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Friday, 11 November 1927

Senator LYNCH (Western Australia) . - We have heard a good deal about the need for respecting confidences in regard to public inquiries. Let us see, however, where it will lead to. In my view, such inquiries cannot be called public if witnesses are given an assurance that any information that they give will be treated as confidential. The obvious reason for seeking evidence is that it shall influence the decision of the inquiring body. When evidence is given on the condition that it shall not be made public, that stipulation is made only because the evidence constitutes an infringement of somebody else's rights. If somebody else's rights are infringed, that person should have the right to come before the committee to controvert the evidence given.

Mr GREENE (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The evidence might relate to balance-sheets of companies, or similar matters.

Senator LYNCH - No witness should come before an inquiring body and ask that the mantle of secrecy be thrown over his evidence when that mantle may conceal infringements of other people's rights. This was a public inquiry at which all citizens were invited to give evidence; yet some witnesses were given an assurance that they might give evidence and make statements secure in the knowledge that they would not be made public. That does not seem to me to be fair play. The respect for private opinion should always be subservient to the consideration of public interest. Honorable senators who are learned in jurisprudence can inform us that the public interest should always be paramount. We are now asked to record a decision on one of the most vital questions that has. ever come before this Parliament, without even being supplied with the evidence on which the recommendations of the committee are based. Apparently secrecy is of greater importance than the public interest. Certain wit4nesses gave evidence on the operations of the shipping line on the understanding that it would not be disclosed. Had I been a member of the committee when such witnesses had appeared, I should have said, " We know the value of such evidence. If you are not prepared to allow it to be combated you had better get out." The legal luminaries in this chamber know that, unless a witness is willing to allow his evidence to be combated, he is not permitted to give it. I ask Senator Barwell if that is not so.

Senator Sir Henry Barwell - That is so.

Senator Ogden - I think that Senator Lynch is wrong.

Senator LYNCH - If any one wished to give evidence against Senator Ogden which he was not allowed to combat, he would immediately refer to "star chamber " methods, or something of that sort. I. do not think we are asking too much in saying that the whole of the evidence should be submitted to the Senate. The committee was appointed to conduct certain inquiries in the public interest, and, in the course of its investigations, it obtained confidential evidence.

Senator Ogden - Perhaps it is being withheld in the public interest.

Senator LYNCH - I do not think so. I find on page 11 of the report the following:

Confidential details placed before the committee indicated that efforts of the board had led to substantial reduction in freights. . .

The head is now appearing, and probably we shall soon see the shoulders and the body. Who gave that evidence? The quotation I have just read refers to the " efforts of the board," which suggests that the evidence concerning substantial reductions in freights was tendered by a representative of the board. The quotation continues - and on 'several other occasions its refusal to agree.....

The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands). - In discussing the amendment the honorable senator is not -entitled to refer in detail to the report of the committee.

Senator LYNCH - I am referring to the confidential evidence submitted to the -committee. The paragraph continues - to increases proposed - in one instance by both British and foreign ship-owners - had been -successful.

That is an important portion of the committee's report ; but the evidence on which it is based has not been placed before the Senate. Apparently the board has been responsible for keeping down freights and fares between Australia and Great Britain. I do not know of any politician who has had longer experience than Senator Kingsmill, who was a Minister of the Crown, showering favours to all and sundry, as is his habit, when E was a mere boy, politically. I do not think that he, with a long and honorable parliamentary career, can mention one instance in which a report has been submitted to Parliament without being accompanied by the evidence.

Senator Kingsmill - I have known many reports to be presented without the evidence.

Senator LYNCH - Only in connexion with minor inquiries, when, perhaps, a boiler may have exploded and injured some one and things of that sort. All reports on important questions are accompanied by the evidence on which they are based. In this case we are asked to accept this flimsy report i.-. the absence of evidence.

Senator McLachlan - What is the practice of the Public Works Committee?

Senator LYNCH - The Honorary Minister should know. What would Senator McLachlan say if he were asked to defend a criminal in the absence of evidence. Parliament, which is the highest court in the land, is expected, in this case to record a decision before being supplied with the details that should be in its possession. I do not think that such a course has been followed before. It would be interesting to know the nature of the evidence tendered by Mr. Angliss concern- * ing this Line. I ask Senator Kingsmill what that gentleman said.

Senator Kingsmill - It was confidential.

Senator LYNCH - I know the brusque character of that gentleman, and it is not likely that his lips would be sealed. What did the Melbourne farmer, Mr. Tilt, have to say? I was elected to this chamber to represent the people. I belong to the State which depends solely upon its export trade. The Minister (Senator Pearce) was returned to this Parliament when I was, and unless the Government of which he is a member supplies the Senate with the fullest information before it is asked to record its decision, he will betray the trust imposed in him by the electors. Senator McLachlan, a legal luminary, who has spent many years of his life in perusing evidence, should express his opinions. Honorable members opposite are now assisting to dispose of an undertaking which in the past they have lauded to the skies. The only evidence which we have before us to enable us to come to a decision on this vitally important subject is contained in four and a half lines of printed matter in the report which the members of the Public Accounts Committee have presented to us. We are told that the Committee's report is based upon confidential information. This information, we have ascertained, was responsible some time ago for a substantial reduction being effected in freight charges which has meant a saving of millions of pounds to our people. The Honorary Minister (Senator McLachlan) laughs, but this is no laughing matter for thousands of our people who depend upon the most economical means of shipping their products to the markets of the world.

Senator Kingsmill - They do not use this Line for that purpose.

Senator LYNCH - Even at this eleventh hour I trust that honorable members will indicate to the Government that they are not prepared to discontinue this Line until they are furnished with evidence which completely justifies them in doing so. It is amazing to me that the Public Accounts Committee should have been content to take evidence only from persons who live in the big centres of population, seeing that those who are winning their livelihood in the interior are most concerned in the matter.

The PRESIDENT - The honorable senator is again discussing the report. I ask him to confine his -remarks to the amendment before the Chair.

Senator LYNCH - I am sure that Senator McLachlan would not willingly allow any judge to determine an issue submitted to him in the absence of adequate evidence. It appears to me that some members of this Parliament are quite prepared to rush heedlessly along the road that leads to destruction. They appear to have lost all desire to see where they are going or what the end of the journey will be. Some of them seem to be bereft of their senses. Whoever heard of determining an issue of this ^ character in the absence of a tittle of evidence? A vital complement to every judicial decision is evidence, and that is what we entirely lack in this case. Would Senator Barwell ever dream of allowing a judge to give his decision before he had heard the evidence?

Senator Sir Henry Barwell - The facts in this case are so well known that only one decision is possible for reasonable men.

Senator Ogden - This is a door of escape for timid men.

Senator LYNCH - Timid men are not likely to stand up against an overwhelming majority on an issue of this character as we are doing. Again I should like to know what evidence the Hon. W. C. Angliss, meat exporter, of Melbourne, gave to. the committee, and what evidence did William Keith Yuill, sharebroker, of Sydney, submit? I could understand a gentleman of that profession being consulted if the merits of some mining prospectus had been under discussion, but what does he know about the Commonwealth shipping activities?

Senator Kingsmill - He was formerly chief clerk of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers.

Senator LYNCH - Whatever he was, I should like to know the nature of the evidence that he gave. What had Robert Coates Tilt, solicitor, and William Tomalin, store superintendent of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers, Sydney, to say?

The PRESIDENT - The honorable senator is again discussing the report. I ask him to observe my ruling, and to confine his remarks to the amendment.

Senator LYNCH - 1 shall endeavour to do so, sir. According to the report of the joint committee, nearly 50 witnesses were examined, and we are entirely ignorant of what they said. Consequently, from the point of view of the value of their evidence to us, they might just as well have been Hottentots in Central Africa. The confidential information upon which the committee appears to have based its recommendation is disposed of in four and a half lines' of printed matter. Seeing that millions of the people's money are involved in those few lines, that is not a fair thing to Parliament or the country. However, I have made my protest, and I trust that later saner counsels and riper judgments will prevail, and that a higher tribunal than even this Parliament will deal appropriately with those who have lent themselves to these methods of muffling opinion and judgment in this Parliament.

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