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Thursday, 15 August 1912

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) . - It becomes our duty to look carefully into this matter, especially if the Government, for some reason or other, think that they must increase the penalty enormously. We will assume that a witness is asked a question which may look very innocent. If he is an expert, he may know that, upon his reply, a great deal, if not the whole of his case, may depend, and he may think that he ought not to answer the question. If the Commission wish to consider whether they should or should not ask a certain question, they have the power to retire in order to deliberate. Why should we not give to a witness the right of retiring straight-away and considering whether or not he should answer a question ? Every layman here must be familiar with the ordinary procedure of a Court. A counsel gets up and asks an important question. . Frequently the counsel on the other side jumps up and says to the witness, " Do not answer the question," and his answer is not taken. The counsel who raises the objection gives his reasons, and then the counsel who thinks that the question is relevant, and should be answered, gives his reasons. The debate on this important point is con ducted before a Judge, who decides ultimately, and the witness may have time to make up his mind. Again, in a Court, except in some cases of privileged communications, a witness may disregard the advice of his counsel, and answer a question. If the Judge holds that it ought not to be answered it will not be answered. I ask the Vice-President of the Executive Council whether, in view of the great penalties which may be imposed, he will accept an amendment giving an opportunity to a witness before a Royal Commission to withdraw for a time, in order to consider his first decision not to answer a question, or to consult with counsel before he gives a final refusal?

Senator McGregor - That permission is always given by consent. The Chairman of the Commission does that.

Senator ST LEDGER - Has he the power?

Senator McGregor - Yes.

Senator ST LEDGER - I do not think so.

Senator Pearce - As Chairman of a Royal Commission, I have given leave to a witness to withdraw.

Senator Keating - Only the other day a witness before a Committee appointed to inquire into a disputed election asked to be given an opportunity to decide whether or not he would answer a question which was put to him.

Senator ST LEDGER - That was a matter of grace. It should not be a matter of grace. That is my contention.

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