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Tuesday, 7 September 1920

Mr ATKINSON (Wilmot) .- I must confess that I approach the consideration of the Bill with a certain amount of diffidence. Everybody desires to see peace within the Public Service, but, judging from the tone of the debate, there appears to be some doubt as to whether the Service ought to be removed from the jurisdiction of the Arbitration Court or not. If there is any pronounced objection to the Bill, it would be a waste of time to proceed with it, but I do not think the public servants will be seriously prejudiced if cases affecting the Service are decided by a properly selected Arbitrator instead of a Judge of the Arbitration Court as at present.

Mr Riley - Members of the Public Service ought to be the best judges of that matter.

Mr ATKINSON - Possibly, and I admit that so far as the successful administration of the Bill is concerned, a great deal will depend upon the person to be selected as Arbitrator. His . appointment will be for a period of seven years; but I think that if he had the security of tenure enjoyed by a Judge he would probably act with a little more firmness, and might resist any temptation to ingratiate himself with the authorities in order to secure re-appointment. Then, again, there is the question of the assessors. I approve of the principle, and if anything is going to be done to give effect to it, I would suggest that the Minister (Mr. Groom) make provision at once, so that when the Committee stage is reached there will not be any danger of an amendment being ruled out of order. The Arbitrator will occupy a strong position, and I think it would be as well for the Minister to consider certain amendments that appear to be desirable. ' For . instance, the Arbitrator will have the right to determine the nature of the evidence to be admitted.

Sir Robert Best - And has not every Judge that power?

Mr ATKINSON - The Arbitrator will exercise all the powers of an ordinaryJudge, and be able to reject irrelevant evidence, but I think it quite possible that one side or the other might be prejudiced by the exercise of this power. Altogether, it seems to be a new principle, and might cause trouble.

Then, again, clause 16 contains a provision that the Arbitrator need not be restricted to a specific claim or to the subjectmatter of a claim, but may include in his determination any other matter which he thinks necessary in the interests of the public or of the Public Service. This principle, I think, might conflict with decisions of other authorities. For instance, I believe it is intended, in another measure, to provide for the appointment of a Board of Management, and it is quite possible that the activities of that body might be seriously hampered by determinations of the Arbitrator under clause 16. These are, however, matters that can best be dealt with in Committee, but I think the Minister would be well advised to give consideration to them at this stage, and particularly the question of appointing two assessors.

Sir Robert Best - Do you mean permanent assessors ?

Mr ATKINSON - They need not be appointed permanently. They could be selected from time to time from those branches of the Public Service that might be more directly concerned in particular cases, and I feel satisfied that they would be of very material assistance to the Arbitrator.

Mr West - The Public Service would rather have the present Arbitration Court than this riddle.

Mr ATKINSON - Possibly that is so, but as I have already said, I do not think the Public Service will be seriously prejudiced by the appointment of an Arbitrator. If there is a section of the Service which considers that it ought to have its conditions altered it has only to file a plaint or memorial, and proceed to state its case. The Arbitrator then gives to the Minister or Commissioner notice concerning the points on which objections have been raised when a conference is called. Apparently at such conferences it is intended, as far as possible, that many of the points of dispute shall be cleared up, and that the Arbitrator shall settle those on which they do not agree. It is at this stage that the Arbitrator will be able to say whether certain evidence is necessary or not. I do not know whether it is altogether wise to allow the word " necessary " to remain, because without it the Arbitrator would have power to reject irrelevant evidence.

Mr Nicholls - He should not have the power to reject any evidence.

Mr ATKINSON - An Arbitrator always possesses certain implied powers of that character, and perhaps no reasonable objections can be raised on that account. I do not think that the members of the Civil Service are likely to suffer by being excluded from the Arbitration Court. They will certainly possess the distinct advantage of having their cases dealt with more expeditiously than if they went to the Arbitration Court. While I am not altogether enamoured of the Bill, I do not feel disposed to vote against the second reading.

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