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Thursday, 12 August 1926

Senator ELLIOTT (Victoria) ,-- I am prepared to lay before the Minister contracts which prove that heavy premiums have been demanded and paid for leases at Canberra. I do not object to the demanding of a premium by those who first obtained the leases, but I am entirely opposed to that being done at, so to speak, the point of the pistol, when " one has either to accede to the demand or wait probably six months before an opportunity is afforded to secure a lease. Lands are lying idle which, on the commission's own showing, could be returning revenue. The commission has laid itself open to the implication that it is profiting by this practice. For the sake of its own reputation it ought to see that that state of affairs is altered at the earliest possible moment. The Minister (Senator Pearce), in a previous debate, said that isolated buildings could not be allowed to spring up. But there is no need for that. In the same area as the land offered at the last sale, there are vacant blocks lying idle, and they cannot be bought at any price. They are not for sale. The area is not large, and a few of those allotments could be offered in order to test the market. It has been said that the land is sold in competition. At the first sale it was offered at about £4,000 per acre, and nobody had a chance to obtain it at a cheaper rate than the upset price. At both sales very few blocks were sold at above the upset prices, although I admit that, in rare instances, at the second sale, at any rate, those prices were exceeded to an extraordinary degree. It has been contended that, if unlimited sales were permitted, the whole area would soon be taken up by speculators, but that is unlikely; the building conditions would soon compel them to part with their leases at a fair price. Mr. Butters stated in his evidence before the committee -

For the residence in which I am living, which must have cost an awful lot of money, I am paying £200 a year. I understand it cost between £7,000 and £8,000.

The ratio between the rental and capital value of the cottages in which the unfortunate public servants will have to reside at Canberra is different from that. I understand that the electric meters have been removed from Mr. Butters' house, so that he gets his .light free.

I shall now deal with a matter that I consider much more serious. I propose to refer to a subject that I mentioned more or less incidentally last night, but which was given considerable publicity in the press to-day. I draw the attention of honorable senators to the conclusions of the royal commission on the affairs of Norfolk Island. I previously stated that the commission had been appointed under conditions that appeared to me to render its proceedings absolutely illegal. The Royal Commissions Act 1902-12 does not apply beyond the borders of Australia, and therefore it cannot extend to Norfolk Island. I have not personally looked into the legal aspect of this matter, but I am prepared to accept the opinion of the acting-secretary of the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department, Mr. G. S. Knowles, who sent the following letter to the secretary to the Home and Territories Department: -

I am in receipt, of your memorandum of the 7th April, 1926, requesting advice as to the right of the Administrator of Norfolk Island to cross-examine witnesses giving evidence before the Royal Commission on Norfolk Island affairs.

The Administrator has not the right of cross-examining witnesses appearing before the Royal Commission. The commission may conduct its inquiry in whatever way it thinks fit, and the Administrator can only put questions to witnesses if the Commission requests or permits him to do so.

As the Royal Commissions Act 1902-12 does" not apply to Norfolk Island, witnesses cannot be compelled to attend, be sworn, or give evidence, and the penal sections of the Art cannot be enforced in the Territory.

Consequently anybody who chose could decline to give evidence or could attend before the commission and perjure himself, knowing that no penalty could be inflicted upon him. The charges made against the administrator were extraordinary in character, and he was not permitted to call witnesses to refute those charges, or cross-examine the witnesses called on behalf of his opponents. The whole inquiry was conducted in such an irregular way that a gentleman from Tasmania, a justice of the peace, who observed what was going on, summed up the whole proceedings in these words -

This is the most remarkable royal commission I have ever heard of. There never has been one like it; there never will be another. It is not a royal commission. It is a school for scandal.

Thatwas the opinion of a gentleman who has had experience in courts and in the methods of conducting judicial business. I do not know why the gentleman who made the inquiry was selected for the purpose. He has had no legal training, and he had never previously acted in a judicial capacity. Prior to being retired from the Public Service he was an officer in the Postal Department. Why the Government choose him as a royal commissioner passes my comprehension. He was obliged to give a measure of praise to the Administrator, and, in the course of his conclusions, he said -

To the record of the present Administrator has been placed his excellent work in the rehabilitation of public buildings; his efforts directed to reafforestation, improved methods of agriculture, and the establishment of favorable markets for island products; his commendable zeal in matters relating to improvement of stock; and his practical encouragement in the ship-building and commercial enterprises recently undertaken by the islanders.

It was impossible for theRoyal Commissioner to escape those facts. Curiously enough, one of the charges brought against the Administrator, and seriously pressed, was that he prohibited wandering bulls. Everybody knows that if "scrub." bulls roam from place to place, it is impossible to improve the breed of cattle. That charge was actually brought against the Administrator as an offence.

Senator Payne - By whom?

Senator ELLIOTT - By a man who seems to have been the head and front of the complaints. I refer to Mr. C. C. R.

Nobbs, the leading local storekeeper. Practically the whole island draws its supplies from him. Owing to instructions issued to Colonel Leane to put down the liquor traffic on the island, this man was one of the first that came under his notice. I am informed that the regular practice there was to visit this storekeeper's place of business and demand a bottle of " vinegar," tendering the sum of 12s. 6d. A bottle, carefully wrapped up, was then handed to the customer, who found the contents perfectly satisfactory when he reached his home. Naturally a lucrative trade developed. This was upset by the action ofColonel Leane, much to the disgust of Mr. Nobbs, who promptly made strong representations to an honorable member in the other branch of the legislature, who was instrumental in having the royal commission appointed. Although the local progress association informed the Royal Commissioner that they were perfectly satisfied with the Administrator's work, and approved of it, the Commissioner, under the heading of " bulls," reported as follows -

Another matter brought up was " The refusal of the Administrator to permit the depasturing of a limited number of bulls on the island."

Mr. C.C.R. Nobbs, representing the public meeting, stressed the necessity for the continuance of a permission which had always been granted until the present Administrator assumed control, when, " without being acquainted with the conditions and circumstances of the place, adopteda rigid and unsympathetic attitude in regard to this matter." Mr. Nobbs further said : - ..... Under the peculiar circumstances of the place, the practice of depasturing a limited number of bulls has been found absolutely necessary, and it is generally considered that this refusal acts as a hardship on the residents, as without this method the increase of stock, supply of milk, cream, and butter has diminished noticeably, and if continued will have a deplorable effect on the supply of meat and dairy products.

He then went on to refer to a petition signed by 33 residents, which was presented to' the Administrator, without avail.

In all, ten witnesses were examined, and the majority favored the depasturage of a limited number of bulls on the public reserves. Two - Councillor Dobertson and Police Officer Wickstead - expressed the opposite view, and the latter said : - ... . . As a stock-owner I am against the practice of bulls being permitted to run at large, and would prefer not to breed from any of the bulls I have seen on the island excepting from the last Government bull, whose progeny promised very well indeed.....

That bull, by the way, was brought to the island by Colonel Leane. The Commission, in this case, found in favour of Colonel Leane; but I cite it to indicate the nature of the charges urged against Colonel Leane and supported by a section of the community.

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