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Thursday, 1 August 1912

Senator McGREGOR (South Australia) (Vice-President of the Executive Council) [5-32l- - I move -

That this Bill be now read a second time.

It is not very often that a Minister, after moving a resolution of very great importance, is called upon immediately to rise for the purpose of moving the second reading of an important Bill. This measure is intended to amend the Royal Commissions Act, and its importance can be easily gauged by the strenuous opposition which was exhibited to it in another place. No doubt my honorable friends opposite will adopt similar tactics here. I do not blame them for taking up the position which they ought to take up in respect of almost any Government measure. We all know that in the past the work of Royal Commissions has proved ineffective because they have not been clothed with sufficient powers. In this connexion, I recollect very well theTobacco Commission, which cost the Commonwealth a very large sum of money.

Members of that Commission, in this Chamber, have often declared that its work was not as effective as it should have been, on account of the limitations imposed upon its powers. Then there was the Harvester Commission, the Chairman of which experienced very great difficulty in securing the evidence which he desired to elicit during that inquiry. So far as I am aware, nobody has as yet disputed the right of the Crown to appoint Royal Commissions. There may be some difference of opinion with respect to the powers that such a Commission has, or ought to have. I served on the Tariff Commission. Although that was an inquiry which did not lend itself to very strenuous concealment on the part of witnesses, yet it cost the Commonwealth a large sum, and if it had been desired to push its investigations further, I have no doubt that its powers would have been found to be deficient. At the present time, there is in existence a Commission - an expensive one I admit - but one which I do not doubt will result in great good to the Common wealth - I refer to the Sugar Commission. We all know the difficulties with which it has been faced in securing the information necessary to enable it to arrive at a just conclusion in respect of the relationship of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company to the rest of the people, not to mention the cane workers and growers ot Queensland. If these Commissions are desirable, if they are capable of doing anything in the best interests of the people, they ought to be armed with sufficient authority to enable them to secure the most complete evidence. The Sugar Commission has, I repeat, experienced very great difficulty in the conduct of its inquiry. Witnesses have actually refused to attend to give evidence, and when they have attended, they have desired to give it in a way that was not satisfactory to the Commission. Then they absented themselves so that legal proceedings had to be initiated against them. To my mind, those proceedings have been unduly protracted, and it has been made painfully evident to the Government, and even to Parliament itself, that it is necessary that some steps should be taken to clothe Royal Commissions with greater powers. There is no intention of making any of the provisions of this Bill retrospective. But, of course, they will have effect in the case of Commissions which have already been appointed, or which may be appointed in the future.

Senator Vardon - Is not clause 10 somewhat retrospective?

Senator McGREGOR - I do not think so.

Senator Guthrie - Why should it not be?

Senator McGREGOR - I do not wish to argue that the Bill should be retrospective, but it ought to apply to Commissions existing at the passing of this measure, or to Commissions appointed in the future. I wish to indicate what I consider to be the most important features of the Bill. There is first the matter of the summoning of witnesses. Every Royal Commission ought to have the power to compel witnesses- to present themselves if their evidence is considered necessary for carrying on the examination. If they do not present themselves, the penalty under this measure is increased tenfold. We believe that persons who are summoned will have some hesitation about running the risk of incurring the penalty of £500.

Senator Guthrie - In one particular case the parties would not mind paying £50,000.

Senator McGREGOR - Cases have been brought under notice where a £50 fine would be as nothing. Much has been said with regard to the severity of the maximum penalty ; but I point out that it is a maximum, and that the fine inflicted may correspond to the heinousness of the offence. Something may be said with re- .spect to the expenses' of witnesses who are summoned. Before this legislation is completed, every provision will be made so that no injustice will be done to any witness summoned from any part of Australia. The next feature is the production of books and documents. In the past a good deal of dissatisfaction existed, and the penalty was so low that many persons would rather incur it than produce books and documents which, in the opinion of a Commission, were necessary. Here the penalty is increased, but there is power for a witness to appeal to a Court. If, however, a case is submitted to a Court, and is decided against the persons summoned, a fine may be inflicted ; so that persons required to produce books and documents will have to consider whether it is worth while to refuse to do so. There is a general provision with regard to those who refuse to make statements or answer questions. I think that when any witness summoned before a Royal Commission - especially one presided over by a Judge of a SupremeCourt or a County Court - refuses to answer questions, or to give information, there must be something behind1 the refusal that is to the interest of the individual or those he represents, and is at the same time detrimental to the rest of the public of Australia. In cases of this kind, a Royal Commission should have the fullest power that can be placed in its possession to compel witnesses to give evidence without hesitation or reserve. The Bill also provides that witnesses may refuse to reveal trade secrets or secret processes. In connexion with contempt of a Commission, if the Commission is presided over by a Judge of a Supreme Court, he will have power to inflict summary penalties. I think that when honorable senators peruse the Bill from end to end they will find that, taken as a whole, it is really for the purpose of enabling Royal Commissions to extract such information as is necessary for the purpose of their inquiry, and to prevent individuals from bringing such bodies into contempt. It is, I am convinced, a necessary piece of legislation, to enable Royal Commissions to do their work properly.

Debate (on motion by Senator Gould) adjourned.

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