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Thursday, 30 April 1931

Senator FOLL (Queensland) .- It is refreshing to hear such noble sentiments expressed by the Leader of the Senate (Senator Barnes) concerning the propriety of laying on the table certain correspondence between the Government and the Commonwealth Bank with regard to the Government's wheat guarantee proposals. His unwillingness to make the correspondence available is the more interesting, in view of the fact that recently in respect of another important matter, the widest publicity has been given to correspondence beween the Treasurer and the bank. No fewer than 870 copies of that correspondence have been broadcast throughout the Commonwealth, the reason being that the Government is using it for political propaganda. In this matter, Senator Johnston is not requesting that any private correspondence, which might be the property of the bank, shall be laid upon the table. All that he is asking is that the correspondence which actually passed between the bank and the Government shall be made available to honorable senators. If, as the Leader of the Senate has indicated, the bank intimated that a legal difficulty prevented it from financing the Government's later proproposal to pay 3s. a bushel, I should have thought that the Government would welcome this opportunity to remove the stigma that rests upon it with regard to that matter. No one suggests that private correspondence, the property of the Commonwealth Bank, should be divulged. We are justified in assuming that the letter, written to the Government by the bank giving its reasons why it could not finance the Government's proposal to pay 3s. a bushel is the property, not of the bank, but the Government. In supporting the motion, I wish to make it quite clear that I, and other honorable senators on this side of the chamber desire simply to obtain information, which we believe the Government has deliberately withheld from Senator Johnston. I feel sure that if the honorable senator had obtained a satisfactory reply from the Minister, he would not have submitted this motion to have the correspondence laid upon the table of the Senate. Surely, there need be no secret about any legal difficulties with regard to the Government's proposal. If that were the only obstacle to the fulfilment of its promise, the Government should welcome this opportunity to make the correspondence available. The question is not an unreasonable one. I, therefore, trust that the Minister will not oppose the motion simply because it has been submitted by an honorable senator in opposition. This is not a party matter. It is simply a request, and a reasonable one, to obtain certain information in the public interest.

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE (Western Australia) [8.55]. - I should feel loth to support a motion, asking the Government to produce certain correspondence which the Government might deem it undesirable to disclose, but for the fact that circumstances connected with this matter have created a suspicion that the Government is itself to blame for its failure to honour its pledges. Prom the earliest propositions in regard to wheat marketing there has been an atmosphere of mystery enveloping its various wheat proposals. When the first scheme to guarantee wheat-growers 4s. a bushel was spoken of, we all remember how statements of a most positive character made by one Minister one day, were corrected by other Ministers the next day. These conflicting views as to certain pledges have created suspicion in the minds of the public that, for some reason or other, the Government is holding back information which the public should have. I understand that the Leader of the Senate (Senator Barnes) takes the view that if he tables this correspondence, it will disclose a legal opinion which the bank regards as its property, and should not be divulged.

Senator McLachlan - Surely it was communicated to the Government?

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE.I was coming to that point. It seems to me that if a legal opinion was given to the bank it would not appear in the correspondence from the bank to the Government, and be on the Minister's file. Prom my knowledge of official correspondence I am inclined to think that the bank would inform the Government that it had received certain legal advice indicating that - the Government could not constitutionally recoup the bank for any loss that might be incurred, through the payment of the guaranteed price of 3s. I should very much doubt that the bank would quote, in the correspondence, the whole of the legal opinion referred to. If my assumption is correct, the tabling of the correspondence would not make any greater disclosure of the opinion given by the bank's legal advisers than was contained in the speech of the Minister to-night.

Senator Sir Hal Colebatch - But it might be a little more understandable.

Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE - That is so. To overcome the objections raised by the Leader of the Senate I suggest that, if the file is laid on the table, and if some of the correspondence is withheld at the request of the bank, Senator Johnston might be satisfied.

Senator E B Johnston - Certainly.

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE.That being so, the Minister might very well agree to the motion. Then if the bank requests that certain papers be taken from the file, Senator Johnston will raise no objection. "Would a legal opinion that the Government's guarantee to protect the bank against loss was not constitutional prejudice the Commonwealth Bank? "Would it not rather be something which the bank would like the public to know ? The bank does not want to be held up as a bowelless corporation which has no desire to help the farmers. I cannot conceive of the bank raising any objection to the tabling of the papers. The reason given by the Minister for not producing them is not convincing; it is more an excuse than a reason. I commenced the review of this question with a prejudice in favour of the Minister, probably due to my long association with official documents. I know that there are many files in government offices which, if laid on the table of either House or of the library, would prejudice the public interest. It may be, for instance, that some person contemplates taking legal action against the Government in connexion with a contract, and arranges for some member to ask that the papers be laid on the table. He does so with the object of gaining a full knowledge of all that went on in connexion with the contract. Such a person, while not willing to lay all his cards on the table, is often prepared to take advantage of parliamentary procedure to get the Government to lay its cards on the table. In such a case I should support the Minister and agree that the papers should not be laid on the table. But that is not the position here. I cannot see how r the bank would be prejudiced by these papers being laid on the table. The Minister did not say that the Government would be prejudiced; he referred to the bank. I suggest that the motion be carried, and that the Minister extract from the file any papers which the bank considers should not be made public. To that course I, and I think other honorable senators, would offer no objection. I suggest that it be followed.

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