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Tuesday, 17 July 1906

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) .- I am thoroughly in accord with the remarks which have just fallen from the honorable member for Hindmarsh, and I hope that the Minister will pay some heed to his suggestion. When we read the clause, we are struck with the fact that it refers, not to a person who might perhaps unwittingly commit an offence or unwittingly make a statement not in accordance with facts., but to a person who deliberately intended to misrepresent the facts and mislead the ComptrollerGeneral. Where an offence is wilfully committed, and with the object of injuring another person in trade, I submit that it is a very serious matter, and that the fine proposed is wholly inadequate to the enormity of the offence. It must be remembered that when a person has madea false statement in evidence before a. Court in the ordinary way, he is subject to a very heavy penalty. I do not know what the penalty for perjury is in Victoria, but in New South Wales it carries with it a liability to two years' imprisonment. In this case, the clause does not refer to a statement made upon oath - at least, I suppose that it does not, because it reads as follows : -

Any person who wilfully

(a)   makes to the Comptroller-General or to any officer of Customs any false statement in relation to any action or proceedings taken or proposed to be taken under this Part of this Act; or

(b)   misleads the Comptroller-General in any particular likely to affect the discharge of his duty under this Act shall be guilty of an offence.

Penalty, £100.

Although nothing is here stated about the making of a false statement on oath, the making of a false statement is itself, undev the provisions of the Bill, an offence, and is, therefore, in my opinion, tantamount to the making of a false statement on oath. In any case, the effect upon the object of the false statement is just the same. Certainly, if the Minister takes action, the consequences to the persons injuriously affected will be as serious whether his action is taken upon afalse statement made on oath, or upon a false statement not made on oath. We should provide the greatest safeguards against the making of false statements by interested persons to the possible injury of the business of others, by providing for the adequate punishment of the offence. Not many months ago, Mr. McKay, of the Sunshine Harvester Company, went to the responsible officers of the Customs Department, and made to them a statement, based, not upon evidence which he could substantiate, but upon a copy of a copy of an alleged letter.

Sir William Lyne - The statements proved to be true.

Mr JOHNSON - I doubt it. No proof has been furnished to this House. I looked through the papers which were, laid on the table in the Library, and could not find the slightest tittle of. evidence in support of Mr. McKay's statements. All that was given was the copy of a copy of a letter alleged to exist, but for the existence of which no one in Australia could vouch. In that case, action was taken by the Minister on the reports of his officers seriously injuring the trade of the Massey-Harris Company, which is doing business in Australia. Rash statements made on such flimsy evidence should be punishable by the infliction of a very much more serious penalty than is provided for in the Bill. The statements of interested parties who complain to the ComptrollerGeneral, although not made upon oath, may seriously affect rivals, whose businesses may be held up pending inquiries in connexion with the instituting of proceedings against them, and it will devolve upon them to prove that the allegations of the complainants are withoutfoundation. It is true that those making complaints must substantiate them in certain particulars ; but, as the business of the persons complained of may be seriously injured if action is taken on their statements, a bond should be given to secure the payment of compensationin the event of failure to sustain a charge, or to show that reasonable ground existed for making it. Where a complainant fails to prove his case, he should be made to suffer a much heavier penalty than that provided for in the Bill, and should pay compensation to the defendant for the injury done to his business. However, it is of very little use to dwell on this matter, beca use the Minister in charge of the Bill is not now in the chamber, and the AttorneyGeneral seems to be taking very little interest in it.

Mr Kelly - Is it not a question of trusting the Justice? Surely, the Justice will not award imprisonment unless he feels it to be necessary.

Mr JOHNSON - I am speaking of the provisions of clause 21. If we turn to clause iiaa, we find that, under it, a person who had committed a far less heinous offence than that of which I have been speaking would be punishable on conviction by a penalty up to £500, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding a year, or both, while the penalty for an offending corporation may reach£1,000.

Mr Isaacs - The honorable member seems to wish to make the penalty for a first offence as serious as the penaltyfor a second offence.

Mr JOHNSON - But the one offence is, at the best, only a legal crime, an offence created by this measure; whereas the other is a moral offence, for which the penalty should be much heavier.

Mr Conroy - Apparently the AttorneyGeneral thinks that a man should be allowed to make any false statement, so long as he does not swear to it.

Mr Isaacs - I did not say so.

Mr JOHNSON - I am pointing out that the offence for which a heavy penalty- is provided is not a moral crime, but that the offence for which the lower penalty is proposed is a moral offence of a most objectionable character. When a man deliberately makes a false statement with the object of wilfully injuring some person who is carrying on his lawful avocation, he should be heavily punished, and I hope that the Attorney-General's sense of proportion will suggest to him the desirability of revising the penalties.

Mr Isaacs - The man whom the honorable member says would not be guilty of a moral crime would be a traitor to his country.

Mr JOHNSON - That is only the Attorney-General's opinion. A man with an evenly-balanced mind would require to subject his imagination to a great strain to arrive at such a conclusion. The proposal which has been brought forward is reasonable and equitable, and I trust that the Attorney-General will agree to the recommittal of the clause.

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