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Wednesday, 22 March 1972
Page: 823

Senator MULVIHILL (New South Wales) - When I look back to the origin of our present committee system I think immediately of the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution. Like Senator Rae, I believe that a certain responsibility for the protection of witnesses rests on senators who are members of committees. In referring to the way in which senators behave in relation to witnesses I remind honourable senators of one classic illustration which Senator Rae will appreciate. During the proceedings of the Water Pollution Committee, if some of us, myself included, had persisted with certain investigations and made certain inquiries into evidence given by some New South Wales State Government witnesses, particularly in relation to pollution of the Molonglo River, we could have created a very embarrassing situation for those State public servants who were giving evidence on oath. Senator Rae knows that we were not playing party politics in conducting that inquiry. At one stage I was insistent about certain evidence being given, but then I came to realise that the committee system was in its infancy and that my insistence could be construed as persecution, so I took the matter no further. However, I am equally concerned, as every honourable senator should be, that we should not, in our efforts to provide protection for witnesses, erect barricades behind which people can hide.

There have been remarks about the treatment of witnesses. I have sat on 4 committees and I can honestly say that the courtesy which quite rightly has been extended by senators to witnesses has been far in excess of the courtesy extended to some of us when we have appeared in proceedings before conciliation commissioners. I say that quite sincerely. I suggest that our primary task is to obtain evidence which will provide information. I know that under our federal system there is difficulty at times in getting evidence from representatives of the States who fear sometimes that they will be used more or less as a shuttlecock in relation to past policy decisions. We have all been made aware that when witnesses of this kind appear before us we do not act as though we are throwing them to the lions in some gigantic colosseum. There are some things that we must avoid.

I agree with Senator Rae's suggestion that witnesses should be given reasonable protection, but anybody who has studied the counterpart of our committee system in the United States would realise that not so long ago senior public servants in the United States were destroyed by the committees before which they appeared. I am thinking particularly of one case before an unfair practices committee in the United States when the question of discrimination because of colour was raised. A senior public servant appearing before the committee was bullied by some members of the congressional committee. We should avoid action of that kind, but at the same time I would hate to see a situation arise in which through our zest for justice, if I may put it that way, we create so many escape hatches that witnesses may not be inclined to give the evidence that is wanted from them. I appreciate that the Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange with which Senator Rae has been identified has had probably a much more difficult course to chart than other committees, but I believe that each and every honourable senator in this place, keen as he might have been on a particular subject, has conducted himself quite well in the way he has treated witnesses.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Item 9 (Televising of public hearings of Committee).

Item agreed to.

Item 10 (Time limit to speeches during broadcasts - standing order 407 a)

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