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Thursday, 8 August 1946

Mr DRAKEFORD (MaribyrnongMinister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation) . - Those honorable members who had the opportunity to hear or read the second-reading speech of the Minister for Transport (Mr. Ward) must consider that they should congratulate him ,on having achieved an agreement for the standardization of railway gauges which preceding governments either failed to achieve or were not interested to achieve. As one who has been associated with rail transport over a long period, I offer to him my hearty congratulations upon having succeeded in bringing at least the Commonwealth and three States into line on one of the most important matters with which this Parliament has had to deal for many, years.

Mr Archie Cameron - How does the honorable ' member for Bass (Mr. Barnard) view the omission of Tasmania?

Mr DRAKEFORD - Tasmania is in a different position from that of the other States. I do not share the fears of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Menzies) that the Government may experience difficulty in inducing Western Australia and Queensland to agree to the scheme. The Government would have been foolish to adopt the attitude that because those two States were not yet prepared to be parties to the agreement, it should abandon, temporarily, the whole proposal. I hoped that the Leader of the Opposition would agree to the bill, but apparently he examined it in a judicial manner and had more regard for not prolonging the debate unduly than for the merits of the bill.

Mr Menzies - I do not understand why the Government is in such a hurry to pass the bill. Does it feel uneasy about the result of the forthcoming elections?

Mr DRAKEFORD - Not at all. The incoming government will continue the good work - work which previous governments failed to do, although they had the opportunity at a period when the standardization of railway gauges would have provided employment for many people. This Government had the foresight to realize the importance of this great national work and obtain authority to begin the work which previous governments should have undertaken in ' the interests of the country. I agree with the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition about Sir Harold Clapp. Having worked under his authority, and with him, I believe that he is one of the greatest railway authorities that Australia has ever had. We all know that what Sir Harold Clapp says can be relied upon as being a thorough and efficiently prepared statement of the facts. I read his report with great interest. Of course it did not settle the matter. It remained for the Minister for Transport, to secure some kind of agreement among the governments concerned. He has achieved an agreement, and it is largely due to hi? patience that this bill is before us. The honorable gentleman has not always beer credited with patience.

Mr Menzies - Or tact !

Mr DRAKEFORD - Both tact and patience were required,- and also courage to attack the problem which had been brushed to one side on so many occasions.

Mi-. Archie Cameron. - If the Minister continues in this strain for another five minutes his colleague will not know himself.

Mr DRAKEFORD - The honorable . gentleman who has interjected never knows from minute to minute what he will say next, and to his colleagues he is equally unpredictable. The Leader of the Opposition said that one simple test that should be applied to this proposal is whether it will- bring about the production of more goods and more wealth. I know of no other project which will help so much as this will to bring about better conditions throughout Australia. I shall show that production is largely dependent on transport. Without doubt the standardization of our railway gauge's will help to develop industry in this country. The honorable gentleman referred to priorities. I wish to make it clear that, although this bill will go on the statute-book, the work will not necessarily have No. 1 priority. The right honorable gentleman spoke about priorities in certain matters. Housing, of course, must be given a high priority though he did not mention it.

Mr Menzies - It is one of the things that I had in my mind, naturally.

Mr DRAKEFORD - I should cer- tainly have thought so. The right honorable gentleman mentioned water storage, electric power, the fishing industry and certain other matters. These all are of great importance, but the first thing we should do is to ensure that our transport system, is elastic enough to ensure the rapid transport of goods, the production of which has increased so greatly as the result of five years of Labour administration.

The Minister for Transport ably stated the Government's case for the standardization of railway gauges, and he also praised the comprehensive and informative report of the DirectorGeneral of Land Transport. Honorable members have had copies of that, report and have had ample time in which to study it. I need scarcely take up the time of the House in a recapitulation of the history of this subject. It is one with which I and. those of my colleagues who have been most closely concerned, have spoken in this House on numerous occasions. Both profit and conviction will be found in a close examination of the case as it has been consistently submitted by us. to the House for many years.

In 1938 I charged the Government then in office with the serious offence of failure to give effect to the promise of its Prime Minister, the late Mr. Lyons, four years earlier, to undertake this work as one of its major' schemes for the relief of unemployment. In 1921 a royal commission presented a report which recommended the construction of a trunk railway line of 4-ft. 8^-in. gauge from Brisbane to Perth and the conversion of the Victorian and South

Australian railway gauges of 5 ft. 3 in. to the standard gauge of 4 ft. 8£ in. That report was made after an exhaustive investigation, the value of which has never been in doubt.

I recall also that in 1938 honorable members opposite, who were then sitting behind the Government gave considerable lip. service to this proposal but refrained from championing it to the point of action. I emphasize that point. Thai was a long time ago, but it is appropriate to remember it now.

Basic to consideration of this question, as honorable members have been so frequently reminded, is the problem of defence. To-day, when we look back after six years of war, we must be shocked by the abundant evidence of the need for this great national project, and we must, also be disturbed by the refusal of governments opposed to Labour to heed repeated warnings of the danger that could flow from our hopelessly unco-ordinated system. In 1921 the then InspectorGeneral of Military forces said -

The linking 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.

Two years later the same officer 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.

I had a great deal to do with rail transport years ago in the break-of -gauge area, particularly between Albury and Benalla, and am aware of the dreadful condition? that sometimes prevailed there. In one period it was necessary to transport fodder for starving stock in the Riverina, and the railways were so congested that train loads of fodder were held up at every station between Albury and Broadmeadows. Trains 'had to wait at these stations until those at Albury were unloaded to' cope with . the situation. Although that was many years ago it demonstrated to me then how necessary was' the standardization of our railway gauges as soon as possible.

How bitter are these recollections ! What a price Australia has paid ' for neglect to accomplish this 'essential project! I could go on for a long time emphasizing the tragic result of the failure to appreciate how vital this work was to Australia, but honorable members will not require me to do so. It is true that by the grace of God and the aid of our Allies we overcame our enemies, despite the critical weakness of our ral transport systems, but who can say what price we have paid for this staggering neglect? On the aspect to which I refer as exclusively economic, it is worth noting that in November, 1938, Sir Ragnar Colvin, then First Naval Member, was reported as having said that for every ton of produce carried on the railways 16 tons was carried on ships between Australian ports. That figure may not be exact in re,lation to the present day, but it should give food for thought to the people of this country. Doubtless some honorable members opposite will find satisfaction in the fact that huge profits have been reaped by wealthy private shipping companies to the very marked disadvantage of the Government-owned railway systems, and to the pockets' of the people of Australia as a whole. No honest advocate of the interests of the Australian community can be ignorant of the dangers resulting from such a situation, and no honorable member in this House who is honestly facing the problem can fail, therefore, to support the measure now before us, though we must remain in doubt about the views of the Leader of the Opposition on this subject. We do not know whether he declared himself for or against it, but there was no sign of enthusiasm in his remarks.

During the period of the economic depression years ago, many millions of pounds were spent by governments in so-called relief of unemployment, at a time when it could have been used for the highly profitable employment of 15,000 men. Had we countered the depression with an active programme of railway construction, involving the standardizing of our .gauges, a consequential effect would have been to relieve the people of Australia' 'of a large part of the burden of the unemployment tax. . The enormous social and eco- nomic benefit of such relief while the country was preparing for and actually engaged in war, cannot be fully estimated.

In relation to the economic phases of this problem, I direct the attention of honorable members to a highly important conclusion reached recently by the Tariff Board. The board reported, in May, on the efficiency and costs of production in Australian industries. Whilst it did not find justification for a public inquiry, because the response to its invitations by all interested parties to make representations was so poor, it examined some significant correspondence on the subject, in which emphasis was laid- on the fact that the general level of costs in Australia was affected by many conditions other than efficiency and costs of production in individual factories. The board reported in part, as follows: -

Transport Costs.- Of such conditions, one of the most far-reaching is transport. Many industries, though by no means all, depend for minimum costs on centralized, large-scale production, with consequent costs of transporting finished products to consumers, distributed mainly around our long ' coastline. Before the war, the Tariff Board found that costs of interstate transp'ort were sometimes almost, if not quite, as high as costs of transporting competing goods to Australia from the United Kingdom or North America. The main obstacle in the way of decentralization of industry in Australia is the cost of transporting raw material to; and finished product? from decentralized factories.

It also stated -

During a recent inquiry by the Tariff Board into the plastics industry it was emphasized that, in many cases, naturally occurring raw materials for that industry, and for other branches of the chemical industry, are so distributed in relation to each other and to the markets for finished products, that heavy transport costs are imposed upon the industry.

I add this important conclusion -

In the matter of transport, Australia if obviously at a disadvantage with a compact country like the United Kingdom, or one like the United States of America in which a much larger home market is distributed over a much ' greater proportion of the country's area. Efforts, which the Tariff Board does not doubt are continually being made, to improve the efficiency and reduce the , costs of Australia's inter- and intrastate transport, could have most beneficial effects upon the national level of costs.

I now invite the attention of honorable members to the obvious relevance of those quotations to this debate. Imagine the effect of the standardization of gauges throughout the Commonwealth on production costs in industry! Consider closely the board's finding that costs of interstate transport are sometimes almost, if not quite, as high as costs of transporting competing goods to Australia from the United Kingdom or North America. That i3 a staggering assertion; yet, there can be no doubt of the board's justification for making it. What a commentary on our transport system! Imagine the relief that will be afforded when the transfer of goods from one gauge to a line of a different gauge can be eliminated ! The economic benefit must be immense.

Honorable members will understand that I do not claim that the conception of the whole project .of standardizing the railway gauges originated with a few people, but the fact remains that, despite resolutions affirming its urgent need, mostly from Labour sources, years passed without any active attempt having been made to achieve the objective. Honorable members opposite may remind me that the Labour party was in power in 1931. It is true that Labour held a majority in this House but it did not have a majority in the Senate, and in that chamber every attempt to apply a sound financial policy was resisted. This project, which was so 'vital to every aspect of. national welfare, had to be neglected at a time when it could have been accomplished at a cost very i much lower than is now possible. I remind honorable . members that, in the first report made on this matter, the estimate of the cost was £21,000,000. The works then envisaged will now cost £50,000,000 or more.

As the Minister in charge of the bill has already done with considerable emphasis, I have referred to the defence aspects, and have placed the burden of blame. on honorable members opposite, for theirs is the immense responsibility, for the crippling effect of the failure to standardize our railway gauges.

Let me turn for a few moments to the experience of other countries. In the early days of rail transport in both Great Britain and the United- States of America, there were many different gauges. About 80 years have elapsed since America mastered the problem of standardization, and more than 50 years have elapsed since similar action was taken in Great Britain. To-day, breaks in railway gauges are unthought of in practically every other important country in the world. The people of those countries take it for granted that their rail transport is fluid ; that it operates freely from frontier to frontier, and often across frontiers. To them, the transfer of passengers and goods from train to train, because of a change of gauge, would be ludicrous. Indeed, that is how the matter is viewed, by those persons in Australia who- havebeen conscious of all that it means. Whilewe have been enduring this truly farcical situation, the railways of other countries, having been standardized, are operated cheaply and efficiently. On the contrary, the railways in Australia, comparatively speaking, are operated inefficiently and very expensively. All who have paid attention to the achievements of- Great Britain and the United States of America during the war will appreciate the almost incredible feats accomplished by their railway systems. At the same time, Australia struggled along with a crippled transport system - or, should I say, lack of system- praying that it would not have to face the terrifying prospect of fighting enemy invasion forces under such an enormous disability. We were spared that. Yet some sections of the community, notably those whose horizon is limited to isolated projects, who have never been able to learn the lessons of the past, or to appreciate the truly national picture, obstruct the essential purpose for which this bill is designed. No one could regret more deeply than I do the fact that this legislation does not embrace the whole of the Commonwealth. 1 share enthusiastically with the Minister for Transport the hope that Queensland and Western Australia will very soon recognize the urgent need for their participation in its unquestionable benefits. As the Minister has declared, " the door is still open ". The Commonwealth cannot do more, and the people of those two States must realize the weight of the responsibility that rests on them.

Before concluding, I point to the fact that, under the authority of the Labour party, works of this character can be brought to fruition within one's political lifetime. I .remember when this matter was first brought forward in union circles. The union of which I was then the secretary was the instigator of it, by having it included in the agenda for the conference of the Victorian Labour party. That body referred it to the Federal Conference, at which I had the honour of being present as a delegate from Victoria, and it then became a plank in the platform of the Australian Labour party.

Mr White - In what year was that ?

Mr DRAKEFORD - It would be approximately sixteen or seventeen years ago.

Mr White - There was not so much civil aviation then.

Mr DRAKEFORD - Whether or not the advancement subsequently made in civil aviation could then be visualized, the honorable member and his colleagues, who occupied the Government benches, failed to take action for the standardization 'of the railways, despite the fact that the number of men seeking employment was extremely large. I believe that I have shown that the Labour party is capable of achievements that prove beneficial to the country but are beyond the capacity of the parties that sit opposite, for the reason, I believe, that their policies are largely propounded for them by big outside interests. They may now be attempting to copy the successful accomplishments of the Labour party. If they are, I congratulate them upon having learned their lesson after so many years. The limitation to which T have referred makes me conscious of a feeling of regret that the measure that we now have before us, which I commend with all the emphasis I possess, does not cover entirely a most desirable project. As honorable members well know, and as I have just stated, this project has been a plank in the platform of the Labour party for many years. The seed was sown in the soil- of unionism. From that seed has sprung, and in that soil has flourished, a tree of sturdy growth. This plank in the platform of the Australian Labour party represents a pledge which the party has always been determined to carry out. At last, it is able to give effect to it.

I hope that from honorable members opposite, to whatever party they belong, there will be no opposition to the bill. This project will advance the welfare of Australia. It will make our transport system much more fluid than it now is, and will help to reduce the costs of production. Thus the national wealth will be increased, because unessential expenditure on transport will be avoided.

The honorable member for- Balaclava (Mr. White) referred by interjection to civil aviation as a more modern means . of transport. I believe that both those transport systems can grow side by side. That has been proved in the' United States of America and Canada, where the number of passengers and the quantity 'of goods carried on the railways have not diminished in consequence of the very rapid growth of civil aviation. I prophesy, as the Minister for Civil Aviation, that when the railways of the three States that have entered' into this agreement have been standardized, they will not be operated at a loss as they were previously, but that, on the contrary, both passenger and goods traffic will grow, and civil aviation will flourish side by side with the rail transport system. We can be thankful that a commencement is being made with this project, which ought to have been undertaken long ago. The result must be to make more secure our future prosperity.

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