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Wednesday, 3 November 1971
Page: 2906

Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) (Minister for Defence) - First, let me make a couple of points. Firstly, I see that the motion refers to the treatment of the request for assistance in training Cambodian and Laotian troops in Vietnam. May I say that, to the best of my knowledge, there never has been any proposal to train Laotian troops in Vietnam? Secondly, I want to reply to the Deputy Leader of the

Opposition (Mr Barnard) who referred I constantly, almost ad nauseam, to what he said I had called a 'low key issue'. Let me tell the House that I did not refer to this as a low key issue. I said that it was a low key approach from the American Embassy. It was a low key approach because it was one from the Embassy, not from the Ambassador, and it was one which was not in writing. It was intended to feel out what our situation would be in a field in which Australia was already active. This was really just an extension.

May I say that I am, and I am sure that all those associated with me are, extremely sorry that the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) was not advised earlier of this particular request. I regret any embarrassment that this has caused him. I certainly do not minimise my concern. As I said yesterday. I have taken whatever steps I can to see that this does not occur again, although one cannot, of course, guarantee 100 per cent that something might not occur again. But I have done everything that I can, and we are looking further into this question to see what further steps can be taken. However, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition asked a question. He said that yesterday I had said that 'a' department should have informed the Prime Minister. In fact, he almost inferred that I had changed the Hansard record. I can assure him that I certainly did not. But I do make the point that the primary responsibility for transactions between an overseas country and the Australian Government is with the Department of Foreign Affairs. A tremendous number of these requests come in. The Department gets them and it makes a decision as to whether it believes it is a matter which should be referred to Ministers or to the Prime Minister or whether it is a matter which should be referred to departments as a great many are. Some of them, of course, come to nothing and are not heard of again.

Let me initially go through an outline of the facts so that the House will have the opportunity of seeing whether I have been damaging and dangerous in my treatment of this issue. The request was received from the American Embassy in Canberra on 30th September. It was an oral request from the Embassy and it was transmitted the Department of Defence on 1st October. As I said in my Press conference yesterday-

Mr Morrison - I rise to order, Mr Speaker. The Minister has referred to a document. May I ask that the document be tabled?

Mr FAIRBAIRN - No, I have not referred to a document at all. I have said a request'. I said it was an oral request.

Mr Morrison - It would be incorporated in the record of conversation. I ask that that record of conversation be tabled.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - There is no document.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! I am assured by the Minister that no document exists. Therefore it cannot be tabled.

Dr J F Cairns (LALOR, VICTORIA) - I raise a . point of order. Is the Minister saying that no record of this request from an official of the American Embassy was made?

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The Chair cannot interpret what the Minister is conveying to the House.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - As 1 said, an oral request was received from the American Embassy, and this was transmitted to the Department of Defence by the officer on 1st October.

Mr Whitlam - Orally?

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Does this matter? As I have previously pointed out at my Press conference, 1st October was a Friday, and a long weekend intervened before the request was received by my Department on Tuesday, 5th October. It was processed then through the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Army and the Chiefs of Staff. There were a number of issues which had to be resolved. First of all, was the Army in a position to be able to agree to this request? Did it have the people available? For one thing we know that the Cambodians are basically French speaking or that their second language is French. Matters like this had to be taken into account to see what could be done.

The draft letter was sent to me with a note from the Department late on the 25th. It was put on my desk, but from memory I do not think I saw it until early on the 26th. I immediately signed it and had it delivered personally by my secretary to the Prime Minister's office with the verbal information that it was important. This was backed up by the First Assistant Secretary (Defence Planning), who rang the Prime Minister's Department and also informed him that this letter had been placed there and that it was urgent. On 27th October my secretary visited the Prime Minister's assistant secretary and stressed the urgency of this letter, and she made a second copy of the letter to take on the aeroplane with them.

It is unfortunate that, owing to the great pressure of business, this did not get to the Prime Minister before it did. It is all right for honourable members opposite, who never have been and never will be in the position of knowing what this pressure that builds up on the Prime Minister is like, to be critical. It will be recalled that the Prime Minister was under great pressure in the last few days before his departure for overseas. His trip had to be arranged at fairly short notice, and there was the China vote, the Pakistan statement and the statement on the arts. He also had to study briefs and to prepare some speeches to be made on the trip. As it happened, the letter which I had imagined would have got to him did not get to him until after he had seen the Press. I believe that this is the detail of the actions that were taken.

Let me make a few remarks on what went wrong. 1 have not sought to hide the fact that I believe that there was a slip-up. As 1 say, the initial decision as to whether a Prime Minister and Ministers should be informed is the decision of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Once a matter has come to my Department it is for departmental officials to decide whether I should be informed. Then, if I were informed, 1 would decide whether it should be passed on further. It is all very well for us to say that a wrong decision was made. I doubt the wisdom of this decision. These are judgments of the moment which have to be made frequently during every week by departments. It is very easy to say the Department did the wrong thing. As I said, I doubt the wisdom of the decision and 1 hope the action I have taken will see that this does not happen again.

There was nothing novel in this request. Let us face the fact that first of all we were training Cambodians. We had agreed to train Cambodians. As the Prime Minister has said and as has been said in the Defence Report' of 1971 Australian military aid to the Khmer Republic will continue this year and will include an offer of a number of places for personnel of the Cambodian Army forces at training establishments in Australia. We have been in touch constantly with the Cambodians because we know the enormous demand they have for training their forces. They have suggested certain types of training which they would like to get in Australia. They have mentioned DC3 conversions. I hope that we are still in a position to assist them in this respect. They have mentioned initial flying training, going to the officer school at Portsea, tactical training and these sorts of things

As I said, there is no novelty in the fact that we are prepared to give instruction and assistance to the Cambodians We give them military assistance. We have given this year an amount of $>1.7m, and I think that some $200,000 of this will be used for this military training in Australia. We are training troops in Vietnam. Therefore it is not a question whether we should train the Cambodians but where we should train them. We have made it perfectly clear that we will not send military troops into Cambodia. Of course, the Americans too have been training Cambodians in Vietnam for at least the last 18 months. The Prime Minister announced in his statement of 18th August plans to retain in Vietnam some military training and advisory elements, for example instructors. In addition we have recently had the visit of the Foreign Minister from Cambodia, and he discussed a lot of these training proposals.

So we believe that the Cambodians should be helped. I think this is where perhaps we and the Opposition part company. Cambodia is a small nation which has been subjected to aggression. There is no doubt whatsoever that it has been subjected to aggression from the North Vietnamese. As was pointed out by Laird just recently in his statement in Washington, this is one war throughout South East Asia, with the North Vietnamese the aggressors. Even the honourable member for Wills (Mr Bryant), who is not known for his right wing sympathies in this place, on his arrival back from Cambodia was obviously determined to try to change Australian Labor Party policy on Cambodia He said:

I know more now than I did at the Victorian ALP conference in June. The situation in Cambodia involves blatant clear-cut aggression.

So he went on. He had no doubt whatsoever that Cambodia was the subject of aggression and that Cambodia should be helped. How are we to help the Cambodians? Are we to sit at home and offer up a prayer, or are we to do something about it? Of course the answer is that we should do something about it. We supply arms, we supply money for the purchase of equipment and we supply training facilities. This is not an extension of previous plans that have been laid in this area. We have heard it said that this will lead to another Vietnam. Nothing really could be more ludicrous. First of all, I have made the point that there is no intention of having troops in Cambodia. The personnel would be strictly limited to instructors, training and advisory people in Vietnam, not in Cambodia. It is just as logical to talk about training Cambodians in Vietnam causing another war in Cambodia as it would be to say that the fact we are going to train some Singaporeans in Australia could lead us into involvement in war in Singapore. Really this is a complete non sequitur.

I have dealt with the question as to whether the request should have come from the Cambodians. I have not time in the short period left to list the number of times that the Cambodians have requested assistance. They have been in constant touch with us. On numerous occasions they have asked us for various sorts of aid. Even when I was in Saigon last December as the Australian observer at a meeting of the Asian Parliamentarians Union, my adviser and I received a number of requests from the Cambodian delegation. 1 might add that I speak French, so I was able to converse with members of the delegation, although my French is not of the highest order.

Let us come to the substance of this matter and see it in its true perspective. The events I have already detailed led to the Prime Minister being informed later than he should have been of this request being received. But the substance of the matter is: Are we right in holding discus sions to see whether we can assist the Cambodians in Vietnam by instruction and by advice? I am sure that we are right. We need to support our allies against what Laird described as 'continued North Vietnamese pressure'. He emphasised the need for co-operation among the allies to meet this pressure. Cambodia has been a victim of naked aggression and I believe that we should do everything that we can to assist the Cambodians in their training.

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