The Minister for Defence, Malcolm Fraser, resigned from Prime Minister John Gorton’s Cabinet on March 8, 1971.
The following day, Fraser explained his resignation to the House of Representatives. In his speech, he accused Gorton of disloyalty that was “intolerable and not to be endured”.
Fraser said of Gorton: “The Prime Minister, because of his unreasoned drive to get his own way, his obstinacy, impetuous and emotional reactions, has imposed strains upon the Liberal Party, the Government and the Public Service. I do not believe he is fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister, and I cannot serve in his Government.”
The next day, March 10, 1971, the Liberal Party held a leadership ballot. Gorton was challenged by his Foreign Minister, William McMahon. The vote was tied and Gorton surrendered the leadership to McMahon. In a remarkable development, Gorton was then elected deputy leader to McMahon and became Defence Minister until he was sacked later in the year.
Fraser returned to the Cabinet as Minister for Education and Science in August 1971. He became leader of the Liberal Party in March 1975 and became Prime Minister on November 11, 1975, following the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
Text of Malcolm Fraser’s speech to the House of Representatives.
Mr MALCOLM FRASER (Wannon)– Mr Speaker, I take it from what has been said by the mover of this motion that there is no need for me to ask for the leave of the House to make a statement concerning recent Press reports and concerning the office I held as Minister of State for Defence. I was surprised to learn on the morning of Tuesday, 2nd March, that a story had appeared in the Sydney ‘Daily Telegraph’ alleging principally that the Joint Intelligence Organisation had been ordered to report to me on Australian Army activities in Vietnam because I did not trust Army reports. Immediately I reached Canberra, on my own initiative and not at the direction of the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton), I drafted a reply denying the report and pointing out the function of the Joint Intelligence Organisation. I emphasised that JIO is not an intelligence gathering organisation. It assesses information given to it by the Services in Vietnam, principally by the Army, by the Department of Foreign Affairs and by South Vietnamese Government agencies. It has no officer or office in Vietnam.
In the article there was to me a strong implication that the Joint Intelligence Organisation had been asked to spy on the Army. A report in the ‘Canberra Times’ of 3rd March and an editorial in the ‘Canberra News’ of 4th March had also assumed that the ‘Telegraph’ article implied spying on the Army. So I was not alone in my interpretation. I repeat: This is utterly false. Anyone should be able to see the difference between a broadly based assessment of the overseas political and defence matters of interest and importance to Australia, including Vietnam and Phuoc Tuy province and an operation alleged to be checking on the Army itself. The function of the Joint Intelligence Organisation – its role in support of defence planning – has been stated previously. The 1970 Defence Report stated:
The Joint Intelligence Organisation began operating on February 2, 1970, and is now giving active support to defence planning by the preparation of intelligence analyses and assessments on military, economic, scientific and technical matters affecting Australia’s defence.
One odd thing about the ‘Telegraph’ report is that the journalist who wrote it at no time sought to check its accuracy with me although a copy was shown to the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) who told me that in its original form General Daly’s name had featured. I would have thought that the journalist should have referred such a matter to the Minister primarily concerned. The Joint Intelligence Organisation is, of course, housed in the Department of Defence. It has civilian members from the Department of Defence, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and there is a significant number of servicemen from the three Services in this joint organisation.
I turn now to the article in the ‘Bulletin’ dated 6th March but on sale on Wednesday, 3rd March. I had, in the week before, given a background briefing to Mr Peter Samuel concerning Army civic action. Such briefings are a common and, I believe, a necessary practice to afford journalists a wider understanding of current events. Mr Samuel did not take shorthand, nor did he take notes during the briefing. He naturally put what I said together with previously held views of his own. Perhaps I had assumed more knowledge on his part than I ought; perhaps my explanations were not sufficiently clear. Whatever the fault, the result was a story with an interpretation that I regarded as inaccurate. General Daly saw me at length on Wednesday and together we drafted comments. I emphasise the word ‘comments’ because the report issued has, I think, been reported as a flat denial. The heading titled ‘Revolt’ – this was the heading in the article in the Bulletin’ – was, of course, nonsense and nobody would believe it. My reply stands. When it is read fully it will be seen that some of my comments on the article are related to perspective and interpretation rather than a denial. For example, I said that the Army supported civic action wholeheartedly as an important extension of military activities. It does, but there is the different question of civic action once combat activities have ceased. It is the view of the Government of which I was a member that civic action should be continued, as I had made clear.
In my answer to Mr Samuel’s article I pointed out that the Army in Vietnam was entitled to go outside Phuoc Tuy province without reference to Canberra. It could in fact be deployed anywhere in the Third Military Region under its directives. It was not that the Army was out of Phuoc Tuy that was of concern but the fact that the price paid in some loss of security in Phuoc Tuy in 1968 during and after the Tet offensive was not brought adequately to attention under the reporting system then used. All this occurred in 1968, long before the Joint Intelligence Organisation began making its regular broad based assessments of pacification, Vietnamisation and of the situation generally in South Vietnam and Indo China. These assessments began in June last year at my direction. They are assessments on Vietnam, not on the Australian Army, the United States Army or any other army. I stress again that they are based on information given to the Joint Intelligence Organisation principally by the Army itself so far as South Vietnam is concerned.
It may not also be understood that the Joint Intelligence Organisation is staffed significantly by members of the three Services. All policy directives were and are cleared through the Chairman. Chiefs of Staff Committee. The Army is involved in preparation of the monthly reports. Any government that did not have machinery for this kind of intelligence assessment would be failing in its duty.
It has been alleged also that I saw Mr Samuel’s article before it was published, and it was implied therefore that I had approved it. Earlier, 1 had not been concerned at what may appear in his article until I was told by the “Daily Telegraph’ from Sydney that its report had been discussed with Mr Samuel. If this was correct, it could mean that his report also would be what I would regard as inaccurate. Later, on Tuesday, 2nd March, I therefore spoke to Mr Samuel. He brought a copy to my home at 6.30 p.m., on Tuesday, 2nd March. I started to criticise the report but was told that the printing press would be rolling already; there was no point in further criticism of the article at that time. However, I draw the attention of the House to a major point of difference between the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Bulletin’ stories that concerns the treatment of the Joint Intelligence Organisation. There was no spying connotation in Mr Samuel’s article.
1 sec no reason, Mr Speaker, to comment on Press matters which have largely involved journalists quoting journalists. I come now to other matters I believe of greater importance. A report in the ‘Australian’ on Thursday. 4th March, alleged that General Daly had told the Prime Minister that I was disloyal to the Army and to Mr Peacock. It has since been confirmed by the Prime Minister and General Daly that that meeting took place on Monday afternoon, 1st March. General Daly has denied that charge – and I know that the Prime Minister has – but I wish to say something about loyalty.
My responsibility through the Government is to this Parliament and through it to the people of Australia. My ultimate loyalty must be to Australia. What is meant by ‘loyalty to the Army’? Does anyone mean that that requires a Minister to defend every act of commission or omission of the Army or does it mean that it ought to be defended when it is unjustly accused? If there is anyone in this House who believes that loyalty to a Service requires uncritical and universal support of its activities, that is not a concept that I can embrace for it would be a denial of parliamentary authority. I do not deny that there have been differences of opinion – the Press has labelled it ‘abrasion’ – with some Service relationships in Canberra. But I assert that any Minister for Defence who seeks to do his duty will have to seek to move people from old views and from views that may not embrace the total defence concept.
Let me give some examples. For many years, the chief Army establishments were traditionally based in south eastern Australia. When the Government was considering locations for a new task force base, before my time as Minister for the Army, the Army suggested the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, further removed from any source of strategic danger. In the event, the Government decided that a far more suitable location would be Townsville. It has taken a long time to get an accurate view of the cost and problems involved in installing a major Army unit in the West.
Posting turbulence has been a matter of concern as it affects many servicemen especially those with school age children. I have had several talks with the Chiefs of Staff and the personnel members of their boards on this topic – and including, of course, the Chairman. I was told that every thing possible was being done, but many complaints made from soldiers and their wives continued to come to me. So, through the Chairman. Chiefs of Staff Committee, the Services are now providing statistics of posting turbulence. Before, this information was not even compiled. Now at least it will enable the Minister for Defence and the Defence group to assess the matter objectively.
Lest anyone argue to the contrary, I affirm in the strongest terms that the decisions that we have taken about Vietnam have been based on and do not conflict with military advice. Let me emphasise here, too, in the strongest possible manner, that I have the highest possible regard for the qualities of the men and women in the fighting forces. By their continuing deeds on active service, devotion to duty at home and abroad, members of the Armed Forces are continuing to serve with the highest possible distinction in a manner that enhances the traditions of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. What I have just said applies particularly to servicemen and women on operational duty in Vietnam.
If there is resistance to change there may be some who resent and do not understand the role of the Department of Defence. Therefore I seek to clarify it, because there has been some implication that the Army is an independent organisation. Of course it is not. Let me establish some facts about the responsibility of the Minister for Defence, the duties of his military and civilian advisers in the Department of Defence and the established machinery whereby the individual and collective advice of the Chairman and Chiefs of Staff of the 3 Armed Services reaches the Minister for Defence.
Almost 13 years ago in this House the then Prime Minister referred to what he called the clear and commanding authority of the Minister and the Department of Defence. He announced the intention to issue an administrative direction which would, as he said, establish the complete superiority of the Department of Defence in the field of policy. The 3 Service departments and the Department of Supply were, for stated reasons, to operate within the general policy authority of the Department of Defence. In 1958 the Prime Minister issued the confidential administrative direction as to how the Department of Defence was to operate under its Minister in pursuance of the announced policy. Responsible for the defence policy of the country, the Minister for Defence and his Department would under the directive have a corresponding authority and duty to see that the policy was made effective by acting strongly – in the actual words of the then Prime Minister – to see that the defence policies were carried out by every one of the armed forces. So it was that the Department for which I was made responsible to this Parliament acquired the authority which I exercised until yesterday.
The Minister for Defence takes his advice from military and civilian sources, either compositely or separately, according to the subject. Every Service, whether through its responsible Minister or its Chief of Staff, has a channel requiring it to contribute to the making of defence policy, just as the Minister for Defence has channels for satisfying himself that the Service is carrying out the defence policy laid down and for directing it if it strays off course. Each Service Minister has the right of access direct. Each Service chief has that right. There is a fabric of high level committees, in all of which the Chiefs of Staff and the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee sit either with the Secretary of the Department of Defence and other senior officials, or in the case of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, without the attendance of civilians except on rare occasions.
On matters that involve the conduct of military operations, such as the direction of Austraiian military operations in Vietnam, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee offers advice to the Minister for Defence after consulting the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Orders and directives to our joint forces overseas go in the name of the Chairman, not of a single Service chief. The Chairman works in the Department of Defence and is in constant touch with the predominantly uniformed staff in the joint staff of the Department of Defence. More than that, the Chairman must in his own right advise the Minister for Defence on military matters as the principal military adviser to the Minister for Defence. From 1965 until 4 months ago the office was occupied by a distinguished soldier and former Chief of the General Staff. He has been succeeded by the former Chief of the Naval Staff, an officer with great experience.
Chiefs of the armed Services doubtless have their own views about the decisions they would like to see from the perspective mind capabilities and contributions of their own Service. They have, I suggest, ample means of influencing their colleagues to render the collective military advice that they individually believe to be right. I would expect them to argue their views strongly.
I have added to these’ channels of communication with regular meetings of Service Ministers which did not take place before, with the Chairman and the Chiefs of Staff and other members of their boards as required. But the ultimate decision and responsibility belongs to the Minister for Defence and his immediate advisers. All honourable members would agree that we cannot in our system have a politically involved Service head. The defence role is emphasised by the fact that for the first time the Department of Defence has shown an active interest in the pay and conditions of service, where formerly it was left to the Services to speak to Treasury alone. Since I became Minister for Defence pay and allowances for service men and women have been increased by more than $60m in a full year. The Kerr Committee, an independent committee of inquiry, has started work aimed at providing long term recommendations to improve conditions of service.
The centralisation of authority in a department of defence containing senior civilian and military advisers has not proceeded anything like as far in Australia as it has in many Western democracies, including countries in close relations with us. Specifically I have in mind Britain, the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Further progressive steps are necessary towards closer integration of many activities of our three Services under effective direction of the Minister for Defence and it has been the policy to pursue that. In the words of a former Prime Minister:
Close contacts and the promotion of common services wherever possible will tend to produce a growing integration of outlook and ideas and will tend to give a unitary significance and thus a more effective value to the total defence effort.
One of the tasks of the Minister for Defence is to balance civilian and military advice. There are clearly matters that must be firmly discussed. This has been done, I believe, with understanding and good sense. There are now few who do not believe that in the complex arrangement of defence policy civilian expertise must play a significant part. The ultimate task of defence is to look into the future, to assess the strategic circumstances in which Australia will find itself in the years ahead and then, with Government approval, to translate that assessment into effective forces which will meet our national needs.
It is for all these matters that the Minister for Defence is responsible through the Government to the Parliament, and to Australia. I have been well and truly served by the personnel of the Department of Defence. 1 pay a particular tribute to the Secretary and to the Chairman. No Minister for Defence can carry this heavy task unless he has the active support of the Prime Minister. Unless he has that support he cannot maintain an adequate authority over the Services. If they feel there is an appeal direct to the Prime Minister, the co-ordination of policy and the chain of command disintegrate.
On Monday afternoon when the Prime Minister heard reports of the impending ‘Telegraph’ article that appeared on 2nd March he in his own words sent for General Daly and assured him of support, thus violating the chains of command, chains of authority. There was no reference to me and no attempt to contact me until it would have been too late to prevent the false allegation appearing. In fact I did not speak to the Prime Minister until 10.45 a.m. on Tuesday, 2nd March. From the nature of his statement of 4th March, the Prime Minister apparently knew the precise nature of the allegations. He assured General Daly of unequivocal and absolute support – I believe an impetuous and a characteristic action. I should have been contacted, even called back to Canberra if necessary.
On Wednesday, 3rd March, journalist Alan Ramsey saw the Prime Minister. He told him he had a story that General Daly had accused me of disloyalty to the Army and to Mr Peacock. In his own words, the Prime Minister did not comment on this report, on this essential part of it. He refused to comment. The Prime Minister claims he does not comment on reports of private conversations even though he knew it would lead to a report damaging both to its target – myself – and to its alleged spokesman, General Daly. In plain words, the Prime Minister would prefer to allow a false and damaging report to be published about a senior Minister. Later, both he and General Daly denied the report. Which principle is more important – silence about a conversation, or loyalty to a senior colleague? One sentence would have killed the report. The Prime Minister, by his inaction, made sure it would cover the front page. As I have indicated in my letter of resignation, I found that disloyalty intolerable and not to be endured. It should not be thought that this act alone has brought me to this point. Since his election to office, the Prime Minister has seriously damaged the Liberal Party and cast aside the stability and sense of direction of earlier times. He has a dangerous reluctance to consult Cabinet, and an obstinate determination to get his own way. He ridicules the advice of a great Public Service unless it supports his view.
But let me give one example. Little notice was taken of a Press statement issued by the Prime Minister on 20th July 1970 concerning the call out of troops in New Guinea. Nobody knew of the unpublished drama of the previous week. During the Gazelle Peninsula crisis in Papua and New Guinea there was a possibility that the police would not be able to contain the situation. A course of action had been set in train that had as its central point the possibility of a serious confrontation with the Mataungan Association. This plan was not discussed with Cabinet. The first I heard of the matter was when I was asked to arrange for a call out of the Pacific Islands Regiment on 14th July. I immediately took advice from my Department and the Defence Committee. Part of the advice was to the effect that the legal consideration for a call out had not been fulfilled. T made it plain that 1 would not sign such an order until the legal considerations had been fulfilled and until Cabinet had been consulted. After some days the Attorney-General flew to Port Moresby and, on his return, T received his advice. Cabinet met on Sunday, 19th July, at the Lodge. With Cabinet authority I then signed that call out order. The Prime Minister had resisted Cabinet discussion from the outset. The attitude was: ‘This is the course I want and that is all there is to it’.
It is also not known that a letter from the Minister for External Territories (Mr Barnes) saying that both he and the Administrator considered it appropriate for the call out order to be revoked by a further recommendation to the Governor-General was sent to the Prime Minister. I received a copy on 16th September, and I supported it in my own letter to the Prime Minister on 17th September 1970. Despite this the Prime Minister has refused to allow adequate Cabinet discussion to decide whether or not the original order should be revoked. It still stands, and possibly illegally. This was an important matter. It involved not only the possibility of the Pacific Islands Regiment being used but also its subsequent reinforcement from Australia. It could have involved Australian troops having to fire on people from Papua and New Guinea. The Prime Minister did not believe that Cabinet discussion was warranted.
The original plan and the call out were both matters of the highest importance. The Prime Minister fought to prevent Cabinet discussion. If such a discussion had not been held despite my insistence, I would have resigned then. I have now done so as a result of what I have regarded as the Prime Minister’s disloyalty to a senior Minister. The Prime Minister, because of his unreasoned drive to get his own way, his obstinacy, impetuous and emotional reactions, has imposed strains upon the Liberal Party, the Government and the Public Service. I do not believe he is fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister, and I cannot serve in his Government.
*Front page of The Australian, March 10, 1971.