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Friday, 29 October 1920

Mr GREGORY (Dampier) .- This matter was mentioned to me a few days ago, and I understood that it was of very great urgency. I gathered that a contract had been entered into; that trouble had arisen in connexion with it; that a resort to arbitration would mean indefinite delay, and that it was extremely desirable that these vessels should be available at the earliest possible moment. I was asked whether the Public "Works Committee would undertake an inquiry, so as to be able to make a recommendation to the Government.

Mr Ryan - Who approached the honorable member?

Mr GREGORY - The Secretary to the Prime Minister. So far as I know, there is no suggestion of anything that would require investigation at the hands of a Royal Commission. There is nothing demanding a special investigation other than can be secured under the Statute controlling the Public Works Committee. The Committee has full power to take evidence on oath. In ordinary circumstances the reference should undoubtedly have been to the Public Accounts Committee. That Committee, however, is engaged upon a special investigation, which it is estimated will occupy its attention for three weeks or a month. The House was particularly anxious that the Public Accounts Committee should immediately undertake the inquiry upon which it is now working. I had no desire to have anything to do with this inquiry, because I thought that the questions involved were very intricate. Iwas told that the matter was one of urgency, and on looking up the Public Works Committee Act I found that such a referenceclearly comes within the powers of the Committee. As Chairman, I promised that the Committee would undertake the work, though personally I had not the slightest desire for it.

Mr Ryan - Did the honorable member consult the members of the Works Committee?

Mr GREGORY - One or two.

Mr Tudor - The members on this side say that they were not consulted.

Mr GREGORY - I do not think the honorable member for Melbourne Ports will say that.

Mr Mathews - This is the first I have heard of the matter.

Mr GREGORY - I said that if the matter was referred to the Public Works Committee I, as Chairman, could see no objection to our undertaking the inquiry, but we had no great desire for it. The Government were very desirous of coming to some finality so that the ships could be either disposed of or fixed up and put into commission. For that reason I consented to the Committee undertaking the inquiry. If Parliament is agreeable, there is ample power for the Committee to make the inquiry, provided the reference is complete enough to allow us to make every investigation. It is for the House to say whether the Committee is competent to prepare a report that will be satisfactory to Parliament, and enable the Government to carry out whatever is determined in relation to the contract.

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