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Wednesday, 24 October 1956

Mr BEALE (Parramatta) (Minister for Supply and Minister for Defence Production) . - by leave - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

About three weeks ago my colleague, the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck), mentioned to the House that the resignation of an elected member of the Legislative Council for the Northern Territory, because be had decided to take employment in the Commonwealth Public Service, had drawn attention to the provisions of the Northern Territory (Administration) Act 1910-1956 providing for disqualifications for elected members of the Legislative Council. The Minister indicated briefly some of the aspects of this matter which were then under consideration.

The purpose of this bill is to give effect to the changes which have been decided upon following the completion of a review of the existing provisions of the act. As well as disqualification of a person who is an undischarged bankrupt or who has been convicted and is under sentence, or .subject to be sentenced, for an offence punishable by imprisonment for one year or longer, the act at present disqualifies from election to the council persons who are employed in the Public Service of the Territory or of the Commonwealth and persons who have interests - otherwise than as a member, and in common with the other members, of an incorporated company consisting of not less than 25 persons - in any contract or agreement made by or on behalf of the Commonwealth.

There is room for some difference of opinion as to the precise extent of the disqualification arising out of an interest in a contract or agreement with the Commonwealth, but it is clear that in the circumstances of the Northern Territory, it could have an effect much wider than is desirable. As honorable members know, a large proportion of the activity in the Northern Territory is activity in which the Government directly participates. To exclude from participation in the council as elected members, all persons who come into any kind of contractual relationship with the Commonwealth would exclude a large proportion of the residents of the Territory and leave a very limited field of possible candidates from which the electors could make their choice.

The Minister for Territories, on a previous occasion, gave as an example the pastoralist who undertakes, for a nominal sum - perhaps £50 or £60 a year - to maintain an aerodrome on his property for the Commonwealth. In the Government's view, there is no reason to suppose that in any circumstances a contract of this kind would be likely to influence in an undesirable way, the conduct of an elected member of the council. On one view, the existing disqualification goes so far as to exclude .a person who holds a Crown lease of land or a mining lease. Since the practice for many years has been to grant land on leasehold tenure only, the consequences of the acceptance of this view would be very wide indeed.

The bill therefore contains provision to alter the disqualification for elected members of the council arising out of contracts or agreements with the Commonwealth. Under the new provision, there will not be a complete disqualification, but an elected member who participates in, or has a direct or indirect interest in, a contract made by or on behalf of the Commonwealth for the supply of goods or services to the Commonwealth will not be entitled to take part in a discussion before the council, or vote on any question before the council, if that discussion or question is directly or indirectly related to the contract.

The council has only legislative, and no executive, functions. The only situation to be guarded against is where a member approaches a matter before the council with a view strongly biased because of dealings he may have with the Commonwealth. 1 think that such a situation could not arise on any matter of significance without the interests of the member being well known to other members of the council. It is proposed that questions concerning the application of this provision should be decided by the council on the motion of any member.

An alteration is also proposed to the disqualification of persons employed in the Public Service of the Commonwealth or of the Territory. This amendment, however, does not seek to change the existing law. It seeks to make the existing position under the law clearer to intending candidates and electors than it is at present.

The review which has been made included an examination of the existing provisions for determining disputes as to election or qualifications of members of the council. It was found that the provisions were incomplete and unsatisfactory. The bill therefore contains provisions to enable satisfactory machinery to be established. It is proposed that the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory shall be the Court of Disputed Returns. Provision will be made by regulation for a defeated candidate or an elector to have the right to petition the court within 40 days after an election, for a determination on any alleged irregularities in an election or alleged disqualification of a successful candidate. After the period allowed for lodging petitions has expired and after any petitions which have been lodged have been determined by the court, it is proposed that the council will itself have the power to decide any questions relating to its membership or to refer such questions to the Supreme Court for determination.

The House will perhaps realize from the references made earlier to the effect of the existing provisions relating to disqualification of members as a result of contracts or agreements with the Commonwealth, that there may be some uncertainty about the position of some members who have been elected to the council in the past. As a member who becomes disqualified automatically vacates his seat upon the disqualification arising, and as the act requires the presence of at least seven members in the council to constitute a meeting of the council for the exercise and performance of its powers and functions, it cannot be said with complete confidence that all acts of the council and all ordinances passed by it are valid.

The possibility of a successful challenge to any ordinances passed by the council is extremely remote, as even on the widest meaning which could be given to the disqualifications, it is most unlikely that any decision of the council has been taken by other than a majority of at least seven properly constituted members of the council. However, since certainty of the law is of such high importance, and since it was decided that it was necessary for the act to be amended, a provision has been included to put beyond any possible doubt the validity of all actions taken by the council, or which may be taken in the future, notwithstanding that there may have been or there may be a vacancy in membership caused by a disqualification of a member, and notwithstanding that it may be subsequently -discovered that an elected member, through inadvertence or otherwise, has voted on a matter related to a contract in respect of which he had a direct or indirect interest.

The bill also contains another amendment - one that is of a formal nature only. The opportunity has been taken to remedy an existing omission and provide specifically that the Administrator has power to issue writs for elections for the council. The maximum term of the present council expires in May. 1957, but because the matters which I have mentioned may give rise to some uncertainty as to the position of some of the elected members of the council, arrangements have been made with the Administrator that the council will not be called together until after a general election has been held. The election will be held as soon as can conveniently be arranged after the proposed new amendments become effective.

I should like to emphasize the limited purposes of this bill, lt does not represent the results of a complete review of the provisions of the act constituting the Legislative Council. It came under notice that provisions incidental to the election of members had produced an unsatisfactory situation. It was desirable that this be remedied as early as possible. There has been no occasion for a wider review of the constitution of the council, and no such wider review has been made. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Nelson) adjourned.

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