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Thursday, 15 August 1912

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) . - If I thought there was the slightest chance that the amendment would be carried, I should be inclined to press its acceptance. I do not know whether the Vice-President of the Executive Council has the slightest notion of my reason for. supporting the amendment. If there are in Australia any commercial institutions preying unfairly on the public, I yield to no one in my desire to lay the hands of the law upon them. So far, we have nothing more than a suspicion against them. There is not much evidence against any one of them, and there is certainly nothing which could be called proof that they are dealing unfairly with the public. The object of this Bill is to provide machinery to investigate the question whether these predatory companies exist or not, and if they do. the conditions under which they are operating, and how far the public may be affected by their operations. I do not say that we should not begin to be vigilant in providing machinery for inquiries in that direction; but I certainly differ from the Government as to the Court which shall be given the use of that machinery. I object to give any of these powers to a Royal Commission. I say they should be intrusted to a judicial tribunal. The necessary machinery should be included in Acts of this Parliament, the administration of which will be left to the ordinary Courts of law. That is my main objection to the powers of a Royal Commission which are so widely extended by the provision as it stands. We ask for a guarantee that when a Royal Commission is conducting an inquiry it shall be limited, to a certain extent, on the lines on which inquiries are limited in a Court. When such inquiries come bofore a Court they are, so to speak, under judicial surveillance. I object strongly to the general tendency of this provision. This is, and ought to be, a matter under the direct control of the Law Courts after we ha%'e legislated. I think it is a reasonable request that all financial operations which a company regard as secret should, up to a certain limit, be' held sacred. That is not to exclude them from the region of the inquiry. If the Commission get evidence of a financial character under a sort of seal, they are not limited in their general findings. Without wading through the evidence taken by a Royal Commission, every one of us turns first to the findings. The amendment of my leader in no way affects, or could affect, the finding of a Commission, which is almost like the finding of a jury. When the finding of a Commission comes to be examined, or to be the subject-matter of certain action, if the Parliament desires to find out whether it is well, founded, the evidence can be produced, and the public, through Parliament, are amply protected. If this kind of inquiry be forced into important matters of finance, such as operations and private arrangements, there will be a temptation to defy the Commission, and probably the Commission may be put to a great deal of trouble, and the Government to an enormous expense. If, however, this limit be put in, every representative of a company can be told that, so far as its financial or private matters have hitherto been regarded as more or less sacred, they will, up to a certain extent, be guarded. That will remove one very great objection to producing documents and giving explanations. There is going to be trouble over the provision. The Government may congratulate themselves upon getting this power, but they are almost challenging trouble. There are some persons who are never happy, but are always, looking for trouble, and the Government' will prepare trouble for themselves if they do not accept some modification of this kind.

Amendment negatived.

Proposed new section agreed to.

Proposed new section 6g - (i.) Any witness appearing before a Royal Commission shall be paid a reasonable sum for the expenses of his attendance in accordance with the prescribed scale. (2.) In the absence of a prescribed scale, the President or Chairman of the Commission, or the sole Commissioner, may authorize the payment of such sum as he deems reasonable.

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