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Thursday, 20 May 1920

Mr HUGHES (Bendigo) (Prime Minister) . - I move -

That this Bill be now read a second time.

This measure is introduced primarily as a result of representations made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Tudor) and the honorable member for Maranoa (Mr. James Page), who took exception to the proportion of members appointed to the Public Accounts Committee from the Opposition benches. When that point was raised, I said that whilst I did not admit that the representation had not been accorded with due regard to the numerical strength of the various parties, yet, in view of the fact that in the last Parliament the Opposition had three representatives on the Committee, I would introduce a measure to amend the Act by providing for the appointment of an additional member fromthis House. This Bill so provides. In addition to that, the Bill incorporates a number of clauses taken from the Commonwealth Public Works Committee Act of 1913. To the best of my recollection, this measure repeats in substance the provisions of a Bill introduced by my predecessor, Mr. Fisher. By glancing through the Bill, honorable members will understand at once to what extent the scope of the Public Accounts Committee is being widened, and the reasons for that course. The measure does not provide for any extra remuneration being paid to members of the Committee. The Act makes provision for a Joint Committee of nine members, and certain duties are conferred upon them, and powers given them to take evidence on oath. This Bill increases the number to ten. Specific provision is made for the appointment of a chairman and vice-chairman, and a temporary chairman to preside in the absence of the other two. The same clause determines the manner in which questions before the Committee shall be decided. That clause is identical with the provision in the Public Works Committee Act. Clause 4 gives the Committee power to summon witnesses, and to compel the production of documents; and provision is made for the issue of a warrant for the arrest of any persons who refuse to appear in obedience to a summons. That is a very necessary power. There are also penalties for disobedience of a summons, or for preventing witnesses from giving evidence. As the Act is worded at present, though the Committee may take evidence on oath or affirmation, there is no power to compel the attendance of witnesses. This Bill gives that power, which, on the face of it, is very necessary. It prescribes also the form of oath or affirmation to be administered to witnesses, and provides for the punishment of persons refusing to be sworn, or to give evidence after having been sworn. Generally, the Bill repeats all those sections in the Public Works Committee Act which the Legislature has enacted as a result of experience, and which, having been omitted from the Public Accounts Committee Act, impairs the efficiency of that body to a vital degree.

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