SPEECH BY THE LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION (Mr John Curtin) IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, Thursday, March 13, 1941.
This speech was marked by the fact that, for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth Parliament, a speech was received with hand-clapping.
"This is the Parliament of a democracy, and we who are here are the representatives and the trustees of that democracy. As such, we have a responsibility far in excess of that of any individual member of that democracy. In the very nature of things we should be as fully informed as it is possible for us to be, so that our responsibility may be wisely discharged. We cannot discharge it with even such poor wisdom as we might possess unless the greatest amount of fact is at our disposal; unless we know the precise situation in all its aspects.
"To the extent that we are not informed must our judgment suffer at least some impairment; therefore, we cannot give the maximum of our counsel although we have, I submit, the maximum of responsibility.
"The Government is responsible to the Parliament; individual members of the Parliament are responsible to the people. The Government has declared the situation to be one of the utmost gravity; it is common knowledge that the whole future of representative government as we know it in this country is at stake.
"The Government says: 'We desire to inform members of the Parliament far more fully than has hitherto been possible, so that at this period of the war the representatives of the people can have a stock-taking of what we have done and what the situation is.'
"That is the right and proper thing to do, having regard to the fact that we have now been at war since September 3, 1939 and that the state of the war today is far different from what it was at any earlier period.
"I shall not examine all that has taken place other than to show that, despite what might be said; wherever it might be said; by whomsoever it might be said, the document which was issued under the joint signatures of the acting-Prime Minister (Mr Fadden), Mr Beasley, M.P. and myself was one to which I subscribed with a full sense of the meaning of every word in it, and every implication associated with it. (Members: 'Hear, hear.')
"I do not lightly subscribe my name to any document, especially do I not lightly subscribe my name in association with the Leader of an opposing political party. In this case, I did so not lightly, but with the most sober sense of duty to the men and women of this country. I stand to it today. (Members: 'Hear, hear.')
"I merely ask that the Government shall be allowed to submit to members of the Parliament an outline of the situations at that time and how it arose, so that they may, at least, have some realisation of what were the actual facts.
"What is it that the Government asked us to do yesterday, and asks of us again today? It is nothing more than to be allowed to put before the members of this Parliament, among other things, a statement of the naval position of Australia which involves, of course, consideration of the naval position of the British Empire and of other countries as well. Is that a matter to be bandied about in the newspapers; to be the subject of all sorts of speculation and conjecture, by those who cannot possibly know the facts? Is the country too exposed to all sorts of constructions in other countries, founded upon distorted accounts of what has been said in this Parliament? The rest of it consists of a statement which may be described as military intelligence."
Dr H.V. Evatt (Labor, Barton) : And naval dispositions.
Mr Curtin: Naval matters, naval dispositions and naval strength, of both Australia and Great Britain.
"Surely to goodness, having regard to what has occurred, to what I, at any rate, know to be true, nobody will say that the position of Australia in a naval sense today is such that we can talk about it lightly and refuse to listen to the facts, or that we can form opinions about it without knowing the facts.
"Does anybody suggest for one moment that, in order that we might be equipped to know the facts, it is imperative that everybody else in Australia shall know them, which would mean that those who are enemies of this country would also get to know them?
"The safety of this country is the sole purpose of the message which the three leaders (Messrs Fadden, Curtin and Beasley) submitted to the people of Australia. All the matters integral and related to the safety of this country come within the major responsibility of every member of this Parliament.
"The Prime Minister and his Ministers carry a very grave responsibility because of the offices which they hold; but this Parliament has consented to the setting up of a further branch of responsibility in connection with the conduct of the war. At the request of the Opposition, and as an alternative to certain proposals by the Government, a body has been established which is sworn to respect the knowledge which comes to it and to give wise counsel. To be a 'faithful counsellor' is the oath taken by members of the War Council.
"That advisory body has a trusteeship to this country and to the Parliament. It desires that members who have this responsibility shall not discharge it without possession of, at least, knowledge of the major facts and the substance of the situation.
"It is silly to say that every man in this country is entitled to know what members of Parliament know. Motions have been moved at conferences of the A.L.P. that the Press be admitted, and I have opposed them. They have been rejected invariably because we would not give our political enemies knowledge of what the Labor council of war was going to do or how it was going to do it.
"It is no new thing for me, or for any other man who has responsibility to have to accept a duty that involves standing up to propositions, knowing full well he could not supply the reasons for them because from the very nature of the case, disclosure would not be wise.
"All this talk about Star Chambers; about smothering up profiteering; about operating in the interests of the monopolists of Australia, has its proper place. I say frankly that there is no question of profiteering involved in what Ministers desire to state to members of the Parliament at the secret meeting. No defence of profiteering will be tolerated by me, for the profiteering is, in itself, an offence against the safety and the welfare of Australia, not only while we are at war but also at any other time.
"I am not going to have it alleged, or even construed, by those whom it may please so to construe it, that, by standing up for Australia and its safety at this time I am in active collusion with persons who wish to exploit the country and impose worse conditions upon the workers.
"My record of 35 years' service to the Australian Labor Movement speaks for itself.
"I have never stood for injustice to the workers. I have always resisted injustice to them.
"As a matter of fact, since this war began, I have done more to secure justice for the workers than any other man in Australia has done." (Members: 'Hear, hear.')