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Wednesday, 29 September 1971
Page: 1631

Mr MORRISON (St George) - What we are discussing today is far too important and far too serious for the pitiful attempts at pedestrian debating made by the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairbairn). We are dealing with a situation which involves the lives of Australian sons, husbands, fathers and brothers. The Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) announced on 18th August that the Government had decided to withdraw all remaining Australian combat forces from Vietnam and in a shallow political flourish he brought in the 'home by Christmas' catch cry. So he first of all telegraphed our moves to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. A responsible Government would at an appropriate time have said in a simple statement 'Today all Australian combat forces have left Vietnam'.

Mr Uren - They wanted to make political capital out of it.

Mr MORRISON - Precisely. That has been the motivation of this Government since 1965 and before. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese know that we have 2 battalions at Nui Dat and that about mid-October there will be only one - one where there were 3 before as an integrated task force. This Government will be guilty of a culpable act if it leaves only one battalion at Nui Dat even if it is only for a matter of weeks. The recent military encounter, in which regrettably 5 Australian lives were lost, showed that the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were operating from bunker positions about 10 miles from the Australian base at Nui Dat, and this is the area which the Government has claimed - it was reiterated again today - to be secure. In his statement of 18th August the Prime Minister sought to assure the people that the purpose of sending our troops to Vietnam had been substantially achieved, that security throughout the country had improved remarkably. What rubbish!

When is the South Vietnamese Army going to assume responsibility not only for Phouc Tuy Province but also for safeguarding our withdrawal? Will it allow Australian forces to be sitting shots for the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese? Nothing that the Prime Minister has said and nothing that the Minister for Defence has said indicates to me that the South Vietnamese Regular Army will help us. There appears to be no immediate prospect - I would be delighted to receive a denial of this from the next speaker - that the ARVN will come into Phouc Tuy Province. The policy of the South Vietnamese Government is to make regional forces available. These regional forces are not equipped to undertake the very delicate and very difficult task facing the Australian forces at the moment. It seems to me - this is our concern and this is why we have raised this issue this afternoon - that we will be left to fend for ourselves, and regrettably we could run the risk of a massacre. As has already been pointed out a withdrawal is perhaps the most difficult of all military operations. It is certainly the most dangerous from the viewpoint of potential casualties.

Over 2 years ago, in June 1969, the former Prime Minister, Mr Gorton, stated quite categorically that our force was a self-contained force and that unless it was all withdrawn together it would be quite ridiculous militarily - not only ridiculous but also suicidal. But this Government has proceeded to do exactly what it said it would not do. It has indulged in a piecemeal withdrawal in the face of the Gorton statement 'one out all out'. For domestic political face saving the Government is prepared to gamble with the lives of Australian troops. It is seemingly intent on creating the most unacceptable military situation. When the 3rd Battalion was withdrawn from Phouc Tuy the security of our forces - as is commonly recognised - was jeopardised but if, with the withdrawal of another battalion, only one battalion is left at Nui Dat it will be criminal negligence on the part of the Government. I do not want to know when the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment is to leave Nui Dat but I plead with the Government to withdraw the 4th Battalion at exactly the same time.

I also suggest that our forces at Nui Dat be withdrawn together to Vung Tau in exactly the same operation and that the return of both the 3rd Battalion and the 4th Battalion to Australia be expedited. Vung Tau is about as secure as any other area in South Vietnam; it is more secure than Nui Dat and it is the embarkation point for sea transport. We should seek the assurance of the South Vietnamese Government that the South Vietnamese Regular Army will be responsible for the security of the approaches to Vung Tau. I do not want the Minister to answer this sort of query. I do not want the suggestions that we on this side of the House have made to be debated but I hope that full consideration will be given to them.

Perhaps one of the points that is concerning this Government is that of stores. In his statement of 18th August the Prime Minister mentioned that the shipment of stores and equipment will be completed in the early months of 1972. I can already visualise the Army accountants and stores officers running around with forms in quad ruplicate checking up on the dented saucepans, other inventories and ripped tents. But this infamous and futile war has cost the Australian people in real terms about $200m a year. That is money that has already gone down the drain but do not let us run the risk of losing more lives in a misguided Public Service passion for having the store returns in ship-shape order. By all means get out what is useful and what is convenient. Perhaps we could make a virtue of necessity by magnanimously making available to the South Vietnamese as part of our aid programme the stores that we have at Nui Dat. But let us not leave a battalion of our troops in an exposed and suicidal position, guarding with their lives a pile of equipment that, in any event, will be obsolete in 2 or 3 years time. The life of an Australian soldier is worth far more than that.

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