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Tuesday, 12 December 1911

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) . - One does not like to intervene too often in debate, especially at this stage of the session. But when we hear the Registrar of a Court described as an officer who exercises judicial or semi- judicial functions, it is about time that somebody protested, lest others should be misled. They' simply exercise certain administrative powers under an Act of Parliament which prescribed their duties for them. Whether they properly exercise those powers has not to be determined by them, but by a judicial authority. We give power to this officer to register an organization. We prescribe his duties with regard to registration. We confer upon him administrative power, just as we confer administrative power upon Deputy Postmasters- General. The question whether such an officer has exercised his functions properly or not has to be determined, if a case arises, by a judicial tribunal. Let me illustrate the point by an analogy from the electoral law. The Electoral Office of the Commonwealth has informed the public of Australia that if they do not return the electoral cards a fine will be inflicted. Both the Minister and the office are exercising powers in that respect which, in my opinion, they do not' possess. Suppose that some individual says, " We will not obey this injunction ; we deny that the Minister has power to compel us to fill up and return these cards." That question has not to be determined by the electoral officers, but by a judicial tribunal.

Senator Lynch - Has not the Registrar certain judicial functions to discharge?

Senator ST LEDGER - No, he has not. He will simply act as an ordinary public servant. He will receive, in the ordinary way, applications for registration, and will act accordingly. Here is the dilemma in which the Government find themselves. During the last five or six years this Registrar has been exercising under the jurisdiction of the Conciliation and Arbitration Court important functions by way of registration, filing plaints, and listening to arguments as to whether he ought or ought not to register and to file plaints. Those are purely administrative duties. During the whole of that time no request was made by any Government or any party or any individual member of Parliament to place the Registrar's salary beyond the reach of the criticism1 to which all public servants are liable. We left him there, as Senator Stewart has pointed out, and as he has proved from official documents, with his salary fixed in such a way that year after year we could deal with him as we chose. Does any one say that whatever functions he was exercising - say, in the Harvester case - they were not of a very grave administrative character? Naturally, the question arises why, when we are giving to this officer merely mechanical duties to perform under this Bill, the Government should seek to protect him by a special appropriation? We are expressing the opinion that Parliament has not done justice to the public servants in the past, and cannot be trusted to do justice to them in the future. We are, further, setting 'up machinery' 'that will afford an easy method of rectifying their grievances. Yet we are told that the duties of the officer in connexion with this simple procedure will be so difficult that he must be surrounded with safeguards. If the process is to be so simple and easy, how is it that the Government have suddenly come to the conclusion that we have to extend special protection to the Registrar under an Act of Parliament? If he is exercising judicial functions to-day, as urged by the Minister and by Senator de Largie, he has been exercising judicial functions ever since he has been in this position. We have never heard before that any improper pressure was brought to bear upon him while he was exercising his functions. We are entitled to say that the proposal looks " fishy " from top to bottom. Although the party opposite have been twice in office, they never before proposed, either as a Government, or through any individual member, to afford special protection to this officer. Not a single member of the public, not a single newspaper, not a single trade union, has asked that he should be singled out for particular treatment.

Senator Givens - Some may have seen the necessity for it, but did not say anything.

Senator ST LEDGER - I cannot understand an individual recognising the necessity for this protection being given and not having the courage to ask for it. Senator Givens himself is the last man who would neglect to do a thing of that kind. We all know him very well, and we are well aware that if he thought that any individual member of the Service required special protection in the discharge of his duties he would have had the courage to stand up and say so. But the Government have only discovered the necessity for this step at the end of an arduous session. The matter cannot be a party issue.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Did not the Opposition discuss it in caucus?

Senator ST LEDGER - Surely my honorable friend has caucus on the brain.

Senator Millen - No; his brain is in the caucus.

Senator de Largie - That is the place where plenty of brain is to be found.

Senator ST LEDGER - If it were not that the whip had been shaken, such a provision could have had no hope of going, though any deliberative assembly.

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