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Wednesday, 3 October 1956

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) .- To-night, the committee has discussed two fundamental questions in our economy. One was the question of import controls and the other the question of transport. The longest speech that has been made to-night was made by the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen). Indeed, it is the longest speech that honorable members have heard during this sessional period; but it did not deal with any of the questions of trade or any of the matters that necessitate import controls. The Minister gave no indication of how he would overtake the continuous drop in our trading balance and our overseas reserves.

At the end of June last, Australia had smaller net gold and foreign exchange holdings than it had at the end of any previous financial year during which this Government has been in office. It was the smallest holding that the country has had since 30th June, 1948. Whereas our foreign reserves rose by almost £300,000,000 during the last year and a half of office of the Chifley Government, they dropped by £431,000,000 in 1951-52 alone and by £142,000,000 and £73,000.000 in the last two years. If it had not been for foreign investments coming into Australia, the position would have been still worse. Last year we had a deficit on current account of £221,000,000 and in the year before, £257,000,000. If the position continues to deteriorate at that rate, we have only until the end of next calandar year to retain any foreign reserves at all. The Minister made no explanation about how he would counteract that trend.

If we look at the imports position during this Government's term of office, we find that, when in the first two years Australians received record wool cheques, there were also record imports. We immediately spent, largely on unessential goods, that extra bounty that we received. Since then, we have had to restrict our imports by exercising one of the Commonwealth's few constitutional, economic powers. The speech of the Minister for Trade was characterized by the Government's usual repudiation of economic controls, but at the same time he overlooked the fact that this Government has exercised a more rigorous, rigid and sudden measure of control than we have ever had in Australia before. Where this Government has exercised the Commonwealth's power to restrict bank credit and public investment and impose import control and taxation, it has been most deliberate and sudden. If we had a balanced system of economic controls. including controls over prices, interest ratesand private investment, the controls that the Government has continued to exercise during almost seven years of office would" bear less onerously on the small man and: persons who are setting up in business for the first time. The outstanding feature ot the Government's exercise of controls hasbeen that they have fallen hardest on the small man and have left the big man in a still more prominent and affluent positionin the community.

Now I pass to the question of road1 transport. I have never more greatly admired a speech by the honorable member for Chisholm (Mr. Kent Hughes) than the one he made to-night. Transport costs are the biggest element in Australia's costs. The honorable member quoted from the report prepared for the tenth meeting of the Australian Transport Advisory Council' in August last year. Emerging from that report is the fact that one-third of every £1 of Australia's national income goes in transport costs. If we are to reduce our costs, and if we are to increase our standard of living, the value of what we buy inAustralia with our incomes, and the net return on our exports, the first thing we must attack is our transport costs. I completely admire the approach of the honorable member for Chisholm to this problem. This Government has now been in office for almost seven years, but during that time, in contrast with the record of a Labour government during the four years immediately after the last war, there has not been developed a national policy in regard to Australian rail, road or sea transport. The honorable member for Chisholm was big enough to pay tribute to the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) who. when he was Minister for Transport, did his very best to arrive at an agreement with the various States to rationalize, modernize and standardize the railways. It is to the credit of the South Australian Premier and to the honorable member for Chisholm, who was then Minister for Transport in Victoria, that those States at least were willing at that time to co-operate with the Commonwealth.

Mr Kent Hughes - They did, but New South Wales did not.

Mr WHITLAM - I concede that, but the honorable gentleman will relieve me of the embarrassment of dealing with that point further. It is now time that this Government, after seven years in office, evolved a national transport plan.

We are dealing with the Estimates for the Department of Shipping and Transport, which has three functions: The running of the Commonwealth Railways, the running of the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission, and the running of the Australian Shipbuilding Board. In each of these three directions its record has been pitiful. The Commonwealth Railways cease 380 miles from Perth, 134 miles from Adelaide and 253 miles from Broken Hill. It is an admirable, modern, efficiently conducted railway which goes from nowhere to nowhere.

Secondly, we have an Australian Coastal Shipping Commission which was formerly the Australian Shipping Board. That was a board which was building up the largest and the only modern fleet on the Australian coast. After six and a half years of office, the Government produced an agreement with the private shipping companies which had small fleets of outdated, antiquated craft. By that agreement the Commonwealth ships were not allowed to expand in number, or to expand in trade, except on the unprofitable routes.

Thirdly, we have the Australian Shipbuilding Board which has not ordered any ships last year or this year, although the Tariff Board, in a report signed in June last year and tabled in April this year, found that Australian shipyards were operating at only one-third of their capacity. As the previous Minister for Shipping and Transport is no longer with us I shall not press this point too much, but I point out that every one of the twenty ships which private ship-owners in Australia have on order are on order in foreign shipyards and the Minister of that time, with an extraordinarily lax exercise of his conscience, gave authority under the National Security Regulations which operated up to a few months ago for these ships to be built out of this country.

The answer that members of the Opposition invariably receive from Ministers on matters of transport is that these are State matters. Ministers refer to the fact that the Constitution which the founding fathers gave to us 55 years ago does not refer to roads, and reserves railways for the States.

The Constitution does not refer to airways either, for very clear reasons, but that position has been got over by the States conceding to the Commonwealth the control of aerodromes and aerial navigation. In consequence, our airways are our only truly modern transport service. If the States were to hand over to the Commonwealth the provision of their inter-capital highways or coastal highways and their railways, their budgetary problems would disappear. In that way, and in that way only, would we get a national plan to develop our road and our rail transport.

To the transport facilities that I have mentioned I would add those of the ports. Whereas the railways are run under six State administrations, our ports are run by 25 different authorities, as appears from the report of August, 1955, to which the honorable member for Chisholm has referred. The astonishing thing is that these reports are not tabled in the House, they are not discussed in the House, and Ministers themselves do not have copies of them in their offices. Last session I sought to discuss the other report which the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Bird) discussed earlier to-day, the statement on Australian roads which was prepared for the Australian Transport Advisory Council at its meeting in February of this year. I found that a copy was not to be obtained in Canberra, even from the Minister for Shipping and Transport (Senator Paltridge) or the Department of Shipping and Transport. 1 concede that the Minister's staff quickly got me a copy from Melbourne which I was able to use on the following day. But it is indicative of the Government's complete irresponsibility and its laissez faire attitude in these matters that the Government does not present to, or have discussed by. Parliament these reports which are prepared for the guidance of the governments of six States and the Commonwealth which are represented on the Australian Transport Advisory Council, although these vital reports touch the expenditure of a third of the Australian national income.

We alone are in the position to coordinate Australian transport systems. We alone have the incentive to co-ordinate them. We alone have the financial resources to co-ordinate them. No State Commissioner of Railways is concerned about a break of. gauge because no Commissioner of Railways, except the one in South Australia, has any break of gauge within his boundaries. The New South Wales and Victorian commissioners both say, " Who is to standardize railways? ". If, however, the railway from Sydney to Melbourne were in the hands of the Commonwealth, the breakofgauge would soon be cured - just as truly as it would have been cured if there were a break-of-gauge, for instance, at Goulburn or Seymour. If one authority were in charge of the railways, that breakofgauge would be intolerable and the responsibility would swiftly be sheeted home to the appropriate Minister.

If there were a standard gauge between Sydney and Melbourne - the two points between which heavy road transport is making such havoc of the roads via section 92 of the Constitution - the railways would, indeed, compete with road transport. The railways would fear no competition from the hauliers. But the railways will continue to suffer unfair competition by road with disastrous loss to the capital investment that we have in the railways, as long as there is that break-of-gauge; and there will continue to be that break-of-gauge until one authority is responsible for the whole stretch.

I come to the matter of inter-capital highways. It was made plain by the Privy Council's decision in November, 1954, in the .Hughes and Vale case, and in the High Court's subsequent decision in June last year, that no State government can devise a system of financing the highways to which interstate transport will contribute in any way at all. I am not seeking to defend every feature of the form of taxation which South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland had imposed for a quarter of a century before the Privy Council decision was given on road transport. But after that decision those four States, because they are the only four affected by section 92 of the Constitution - the desert ruling out Western Australia and Bass Strait ruling out Tasmania - together devised charges under which interstate transports would pay not one penny more per mile or per ton than intra-state transport. But the High Court, caught in its own toils and in the toils of the Privy Council's decisions on section 92 in the last couple of decades, ruled that those charges also were outside the Constitution. The Commonwealth, however, with its monopoly of excise power, can levy petrol, diesel and tyre taxes which are fair in their incidence, easy to collect and adequate for our road needs.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Mr Lawrence - Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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