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Thursday, 8 August 1946

Mr MENZIES (Kooyong) (Leader of the Opposition) . - This bill, authorizes the execution of 'an agreement substantially in the terms contained in the schedule and relating to the standardization of railway gauges in Australia. It is quite safe to say that this is the biggest single public works project that has ever come before this Parliament. It is a vast scheme, full of potentialities in .each direction ; but unfortunately, the bill has been presented to the Parliament in the dying moments of the session. I protest against the introduction of a bill of this kind so recently as last Friday with the idea that, it shall be fully discussed by the Parliament this week. It is no answer to my protest to say that the Parliament may meet next week, because all honorable members know that it will not. The date of the election having been stated, this Parliament will finish some time , to-morrow. During this week, we have sat morning, afternoon, night and early morning, and, speaking for myself, I have found itcompletely impossible, having regard to the great pressure of . the programme before us, to devote any proper consideration to this scheme.

The problem of standardizing railway gauges is one about which no mere layman will speak too dogmatically. It has been the subject of investigation by Sir Harold Clapp. . As- one who, for two or three years had the pleasure of being Minister for Railways when Sir Harold Clapp was chairman of the Victorian Railways Commissioners, I say at once, that I regard him as being without any superior among railway men in Australia. Any report which Sir Harold makes on a railways matter is one which must command profound respect. He is - arid I desire to make my view abundantly clear on this matter - a very competent and entirely honest servant of the people of Australia. After his report had been produced last year, . negotiations began between the Commonwealth and the States. Those of us who sit in the Parliament have merely read from time to time that the standardization of railway gauges has been discussed at conferences of Commonwealth and State Ministers, that the Minister for Transport in this Parliament (Mr. Ward) was in conference with. Ministers in various States, and ultimately, that an agreement had been reached. That agreement was presented to this Parliament a few days ago. It is an agreement which requires for the satisfaction of the people of Australia very close examination. In the first place, Western Australia and Queensland are omitted from it. That, in itself, calls for some consideration, because the case for the standardization of railway gauges,. insofar as it rests upon -the defence of Australia, is one which ought to speak most elo.quently in Queensland and Western Australia. In other words,- the nearer you get to the extremities of Australia, the more important does it become to have a most rapid and safe means of military transport and disposition. And yet, when the agreement reaches us, Western Australia and Queensland are- omitted from it! Iri effect, it is an Agreement between the Commonwealth and the States of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

The second feature of the agreement is that it involves the expenditure of a very large sum of money. When Sir Harold Clapp's report was produced originally, it was seen. that if the complete scheme that he had in mind was to be undertaken, it would involve an expenditure of nearly £200,000,000. This particular scheme for which the bill provides, is expressed in terms of about £50,000,000 for. the three States. Members of the Opposition are fully conscious of the advantages that would flow from a uniform system of railway transport in Australia. In particular, we are fully conscious of the fact that, one of the vital elements of this scheme, and the Minister himself made it clear that he so believed, is that we should have a .standardization of rolling-stock and equipment so that we may effect real economies. We are conscious of all those things; but we are also conscious that at this time, as we look to the future development and growth of Australia, all proposals for the expenditure of loan moneys must be judged by one simple test, namely, will the expenditure of the money contribute, in an immediate and powerful sense, to the development of Australia? Will it mean that we shall produce more goods and more wealth in Australia ? It is not sufficient merely to say that standardization of railway gauges will facilitate the transport of the goods which- we now produce. The vital thing is that we shall produce more. I offer no view as to where, in any proper table of priorities, this scheme should find a place. I can very well imagine -that we may be confronted with problems of water conservation, the development of the coal industry, the generation and distribution of electric power and light to the country areas, the standardization of railway gauges and the development of the fishing and shipbuilding industries. "Whatever they are,, we believe that that we must judge them all according to what they will produce for the Australian people. Therefore, the whole problem becomes a problem of priorities- to use a word with which we have become almost deplorably familiar during the war. I should have liked to be able to ponder this problem, analyse it with care, and work out where the standardization of railway gauges comes into that picture ; but I confess that, being one human being, I am not able, when we have this crush of work at the end of the session, to devote the time that is needed for a thorough examination of the bill and the agreement, and a complete exposition of the good and bad points, if it has any bad points. The truth is that the Government; - and I am not telling it something of. which it is not conscious - has the numbers. It knows that when the House rises to-morrow, the bill will be well on the way to the statute-book.

Mr Lemmon - Hear,- hear !

Mr MENZIES - Therefore, as my genial friend from Forrest will at once agree, what is the use of arguing about it? All I can say is that while I view with unfeigned respect the material that. was presented to us some time ago in the form of thereport on the standardization of railway gauges, I for one desire to reserve my liberty of action in the future to determine at any moment how the moneys of this country shall be spent to the best advantage; because unless the expenditure produces development for Australia, we shall have no progress, and, without progress, all the talk in the world about other things' will not matter a great deal. Therefore, I do not propose'1 to discuss this bill. I do lot feel qualified to examine the financial implications of this agreement. I do not know that any other honorable member will consider that he has had a reasonable opportunity to discover its financial implications.

Mr Anthony - We have not been able to obtain a copy of the Minister's secondreading speech.

Mr MENZIES - I was more for- tunate than the honorable member for Richmond (Mr. Anthony), because, as the leader of a party, I am graciously accorded the privilege of having what are called the " flats ". The only handicap about that is that whilst I am able to read the Minister's speech when he introduced the bill. T am warned, in rather threatening language, that this is a confidential document and not to be quoted from.

I read Sir Harold Clapp's report when it was produced, and. yesterday I read the Minister's second-reading, speech in the " flats ". This session has been a very busy one, and to-night the bill is before us. .We have coped with other measures during the day, and we have to cope with a dozen other measures before breakfasttime. Guilty of many crimes, as I understand I am supposed to be, the crime of flogging a dead horse will not be numbered among them.. Therefore, speaking on behalf of the incoming government, I say that we reserve our judgment.

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