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Thursday, 27 May 1915

Mr FOWLER (Perth) .- I expressed the opinion at an earlier stage of this matter that it could not be allowed to rest, and, having listened to the speech made this afternoon by the honorable member for Bourke, i am still more emphatic in that view. I do not think it is the duty of the Committee to leave the matter entirely in the hands of the Government. The honorable member for Bourke has appealed, not to the Ministry, but to the Committee. He has stated his case here, and every honorable member carries a certain amount of responsibility in respect of it. -I am very glad that the Government have indicated their willingness to take definite steps now to thoroughly sift the whole of these charges; but I cannot follow the Assistant Minister of Defence, when he assures us that they have shown all possible diligence in connexion with it. If the Senior Inspector of Ordnance reported, as we understand he did, to the Government that he had certain evidence, and if he was not allowed to put that evidence before the court martial, or Board of Inquiry, then I take it that he must have reported that further fact to the head of his Department. The honorable member for Bourke has not told us whether he did so or not, but it would be most remarkable if an officer of the Department who had been instructed to seek evidence was put aside in an inquiry of this kind, and did not report that fact to the Government. If he did report it, how is it that the Government have allowed the matter to rest until the present time?

Mr Brennan - That is the system which is being built up. An officer must report to his superior officer, and this House is of no use. The matter is in the hands of the military.

Mr FOWLER - I think that the honorable member is quite in error. In this case, the officer was not reporting to his superior officer. He was commissioned by the Minister of Defence. I understand, too, that he reported the result of the inquiry directly to the Minister. If he was not allowed to give the evidence that he went to Sydney to collect, and to put forward, I take it that he reported that also to the Minister. Although several months have elapsed since this extraordinary miscarriage of justice occurred, nothing of any consequence, according to the honorable member for Bourke, has been done. It would appear that the Minister of Defence is only too willing to allow those concerned in this remarkable series of inquiries to hush up the whole matter.

Mr Jensen - Nonsense!

Mr FOWLER - That is what it looks like. It remains for a further inquiry to show whether that view is correct. I strongly object to. the suggestion of the honorable member for Henty that there should be practically a criminal trial, because, for all we know, there may. have been no criminal element in the offences committed,though, if the charges are true, there was a gross breach of military regulations.

Mr Sinclair - Would not the AttorneyGeneral be able to determine whether there was any criminality?

Mr FOWLER - He would be able to determine whether there was or was not ground for a criminal trial. But I think that, before the matter is referred to him, the House should be given some general information bearing on the whole case. The Attorney-General should not be asked to make the whole inquiry necessary to a definite conclusion; the House should participate in the matter, because it affects us as a whole, and not the Government only.

Mr Sinclair - We need the expeditious settlement of the case.

Mr FOWLER - Expedition is all very well; but in a matter in which I was interested I was told by those who knew something about the course of the inquiry that there had been undue expedition, and that it would have been better if there had been a little more deliberation. In this instance, the best thing to do would be to appoint a Select Committee, or to have a Royal Commission composed of honorable members of this House, and, preferably, of gentlemen of legal training, to make an inquiry. If a Judge were commissioned to make the inquiry, there would be this danger, that he might confine himself strictly and closely to legal procedure in the taking of evidence.

Mr J H Catts - Would not a body of lawyers do the same thing?

Mr FOWLER - Not to the same extent, especially if they were men having parliamentary experience, and instructed to make a general inquiry. They would then probably take evidence which would not be accepted by a criminal Court.

Sir William Irvine - Does the honorable member suggest that these charges should be tried on hearsay evidence?

Mr FOWLER - Certainly not. But we should first obtain all possible information regarding these matters. I assure the House, from personal experience, that if the inquiry is conducted in accordance with the procedure of a criminal trial a great deal of information bearing on the matters at issue will be rejected.

Mr Atkinson - Could not a Judge be given a Royal Commission?

Mr FOWLER - Yes; but, again, in that case, there would be a danger of vital information being rejected.

Mr Atkinson - Not if the Commission were wide enough.

Mr FOWLER - I know of one inquiry of the kind which was kept within the limits of strict criminal procedure, and I do not wish to see that repeated.

Mr Higgs - The honorable member's statement is an indictment of the whole judicial system.

Mr FOWLER - No. I am speaking of the tendency of a Judge to follow the procedure with which he is familiar. My contention is that the investigation should have a broader scope than that of an ordinary criminal trial.

Mr Atkinson - In the case to which the honorable member referred, did not the Judge consider himself restricted by the terms of his commission?

Mr FOWLER - I do not wish to discuss that case. I merely instance it. I have stated in regard to it what was told to me by some of the leading legal men of this city, and have repeated it for the instruction of the House. The inquiry that we need would be on broad, general lines, and if the case assumes the serious character that the honorable member for Bourke indicates, there will be opportunities for a criminal trial subsequently.

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