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Thursday, 15 August 1912

Senator CLEMONS (Tasmania) . - It is a pity that this clause should be retained in its present form. The VicePresident of the Executive Council has affirmed that the Government have decided that it is desirable and necessary - nay, even that it is fair - to vest Royal Commissions with power to impose this high penalty. I am perfectly certain that he knows he is on utterly unsound ground when he attempts to maintain that proposition. Why, he is actually supporting the creation of a new criminal code. Can any one who believes in justice accept the proposition that when a man who has been brought before a Criminal Court, has been found guilty of an offence which entails punishment by imprisonment, the Judge ought to have regard to the effect of that imprisonment upon him ? Do we expect the Judge to say " Six months' imprisonment in the case of this man means much more than does six months' imprisonment in the case of another man"?

Senator Guthrie - What did the honorable senator's Government do in respect of the sea-carriage of goods?

Senator CLEMONS - I do not know, but I strongly suspect that it has no reference to my present remarks. The offence with which we are now dealing is that of a man who, upon being asked a question, says, " I am of opinion that that question is not relevant to the inquiry." What does the proposal of the Government mean? It means that if the representative of a wealthy corporation says, " In my opinion, that is not a relevant question," he will be punished to the tune of ^500; but if a poor man says, "I am of opinion that the question is not relevant to the inquiry," a much less penalty may be inflicted upon him.

Senator ALBERT GOULD (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Colonel Cameron. - And it may be the same question.

Senator CLEMONS - I ask the VicePresident of the Executive Council to see what a labyrinth he will land himself in if he does that. Ought a wealthy man to have a better knowledge of the relevancy of a question than a poor man? If any man, rich or poor, says, " I will not answer that question because it is not relevant," the proper procedure should be to inflict upon him a nominal fine. That fine should be inflicted by a Court. But if, after a Court of competent jurisdiction had said to him, "We hold that you were wrong in refusing to answer the question put to you, because, in our opinion, it was relevant to the inquiry, and you must therefore go back to the Commission, and answer it," the witness still declined to answer it, he ought to be subjected to a heavy penalty.

Senator McGregor - That is provided for in proposed new section 6e.

Senator Millen - That is not quite correct, because it might be a second refusal to answer a second question.

Senator CLEMONS - It might be, but it might also be what the Vice-President of the Executive Council has stated. That would be the real offence. Why should we cling to the desire to impose a penalty of ^500 on one man because he holds a perfectly honest opinion, and why should we hope that if a poor man holds a different Opinion from a Commission as to what is relevant to its inquiry, he will be let off with a small fine?

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - It is like putting opinions up to auction.

Senator CLEMONS - I quarrel both with the spirit and intention of the Government in their attitude towards this matter, because they have said quite openly concerning the first offence - which is merely one of opinion - that they desire to have the right to punish the wealthy man to the tune of ,£500, and to let the poor man off with a much lighter penalty. Such a proposition is absolutely indefensible.

Senator Givens - The poor man might be punished more by the payment of 5s. than the wealthy man would be by the payment of £500

Senator CLEMONS - If the representative of this tremendously wealthy sugar company held that a certain question put to him was not relevant, and that consequently he was not obliged to answer it, would Senator Givens, merely because he was the representative of that company, impose a heavy penalty on him? It is unthinkable that the honorable senator would not give fair play to every class in the community upon a mere matter of opinion. If the Vice-President of the Executive Council wishes to punish recalcitrant witnesses, he can do so. The penalty provided in the principal Act is ample.

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