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Thursday, 12 May 1921

Senator PEARCE ("Western Australia) (Minister for Defence) .- This clause in proposed new section 123f raises a rather interesting question. It is intended to prevent the Minister or departmental officers being required under subpoena to produce what are considered to be confidential public documents before Courts in litigation between private parties. For instance, the Department has been subpoenaed in a number of cases to produce the medical history sheets of returned soldiers, particularly in divorce cases. This has entailed the frequent employment of counsel, and the incurring of large expenditure which has not been recovered. A number of applications have been made to me, as Minister, by Courts for the production of papers, and I have been advised by the Crown Law authorities to follow the rule laid down in Great Britain, which is that a Minister or a Department is not entitled to refuse to produce a paper if the refusal would enable the law to be defeated, or is against the interests of public policy, or the proper interests of the people. It is obvious, however, that when the citizens of Australia enlist, as they did in ' the Australian Imperial Force, we should not use their enlistment to injure them by allowing some other person to get from our records - for instance, from the medical history that we may have of any man, and that we only obtained through his volunteering to fight for his country - information to his detriment or possible injury. I do not know of any case where a refusal has been made which would be detrimental to 'the best public interests of the Commonwealth, but it is necessary in the interests of the soldiers themselves that we should have the power to refuse to produce documents in certain' cases.

Senator Foster - Does that in any way protect the Minister? The clause says, "No person shall produce these documents without the authority of the Minister." Is there still sufficient power for the Minister to refuse?

Senator PEARCE - Oh, yes, we have . power to do that.

The second proposed new section in the clause relates to the prevention of undesirable trading in Red Cross goods. That is a very necessary power, not only in war time, but in peace time, because there are still a number of soldiers in our hospitals, and we should have the right to protect the Red Cross Society by preventing trafficking in their goods. Unfortunately there are people mean enough to have trafficked in those goods during, the war. In one case I know of the store in which the goods were housed was broken into and a large quantity taken away. "We have good reason to believe - although it has been impossible to produce the necessary evidence to prove - that those goods were subsequently sold by people taking them round for sale.

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