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Wednesday, 14 November 1973
Page: 3288

Mr THORBURN (COOK, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Has the Minister for Defence - (Honourable members interjecting) -

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The honourable member will resume his seat. Question time will not continue until the House comes to order.

Mr THORBURN - Has the Minister for Defence read newspaper reports, published after his tabling of the Whitmore Committee's report on defence legal services, in which there is a clear inference that senior public servants and senior Service officers have shown ineptitude and irresponsibility in negotiating contracts for the procurement of defence equipment, particularly in regard to the purchase of the Fl 1 1C aircraft? Are these newspaper reports correct?

Mr BARNARD - I did see the report relating to the tabling of the Whitmore report. There was an inference probably not an intentional inferencethat the problems were due to the failure of departmental officers and members of the military forces to give sufficient consideration to major contracts of defence procurement. I think that it should be clearly understood by the House as I am sure it is, certainly by those who have preceded me as Minister for Defence or as Service Ministers that the final responsibility for major defence procurement orders rests with the Minister in the first instance and with the Government in the final analysis. It is not the responsibility of departmental officers, except to give advice.

I turn to the second part of the question, which relates to theF111 program. Honourable members will recall that the decision to purchase the F111C aircraft from the United States of America was made in October 1963. The then Minister for Defence, the late Athol Townley, was in the United States of America and cabled back to the then Government the memorandum of understanding which involved the purchase of the F111C aircraft. At the same time he indicated to the then Cabinet that the United States offer would remain open for one month only and that it was not likely to be renewed. In those circumstances the Cabinet made a decision to purchase the F111C aircraft. I think that it ought to be pointed out to the House that amongst the members of that Cabinet led by the then Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, later Sir Robert Menzies, who himself is, of course, a distinguished lawyer, were the present Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Garfield Barwick, and a former Prime Minister, the right honourable member for Lowe. They are all lawyers and would be skilled in dealing with details of this nature. So it is quite clear that departmental officers at that time had little opportunity to advise the Government because of the decision that the Cabinet had made to accept the offer from the United States of America.

Let me turn finally to the last part of the honourable member's question, which relates to the Whitmore report. Two of the recommendations already have been adopted by the Department of Defence. The third, relating to defence procurements which have occurred in the past and about which there is some legal dispute, is now under investigation. As soon as that investigation has been completed the House will be advised. I conclude by repeating to the House that decisions on major items of defence procurement rest quite clearly with the Minister and the Government and, except for the advice which Ministers and the Government receive from them, no responsibility should be directed to departmental officials or members of the defence forces themselves.

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