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Thursday, 27 May 1915

Mr BRENNAN (Batman) .- I am glad that all parties are agreed as to the gravity of the situation disclosed, or partly disclosed, by the honorable member for Bourke. I deplore the fact that the chaotic and unsatisfactory condition in which we now find ourselves is the natural result of the policy of the Government and of the House in regard to military matters. It arises from our surrender of our proper functions, and from the handing over to unqualified persons of what should be the business of civil Courts, namely, the duty of eliciting, and weighing evidence. I join with the honorable member for Perth in objecting to the proposal of the honorable member for Henty as to the nature of the inquiry that should be held. I agree with him, too, that the matter ought not to .be remitted to the Attorney-General, and that the inquiry need not be made by a Judge. In my opinion, it could best be made by a Select Committee of this House. I know what the honorable member for Perth had in his mind. It is natural that he should think that if a Judge were appointed a Commissioner, he might consider himself strictly bound by the terms of his commission, which might be too narrow. A Judge possessing a trained judicial mind would not consider that he could go beyond the terms of his commission, and it has happened in this State that an inquiry has been thwarted by reason of the narrowness of the commission under which it was held. We want a full and wide inquiry. But we do not desire that the ordinary principles governing the eliciting and weighing of evidence should be disregarded. The honorable member for Bourke complained last night that one of the first principles of evidence was disregarded when a document was referred to, and, although a material part of the evidence, was not ordered to be produced, and its nonappearance was not explained.'

Mr Wise - Evidence of the contents was nevertheless given.

Mr BRENNAN - Yes, and that evidence was weighed, although no attempt was made to explain why the document had not been produced, or what had become of it. Every one conversant with legal procedure knows that at the first mention of such a document a demand should have been made for its production, and its contents should not. have been admitted in evidence until it had been produced, or until it had been shown that it could not be produced, but that its contents were nevertheless provable. I desire that the proposed inquiry shall have an unlimited scope, but that the evidence shall be elicited by skilled persons. I think that it should be made by a Select Committee. It is immaterial whether its members be skilled in the law or not, if it lias legal assistance, but it would be well to choose some lawyers. The trouble of the honorable member for Henty seems to be that there is a suspicion that looting took place at Rabaul, and that the matter has not been satisfactorily tried. The question whether looting took place at Rabaul is unimportant compared with some others raised by the honorable member for Bourke. No doubt looting is a grave offence, but it is an incident common in a great war, and certain to take -place when large bodies of men are engaged.

Mr FOWLER (PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA) - Looters are liable to be shot, and have been shot during the present war.

Mr BRENNAN - Rightly so. I do not extenuate the offence. The looter, whether an officer or in the ranks, should be dealt with most severely. But the question whether looting took place at Rabaul sinks into insignificance beside the more important question whether corruption and impropriety can be rightly charged against our officers in' command there.. That is the subject which should be investigated by a Committee of this House. The evidence should be elicited and weighed by persons trained in the art of eliciting and weighing evidence, so that we may have an illuminating, satisfying, and convincing report. There should not be even a shadow of a doubt on the mind of the public as to whether those whom we have appointed to lead our soldiers at the risk of their lives, and as trustees of the country's reputation, did what was right. I hope that a Committee will make an inquiry on broad lines, and that it will act promptly. I congratulate the Government on having taken prompt action in regard to the court martial, and I hope that Ministers will again act promptly, and in the manner suggested.

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