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Friday, 24 August 1906

Senator O'KEEFE (Tasmania) . - Honorable senators owe a debt of gratitude to Senator Pearce for the vigorous speech he made this morning on the question of defence, and in relation to the apparent apathy which exists in the Department. It is unpleasant for honorable senators to be continually questioning the actions of the Minister of Defence; but there is one matter to which I feel bound to refer. Some twelve months ago we were promised by the Minister of Defence that some kind of policy would be outlined during the recess, and that Parliament would have, an opportunity to discuss the proposals submitted. We have now been in session some three months, and we understand that Parliament will be prorogued within a very few weeks; and the promise I refer to has not been carried out. I am still hopeful, however, that the Minister may yet outline a more vigorous defence policy than has yet been placed before us. It is ominous, however, that the recommendations made by Captain Creswell appear to have been ignored, and that, as vet, we have had no word from the Minister, either in Parliament or through the medium of the newspapers, as to the opinion entertained by him on the report of the Committee of Imperial Defence.

Senator Playford - That is not so. In the Melbourne Age the other day it was distinctly stated that I am favorable to Captain Creswell 's scheme.

Senator O'KEEFE - Then I withdraw the remark as to the newspapers.

Senator Playford - That is my personal view. I cannot answer for the Government.

Senator O'KEEFE - I read the newspapers and attend here each day, and I have not heard from the Minister any reference to the matter. I hope, however, that before we are called upon to deal with the Defence Estimates we shall have some declaration from the Minister as to what is the policy of the present Government. There is another matter to which I desire to refer. A few weeks ago, when Senator Higgs submitted a motion in favour of the appointment of an Australian, or some one with Australian experience, to the position of Lieutenant-Governor of New Guinea, Senator Playford, in the course of the debate, gave us to understand that, if the services of Sir William McGregor could not be obtained, another gentleman would be appointed. Not the slightest hint was then given that the whole matter was to be shelved by being relegated to a Royal Commission.

The PRESIDENT - Is the honorable senator referring to a former debate of this session ?

Senator O'KEEFE - I am.

The PRESIDENT. Then the honorable senator is out of order.

Senator Playford - I do not think that at that time the Government had any request from Captain Barton for a Commission of inquiry.

Senator O'KEEFE - Do I understand, Mr. President, that I am not allowed to refer to the Hansard report of the debateon Senator Higgs' motion this session ?

The PRESIDENT - No, certainly not.

Senator O'KEEFE - It has always seemed to me that that standing order very frequently restricts proper discussion.

The PRESIDENT - That is a reason for altering the standing order.

Senator O'KEEFE - Without contravening the standing order, I may say that there was an impression, not only in this Chamber, but outside, that an appointment would be made, and that the only reason for any delay was that an endeavour was being made to secure the services of Sir William McGregor. Now, however, the whole business has assumed quite a different phase. The voting on Senator Higgs' motion would, I think, have been different had it been known that the question of the appointment of a LieutenantGovernor was to be shelved indefinitely by the appointment of a RoyalCommission, whose business, practically, it will be to inquire whether it is necessary to have a Leiutenant-Governor, and, if so, who is the best person available. I am very much afraid that the Commission is one to whitewash Captain Barton's administration.

Senator Croft - The Government had already expressed a want of confidence in Captain Barton by negotiating with Sir William McGregor.

Senator O'KEEFE - Exactly; and the Government offered Sir William McGregor a higher salary than that paid to Captain

Barton. The Government knew perfectly well that the services of Sir William McGregor could not be obtained unless at a higher remuneration than that laid down in the Papua Act; and yet they were prepared to go beyond that Act, believing such a step would be acceptable to Parliament and the people. As some of us fore.Saw. Sir William McGregor would not accept the position ; but the Government have not carried out their solemn promise that the next best man would be appointed, and that, all things being equal, an Australian would receive the position. My opinion is that the appointment of the Royal Commission is opposed to the wishes of the majority of Parliament. So strong is the feeling that the life of the Government would, I think, be of very short duration if a number of members had an opportunity to vote on the question. Nothing has occurred during the session which has more shown the absence of stability and backbone on the part of the Government, who seem to be afraid to accept the responsibility imposed upon them by an Act of Parliament. We passed the Papua Act, which provided that a Lieutenant-Governor should be appointed to administer the Possession. When that Act was under consideration Senator Playford pleaded with us that the Government should be given the responsibility of making the appointment. The Senate by a majority left that responsibility with the Government. But what has happened ? The Government is shelving that responsibility bv appointing a Royal Commission. We cannot be accused of being unduly suspicious when we say that they have appointed it for the purpose of whitewashing a gentleman who, it is said, is on particularly friendly terms with! some of the members of the Commission. It is expected, therefore, that the outcome will be that the present Administrator will have everything made nice and smooth for him. Does the Government sincerely believe that the present Acting Administrator of Papua is the best man for the position? If so, it should take the responsibility and appoint him. If that action proved to be right, and it was demonstrated that he was an eminently fit man to administer the Possession, we who are criticising him should be proved to be wrong, and should honorably acknowledge it. Personally, I think that he is not the best man. So far as I can judge, it is doubtful whether he ought to be appointed. But in any case I maintain that the Government should accept the responsibility which they pleaded so hard for.

Senator Croft - Does not the honorable senator recollect that the Government had the support of the Opposition on that occasion ?

Senator O'KEEFE - Oh, yes; and some members of the Opposition no doubt voted with them because, as was easy to see, they did not believe in the sentiments expressed by honorable senators on this side that an Australian should be appointed.

The PRESIDENT - The honorable senator is again referring to a previous debate.

Senator O'KEEFE - I apologize for having transgressed the standing order, but it is very difficult when one is discussing a question that has previously arisen in the present session, and the two matters are so inseparably interwoven, to refrain from touching upon what has previously occurred. I desire to allude to another question relating to the Post and Telegraph Department. Something occurred a short time ago in Tasmania, which appears to me to be rather serious, and requires the earnest and immediate consideration of the Department. It may appear to some honorable senators to be small, but it involves a very big question. The Department employs a detective to visit various places, and keep an eye on the work of officers of the Department. The detective, following up his occupation, was sent to make investigations in Tasmania. He made certain inquiries, but before there was time for his report to reach the head office of the Department an account of it appeared in the Launceston newspapers. A summary which, in its abbreviated form, appeared to be even more condemnatory, appeared in the Melbourne Age a, day or two afterwards, having apparently been telegraphed from Launceston. I am not going to say whether the charges1 made by the detective, practically against the whole of the officers in the Launceston Post Office were welT founded or not. If is for the responsible officers of the Department to determine that question. But I do say that it is absolutely unfair that charges should be scattered broadcast over the country against a number of officers, many of whom have for years borne an honorable name, and who have been associated for the best part of their lives with the Department, merely on a report by a detective, published before it reached the Department. The officers attacked are entirely powerless. They have not the right to rebut the charges. Any denial made on their behalf must be made through the head of the Department. I again call the attention of Senator Keating, who has charge of the business of the Post and Telegraph Department in the Senate, to my assertion that Detective McWilliams went entirely beyond his proper duty when, after making his investigations at Launceston, he gave information to the newspaper reporters - as he must have done, because the reporters could not have obtained it from any one else. The report was highly condemnatory of the work, the honesty, the integrity, and . the general fitness of officers in Tasmania, and especially in the Launceston office.

Senator Keating - The answer which I gave to the honorable senator's question some days ago was that the Department regarded the action of the detective as highly irregular, and that an inquiry was being made into it. I do not know what has since been done.

Senator O'KEEFE - I am aware that the Minister informed me that the departmental view was that the conduct of the detective was highly irregular. I have heard nothing further since I put my question, and that is why I refer to the matter again to-day. I trust that the PostmasterGeneral will give the officers redress in the only way in which he can render justice to them,by allowing them to have their side of the question published. I have very good authority for saying that the charges made by the detective, branding a large number of officials practically as rogues, were flimsy and trivial in the extreme. I believe that the matters complainedof were merely little incidents, magnified by the detective for some reason unknown to me.

Senator Keating - The unfortunate fact was that, no names being mentioned, the whole of the officers were thrown under suspicion.

Senator O'KEEFE - Exactly. Every official connected with the Department in Launceston was thrown under suspicion, because no names were published. Naturally, every official resented this unworthy imputation on his character; and yet they are powerless to clear themselves. I think it is a very serious question that a detective of this character should be retained in the Department when he is guilty of such conduct.

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