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The Kirby Royal Commission, 1946: Background

Forward to Garrett and Chisholm

Tasmania's Forestry Department was created by an Act of Parliament at the beginning of the 1920s. The Department became the Forestry Commission in the 1940s, and the Commission became Forestry Tasmania in the 1990s. Both changes were preceded by major crises. While many older readers will remember the massive debt problem that killed the Commission, it's less well remembered that the Department died following a series of bribery scandals.

I summarised the scandals and the subsequent Royal Commission in a three-part series in the online publication Tasmanian Times in 2013 (here, here and here, or download the series as a PDF here). Below I give a brief overview of the background, and on the next page I detail the Circular Head connections.

The Kirby report was released in two parts in the Journals and Printed Papers of Parliament: paper 39 for 1945-46, and paper 1 for 1946. As of early 2014, the JPPP still isn't available in digital form.

The build-up

There had been rumours of corruption and improper Ministerial influence in the years leading up to the Second World War. Sawmillers in the North-West were said to be paying Forestry Department officers for information, and for favoured treatment when applying for Crown forest lease and permit areas.

The Forestry Department conducted an internal investigation in 1943. Acting on the results, the State's Labor government asked the Audit Department to inquire into particular allegations. The inquiry was never completed. Four inquiries followed into the administration of Tasmanian forestry: one by a select committee of the Legislative Council, one under the provisions of the Public Service Act, one by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts, and one by the Commonwealth Controller of Timber. All four were inconclusive.

In July 1944, the Solicitor-General asked Stanley Burbury, a prominent Hobart legal practitioner, to investigate matters arising from previous inquiries, this time with the assistance of the police. The inquiry lasted more than a year. Burbury reported in September 1945 that there was no evidence for any wrongdoing:

'My conclusions are therefore stated upon a strict view of the evidence obtained. Some of such evidence might give rise to suspicion in some minds, but in compiling the report and making my comments, I have not concerned myself with rumours and hypothetical assumptions unsubstantiated by evidence. lt may be said that some of the evidence is suggestive of bribery. But I have not considered it any part of my function to state hypothetical cases against the persons concerned upon insufficient evidence.'

Burbury was particularly coy about one of the matters he investigated. He said that Minister for Forests T.G.D. ('Tommy') D'Alton 'took a somewhat unusual, direct, and personal interest in applications' by certain companies making applications to the Department. Burbury excused the Minister on the grounds that D'Alton was 'impatient of departmental delays'.

The Burbury report was regarded by some members of Parliament as an expensive whitewash. Among the discontents was Joe Darling, M.L.C., a famous cricketer who had been elected to Parliament as an Independent in 1921. On 15 November 1945 Darling made sensational new charges of corruption under cover of Parliamentary privilege. One charge concerned the Premier, Robert Cosgrove.

State Cabinet met on 19 November and agreed to appoint a Royal Commission to investigate allegations of bribery and corruption in forestry matters. A bill to establish and fund the Royal Commission received Parliamentary approval two days later. Ironically, the 76-year-old Darling never saw the Royal Commission in operation. He died two weeks before the Commission began taking evidence, on 2 January 1946, following gall bladder surgery.

The Kirby Commission

The Royal Commission was headed by Judge R.C. Kirby of the NSW District Court, who was granted leave by the Commonwealth from duties with the Australian War Crimes Commission. A crowd of lawyers appeared for the Premier, the new Minister for Forests and the many people named in the Commission's terms of reference.

The 'Forestry Commission', as it was called in the press, sat for four months. Witnesses who had been interviewed by Burbury and the police repeated their statements before Kirby, this time under oath. Examinations and cross-examinations were reported almost daily in Tasmanian newspapers.

Kirby completed his report quickly and presented it to the Governor on 25 May 1946. He dismissed many of the alleged 'irregularities' as untrue, unsupported by evidence or not worth pursuing. However, Kirby found that two Forestry Department officers, Melville Garrett and Donald Chisholm, had repeatedly accepted bribes from sawmillers. Garrett and Chisholm were sacked from the Department in July 1946, indicted on corruption charges and bailed. When their cases were heard in the Criminal Court in Hobart in September, the Crown said it would not be prosecuting. No explanation was offered.

Kirby also found that former Minister for Forests 'Tommy' D'Alton had accepted bribes and had acted improperly. D'Alton was twice in court. At the first trial in September 1946, D'Alton and Zeehan sawmiller R.J. Howard were acquitted of charges that Howard had bribed D'Alton with a gift of Huon pine.

A week after the first trial concluded, D'Alton was charged with accepting money from Alstergren P/L of Melbourne in return for various favours. A Victorian court blocked the Tasmanian Solicitor-General's attempt to bring the Alstergren principals to Tasmania to stand trial for bribery, and all charges were dropped.

Department to Commission

No further legal action was taken by the Crown based on Kirby's findings. D'Alton was re-elected to Parliament and continued his close relationship with Alstergren P/L. The only losers, it seems, were Garrett and Chisholm — but the evidence against them was strong.

Tasmanian forestry came under the control of a three-member Forestry Commission on 15 April 1947. The Commission was expected to act at arm's length from the forestry minister, as The Mercury had editorialised a year earlier: 'The main interest of Parliament should be to reorganise the department so that there can never be a repetition of such sorry history.'

Forward to Garrett and Chisholm