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Tuesday, 29 November 1938

Mr HARRISON (Wentworth) (Assistant Minister) .- The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin) criticized somewhat severely the action of the former Auditor-General in making a trip overseas shortly after being appointed to that position, and just prior to his retirement from the Service. I do not think for a moment that the honorable gentleman intended to indulge in personalities, but I point out that the former AuditorGeneral has rendered signal services to the Commonwealth, and the fact that he journeyed overseas is not debatable under this item. The Audit Act appropriates the salary of the AuditorGeneral, but contains no provision governing payments upon retirement. It has therefore been necessary to include an amount of £1,952, payment in lieu of furlough and accrued recreation leave due to Mr. Brown upon his retirement.

Mr Brennan - That explanation will, I suppose, pass the Auditor-General.

Mr HARRISON - I have no doubt that it will.

Mr Ward - I direct attention to the state of the committee.

The CHAIRMAN - The Chair has, within the last few minutes, taken cognizance of the state of the committee, and does not intend again to count the members present.

Mr Ward - I should like to know what standing order prevents any honorable member from calling attention to the state of the committee at any time?

The CHAIRMAN - I am following the practice laid down for proceedings in committee and applying common sense to the situation. Three or four times during the last half hour attention has been directed to the state of the committee. I had scarcely ceased counting the members after the last call when the honorable member for East Sydney again directed attention to the state of the committee.

Mr Brennan - Let the Government maintain the requisite numbers in committee ; that is the answer to the Chair.

Mr Ward - I move - ;

That the ruling be dissented from.

The reason given by the Chairman for declining to count the committee at my request was that the precedent had been laid down that an honorable member could not call attention to the state of the House or committee unless a specified time had elapsed since a quorum had been previously formed. When first I came into this House the practice was to allow fifteen minutes to elapse between the calls for quorums. Later that practice was challenged and the then Speaker, Mr. G. H. Mackay, ruled that the attention of the Speaker or of the Chairman of Committees could be called to the state of the House or committee at any time when there was not a quorum present.

Mr Harrison - This motion for dissent follows, a series of incidents which have occurred during the deliberations in committee this morning, and I consider that the Chair has been scrupulously fair, if not generous, to honorable members opposite. Earlier in this discussion we listened to a protest by the Leader of the Opposition against the fixing of a time limit for the consideration of the Estimates.

The CHAIRMAN - The Assistant Minister will not be in order in discussing that matter on this motion.

Mr Harrison - Whilst the Leader of the Opposition was asking for certain information, this morning, his supporters were conspicuous by their absence.

Mr Forde - Nonsense! There were more members present on this side than there were on the Government side.

Mr Harrison - On one occasion attention was called to the state of the committee by the only member of the Opposition who was in the chamber.

Mr Forde - Nonsense! There was only one Minister in the chamber at the time.

Mr Harrison - Honorable members on this side have been maintaining the required number during the discussion on the Estimates, in which the Opposition professes to have a great deal of interest.

The CHAIRMAN - Order 1 The Assistant Minister must confine his remarks to the question before the chamber.

Mr Harrison - I feel sure that, in the circumstances the Chairman's ruling will be uphold by the committee.

Mr Gander - When first I entered this Parliament I understood it to be laid down that a quorum could not be called unless fifteen minutes had elapsed since attention had previously been directed to the state of the House or committee. On one occasion I directed attention to the state of a committee and the ruling then given by the Chairman was that a quorum could not be called unless a quarter of an hour had elapsed since the last counting of the committee. When the bill then under discussion was before the House for its third reading, I informed the then Speaker, Mr. G. H. Mackay, that during the committee stages there had not been a. quorum of 25 members present. I also pointed out that there was not even a quorum present for the third reading of the bill. The Speaker said that the Chair had no knowledge of what happened in committee, but he immediately ordered the bells to be rung so that a quorum should be present when the bill was read a third time. Subsequently the then Attorney-General and now the Chief Justice of the Commonwealth, Sir John Latham, informed me that if it could be proved that there was not a quorum present during the committee stages, the validity of the bill in question could be challenged before the High Court. If the Chairman's ruling on this motion is upheld, the Estimates will have been passed through committee without the presence of the requisite 25 members, and the legislation, if challenged, would be in danger of being declared ultra vires.

The CHAIRMAN - I havenot ruled that the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) is not in order in calling my attention to the state of the committee. I merely refused to take cognizance of the honorable member's call, because I regarded it as an obstruction of the business before the committee. Less than two minutes had elapsed since the forming of a quorum, when the honorable member for East Sydney again rose to draw my attention to the state of the committee. I was satisfied, without wasting further time in counting, that there was a quorum present. It is therefore not correct to state that I ruled the honorable member for East Sydney out of order.

Mr Brennan - I feel that in this discussion the committee is losing sight of the important matter of principle underlying the calling for a quorum by the honorable member for East Sydney. We have been given to understand that calling for a quorum indicates a spirit of obstruction by the Opposition, whereas it merely means that an honorable member is drawing attention to the fact that, if business is to be validly dealt with, a certain number of members is necessary in this chamber.

Mr Harrison - Of both parties?

Mr Brennan - No.

Mr Harrison - Obviously the Opposition takes no interest in the Estimates.

Mr Brennan - The question of parties is not in issue at all. The point is, that if business is to be conducted legally, a certain number of members must attend the proceedings in this chamber. Responsibility for maintaining a quorum rests upon the Government. Individual members, of course, are under an obligation to attend, but that is a matter between their consciences and their constituents. It is a public scandal that members supporting the Ministry, and in fact, the Ministry itself, will not attend in this committee.

The CHAIRMAN - Order ! The time allotted for the consideration of the proposed votes for the Prime Minister's Department and the Department of External Affairs has expired.

Mr Brennan - But not themotion of dissent from the Chairman's ruling.

The CHAIRMAN - There can be no further debate on it.

Question put -

That the ruling be dissented from.

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