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Thursday, 1 March 1973
Page: 110

Mr SNEDDEN (Bruce) (Leader of the Opposition) - I move:

That this House censures the Government for jeopardising Australian security and injuring our reputation as a reliable ally by:

(a)   vacillating on Australia's troop commitment to the Five Power Arrangements, thereby calling into question Australia's commitment and

(b)   the actios of the Prime Minister in making public information concerning Australia's security, for the purpose of relieving the Government from pressures exerted on it to withdraw all troops, contrary to its stated intention, by persons both in the Government andoutside the Government, and for failing to adhere to the Cabinet system by permitting statements by Ministers about matters outside their own ministerial responsibilities, and which are offensive to other countries.

The recent actions of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and the Government deserve the censure of this House. The Government has a mandate to govern according to the tenor of its proposals made before the elections. It represented itself to be responsible; its mandate requires no less. We will not obstruct policies which we believe Australians want and for which a mandate exists. Equally, we will not stand by passively and watch the Prime Minister and the Government eroding our defence capacity, our relations with trusted and valued allies, our international reputation and our fundamental democratic institutions. The Government has no mandate for a derilection of duty.

It is most unexpected that a Government should have acted so badly so soon after its election - a performance so poor as to deserve censure in the first week of the new Parliament. Our allies were led to believe that Australia would support the. Five Power Arrangements. On 5th February the Minister for Defence (Mr Barnard) repeated the policy promise that the Government had decided to honour the full terms of the Five Power Arrangements and that this had been confirmed to Lord Carrington, British Defence Minister, on his visit to Australia.

Lord Carrington said -

We have come to the conclusion that despite this action we think the Five Power Arrangement is worth going on with and it makes sense and we shall do so.

Lord Carrington added, however, that Britain would have to re-open the whole question of its commitment if Australia withdraws all its troops. The phrase 'honour the full terms' clearly means more to the British partners in the Arrangements thanit does to the Labor Party. Clearly Britain at least is unsure of what is intended by the Australian Labor Party and continues to plan for the future while the ALP power struggle on this issue continues. The Governor-General's Speech reaffirming the intention advances the understanding no further.

On 5th February 1973 the Minister for Defence said that he had always indicated that there would be a need for some continuing Australian logistic and training assistance in the area after the withdrawal of the battalion and battery. This force, he said, would also embrace personnel to facilitate the joint training and exercising which would be an important part of Government policy in relation to the countries of the area.

The next day, at a Press conference,the Prime Minister confirmed his statement made at an earlier Press conference on 30th January that 500 to 600 troops will remain in Singapore. The statement by the Minister for Defence yesterday, in answer to a question, is at variance with that statement of the Prime Minister. I quote the Prime Minister:

I'm surprised that there's been a great number of figures given as to the number of soldiers that will remain. I was asked last time whether there'd be 500 or 600. I said 'yes'. That's the total number, and that's all forces.

That is as clear and unequivocal a comment as a Prime Minister can make. The very next day it was reported that Left wing Labor members of the Parliament wanted to challenge the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence about the Army support force to remain in Singapore.

It may not have been by coincidence that on Sunday, 11th February, 1973, an article written by a respected gallery journalist, Mr Fred Brenchley of the 'National Times' said that the support element to stay in Singapore would include personnel manning a secret intelligence unit. He said that this electronics intelligence unit had been a major factor in the Whitlam Government's decision to retain between SOO and 600 defence personnel in Singapore despite the withdrawal of the Austraiian battalion. Brenchley wrote:

That Defence officials were understood to have told the Government it was not possible to replace the Singapore intelligence unit by using alternative sites until 1975; that the unit had 160 personnel; that it had 10 New Zealanders in its ranks.

It was apparent that Mr Brenchley was helped with information for some deliberate purpose. At the same time the Prime Minister was feeling the pressure of the forces of the ALP who were hostile to the concept of any troops in Singapore. This power was shown up in the Victorian Council of the ALP which met on the very day the Brenchley article appeared. The Council endorsed a motion from its leftwing faction which 'noted with regret' statements by the Minister for Defence 'concerning the retention of a large number of support troops in Singapore'.

The motion said, among other things:

Bearing in mind the tragedy of Vietnam, we are most concerned at the possible effects of continuing military commitments in Asia or elsewhere.

We are also of the view that the Singapore Government is anti-democratic and that Australian military association with Singapore is incompatable with Labor principles.

The Prime Minister had defended the stationing of some Australian troops in Singapore as being consistent with the constitution, platform and rules set out at the last Federal Conference of the Australian Labor Party in Launceston. The Prime Minister is unequivocally bound by those documents. He admits that his policy decisions are subservient to them.

The motion was part of a general strategy of the left wing of the ALP to get a neutralist non-aligned Australian policy in expectation of the Federal Conference rejecting the American alliance and other overseas commitments by Australia. The Minister for Overseas Trade (Dr J. F. Cairns) who, after the Deputy Prime Minister, comes third in order of precedence of the Australian Government, said in relation to the Victorian Council resolution: 1 agree with the motion which I consider was moderately worded and sensible.

Apparently it was moderately worded to say that the Singapore Government is antidemocratic; it was moderately worded to say that Australian military association with Singapore is incompatible with Labor principles; and it was sensible to state those things in direct opposition to what had been said by his own leader and Prime Minister. It was contrary to Government policy for the Minister for Overseas Trade to have said those things, but it was to be expected that he would say these things. Nothing, however, was heard from the Prime Minister, despite his dictum that only the responsible Minister will make statements on foreign affairs. If this was not a statement on foreign affairs, can one imagine what is a statement on foreign affairs? If the Cabinet system were operating properly, fundamental opposition to government policy would lead to the resignation of the Minister who made that fundamental disagreement. The Prime Minister should have the courage to sack [the Minister for Overseas Trade. He has neither the courage nor the power to do it. In the critical areas of our foreign policy, those involving our credibility as an ally and our belief in the right of nations to choose their own form of government, the Prime Minister has been noticeably reticent to make any statements. In the face of the personal abuse of the President of the United States by 3 senior Ministers-r-the Minister for Overseas Trade, the Minister for Labour. (Mr Clyde Cameron) and the Minister for the Environment and Conservation (Dr Cass) - when words such as thuggery, arrogance and hypocrisy were used to describe his actions, the Prime Minister could only respond, after much pressing by journalists, that 'there will be no further statements on foreign policy except by the Minister*. The Minister he referred to was himself as the Foreign Minister. What has he done to honour that statement to the Australian people after the statement by the Minister for Overseas Trade describing the Government of Singapore, an ally, as antidemocratic? The Minister for Overseas Trade publicly announced the next day that he would continue to speak out and has done so on the recognition of North Vietnam and about Singapore. The ' Prime Minister has persistently failed to silence his Ministers or even to dissociate himself from what they say. Other countries are entitled to believe that when a Minister speaks he speaks with the authority of government.

The Prime Minister was clearly in difficulties. After the Victorian motion, Mr Barnard searched for ways of changing the Prime Minister's words '500 to 600' without appearing to give in to the pressures which were clear and apparent for everybody to see. The Minister for Defence said on 12th February that he had never put any figure on the number of troops who were to remain. Are we to assume that the Prime Minister said '500 to 600' without consultation with the Minister for Defence? That is what the plain meaning of the words was, that he had never put a number on the troops who were to remain and that it was a matter still under consideration. Reports stated that other Ministers revealed that the Prime Minister had not received Cabinet endorsement for his 2 statements on troop numbers. In the terms of open government, no doubt the Cabinet decisions will be disclosed to us. This was a clear attempt by the Minister for Defence to dilute the commitment of the Prime Minister. The Brenchley article had not been repeated in the daily Press.

The events of Tuesday, 13th February 1973 shocked all experienced journalists. It was a black day for Australian government and an equally black day for the Prime Minister. On that day, the Prime Minister did not hold his open Press briefing, although in full glory he had declared that he would have one after each Cabinet meeting. Instead, he called selected journalists into his room. He put them through a race. He said; 'You can come in, but you cannot'. He then gave the selected journalists in his room classified security information about an Australian defence intelligence system which is regarded by defence experts as critical to this nation's defence requirements. All persons possessed of this knowledge have an explicit duty not to disclose the information which the Prime Minister disclosed. There is a clear formula to follow when asked about security information. That is to refuse to confirm or to deny. If a secret is to be held, who possesses it must remain secret. If there is a denial of it, people can put together the positives by assembling the negatives.

The foreign cable services were excluded. This Press briefing was for domestic consumption. Nobody knows why the representative of the Australian Broadcasting Commission was shut out. Also excluded were representatives of radio and television services. But they found out. We then heard on radio and television services, reports to this effect: The Prime

Minister has revealed the existence of a defence intelligence network and has claimed the troops will be kept in Singapore in order to disguise them'. The information had received publicity as planned - so unfortunately did the source of the information receive publicity. That was the briefing by the Prime Minister. When a Prime Minister buys domestic political relief at such great cost to our national interest and to his own reputation he deserves the censure of this House.

The Opposition regarded the matter so seriously that I put to the Prime Minister a series of questions which I believe he had a responsibility to answer. The questions, all of which remain unanswered, were set out in a letter to the Prime Minister. I ask for leave for those questions to be incorporated in Hansard.

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