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Thursday, 8 July 1926

Senator NEEDHAM (Western Australia) . - The committee should reject this clause. The Leader of the Senate (Senator Pearce) has admitted that the Attorney-General is at present considering the question whether the commission acted rightly in letting a contract for the construction of 300 residences. The Minister in charge of the bill (Senator Glasgow) confirmed that statement by saying that there is still a doubt as to the legality of that action of the commission. He quite candidly admitted that he was not au fait with the position, and pointed out that, although the contract had been let, the houses were being built a few at a time. It is a fact that a contract was let for the construction of 300 houses, at an average cost of £2,000 each. That cannot be disputed by the Government, and it has not been disputed by any honorable senator who has addressed himself to the measure. It has been confirmed by Senator Reid, who is a member of the Public Works Committee. Yet it is proposed to vest in the commission the power to construct buildings for use as, or in connexion with, residences in the Territory. The vital provision, however, is that which is contained in sub-clause 2, to which I direct special attention. It provides -

This section shall be deemed to have commenced upon the date of the commencement of the principal act.

If the Attorney-General has not decided the legality or otherwise of the action of the commission before this bill becomes an act that provision will validate the contract. If it will not, why has it been inserted ? Ineffect it says that the powers which are now about to be conferred upon the commission are to be regarded as having been conferred by the act of 1924. The question as to whether the commission has already acted rightly or wrongly will go by the board, because a higher authority than the AttorneyGeneral will have decided that since the passing of the principal act the commission had the power to construct those 300 residences without reference to the Public Works Committee.

Senator McLachlan - That is not correct; sub-section 4 of section 14 will still stand.

Senator NEEDHAM - Even if subsection 4 is left intact, will Senator McLachlan contend that sub-clause 2 of clause 8 will not validate that contract ?

Senator Sir William Glasgow - It will be a validation of the construction of the houses that have already been built, but it will not affect the obligation to refer to the Public Works Committee works that are estimated to cost £25,000 or more.

Senator NEEDHAM - I want to be extremely careful in this matter. Let me refer honorable senators to section 14 of the principal act, which enumerates the powers of the commission just as explicitly as the Constitution enumerates the powers of this Parliament. The clause proposes to add to those powers. It would be all right if it stopped there; but it also provides that the section shall be deemed to have commenced from the date of commencement of the principal act.

Senator McLachlan - If the honorable senator is contending that the clause proposes to increase the powers of the commission, he is quite right ; but I point out to him that that increased power will still be subject to the provisions of subsection 4 of section 14of the principal act.

Senator NEEDHAM - I do nob think so.

Senator Sir William Glasgow - Yes, it will.

Senator Pearce - The memorandum supplied for the information of honorable senators will show the way in which the act will read if it is amended by this bill. The honorable senator will also see that sub-section 4 of section 14 will govern the new as well as the old sub-sections.

Senator Kingsmill - The commission will be able to side-step sub-section 4 ; it will not rely upon this legislation to enable it to exclude the Public Works Committee.

Senator NEEDHAM - I should admit the contention of the Minister if there were no dispute regarding the validity of the commission's act in letting the contract I have referred to. I do not want the clause to pass before I am sure that we are not validating an act of the commission, the legality of which is in doubt. I cannot think otherwise than that, if the clause is passed, the determination of. the AttorneyGeneral will have no weight. Speaking on the motion for the second reading of thebill, I said that it did not propose to amend sub-section 4 of section '14, which gives the Public Works Committee the power to investigate works the cost of which is estimated to exceed £25,000; but I still contend that that provision has been evaded by the commission.

Senator McLachlan - The honorable senator's contentions are, firstly, that the commission had not the power to have residences constructed; and, secondly, that it has violated the provisions of subsection 4 of section 14 of the principal act.

Senator NEEDHAM - I say that the aggregate cost exceeds the amount of any work that can be undertaken by the commission without reference to the Public Works Committee. I do not go so far as to say that the commission has violated that provision. My argument is that it has evaded it, in having called tenders for the construction of 300 houses, the aggregate cost of which is to be £600,000; that - as the Minister stated a moment ago - by having them built in twos, threes, fours, fives, or even tens, it has kept itself within the law.

Senator Sir William Glasgow - I did hot say it had done that, but that it might have done it.

Senator Reid - That is the interpretation of the chairman of the commission of the obligation that is imposed upon him by the act.

Senator NEEDHAM - I have no desire to misrepresent the Minister. That is the way in which the houses are being constructed, and it is an evasion by the commission of the provisions of the act. If we pass this clause it will have the power to continue acting in that way.

Senator Sir William Glasgow - No.

Senator NEEDHAM - It will be able to call tenders, and have the houses built in such a way that the cost will be kept below £25,000.

Senator Pearce - The clause will not affect that matter one iota.

Senator NEEDHAM - The right honorable gentleman has not, so far, convinced me that I am wrong in that assertion. A member of the Public Works Committee (Senator Reid), who has taken part in this inquiry, has confirmed my statement that the chairman of the commission has interpreted his obligation in that way. A very important principle is at stake, and I ask honorable senators to weigh the matter very carefully before they pass the clause in its present form.

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