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Wednesday, 28 April 1915

Mr RILEY (South Sydney) .- During the week-end I have had an opportunity to read the Bill, and have also had conversations with Ministers, which enable me to know what is in the mind of the Government so far as this measure is concerned. The Ministry must be very careful how it hands over the civil rights of the people to military control and the judgments of courts martial. This Bill is giving over to the military authorities of the country the rights of the people. Those who have read the early history of Australia know that when the military power ruled this country there was nothing but stagnation and tyranny, and it was only when civil Courts were established, and people were no longer at the mercy of the courts martial that there was any progress. I cannot for the life of me understand why a person charged under this measure cannot be tried in a civil Court. We are a civilized community, with the whole machinery of the law ready to be put into operation at any moment, yet this Bill proposes to take certain civil offenders away from the civil Courts and hand them over to a military Court which is given power to impose the sentence of death. To my mind, that is giving altogether too much power to the military authorities. I can understand them having that power on the field of battle, where they have to deal with large bodies of men, but not in Australia, where we are surrounded by all the machinery of the civil law. I desire to know what is in the minds of the Government that they should desire to take away the civil rights of any individual and hand them over to a military Court. I object to this Bill because of that proposal, but I have also another ground of objection. The measure gives to the GovernorGeneral power to issue regulations, which means that the Bill itself may be carried out by regulation. The Executive may make any regulation they choose, and if this House is not in session, the government of the country under this law may be carried out under the military authorities by regulation. That is a very great power to confer. Already we are too much governed by regulation. When we, as members of Parliament, open our correspondence, we receive piles of regulations from this Department and that Department, and it is impossible for any one of us to know the whole of the regulations, and the extent to which the country is being governed by that means. To now propose to give to the Governor-General further powers of issuing regulations in connexion with the administration of this Bill is simply to further increase the objectionable policy of government by regulation. I have the utmost confidence in the present Ministry; I believe they will work thoroughly and well, and do their best for the country, but we, as members of Parliament, are the elect of the people, and are responsible for seeing that their liberties are not filched away and handed over to the military power. I desire the Minister to tell the House whether this Bill is to be made retrospective. If it is, that very fact is an indication that the courts martial have failed, and that further power is sought to do thoroughly that work which was not properly done in the first place. I am opposed to any retrospective legislation. I believe there are some good clauses in the Bill, and I understand that it is designed to tighten up our laws in order to protect the Commonwealth from the common enemy, but there is a great danger of giving too great a power to the military Courts. A man may visit a camp, and having seen something of which he did not approve write to the press, or make a speech on the subject. In that way he might do something which would have the effect of belittling the military administration, and he could be seized under this Bill and sentenced by court martial.

Mr Hughes - That could be done only by the Executive,

Mr RILEY - I have already said that I have the utmost confidence in the Government, but no man can do thoroughly the work which falls upon a Minister of Defence if he has all the details to attend to. I notice that it is proposed that the Naval Board and the Military Board shall act in conjunction with the Minister of Defence, but in nineteen cases out of twenty the Minister will take the word of the men who advise him.

Mr Hughes - It is not a question for the Minister of Defence, but for the Executive.

Mr RILEY - It is extremely likely that Cabinet, not knowing anything of the circumstances, will approve of any recommendation by the Minister of Defence. That is the danger, and we have no right to put that responsibility upon the Ministry or the Executive. The civil Courts should be clothed with power to deal with all actions against civilians that may arise out of the passing of this Bill. Another reason why I am loth to agree to this Bill is that we are handing away the right of trial by jury, which is the keystone of the liberties contained in Magna Charta. Further than that, I see no necessity for these extreme powers. We have control of the Pacific and the whole of the wireless stations, and the postal, telephone, and telegraphic services are under the ad ministration of the Commonwealth Government, so that Australia is perfectly safe.

Mr Hughes - Suppose a man cut the cable and prevented us from obtaining news in regard to a threatened invasion; do you not think that he would deserve to die without further delay?

Mr RILEY - I have no wish to prejudge any man. I believe the civil Courts of the country are sufficiently powerful to impose sentence of death on any such offender, and that we do not require to erect a new Court to deal with a case of that kind. Does the AttorneyGeneral wish us to believe that the civil Courts axe not qualified to deal with a case such as he has supposed ?

Mr Hughes - I certainly think that they are not qualified. The time that should elapse between the commission of that offence and the death of the offender should be not more than a quarter of an hour.

Mr RILEY - Not knowing what is in the Attorney-General's mind, I am not prepared to hand over to the military authorities the right of civilians to be tried by a civil Court.

Mr Hughes - The military authorities cannot prevent him from having a civil trial.

Mr RILEY - The civilian can ask for a civil trial.

Mr Hughes - And he can get it.

Mr RILEY - Another feature of these prosecutions is that the onus of proof is thrown on the accused person. I know a man who was employed by the telephone branch in the undergrounding of wires, and who was arrested on suspicion of being a German. No evidence against him was discovered, yet that man suffered the indignity of detention, and lost his job.

Mr Hughes - Was that a court martial?

Mr RILEY - No. I do not know what would have happened had he been dealt with by court martial. I will be pleased to hear the Minister's explanation of these provisions. There are many tilings in the Bill of which I approve, but I object to handing over to the military power the right to try civilians by court martial and pass sentence of death upon them ; and I also object to the GovernorGeneral having power to frame regulations of which honorable members may not be aware if Parliament should not be in session.

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