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Thursday, 17 November 1938

Mr DRAKEFORD (Maribyrnong) .- I move-

That the House do now adjourn.

The standardization of railway gauges as generally understood in Australia is covered by a report of a royal commission presented in 1921. The report was made after lengthy and careful investigation, and the commission recommended the construction of a trunk railway line of 4-ft. 8 1/2-in gauge from Brisbane to Perth, and the conversion of the Victorian and South Australian railways of 5-ft. 3-in. gauge to the standard gauge of 4-ft. 8J-in. I regret that it has become necessary to move the adjournment of the House for the purpose of drawing public attention to the . failure of the Government to give effect to the promise of the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) in 1934 that this work would be undertaken as one of its major schemes for the relief of unemployment. It would give far greater satisfaction, I feel sure, to all sections of the House to know that the Government had taken action that would have made such a step unnecessary. The reason for the neglect appears to be the complete incapacity of the Government to carry out its promise, whatever might have been its intention or desire at the time the promise was made. An examination of the report of debates, and replies to questions asked by myself and other honorable members, will show that responsible Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have persistently endeavoured to evade the' issue, instead of facing their responsibilities. This cannot be allowed to continue. Those members on the Government side who support the policy of the Prime Minister, have, in the main, allowed the matter to slip, apparently viewing it as one that will provide another attractive piece of window dressing for the United Australia party and the Country party when the next elections are approaching. The honorable member for Parkes (Sir Charles Marr), who is not at present in the House, the honorable member for Bendigo (Mr. Rankin), and others on'that side of the House, have signified their approval of the proposal to standardize railway gauges, but they did not stand up to support this motion. That kind of thing disgusts most people. They profess to believe in this very necessary undertaking, but they are. not prepared to support a motion to discuss it with their votes. When the Government has been criticized for its failure to get on with the work Ministers have sought to divert attention, or to sidetrack criticism, by referring to the lack of co-operation among the States, or by talking about what the Labour Government did or did not do. Excuses of that kind only earn the derision of the people. The' Scullin Government was in office for two years during the worst economic depression in the history of Australia, whereas the Lyons-Page Government has been in power during a period of comparative prosperity. No intelligent person will be deceived by an attempt to compare what was done during the two periods. The Government cannot put forward any legitimate excuse for the delay, but no doubt will claim again that it has not had the co-operation of the States and that, as the railways are, for the most part, State owned, the responsibility for the failure rests rather with the States than with the Commonwealth.

Let us further examine the Government's . promises. * Standardization of railway gauges was not only put forward at the election in 1934 by the Government as one of its major schemes by the carrying out of which it proposed to meet the unemployment problem, but also it was part of the Governor-'General's speech at the opening of the newly elected Parliament in October of that year. After setting out . that the Government would survey the unemployment problem through the agency of the then Minister for Commerce (Sir Frederick Stewart), and that the major portion of his labours would be directed to what was designated as " the great problem ", the GovernorGeneral's speech said that the honorable gentleman would be relieved of much of his work so that he could direct attention to principal matters. It made reference to the selection: and prepara tion of works of size and importance that could be done by the Commonwealth (a) alone, and (b) in collaboration with the States.

This is not one of the matters which can be side-tracked by suggestion of insuperable political difficulties, for not only are the Government's supporters committed by the Prime Minister's promise hut also the Opposition is committed to it by its own platform and its leader's election policy speech. It was the firstmentioned work of major importance in the speech of the Prime Minister. Even in 1931 it was referred to by each of the party leaders as a necessary work that should be undertaken.

The Inspector-General of the Military Forces of whose official opinion at a time like this when the Government is asking Parliament to authorize the expenditure of more and more millions of pounds on defence, every one should take notice, said in 1921-

Thelinking up of our capital cities by- railways, beyond striking distance from the coast and the establishment of a uniform gauge throughout the Commonwealth are matters of paramount importance. ' " Paramount importance " ! I emphasize that. In 1923 he said-

It is beyond question that a uniform gauge will avoid many of the disadvantages of possible troop movements caused by breaks of gauge with the necessary transfer from one system to another. Apart from the delay, inconvenience and the wastage of man-power at transfer stations, the disorganization of units due to the varying capacity of trains of different gauge is serious and may mean considerable delay at a critical time.

The Government talks about defence but with full power to do so, makes no provision to deal with an essential part of it. We have never had an indication that the Government is considering this matter except a statement that there is to be a conference of Ministers of Transport some time in the new year. The same expert said in 1925 -

The disabilities under which Australia is suffering on account of the breaks of gauge in its civil transportation, and the difficulties which wouldbe imposed upon military transportation in war, are generally recognized and it is regrettable that the production of a practical scheme to remedy the matter has been so long delayed.

In these circumstances it is necessary to look elsewhere for the reason for failure to proceed. The only conclusion which can be reasonably arrived at is incapacity which arises from the elements of which the Government is. composed. There are other promises which it has failed to fulfil or even to make an attempt at fulfilling, but its failure to give effect to its promise to bring about the standardization of the railway gauges is particularly glaring because of the urgency of the work as an essential measure in malting provision for the defence of Australia. There are many people in authority, including highly-placed military experts, who have made it clear that the standardization of gauges is an integral part of any scheme of nation-wide defence. These range from Lord Kitchener, who in 1911 made reference to the disadvantages of breaks of gauge in military operations, to the Australian Inspector-General of Military Forces who on three successive occasions emphasized the need for the problem to be dealt with in the interests of Australia's proper protection. Who are the military authorities who now say that it is unnecessary to standardize gauges? The Prime Minister said on Monday that it was not necessary to proceed with the work. Will the Government disclose the identity of these experts who hide in official dugouts and either will not, or are not permitted to, have their qualifications and information tested? The Prime Minister and other Ministers when questions have been asked have side-stepped the issue by assurances that the matter was under consideration or that it was to be the subject of a conference.

At the Premiers Conference, held in Adelaide in August, 1936, the amount of consideration which this subject received can be estimated from the fact that twelve lines of space is given to it in a report of approximately 12,000 lines, covering S3 pages. It reads: -


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