PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 2518


Photo of McMahon, William

McMahon, William

Period of Service: 10/03/1971 to 05/12/1972

More information about McMahon, William on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 26/01/1972

Release Type: Press Conference

Transcript ID: 2518

PRIME MINISTER Just before Christmas, David Solomon asked me
' if I would have a meeting of the Press Gallery to give them
a briefing on those papers that had been considered by
Cabinet and to which I could give a press release. And I
said I would do my best to meet the wishes of the Gallery.
This is the first attempt. We have sat until rather late
0 this afternoon, so it took a pretty substantial effort to
try and get these three statements out for you, but I have
done it. And I arranged with David that I would give
you the press release I regret that I haven't begn able to
give you as much time to read through and chew over it as
I would have liked; and that there would be a briefing
relating to these press releases, but not to be a general
cross-examination, relating to my tortious activities in the
past I was going to use the word " criminal" but I bit
my tongue just in time!
So I have now given them to you and I thought if
you~ liked, the one that probably had -the greatest interest
for you is this one relating to war-time Government papers.
The statement is there and I think you bill agree that we have
now adopted a practice that is much the same as the British
practice in other words, the thirty years' access rule
will apply. We are making the rule apply to the War Gbinet
itself, the Advisory War Council and the Production Executive
as well as Cabinet documents that come within the thirty-year
period. I mention, too, that there are some papers that we
will have to look at, and I think you will find that what
I have said closely follows the British practice of protecting
specially sensitive papers, documents containing information
supplied in confidence and documents containing information
about individuals. Now we have one problem, and that is and I have
set it out here that for some time we didn't keep archives
in the same way as other countries have done, and now that

we are building up the archives themselves, we will find.
that we haven't got at the moment sufficient personnel
to process the papers, to be able to make them available
quickly. So I will take it up with the Public Service Board
I gave instructions that the matter was to be taken up
urgently with'the Public Service Board to proiide staff to
permit it to be done. I believe round about twenty will
be asked for and probably agreed. But uttil we get the
staff recruited and trained, we will borrow them from
other Departments and get temporary officers, particularly
retired persons, and if necessary from the university.
The only other matter that I think I should
specifically refer to is that while the War Cabinet papers,
War Council and Production Executive papers have been to a
large extent kept and they are indexed and I believe can be
pretty quickly processed, the others will take a considerable
period of time and therefore we will probably have to do it
in groups. I think that sets out the matter as best I can
in a short compass, but I have got the officer of the
Department, Mr Keith Sinclair, who has done a lot of work
on it since I first-gave them the instructions to work on
it, so if. you want to ask any questions, I'll answer them.
IfI ha ven't got the information imm~ ediately avaiable I'll
get Peter to do it for me.
~ Q. I was just wondering why the seleiction of 1941
will this be the change of Government 1939-41? Why select
that period, and not year by year?
PM: For what purpose?
Q. t ell the firtt ones going to be released are 1939-41
and the others will be separately.. do the 39-41 ones only
deal with a Labor Government came in or
PM: No, it was just because it was the first three years.
1939 was the year the war started and it was the first one,
and 39-41 the first years as a group that we can handle as
possible, and we want to get them out in groups. We feel
this could be done expeditiously. / 3

Q. Whose responsibility will it be to decide the
number of exceptions, what is an exceptionally sensitive
paper7? This is obviously a matter of opinion very often.
Will there be one officer who makes that decision that a
particular paper or document is a sensitive one? Will it
be yourself, or will you allocate that responsibility to a
PM: All of this will now be handed over to the Department
of the Environment..
iIt will be open to Mr Howson to
PM: No, I will lay down the rules, but I think youcan
take it that in the archives themselves, that is the section
dealing with the archives we will ap~ oint a fairly senior
person to look at the documents to see whether or not they
come within the exception provisions. And if they feel that/ they
are in any doubt, any seiious doubt about it, they can refer
it through Department of Environxnentlo myself.
Q. Sir, would you elaborate a bit more on this officer
I am a bit concerned about who will decide whether they
are contrary to the public interest or.. security. Will this be
an of~ icer that you7 are going to appoint or will it be an
officer that you have already in mind?
Well I have got one in mind, yes, but I have not yet
decided whether I will get a panel of names and then ask one
of the people in the panel whether he will take over the
responsibility. It will be a very senior person.
It will be one person?
PM: I am not sure of that either, but it looks as though
it will be one person.
Q. will it be a public servant or
PM: An ex-public servant, I think. A public servant, or
ex-public servant. / 4

O PM: Will he make any recommendation to you or Cabinet?
No, he will get his charter, he will get his terms
of reference, but in cases where he feels doubt-, he can
refer it to me though the Departmen't of the Environment.
PrimeMinister, interest in these documents was
sparked by the release of particular documents by the
British Cabinet relating to the exchange between Prime
Minister Curtin and Prime Minister Churchill over the
re-posting of the Australian Forces. Haven't you felt
that it might be fairer to get those documents brought out
first rather than some time in the future, as they won't be
covered by the first release?
I don't know whether it will be fairer or not
because. I haven't read the papers and I don't know what
is in them. I know they are a massive lot of documents
and if I start picking and choosing, I think you will
find we will get into a mess, But nonetheless, if a
person comes along and has a special requirement, it could
thebne reerred to me and I will then make a deci-ion
whether. it should be looked at specially. I think this is
the way. I wanted to look at it whe-n the paper was being
prepared. Could" 1 just say this to you, I want to assure
you that there is a mass of documents. How many feet of
paper there, Peter?
MR BAILEY One hundred feet of. War Caloinet papers, solid papers.
And that doesn 6t mean fileEv, it means individual papers.
One hundred feet tall J. f you like, yes.
And then volume, what is the volume?
PM: That is the volume, one hundred feet tall.
MR BAILEY That is foolscap. And similarly with the Cabinet
papers. There is something like another twenty feet not
as much.
Q. Has the Leader of the opposition been consulted, or
will his consent be required for any of the documents
concerning the time the Labor Government was in power.? ( o&

PM: Well, he has already sent a message that he would
be willing to do this. Of course he will be informed of this
decision, and in sensitive cases relating to the Labor
Government, of course he will be consulted.
Q. You meptioned that this will happen as soon as
possible, Prime Minister. Is it possible to put a more,
PM: No, I can't.
Q. Could you say weeks or months?
PM: No, I can't do that. Unless, Peter, you can give
some guidance on it. All I wanted ' to do was to get the
decisions out because this is what I can do as a Pr'ime
Minister. As to the details of the administration, I have got
to leave it to the Department of-* the Environment, but they
know they have got to act quickly.
Q. Prime Minister, Sir John McEwin, when he was in
the Cabinet when the Cabinet previously discussed the release
of. Departmental papers, I understand made a specific proviso
on'documents relating to the Country Party...
PM: Not so far as I am aware. Certainly it isn't in the
Q. There is nothing of that nature that would preclude
any individual particular Party..
PM. No0.
Q. When they do become available, what form can we as
journalists... . will we be able to2'? n and pore over them as
PM:. Well they are to be made available generally. We
thought primarily it would be for the purpose of scholars,
but certainly the newspapers will have access to them. / 6

MR BAILEY There will be a difference, PrimeMinister, between
the Cabinet papers which will be put in order before they are
released, as it were, so there will be pretty quick access to
those. The vast number of documents that the Archives Office
has from all Departments occupy acres and acres of space, so
they can't do th~ t as quickly, but they will be trying to.
So this is why the Government has said they want the extra
staff to get those papers in more order from the middle of
the year. They won't be for immediate access. It's not
possible for them.
M: Look, I can simplify this by say'ing that the Department
of the Environment know how urgent it is and so do my own
people in the Cabinet Secretariat, and they will be doing all
they can to make them available as soon as they can.,
Q. In future now that the thirty-year access rule will
apply to Cabinet papers, will they * be made available each
year on the 1st of January or will there be a batch made
available every couple of years?
SM: Oh, I think you will have to leave that. I haven't
considered it. I don't regard it as relvant. The main thing
is to get these War Cabinet papers out and the Advisory War
Council. I think this is what the public wants and I think this
is what the media and the scholars want.
Q. One point has been made in the past and that is the
man in charge of the Archives is a middle level Third Division
officer, and a Class 8. And it has been put to me that nothing
very much Will happen until that position is made into a Second
Division position.
PM: Well he is an Assistant Secretary level, but what you
are asking me now is something relevant to the principles
involved here, not the techniques. We will be expanding the
Department as I said. The fellow who is head of it now is
at FI". rst Assislnt Secretary level.
Q. Prime Minister, could I ask you why it has taken so
long for us to make this decision to release the documents?

PM: Q.
Q. PM: I am not prepared to answer that sort of a question
as to whether I have been informed or whether I have been
con~ sulted because if it so happens that the President would
be willing to give advance information to myself, and I make
it public, then it could cause great inconvenience to him and
in time I would be very certain I wouldn't be getting information.
I mention that as a philosophical matter rather than mention
specific details. Perhaps I can say this to you that since
Dr Kissinger's visit to Peking, I believe that I could not under
any circumstances feel that there was a ground on which the
Australian-Governivnt could complain because of our treatment
by the Ame~ rican Administration. But I will not in future, if I
am asked a question ' Were you consulted", I will not unless there
are special circumstances, give an answer because I don't want
to dry up our sources of information.
As our own forces are involved, I would think the public
would assume we would be consulted if our own forces are going
to be kept in Vietnam or
I thought it was done fairly quickly.
Well there has been considerable pressure, as you have
no doubt been aware, from various sources that these things
should be released
This is,' the first Cabinet that we have had in the New
Year and it was decided during the two days that the Gbinet
met. Could it not have been decided by you?
It could have been, yes, I prepared the paper for it
and put it up to Cabinet and it was accepted, but it was one
that needed to go to Cabinet, and in any event, the delay is
not that great. It would have at the most have been a week.
Can I switch on to the President Nixon annonncement?
What consultations have you had with the President on the
announcement he made?
Q. PM: LtI 11

PM: Well, I think you can see mnere that I have actually
put in this statement that our own forces would be withdrawn
if the agreement is made, then it would cover our forces too.
Q. That is why I assumed the Australian Government would
tell the Presiden , t of the United States it agrees with that,
that is why I was getting at consultations
PM: Well I will go this far. I will assure you that our
forces will be withdrawn. And that is our decision. We don't
depend on the United States or anyone else to tell us what we
should or should not do. We make the decisions ourselves.
Q. One base point about President Nixon's speech today
was that Dr Kissinger originally provided this eight-point
plan way back in October 1969. 1 thi'nk the interest that Alan
was asking on, and certainly what I am interested in is whether
we were aware of the negotiating terms over that cDnsiderable
period or whether we have just learnt the negotiating terms
just now.
PM: I have told you I will go no further than I have gone.
Q. * I am not asking about consultations. I am just asking
about level of knowledge, if I can put it that way, Sir.
PM: And if I say that to you, then it becomes perfectly
obvious that I might have been one of the few who knew. Arnd
I can assure you if I were to give any further information
it could cause problems. And I think you know President Nixon
has great problems associated zith the problem of secrecy, and
I am sure of this that he trusts the Australian Government
impl ic it Iy.
Q. Sir, how would the decision that we have made that our
troops would be withdrawn affect our decision to train the
Cambodians and Vietnamese in this country?
PM: It wouldn't affect them. / 9

Q. That would still go on?
PM: It would only . all it would affect is any
decision that might be made about the training of South
Vietnamese in South Vietnam.
It wouldn't affect the decision that we have Mpade
to train Cambodians here in Australia?
PM: No, it would not. It is not within contemplation.
That is something to be thought of later.
Q. But that will continue?
PM: I won't say it will continue. It is something that
has to be considered at a later date.
Q. Is it likely to be continued?
PM" 1 It might or might not.
Q. . Does that also apply to our supply of equipment
, to Cambodia? Would that continue, too?
PM: I haven't given the question of-. supply of equipment
consideration, and to the best of my knowledge, it hasn't
received consideratim. What has received consideration
is what I have got in the document and that is the total
withdrawal of forces.
Q. Are you optimistic about any agreement from the
other side?
PM: If past experience is any criterion, and because
I have been pretty well informed from diplomatic sources
including my own Department, of initiatives that have been
taken, and because I also participated in this other conference
on Cambodia, I feel that the only statement that I could make
is that if the North Vietnamese live up to their past
practices and then the prospects are not what I would
regard as very glowing. I hope they will. I sincerely.

hope they will, and on the conditions laid down by President
Nixon, because I think we all want to see an end to these
difficulties up there and we would like the South Vietnamese
to have the opportunity to determine.... to have a vote to
determine the kind of Government they want and to determine
their own future, and that is why I specifically referred in
this document to so:-Jething that has been very substance
of the Australian Government's attitude to participation
in Vietnam, when I referred in the fifth paragraph to various
points in the Nixon statement, that coincides exactly with
our own views. On the Army stataient, Prime Minister, just one
thing. YoiII mention here " military district headquarters 6
in ech State". Does this mean th~ t in places outside
Sydney and Melbourre, for instance, Adelaide and Perth....
in Sydney and Melbourne, too, there will
be a District Headquarters in each State.
How does this affect the overall organisation in
terms of real estate and existing organisation there...
in terms of property they hold
It won't affect them to any great extent other
than in Canberra and Melbournc. In Canberra, there will
be a substantial reduction in the demands for real estate.
In Melbourne there will be an increase in the demand for
real estate. Have you got any details as to what extent...?
No, but in Melbourne it will... . in Melbourne and
Canberra it will be quite substantial the demand. But I
want to emphasise to you thaLt so far as-units are consideredtraining
or operational units are cancer e aif ted
organisational matter dealing with the higher Command. And if
I can now remind you, when I was Minister for Air a few vears
ago, I carried out a similar kind of change in the Air Force
and changed it from a lines of communication geographical
system to a functional system, and as one who has had some ./ 11
Q. PM: Q. PM:

some experience, too, in the war years of what we had to do to
move away from a geographical system to a functional command
and all the difficulties that persisted throughout the war,
I am sure this is right.
Q. Will the breakdown be such that one area becomes a
training area, or one area a logistic area, or will the State
Commands combine all of these things?
PM: The command only will be in t'ie Sttte and the disposition
of the units themselves will not be changed.
PM: Now, I have been trying to get one or two other documents
ready for you, but if I am not here tomorrow -and I hope I won't
be -but at least I will get an officer I will have to get you,
Peter, if you don't mind and you, Keith, if you are here, I will
get you to come down and give a briefing to let you know about it.
Q. Documents on what, Sir?
PM: I didn't say! Look, I hope this is what you want.
At least it is the way I cleared it with Dalr'd Solomon. I think
I. Iill be able to say this to you in future that I will be trying
to . when-a paper comes into Cabinet... I will be trying to
get some sort of press release for you when it comes in and it
can be suitably changed to meet the amendments that are made in
Cabinet discussions, and recorded in the final decision. But
at least this is a start. The second thing I want to do, and
again this is because-David Solomon came down on behalf of the
Gallery, is to see if we can , immediately after meetings of the
Party, if I can give you half an hour's briefing on what happened
there, certainly on those subjects that. are not too sensitive
and I don't think there are any. But I willfake it up with the
Party at its next meeting.
Q. That would be most useful. Mr Whitlam, as you apprecizte
does this, but not in things that are going into the Parliament
in the future. I would hope it wouldn't preclude press conferences
on general topics. ./ 12

PM: No, but I don't want to mix the two up.
The last two days we have made handled 15 or 18 decisions
and you wouldn't be able to handle a press conference on
the whole lot of them, but in any event, I will do what
I can.
Q. When do you think it will be likely we couldhave
a full-scale press conference; I am thinking particularly
of economic matters and other things that are of interest
at this time...
PM: Well, I will give that some thought and I will
let the Secretarycf the Press Gallery know.

Transcript 2518