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Wednesday, 2 September 1942

Dr EVATT (Barton) (AttorneyGeneral) . - The internment of British subjects nas recently come within my jurisdiction as Attorney-General. As I announced in the press, I intend to make a statement at the earliest moment after these cases have been dealt with. I should have preferred that course. However, this being the first occasion honorable members have had an opportunity to do so, they have thought fit to ventilate these matters in the House to-night. For that, I do not blame them. I wish to make my reply as clear, but as guarded as I can, because some of the cases are still under consideration, and honorable members, I am sure, want them determined satisfactorily.

Mr Calwell - They have been under consideration for a long time.

Dr EVATT - What are the facts? Only seven of the members of the Australia First Movement who were interned have appealed to the statutory committee. Five of those appeals have succeeded, and two have been dismissed. The committee's recommendations in the cases of the five successful appellants came before me on Saturday week, and the orders for the release of those internees were made on the same day.

Mr Spender - Very promptly.

Dr EVATT - Yes. I also read the files and reports in the cases of the two men whose appeals failed. I do not want to say that in all cases the recommendations of the statutory committee must be adopted. That is too rigid a rule. There may be cases in which, after the statutory committee has made a recommendation, it may be the duty of security officers to put further matters before the Minister, in opposition to the tribunal's recommendation either in favour of release, or in favour of the continued detention of an internee.

Mr Abbott - Would the Minister in his discretion release an internee against the recommendation of the statutory committee ?

Dr EVATT - I am looking at the matter broadly. When a statutory committee, composed of a barrister who has acted as a member of the Supreme Court Bench, and two other persons specially qualified to be members of such a tribunal, is set up, it is in the public interest, and a good general rule, having regard particularly to national security in time of war, to follow the committee's recommendation. I think that the honorable member for Warringah (Mr. Spender) will agree with that. Applying that principle to the interned members of the Australia First Movement, what do we find? The only persons who approached the statutory committee and pursued their appeals, and whose, release was recommended by the tribunal, have been released. Two persons did not pursue their appeals; and they complained of the procedure before the tribunal. Those cases are now being looked into. The honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Blackburn) mentioned a man of letters. I gather that that man does not want to be released.

Mr Blackburn - 'He wants a trial.

Dr EVATT - No. I understandsubject to correction - that he prefers to remain in internment rather than to appeal.

Mr Spender - Is it not a fact that those men demand a public trial?

Dr EVATT - The man to whom I have just referred was not one of those who demanded a public trial. At the same time, the fact that no appeal has been made should not necessarily result in continued detention. That case is now being further looked into.

I was abroad at the time these persons were interned ; but at that time the position of the country from the point of view of security was very serious indeed. Four persons in Western Australia were arrested, and the evidence against them seemed to be cogent. Subsequently, they were charged with conspiracy to assist the Japanese in the event of an invasion of Australia. I am not saying that they were members of the Australia First organization which was formed in New South Wales.

Mr Calwell - The right honorable member stated in the press that they were not members of the same body.

Dr EVATT - Two of those persons were convicted, one being sentenced to three years' imprisonment, and the other to two years' imprisonment; and two were acquitted. One of the latter appealed to the statutory committee in Western Australia, which is presided over by a justice of the Supreme Court; and that tribunal's recommendation was against the appellant's release because of serious facts which came out against him at the trial, but fell short of implication in the particular conspiracy charged. As the honorable member for Warringah (Mr. Spender) will recognize, the fact of acquittal on a particular charge does not necessarily mean that the accused is notlikely to endanger national security. The honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Blackburn) speaks of this matter as though we should, as a general rule, lay a specific charge against internees.

Mr Blackburn - On the Minister's statement, they should have been charged with a criminal offence.

Dr EVATT - What criminal offence?

Mr Blackburn - Sedition.

Dr EVATT - I am certain that the Minister for the Army (Mr. Forde), at the time he made his statement, referred in the main to the very serious revelations in Western Australia: I assure honorable members that their arguments with respect to providing the speediest possible trial will receive careful consideration. All of us agree that that is essential. I shall also give very careful consideration to the representations made by the honorable member for New England (Mr. Abbott) with respect to the holding up of letters sent from camps to honorable members.

Mr Rankin - It would be very serious for a Minister to override the recommendation of a tribunal presided over by a judge.

Dr EVATT - I have already said that. Where the matter is doubtful, the Minister's proper course is to refer it further to some independent authority before he takes action on his own responsibility.

The principle of the regulations governing internees has nothing to do with criminal offences. It is this: If the Minister is satisfied that the actions of any person are likely to endanger public security, that person may be detained. With the threat of invasion hanging over the country, it is the primary duty of Army and Security officers to protect the country. In the case of British subjects, however, there is a balancing principle which wc must not forget, and that principle has been invoked by every honorable member who has spoken on this subject this evening - the Minister must look carefully at the evidence, and be sure that there is a real danger to public security.

Mr Spender - It does not mean that when the Minister has before him a report that some person should be interned and no real ground is revealed in the relevant dossier for such action, such person should be interned.

Dr EVATT - The action which the Minister will take will depend upon various circumstances, including the trust he has in his officers and in the persons making the recommendation. Every honorable member agrees, but the application of the principle which must govern these matters is often different.

Mr Blackburn - What about free legal aid?

Dr EVATT - That is important. Within the last 48 hours I have received complaints about the great expense to which some persons have been put. After all, internees in this country do not consist exclusively of members of the Australia First Movement. Our object is to speed up hearings, and to keep their cost as low as possible. The possibility of granting legal aid to appellants will be considered. However, that may be difficult to inaugurate. I assure honorable members that I appreciate their anxiety over these cases. At the same time, there is a supreme duty which the Government cannot surrender, and that is to protect the country. I do not propose to go into any particular case. Some of these people have been adjudged by the committee as not being dangerous to national security. However, the offence charged in the Western Australian oases was a plan or plot to assist the Japanese, if the opportunity offered. At the time the Minister for the Army made his statement, it was not known that there was no guilty association between the four persons who stood their trial in Western Australia and the Australia First organization in New South Wales. I have seen in the files letters to one or other of the four persons tried in Western Australia from two or three members of the Australia First organization in New South Wales. Again, I do not wish to overstate the position.

Mr Spender - Did the whole fifteen write ?

Dr EVATT - No, but a few of them did.

Mr Curtin - One man may write as the agent of others.

Mr Spender - Surely that is not suggested.

Dr EVATT - On reading the files relating to those other cases in New South Wales my opinion was that the association between them and 'the men in Western Australia was not proved to be guilty, and, broadly speaking, that was the view of the statutory committee in the five cases in which it recommended release.

Mr Spender - I applaud the Minister's view.

Dr EVATT - One may sum up by saying that, at the time the internments took place, there was undoubtedly in existence in Western Australia a conspiracy of a serious character. That was proved in open court. Further, in every case in which release was recommended, the person concerned was at once released. The Minister for the Army (Mr. Forde) and I have summoned a special conference on Saturday next to consider Security matters, some of which have been mentioned by honorable members to-day. They will be dealt with speedily, and afterwards I shall make a full statement.

Mr Abbott - If the Minister is of opinion that any of these men are innocent will he arrange to have their cases reviewed by another tribunal?

Dr EVATT - I should not like to pin myself down to any particular suggestion.

Mr Abbott - But the Minister would not rule it out altogether?

Dr EVATT - I do not think that the recommendation of a tribunal is necessarily binding on the Minister. If he is satisfied that a case merits reinvestigation, because he thinks either that an internee should be released or that he should not be released, it is the Minister's duty to require a further investigation of the whole matter. The Minister has the right, and it may be his duty, also.

Mr Anthony - How many interned men have not appealed?

Dr EVATT - About ten or twelve.

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