of retaining the Highland regiments may involve a difficulty, but I understand that the regiments themselves are prepared to put their hands into their own pockets and to bear the extra cost. I do not think that that fact should be passed over lightly. Perhaps the Minister would not care to accept such an offer. But, at all events, he should not say that the expense prohibits permission to retain the regiments being given. The matter of filling up the ranks of the various regiments presents no great difficulty. It is admitted already that the Light Horse are recruited specially. Why should not the national regiments be specially recruited? The fact that we have a territorial organization is no reason against so doing. Another point that ought not to be forgotten is that, in military matters, we have not always to deal with a number of school boys. What lies before the Defence Forces of this country? They are not always to be kept in swaddling clothes. The youths of today will become men, and many of them will continue to take part in the defence of their country. Why should they not pass into the national regiments? The information that has been published in the newspapers during the last month or so must indicate that the work that lies before these citizen soldiers of ours, if Australia is to be maintained as part of the Empire, is a serious one. We must go for efficiency in every direction.

Senator Pearce - Hear, hear ! I heartily agree to that.

Senator Lt Colonel CAMERON .- If the Minister thinks that, by wiping out these regiments, he will be. making for efficiency, I am afraid that he and I view the matter from different stand-points. I say that we should encourage the spirit which these regiments represent by all means in our power. If we destroy that spirit, we shall destroy one of the foundations upon which our future as a nation must depend.

Senator Rae - Did the Australians fight any worse in South Africa because their country had practically no history?

Senator Lt Colonel CAMERON .- I do not want to refer to South Africa and to what occurred there as being a campaign at all. I prefer not to refer to it, although I took part in the campaign. I do not regard it as a fighting experience. It was an excellent show of the right sort of spirit. It was really the suppression of a rebellion rather than a war. The honorable senator has forced me to say that. But let there be no misunderstanding. I do not wish any one to run away with the idea that Australians showed anything but the right spirit. They showed that they were excellent fighting material. I again urge the Minister to reconsider this matter as being one oi real importance. If he does nothing else, he should, agree to maintain the regiments that already exist, and do nothing to destroy the spirit by which they are animated.

Suggest corrections