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Friday, 15 December 1905

The PRESIDENT - There is a difficulty About this motion. The Senate has already decided that, at its rising, it shall adjourn until Monday. I quite understand that these formal motions for the adjournment of the Senate are simply moved to enable a senator to bring forward some matter of urgent public importance. But seeing that the Senate has already decided to adjourn until half-past 10 o'clock on Monday morning - and the significance of that as affecting formal motions never struck me until this moment - it is difficult to meet the objection.

Senator HIGGS - Will you permit me to read the first few words ofstanding order No. 60 -

Amotion, without notice, that the Senate, at its rising, adjourn to any day or hour other than that fixed for the next ordinary meeting of the Senate for the purpose of debating some matter of urgency.

The matter of urgency in this case is -

The want of due attention shown by the Secretary of External Affairs in regard to motions carried by the Senate, and requests for information by honorable senators; and the disadvantage and possible injury likely to result from this want of attention.

Four honorable senators having risen in their places,

Senator HIGGS - The particular matters concerning which the Senate has cause for . complaint affect the alleged mail contract for the Pacific Islands mail services, and the case of Mr. Richmond in New Guinea. Honorable senators will remember that last year some of us took great exception to the expenditure of j£i 2,000 for the purposes of mail services for New Guinea. One of the grounds of exception was that, if there were to be increases of expenditure in these directions, tenders ought to be called for. There was placed before the Senate at the time a memorandum of a proposed agreement between Messrs. Burns, Philp and Company, and the Commonwealth Government. We understood that Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company were ' to sign the proposel contract on the one hand, and that the Commonwealth Government was to sign it on the other, after some alterations had been made. Those alterations were communicated in some Ministerial replies given in the Senate last year. They were to the effect that in the new contract with. Messrs. Bums, Philp, and Company, there would be stated the passenger fares to be charged to and from the Islands, and the rates for freight - two very important alterations, in view of the fact that we were subsidizing a company which would compete with other steam-ship owners. Believing that the Department of External Affairs would see that those alterations were made in the contract, and that everything would proceed in an ordinary business-like way, nothing was done to raise the question again until some time this year. While taking exception to the expenditure of the .£12.000, in view of the approach of the discussion on the Appropriation Bill. I sought for information concerning this particular contract. At first I gave notice of a motion that there should be laid on the table of the Senate a copy of the contract, or a copy of the agreement - I am not sure which word I used - with Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company. I thought that that would be taken as a purely formal motion. But when it was called on, the Minister at the table said "not formal." At the time I thought he did so under a misapprehension.

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - What were the words of the honorable senator's motion ?

Senator HIGGS - They were-

That there be laid on the table of the Senate a copy of the agreement between the Government and Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Co., having reference to Pacific Island Mail Services.

The Minister having said " not formal," I asked him at a later stage whether he had done so under a misapprehension. I asked the Minister of Defence whether he would make inquiries into the matter. I said that I understood that there was no such agreement in existence, and that there was a rumour to that effect. I asked him if he would make inquiries, because if no such agreement was in existence, it was useless to move that a copy of it be laid on the table of the Senate. The time for the consideration of the Appropriation Bill was approaching, and we wanted this information. We could not get it. The Appropriation Bill was brought before the Senate, and in Committee the matter was brought up again. Senator Playford had a message sent over to the Department of External Affairs, asking the Secretary to attend here, a message which should have been unnecessary, as the Secretary should" have been present in the Senate when his Estimates were under discussion. When the Secretary for External Affairs put in an appearance the Minister was furnished with a memorandum concerning the Pacific Islands mail services. The Minister told us, acting under information from Mr. Atlee Hunt, that it was a ten years' contract. I call attention to those words, " a ten years' contract," because I wish to show later on that there has been a great deal of quibbling about the use of words. That information was entirely misleading. The information which the Minister quoted was. signed bv Mr. Atlee Hunt, and appears in Hansard at page 5747. At the conclusion of it appeared these words -

Pending inquiries by me into the New . Guinea services, the formal contract was not completed. As a result of these inquiries changes were made, and the draft contract has now been forwarded to the contractors for signature.

That was on the 24th November - about three weeks ago. The draft contract, we were informed, had been sent on to the contractors for signature. Very shortly afterwards, my motion was carried. On 8th December, finding that no copy of the contract was forthcoming, I moved in the Senate -

That there be laid on the table of the Senate a copy of the proposed agreement between the Government and Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company, having reference to the Pacific Island Mail Services, and stated by the Honorary Minister (Senator Keating) in a speech on the 23rd November last to have been "completed though not yet signed."

Five days later I asked the Minister why a copy of the agreement had not been laid before the Senate. The honorable senator said -

The Prime Minister informs me that he does not think it well to lay the proposed agreement on the table. It has been forwarded for signature, and it is expected that it will shortly be signed.

I asked a question arising out of that answer -

Whether the Prime Minister is aware that the Senate has ordered that this proposed draft agreement shall be laid on the table?

The Minister replied -

I think it was the agreement, and not the draft agreement, that was ordered to be laid upon the table.

I do not blame the Prime Minister in this matter. I do not blame the Minister of Defence. No one can accuse the Prime Minister of want of energy. He is a most enthusiastic and energetic Cabinet Minister. I can well believe that Senator Playford is not to blame either. Both he and the Prime Minister had to look to the Secretary of External Affairs for information. It was from the Secretary of External Affairs that the Minister of Defence received the replies given in the Senate. I do not think that the Prime Minister would have undertaken to say - given a full knowledge of the fact, that the Senate had ordered a copy of this contract to be laid on the table - that he did not " think it well to lay it on the table until it was signed.

Senator Fraser - Why should the Secretary have opinions of his own ?

Senator HIGGS - That I suppose is due to the fact that there have been so many changes of Government, and the Secretary of the Department has got either an exaggerated view of his rights and responsibilities, or thinks, " Well, there is no occasion to be particular; it will be all right; there will be a change of Ministry in a few days, and nothing need happen." There is no good reason for concealment. I state candidly that the reason why I am anxious to get this information is that I desire to find out what the particulars of the contract are, and whether the terms promised by a former Government would be included in it, namely, that the rates for passengers' fares and freights would be specified. I think that the Senate will support me in the view that I am right in calling attention to the neglect of the Secretary of External Affairs to have' this contract prepared in time, and his failure to bring under the notice of the proper authorities that Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company either will not sign the contract, or have neglected to sign it. In so doing, his conduct is likely to prove injurious to the Commonwealth. And there is this additional disadvantage - that, whereas all other mail contractors are under a penalty for failure to adhere to the terms of their contracts, in the absence of any signed contract Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company can do exactly as they please.

Senator Dobson - It appears to me that by going behind the Minister's reply the honorable senator is taking a very dangerous course in blaming the Secretary of External Affairs. He may prove to be misinformed.

Senator HIGGS - Both the Ministers with whom we have had to deal in regard to this matter - the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence -have had to rely upon the Secretary of External Affairs. The Minister of Defence has had to cope with a most difficult Department, and has coped with it well. He has explained the difficulties, and we know what they are. It has taken him all his time to attend to his Department. The Prime Minister, we are aware, has been in office only a few months, and has had his hands sufficiently full in regard to Bills and affairs in the other House, without concerning himself very much with matters that had already been attended to by his Department.

Senator Dobson - The reply we have had apparently disposes of what the Secretary has done.

Senator HIGGS - The replies we have received do not justify the conduct of the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs. We voted £12,000 a year ago, and we understood that the contract was to be entered into and signed, with certain terms and conditions stated therein. Now we are informed that no contract has been signed, and we have voted another £1 2,000 in the Appropriation Bill.

Senator Fraser - Has the money been expended ?

Senator HIGGS - The first £12,000 is expended, and, no doubt, also a portion of the second £12,000. Is that a businesslike method?

Senator Staniforth Smith - Have the routes laid down when we voted the money been varied?

Senator HIGGS - That is another point. According to a statement in the press, the routes laid down in the memorandum of agreement have been varied. The vessels were to call at certain islands about New Guinea, but were not to call at or depart from ports such as Cooktown, from whence a vessel owned by Clunn and Son sails. Now, Mr. Hunt, the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs, has evidently, on his own authority, undertaken to vary the route, and we find a company, subsidized to the extent of £12,000, starting from Cooktown, in opposition to a vessel owned by Clunn and Sons, who receive no subsidy.

Senator Dobson - We ought to blame the Ministers, who are responsible to us, and let them deal with the officials.

Senator HIGGS - The case of Mr. Richmond, like the other to which I have referred, is urgent, seeing that, according to the Minister, we shall go into recess not later than Wednesday or Thursday next. When Parliament is prorogued, the Senate will have no opportunity to discuss these matters, and their control will again be surrendered to the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs. The case of Mr. Richmond is said to be under inquiry ; but I point out that he first complained about his suspension, in a letter dated the 27th August last, which reached us on the 26th September. If will be seen that three months and a halfhave elapsed since Mr. Richmond was suspended ; and, during the whole of that time, he has been under a cloud of disgrace, and, probably, receiving no salary. If, owing to our going into recess, there is further delay, Mr. Richmond's funds may become exhausted, and he may have to leave New Guinea, and thus deprived of any redress.

Senator Fraser - Such a case ought to be promptly dealt with.

Senator HIGGS - In my opinion, the case has not. been promptly dealt with, owing to the failure of the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs. Accord ing to information which appeared in. the daily press of 10th October, reporting an interview with the Prime Minister -

An extraordinary situation has arisen in British New Guinea in consequence of Mr. Richmond, the head of the Lands Department, having got at loggerheads with the Administrator, Captain Barton, over a matter which the Prime Minister described yesterdayas -

I draw particular attention to these words - so trifling that it is rather embarrassing.

That information could come from no one else but the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs, who had lately been to New Guinea. This, matter, which is described as "trifling," has, owing to the questions asked in the Senate, proved to be an apparently gross case of injustice - a case which shows either dereliction of duty on the part of a high officer, or de famation of character by the chief of the Lands Department in New Guinea. The questions which I asked on this matter were set out in detail, as I have frequently to set out questions, in order to get the desired information. If a question be asked in a general way, the facts cannot always be obtained, and it is necessary to so arrange them as, to elicit definite replies. The first questions were evaded by the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs, and I had to ask the Minister next day whether he noticed that they had not been replied to. The Minister, I suppose, in his usual whole-hearted way, asked for definite and straight replies, which we then got. The questions had reference to the composition of the Council in New Guinea which suspended Mr. Richmond. We then discovered that the Council was composed of very few men, and that Captain Barton, who was accused, voted to suspend Mr. Richmond for disloyalty.

Senator de Largie - I think Mr. Richmond got off very cheaply considering who were his judges !

Senator HIGGS - Mr. Richmond has been deprived of his good name, and no doubt of his livelihood ; at any rate, we can get no information as to whether he is being paid his salary. No doubt Ministers are fully engaged with business, but they ought to demand from the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs definite replies when questions are asked. And when a motion is carried by the Senate that a copy of a certain agreement, or proposed agreement, be laid on the table, the Government ought to ascertain from the secretary why he is not prepared to comply with the request, and why he has neglected his duty, if it appear that he has done so.

Senator Givens - The secretary is the boss of the whole affair.

Senator HIGGS - Where there are so many Ministerial changes, it frequently happens that the secretary of a Department is the boss, and that Ministers are at his mercy. I call attention to these matters, because the session is likely to close soon, and there is the possibility of loss through the expenditure of £12,000 in an irregular way. Perhaps I ought not to use the word "irregular," seeing that it may be construed as a reflection on a vote of the Senate, but, at any rate, I may describe the position as unsatisfactory. There is a fear that the gravest injustice may be done to Mr. Richmond, owing to the fact that in New Guinea there are a number of officials who have no sympathy whatever with Australian sentiment. The facts of this case, and the failure to furnish definite replies, show that the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs is in sympathy with those who compose the Executive Council in New Guinea.

The PRESIDENT - I am in somewhat of a difficulty as to how to put this motion, seeing that we have already decided that the Senate, at its rising, shall adjourn until 10.30 o'clock on Monday next. One of the rules of the Senate is that we cannot rescind an order unless a certain course of procedure is adopted. Under the circumstances, the only way out of the difficulty - although that way is not strictly in accordance with the Standing Orders - is simply to put the question again -

That the Senate at its rising adjourn until halfpast ten o'clock a.m. on Monday.

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