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Wednesday, 29 September 1971
Page: 1634

Mr CROSS (Brisbane) - I think that it should be emphasised quite clearly that the purpose of the Opposition in bringing this matter of public importance before the Parliament on this occasion is to gain from the Minister for the Army (Mr Peacock) those assurances that he has given and to emphasise to him and to the Government that, in the present circumstances which exist in South Vietnam, the Opposition has a responsibility to ensure by bringing this matter before the Parliament that the Australian Task Force is withdrawn with minimum loss of life. A great deal of shot and shell are always expended when issues such as this come before the Parliament. Members on the Government side take the opportunity of suggesting that the Australian Labor Party was always opposed to the involvement of Australian forces in Vietnam. Of course, in a military sense this is perfectly true. It is suggested that we are supporting Communism and that we are indifferent to the fact that there could be a Communist takeover in South Vietnam. This is not the motive in bringing this matter before the Parliament today. The motive is solely to express concern which is felt not only by the Opposition but throughout the Australian community at what happened several days ago in Phuoc Tuy province when a number of Australians were killed and a larger number wounded. The 'Australian' of 23rd September 1971 carried the statement that 5 Australian soldiers had been killed and 24 had been wounded - this was later corrected to 26 wounded - and that it was the worst single engagement in 5 years. It stated:

At least 19 of the casualties were national servicemen, including 4 of the dead.

The article went on to state that as far as losses were concerned this incident was exceeded only by the 18 soldiers killed in the so-called battle of Long Thanh in August 1966. Why we are concerned is that, with the facts as we know them and which are not under dispute, these young Australians have been killed and wounded against the background of the statement made by the Prime Minister and statements made by other members of the Government when the withdrawal of the Australian task force was announced. For example, the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) said in the House on 1 8th August: . . the main Australian effort has been in the general area surrounding Saigon and in particular in Phuoc Tuy Province. There, the security situation has markedly improved. The enemy has largely lost the initiative. The Vietnamese territorial forces have been steadily developing their capacity and in the last year have gradually expanded their own areas of operations. The enemy is still there of course, and some setbacks may yet occur. But in our view, shared by the Government of the Republic, the existing relative strengths are such that the territorial forces should be able to handle the likely contingencies.

After reviewing other matters, the Prime Minister said:

The forces will begin withdrawing in the next few months, giving the Vietnamese time to adjust their force dispositions. HMAS 'Brisbane, due out of service in Vietnamese waters early in September, will not be replaced. Most of the combat elements will be home in Australia by. Christmas 1971. Shipment to Australia of stores and equipment will be completed in the early months of 1972.

In reply to a question yesterday, the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairbairn) said:

As I have pointed out already, about half the province is under the operations control of the regional forces and popular forces. Also there are the South Vietnamese self defence forces in that area. The other half of the province will be handed over in the fairly near future.

This incident which has happened raises the question of whether the security of Phuoc Tuy province is as soundly based as both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence have led us to believe. I support the views expressed by the Minister for the Army when he said that he would not give a detailed statement of all those matters associated with the withdrawal of the forces. It would be unreasonable for him to do so. In my view, it was unreasonable for some honourable members to have sought such information. The problem still remains that the Government has announced the withdrawal and the details are as well known as they may be.

I was a little surprised to hear some of the statements made in the debate this afternoon. It has been suggested thai the Minister would not state how many Vietcong corridors there were across the minefield. If the security situation in the province was as satisfactory as we have been led to believe, there would not be any Vietcong corridors across the minefield. We have been told that the Minister will not disclose information as to when the South Vietnamese forces will take over those areas which the Australian Task Force is vacating. Am I to understand that at present, because of the withdrawal of portion of the Australian Task Force, a vacuum exists in this area; that there is an area unprotected at this stage by the South Vietnamese forces? Is it then not true that the South Vietnamese forces have developed that capacity which the Prime Minister in his statement on 18th August suggested they have now developed to look after the security of their own country and, more particularly, that province in which so much Australian effort has been expended? These are questions that will only be answered in time because I think it is fair to say that we are all much too close to the war in Vietnam to be able to judge what will happen in the future.

It does not always follow that in a war one achieves one's objectives. Sometimes there is a waste of life and no good purpose is served. There is still argument as to whether the campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 was a glorious failure or a great achievement. Be that as it may, what has happened in Vietnam will be judged only in the future. For example, I am sure that many people are disappointed by the fact, that there is only one presidential candidate at the elections to be held in South Vietnam. Is this an indication of the democracy for which so many young people from the United States of America, Australia, South Korea and other allied nations have expended their lives and made great sacrifices? These are questions that will be answered only in the long term. What we are concerned about is the short term - the period from now until December. The Opposition has brought this matter before the Parliament to indicate that it will be subjecting, as indeed the whole Australian community is subject ing, all of these aspects of the withdrawal to very close scrutiny. We do not want to know all of the details but what we want is an assurance, which has been given by the Minister for the Army, that everything will be done to protect the security of the Australian Task Force. The Government has now stated that it will withdraw all of the Australian Task Force. As I said before, the other side of the story will be made known only in the long term when it can be established to what extent the South Vietnamese Government is able to maintain security in the area.

We are concerned today with the security of the Australian Task Force and we want to make quite sure - as much as anyone in the Parliament can be sure - that the Task Force is withdrawn as one cohesive unit and that the withdrawal is properly protected. The Minister has indicated that this is so. It now remains to be seen whether the statements made by the Minister on this matter are strictly correct or whether they are as accurate as other statements that have been made by a series of Ministers about the situation in Vietnam over a period of 6 or 7 years, most of which in the long term have proved not to be correct.

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