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Thursday, 17 November 1938

Mr MAKIN (Hindmarsh) . -I warmly commend the honorable member for Maribyrnong (Mr. Drakeford) for bringing forward this matter of major public policy, and for endeavouring to stir the Government into activity. I desire also to congratulate the honorable member upon the very informative and helpful speech he delivered this afternoon. There is no doubt that he has made a thorough study of the subject.

The Minister for the Interior (Mr. McEwen), in his reply, was at some pains to try to exonerate his Government from blame for the delay that has taken place, and he indicated that there was some hope for the future in a conference that was to be convened early in the new year. Unless that conference is more fruitful than some recent conferences have been, I cannot believe that there is much ground for the Minister's optimism. If this Government is not wholly responsible for the delays that have taken place it cannot escape all responsibility. I am convinced, however, that the problem will not be solved until we have federal control of the railway systems of Australia.

Mr Paterson - Then do not blame the Commonwealth in the meantime.

Mr MAKIN - I believe that there are certain interests, from which State railway commissioners, and others in the railway services, are not wholly dissociated, which are primarily responsible for the delays that have taken place.

Mr Jennings - That is an important factor.

Mr MAKIN - I hold that opinion strongly. I feel that a golden opportunity was missed, during the period of the depression, to do something towards standardizing railway gauges. At that time, there was an unprecedented number of unemployed, and materials could be bought more cheaply than at any time before or since. That was the time for the Government to launch a scheme for the standardization of gauges as a major undertaking for the relief of unemployment. A considerable saving would have been effected, and the work would by now have been far advanced. The present position in regard to our railway gauges is absurd. Two things about Australia, are inexplicable to observant visitors, and to those abroad who are interested in our affairs. They cannot understand how we tolerate the existing duplication of governments, and they cannot understand why we permit the existing breaks of railway gauge to continue. These things are put forward as showing how backward Australia really is. I was a member of a parliamentary committee which, in 1925, investigated certain aspects of defence and the supply of munitions. "We had a very distinguished member of the Australian Military Forces before us for examination who stated in evidence that it would take six weeks to transport a division of troops, with the necessary equipment, from the east of Australia to the west. If that is so, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, it indicates what a serious threat to the security of Australia is inherent in the present sys tem of varying railway gauges. Although developments in road transport have done much to remove some of .the difficulties,' it remains true that, in certain circumstances, railway transportation cannot be dispensed with. If railway gauges were standardized, important savings could be effected by having uniform rolling-stock, stores and supplies, and by having standardized repair shops and equipment throughout the whole of the Commonwealth..

I suggest that the Commonwealth should make an earnest endeavour to solve this problem. If the States are not prepared to co-operate, the Commonwealth should move to secure such power as would enable it to assume control of all the railway systems of Australia. The Prime Minister in his policy speech of 1934 made a definite promise that the standardization of railway gauges would be regarded as a question of major importance, but it is only when the Opposition arouses the interest of members of the Government in this matter that it is permitted to have any knowledge of what the Government's intentions are.

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