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Thursday, 8 April 1965

Senator PALTRIDGE (Western Australia) (Minister for Defence) , - I rise merely to permit the honorable senator to continue his speech.

Senator CAVANAGH(South Australia)

I realise it must be embarrassing for him to have to reply to what I am saying. I chink that as the Leader of the Government in the Senate, he would not like the situation to arise in which an assurance he had given was repudiated by his successor. At the same time, I am sympathetic to Senator Sir William Spooner on this question, because it was no more his fault in regard to this matter than it was anyone else's fault. After I had spoken in the second reading debate on the Homes Savings Grant Bill last year, the Secretary of the Department of Housing came to see me and said that the questions I had raised had not been raised in the House of Representatives. He said, in effect: "We do not know what you are talking about and, therefore, we cannot prepare replies. Will you give us the questions that you will be bringing up in Committee so that we can have the replies ready for you?"

I told the Secretary what clauses I would be raising in Committee, and they included the provision now under consideration. The Secretary sat beside the Minister who was in charge of the Bill at that time and was in continuous consultation with him. When this matter came up, the reply given to me was obviously the instruction of the Department. Again 1 say that, in all probability, the Department did not know the significance of the clause or did not have a proper, understanding of it. The assurance was given. It is in black and white in " Hansard ". I think that the assurance was given by Senator Sir William Spooner on the say-so of the officers of the Department. Now it is apparent that a mistake has been made. I am seeking to rectify that mistake by ensuring the granting of a payment to those few who have been affected. By doing so, we would honour the promise of a Minister of the Crown. If the stage is reached where the assurance of a Minister of the Crown cannot be accepted, we are in a bad state of affairs.

It is all right to say that this interpretation was obvious to anyone who read the Act. It definitely was not obvious even to the Minister at the time or to the Secretary of the Department. I had endeavoured to interpret the Bill. I devoted some time to studying this question. The Minister responsible for the Bill at that time, speaking with the advantage of a legally trained mind, said that my interpretation was pathetic. 1 was not in the position of being able to interpret these matters as a legally trained person would. I was a layman on the question. I thought that the clause meant the very thing that the Minister for Defence said it meant today. Senator Sir William Spooner, the responsible Minister at that time, told me that it did not mean that, and gave me the assurance that the principle would be carried out. As a result of that assurance, as I have said, there are at least four people in South Australia who cannot qualify because they accepted that assurance from the Minister. One person accepted the assurance on my say-so after a conversation with me. This is the kind of position in which honorable senators are placed if an assurance given to them is not honoured.

When I came into this House of Parliament, I was advised that one of the greatest men on the Government side who could be trusted and believed - although we could not agree politically with him - was the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Sir William Spooner. His word was his bond. The reputation of -the man whom we recognised and idolised has been reduced at this stage because an assurance that he gave cannot be carried out now. If he said something that is not in accordance with the Act, the present Minister must simply repudiate that assurance. The man has been reduced to the stage where he can do nothing else but cringe and evade the issue, such as happened last night, and try to pass the matter off by saying, as he did this morning, that his haircut was more important than people receiving a £250 grant. That is what has happened to someone who was respected in this chamber because a person in the Department of Housing, not the then Minister concerned with the matter, made a mistake and the Minister in charge of this Bill today is not prepared to honour the assurance that was given. 1 say to honorable senators in all sincerity that the amount concerned is not great. If we have any decency at all and if we wish to restore to Senator Sir William Spooner the respect and prestige that he enjoyed when I came into this House and before his dismissal from the Government, we should say that, as he made the promise, it should be carried out at the present time.

Senator SirWILLIAM SPOONER (New South Wales) [3.20]: - As my name has been invoked frequently, I feel that I must make a contribution to the debate. May I start, Mr. Chairman, by thanking Senator Cavanagh most sincerely for the compliments he paid me regarding my standing and my prestige here. I thought that I enjoyed some prestige on this side of the chamber, but it is of very great comfort to me to have Senator Cavanagh pay some compliments to me from the other side of the chamber although, if I may say so, I detected a little insincerity in the compliments that he paid me, and the use of the compliments as a debating point. This is the whole substance of Senator Cavanagh's argument before the Senate. It is a sheer debating point, trying to take advantage of some looseness in my reply on a complicated matter that was in the Homes Savings Grant Bill.

I understood Senator Cavanagh to say a few minutes ago that he would have moved some amendment if he had not received some assurance from me. All I say in reply is that I have no recollection of that being the atmosphere at the time the question was raised. I find no evidence of that being the atmosphere in the "Hansard " record of the debate. All I can do is ask Senator Cavanagh to examine his own conscience as to whether he is justified in saying that, if he had not been satisfied with my answer, he would have moved the amendment then.

Senator Cavanagh - 1 was completely satisfied.

Senator Sir WILLIAM SPOONER - Let me, if I may, traverse the history of this matter. My recollection of it is that this legislation was originally conceived upon the basis that it would apply to savings in the future qualifying for the grant. When the measure came to be examined, it was said that it would be fair if the scheme was broken up into separate sections to apply to people who had already made savings in the past, people who would make part savings and continue savings, and people who started de novo and made savings in the future. The Bill was split into two sections or two parts. There was - I hope I am correct in this - a common proviso in each of the two parts. That common proviso said, in effect: " Yes, we will let this scheme operate in a retrospective sort of way provided that at the line of demarcation " - at what I think is called the prescribed date - "the savings are transferred in a readily identifiable form into a savings bank account". " Savings bank " is not the correct technical term for the prescribed institutions which include a savings bank, home building fund or building society, but I will use the term as a kind of shorthand. A line of demarcation was drawn. Up to the end of 1964, savings qualified if by that time they had been put into a savings bank account and, after December 1964, the savings also qualified if they were put into a savings bank account. Senator Cavanagh asked me a question about this line of demarcation and 1 replied that the foundation for both periods was the same. I have re-read my reply in " Hansard ". It is true that that reply may not have been 100 per cent, accurate, but it still makes good sense to me, as it did when I made it. So for Senator Cavanagh to attempt to say at this stage of the proceedings that that statement which I made in Committee in the Senate is in the nature of a Government promise or assurance is - as I said when I started - a debatable issue. It is purely an attempt to make a big issue out of something that was going backwards and forwards across the chamber in the course of debate. In my reply I said in effect: " This is the position: A couple may build a home and become eligible for the grant by virtue of the Department accepting their savings in any form. That is the foundation for my answer to Senator Cavanagh's inquiry." The foundation is exactly the same for savings after 3 1st December 1964 as for savings before that date. If my recollection is correct, they have to be transferred so as to take an acceptable form if not already held in that form.

Again, the line of demarcation has to be observed and the savings have to be taken out of stocks or shares - or whatever form of investment they are in - and have to be paid into a savings bank account, either before 31st December 1964 or in some following period. Senator Cavanagh has taken the opportunity to attack me personally on this and say that my answer was an assurance given on behalf of the Government. Do I overstate the case? I know that my answer was perhaps not the form of answer that Senator Murphy or Senator Cohen would give if they were in their chambers, being asked to put the position down in black and white; but I think it is a pretty good answer for any Minister or- senator to give in the course of debate. I think that in the time in which I have been in the Senate there are a lot of things I have said which were not 100 per cent, accurate. But when I look back at the complexities of sections 15 and 16 of the Act I do not think I did badly in the definition I gave in Committee. I would like to think that if I were ever a Minister again and were confronted with a question like this I would do as well in the future as I did on that occasion.

Senator Cavanaghcompletely overstated the case, because to regard my answer as being a specific assurance that a specific thing would be done according to some specific formula is wrong. Senator Cavanagh asked his question 'and received my answer which was, in general terms, that the situation was the same for both periods. If I understand the position correctly, the only thing lacking in my answer was the statement that there should be a transfer of the funds from one form to another. If that was so bad an omission on my part then I am equally at fault in the answer I gave as to the position after 3 1st December 1964, because the same circumstances apply there. If my. recollection is correct, the same transfer should have been effected after 31st December 1964. 1 did not say that in my answer to Senator Cavanagh. 1 was wrong there, too, was I not? But I did not hear any great flourish of trumpets about that error. That error was confined to what I think was a pretty accurate statement which I think would satisfy almost every criterion except that of counsel's opinion. Instead of being a considered legal opinion, mine was a good answer from one non-lawyer to another non-lawyer, which would satisfy anyone. It was an answer which I have not heard queried from that time until this and, on Senator Cavanagh's own statement, I say that he very much exaggerated the issue upon which he challenged my answer.

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