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Thursday, 24 November 1927


Mr BRENNAN (Batman) . - The Attorney-General has now given us a legal opinion which I am quite content to believe is sound, but which discloses a most extraordinary position. It reveals also a marked difference between the view of the law as expressed so clearly by the Attorney-General, and that held by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister expressed the view that, because on a former occasion Parliament supported his attitude in connexion with these vessels, the Government was given carte blanche to do what it liked with this Line of Steamers, which is vested in the board by act of Parliament. The fact is, as -.the Attorney-General says, that the property in these ships is vested in the board. As the Attorney-General knows, when land is conveyed to a particular person, no .mere expression of opinion can divest that person of the ownership of that land; but there is a legal formula by means of which the ownership can be taken from one person and vested in another. In express and clear terms the ownership of these ships has, in the technical sense, been vested in the board, and the control of the ships, in the most complete and comprehensive way, has been given to the board. The Prime Minister was recently asked the following question by the Leader of the Opposition : -

In view of tlie expressed determination bythe Government to dispose of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers without further reference to Parliament, and as the provisions of the Shipping act vest the control of the Line in the shipping board, I ask the Prime Minister if the members of the board have consented to the disposal of the ships, and if the Government has been advised as to the legality of its action in disposing, without the consent of Parliament, of a business and service established by act of Parliament.

The answer of the Prime Minister was as follows : -

Dic board was not consulted by the Government concerning the policy which lias now been endorsed by the House. The second part of the honorable member's question raises a matter never previously raised, but the Government certainly does not anticipate legal or other difficulties in the course it proposes to pursue.

Therefore the extraordinary position is disclosed that the Government never consulted the body in which the ownership, custody and control of these ships has been vested by act of Parliament, before it undertook to sell them. That reveals an amazing position which the electors ought clearly to understand when they sire pronouncing judgment upon the Government for its attitude towards the Shipping Line. Pursuant to its policy, the Government brought down a bill to take this line of steamers out of political control, and give complete powers to the shipping board. Now ithas the audacity to take these vessels away, and sell them without even conslting the board in whom the ownership and- control of the vessels are vested. The Attorney-General suggests that the hands of the Government have been strengthened by two debates which have taken place on the subject in this chamber. I was surprised when the Prime Minister used that argument, and it is even more weakly when it comes from the chief law officer of the Crown. The Attorney-General has a second method of fortifying the position of the Government - the clever ruse of levying on the Line. The Government proposes to foreclose on the Shipping Line. The Government is the mortgagee, and proposes to seize and sell the ships without taking the members of the board into its counsels. The Prime Minister is beginning to sit up and take notice now that he is getting a little information from the Opposition. He is beginning to realize that he has apparently bungled the business, and he has asked the Attorney-General to think out some other means of giving effect to his desire. In obedience to that request, the Attorney-General now comes forward with the proposal to levy execution on the ships. This discussion which has been made possible by the removal of an obstruction, in the path, is serving a veryuseful purpose. As a member of the legal profession, I should like to express my views on the legal aspect of the case. I believe that the Commonwealth Shipping Board and the Government acting in co-operation can dispose of the vessels of the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Line. It is true that the Treasurer, with the consent of the Board, may dispose of the ships; but we do not know if the Treasurer has obtained the consent of the Board so to do. As the mind of tlie Prime Minister has been illuminated on the point, and he now admits that the Board will have to execute the necessary documents when a sale is effected, perhaps the right honorable gentleman will tell us what the Government intends to do if the Board will not consent to the sale. I venture the opinion that the members of the Board do not possess sufficient backbone to refuse to give the Government the power it requires to effect the sale. But the Government should not follow this devious course of levying execution upon the Line because of its supposed indebtedness to the Board.


Mr Latham - It is a real indebtedness.


Mr Scullin - It is a very poor excuse.


Mr BRENNAN - And a very poor method for providing for the sale of the ships without the proper consent of Parliament. If the Government is not ashamed of its policy, and is not influenced by the fact that there is a large and increasing opposition to its trading off of his great government enterprise, it should introduce a simple amendment of the Commonwealth Shipping Board Act in which it could take power to do what it desires. At the same time, it would give its supporters an opportunity to record an independent vote on the matter. Some honorable members who supported the want of confidence motion said that they were opposed to the sale of the Line, and that legislation would be introduced before itwas disposed of. That opinion may be held by many others. The honorable member for Richmond was quite consistent, but is now to be deprived of his right to express a definite opinion upon this question. The Government contends that it can do almost anything, politically, but if it wishes to be honest in this matter it should submit a proposal to Parliament in the proper legal manner.







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