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Thursday, 17 November 1938

Sir FREDERICK STEWART (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Any one listening to this debate this afternoon would be justified in reaching such a conclusion.

Mr Ward - The Commonwealth Government should carry the blame.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - I leave the honorable member for Bass (Mr. Barnard) to fight it out with his colleague, the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward). Two main reasons may be given for undertaking this important work. The first is commercial. Every one must be well acquainted with the tremendous disadvantage that our breaks of gauge impose upon commercial enterprises in the transport of goods from one part of the Commonwealth to another. But, in the limited time at my disposal, I propose to concentrate my attention upon the second reason for undertaking this work; that is, its defence significance. For many years the defence authorities had indulged in a great deal of shilly-shallying and back-pedalling on this subject. I was sorry to hear the Minister for Defence (Mr. Street) say a few moments ago that, in order of priority in defence undertakings, the standardization of our railway gauges was a long way down. It is hard to reconcile that view with the statement made recently by the Treasurer (Mr. Casey) to the effect that, in defence work, priorities need not be considered, for no difficulty would be encountered in securing all the finance necessary to implement a complete defence policy. While it may be true that, so long as our defence experts consider our immediate danger is more likely to come from raids than from invasion, the standardization of our railway gauges might not be of vital importance; but what will happen when these experts change their views, or when prospective enemies of Australia change their views, and invasion becomes more likely than raiding?

Mr Street - When troops have to be transported for great distances, it is essential to detrain them now and again, and that could be done at break-of-gauge stations.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - I am aware that some people are reluctant to see this work put in hand because of what they regard as its unconscionable cost. But the Minister for the Interior has reminded us that, although the ultimate cost of the standardization of the whole of the railway systems of Victoria and South Australia, and of the trunk lines from Kalgoorlie to Brisbane, is estimated at £21,000,000, it has never been proposed that the whole amount shall be provided in one financial y*ear, or that the burden of providing it shall fall upon one Treasury. 1 hope that at the conference which is to he held, the Commonwealth Government will be prepared to liberalize its offer, having regard particularly to the commercial and defence aspects of this question. The Minister also said, and quite truly, that it would be quite useless to adopt a uniform gauge of 4 ft. 8^ in. unless at the same time the artificial barriers which exist between the States were removed.

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member has exhausted his time. The time allowed for this debate has now expired.

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