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Thursday, 8 August 1946

Mr BERN ABD CORSER (Wide Bay) . - I have listened with interest to the Minister for Air (Mr. Drakeford), who has come' to the assistance of the Minister for Transport (Mr. Ward). We would have listened to him with greater interest had he submitted a proposal for the expenditure of some of the millions involved in this project, on the development of air transport along lines which would have assisted our primary producers and enabled them to market their output with greater expedition and at a lower cost. The honorable gentleman has expressed the hope that members of the Opposition will not oppose the bill'. I oppose it very strongly. He accused us of not having done" very much in the way of railway construction when we were entrusted with the administration of the affairs of this country. My reply to that charge is that the parties which now sit on this side of the House were responsible for the construction of Commonwealth railways of a value of £17,500,000, which are to-day a monument to them. The governments of the States also have constructed railways, at a cost of approximately £400,000,000 and over a distance of 33,000 miles. These have done a marvellous job, and can claim a large share of the credit for our wonderful war effort. The Minister for Air further claimed that this work will obviate unemployment. "We suspect that that is one of the principal reasons for the introduction of the measure. There is to be an expenditure estimated at over £200,000,000 on what will be largely labouring work. There are many other much more worthwhile undertakings on which that expenditure could be incurred with far greater advantages in' increasing the productivity of Australia and enlarging its population. For instance, water conservation and cheap hydro-electric power schemes, would be more valuable to the defence of . this country than the elimination of breaks of gauge at. State borders, and would make our development comparable with that of other countries. The Minister also said that production costs in industry should be considered by Opposition members. We know that for many years the expenditure on railway construction has greatly exceeded the estimates. I am positive that this £200,000,000, that is so lightly spoken of, will not be the total expenditure on the fulfilment of this desire of the Minister for Transport! "That honorable gentleman claimed that opposition to the proposal would cripple an effort that was being made in defence of this country, t do not agree with that. Nor do I think that the departmental experts are in agreement with the Government. They have refused to say that this work is essential, or to give to it the value placed on it by the Minister from the standpoint of defence. We admit that a standardized. railway gauge has advantages. But steps to secure those advantages should be taken only when the time is opportune. There are many other important matters demanding attention in this young coun try, and they ought to be given preference over this project. Even if all the . gauges were standardized, one bomb accurately placed on a bridge would cause the transport system to be interrupted more effectively than by breaks of gauge. I am not denying the advantages of standardization, nor do I want to underrate them, from the point of view of defence and the comfort of our people. But standardization of the gauges will not be the means of providing one additional line of railway, or of bringing one railway station nearer to the undeveloped parts of Australia, which will still bie undeveloped when the railways already constructed have been uprooted. The railways of Australia, after having been written down in Victoria and Queensland, are valued at £320,000,000, ' on which interest is being paid. If we exclude the New South Wales railways, valued at £152,000,000, and the Commonwealth railways, valued at £17,500,000. there still remain lines valued at £101,000,000. Therefore the debt that we shall have to face will be £361,000,000, not £200,000,000. Had the Queensland Government foolishly allowed itself to be swayed by the appeals of the Minister and his staff, every line of railway in that State would have had. to be discarded. Every sleeper, every railway station, every tunnel, every bridge and every engine and piece of rolling-stock would have to be discarded. The money with which they were bought would still be owed by the people of the State concerned, and to it would be added the State's proportion of the debt incurred for the work of standardization. We are one people, and if the Commonwealth incurs financial liabilities they must ultimately be borne by the people of the States. This proposal, which envisages the ripping up of thousands of miles of railway, should have received further consideration. The House itself should have more time in which to consider it, and certainly the proposal should have been considered by the Public ' Works Committee. This committee is authorized to examine projects costing over £20,000 which are referred to it; but here is a project that is to cost over £200,000,000, and it has not been referred to the committee. It has, however, been submitted to a committee of experts, and agreements have been made with three State governments. When I proposed some time ago that similar agreements should be made with the Stales for water conservation and hydro-electric projects,- I was told by the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction (Mr. Dedman) that it was a problem for the States; but the Minister for Transport has made just that kind of arrangement with the State governments, in relation to railways. In all the capital cities and the principal towns, meetings have been held where the scheme was explained to prominent citizens in an endeavour to popularize it. Some time ago I asked the Prime Minister (Mr. Chifley) the following question : -

In view of the fact1 that much has appeared in the press recently regarding proposals for the standardization of railway gauges in Australia at a to.tal cost of £200,000,000, will the Acting Leader of the House see that an, opportunity is provided to enable honorable

To this question I received the following reply :-

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