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Thursday, 21 March 1957

Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) .- I thank honorable members for welcoming me back again after my temporary enforced absence. I want to thank the many honorable members on this side and the other side of the House who wrote to me during my illness and wished me a speedy return here. To-day, I do not want to speak on the housing issue. It has already been covered very fully by people from this side whom I think are more competent than I to speak on it.

This is the first opportunity I have had for nine months to speak in the House and for that reason I intend to devote myself to things which are of particular interest to my own electorate. The motion for the adoption of the Address-in-Reply is traditionally an occasion on which one can speak about anything. A member can decide beforehand what he will speak about, and when the motion for the adoption of the Address-in-Reply is moved, he can say how pleased he is that what he wanted to speak about was mentioned in the GovernorGeneral's Speech; or he can say how sorry he is that what he wanted to speak about was not mentioned. I find myself in the second category because I want to speak, first of all, about roads, so I say how sorry I am that there has been no mention in the Governor-General's Speech about the general problem of roads. I want to refer particularly to that great main highway which connects Melbourne and Sydney and which passes through portion of my electorate. I do so because, at the present moment, that highway is in a very poor state. We have to ask ourselves whether the present set-up of roads and of main trunk highways in particular is satisfactory. I think, without any doubt, that we can say it is not. Had I been here during the last session, I would have raised this matter because, as honorable members know, during last winter portion of the Hume Highway failed completely and as a result, for over a week, transports and motor cars were unable to get through. The trouble is that once the main highway fails, every one who desires to go between the great capital cities of Melbourne and Sydney looks round for another route to use; and because these smaller highways are less solidly constructed than the one that has broken down, they break down more quickly. So we found that last winter there was a breakdown of a great number of roads - the Princes Highway, the Hume Highway, the Sturt Highway - and many of them were completely impassable.

I say that the present set-up is not satisfactory. What has been done since that time is not satisfactory. Any one who has travelled recently in the south of New South Wales will have noticed that an attempt has been made to patch the roads. Unfortunately, most of this patching is of a temporary nature and there are already examples of patching which has broken through and which, if we get the same sort of weather as we had last winter will lead to a further breakdown in this road.

We are informed that the number of road transports operating between Melbourne and Sydney has increased considerably. I understand that in the last four months registrations of trucks operating under interstate number-plates on the highway between Melbourne and Sydney have increased by approximately 20 per cent. Something like 5,000 tons of freight a day is transported over this main arterial highway, and this great volume of traffic makes it more than ever likely that the road will again break down as it did last year.

As all honorable members realize, constitutionally, the problem of roads is one for the States. But we must not blind ourselves to the fact that if more money is to be found - and I am certain that money is the crux of the problem - the bulk of it must be provided by the Commonwealth by one of the many means at its disposal, although the States may be able to make some small contribution. The way that I suggest is the one that I believe to be the fairest, and that is to levy a tax on diesel fuel. Honorable members doubtless realize that an increasing proportion of these heavy transports which, more than any other vehicles, are responsible for breaking up the Hume Highway, run on diesel fuel. These trucks pay a registration fee of only 30s. a year. That is the only contribution they make in the form of fees if they carry interstate number plates. So the only way in which we can require these vehicles to make a fair contribution to the upkeep of the roads which they are using and breaking up is to impose on diesel fuel a levy similar to the petrol tax.

It has been said that this cannot be done because it would amount to a tax on all the users of diesel fuel. A general tax on diesel fuel, as we know, would immediately increase costs for the man on the land in various activities such as the stripping of wheat, for example, and also the costs of secondary industries which use diesel fuel. But there is no reason why this should happen under my proposal, which could be based upon the scheme adopted in the United States of America where a tax imposed on diesel fuel is paid specifically only by road users and not by farmers. The United States method is very simple. It requires only the distinctive colouring of fuel on which the tax has been paid. If this method were adopted, the transport inspectors who now patrol the highways and stop transports, and, by means of portable weighing machinery, check whether loads are overweight, could test the fuel of transport vehicles to ensure that fuel of the appropriate colour which indicated that the tax had been paid was being used. I suggest that heavy penalties should be imposed for the use of fuel on which tax had not been paid. I suggest that we could assist, first, by levying this tax and by making certain that the proceeds from it were paid to the States specifically for works on the roads used by the heavy transports paying the tax. In practice, the proceeds of such a tax would probably be spent chiefly on the main highways between Adelaide and Brisbane. The Australian Automobile Association has estimated that a tax of ls. 6d. a gallon on diesel fuel would return about £4,250,000 a year. Additional expenditure of such an amount on the Hume Highway would improve it tremendously.

Expenditure on the New South Wales section of the highway in the current financial year will total £620,000. It has been demonstrated that this is enough only for a limited amount of patching. In Victoria, where the length of the highway is only about half its length in New South Wales, £500,000 will be spent on it in the current financial year. Although I have not been over the Victorian section of the highway recently, I undersand that its condition is very much better than is the condition of the New South Wales section. I am sure that the additional expenditure on the Hume Highway that I have envisaged, which could be made possible by the means that I suggest, would improve the condition of the highway tremendously. Let me say immediately that J am not one of those who advocate at present the construction of a super colossal four-lane highway between Adelaide and Brisbane. What I suggest is that the existing highway should be put in really first-class order. However, I think we might very well give consideration at the same time to making it a three-lane highway on steeply-graded sections v/here tra lnc is seriously delayed by the enforced changing down to bottom gear of heavy trucks carrying loads of 10 tons or more. 1 have suggested the first means by which the Commonwealth could assist the States to obtain the additional finance that they need for road works. We may be certain that, without additional funds, our main highways will not be improved as they should be. My second proposal is that we should consider amending or temporarily suspending during the current roads crisis the Commonwealth act which stipulates that 40 per cent, of the petrol tax proceeds paid to the States shall be spent on developmental roads. It appears to me that this measure is not working in the way that was originally intended. I recently found an illustration of this in my electorate. Owing to this stipulation in the act, sufficient money was provided to tar a minor outback road on which the total traffic is probably only twenty vehicles a day, but there was not enough money available to tar the Hume Highway over which about 1,500 vehicles pass every day. Therefore, I suggest that we consider altering or temporarily suspending the operation of the formula to permit the States, which are in a position to know how the money could be best used, to use it to the best advantage.

Mr Chaney - Surely the honorable member does not suggest that the formula according to which the funds are divided between the States should be altered!

Mr FAIRBAIRN - I do not favour altering that formula, but I suggest that the States should be free to spend the money on the roads where it is most needed, and should not be bound by any requirement that it be spent in certain proportions on particular roads. Although 1 am a resident of New South Wales, I am perhaps closer to Melbourne than to Sydney, and probably at heart more a Victorian than a New South Welshman. But I am first an Australian, and as an Australian, I think we have a responsibility to develop outback roads where the task is beyond the resources of the local citizens.

Mr Chaney - What about building bridges in Perth?

Mr FAIRBAIRN - I shall not develop that theme further. I have stated how I feel about the matter.

There is a third way in which the Commonwealth can and, I think, should make additional financial contributions out of the proceeds of the petrol tax. Last financial year collections of petrol tax by the Commonwealth totalled £36,500,000, but only £26,000,000 was returned to the States. I do not think that, in the present circumstances, the States received enough. I am aware of the calls that Consolidated Revenue has to meet, but at the same time I think that, in view of the completely altered circumstances of to-day compared with those of the time when the petrol tax was introduced, we should pay more to the States out of Consolidated Revenue. The States also, individually, can assist in overcoming the roads problem. I heard some one mention section 92 of the Australian Constitution a little while ago, but I am certain that the States could charge higher registration fees than at present on interstate transport vehicles without the fees being regarded as an interference with interstate trade. It is perfectly ludicrous that enormous trucks carrying up to 30 tons at a time over our main highways pay registration fees of only £1 10s a year, whereas a gravel carter near my home has told me that he pays in registration fees on his truck more than £60 a year, although he customarily uses only about 40 miles of the Hume Highway. We know that there are legal difficulties in the way of any proposal to increase the registration fees paid by interstate transport vehicles. I understand that the South Australian Premier has intimated that he has a plan which he claims is infallible. But that has yet to be tested. In any case, the States should get together and make the road transport companies contribute a reasonable sum to offset the damage that they are causing.

While I am on the subject of ro:v'-, ' should like to mention something which, if carried out, would help our interstate highways enormously. I refer to the proposal to standardize the rail gauge, which was contained in a recent report submitted by members of a government committee. There is no doubt that the pressure on the Hume Highway would be considerably eased if the rail gauge were standardized between Melbourne and Sydney, and other methods to reduce the cost of transport by rail, and increase efficiency, were adopted. In the United States many of the transport companies have been virtually run off the roads because they have been unable to compete with the railways. One method employed by the railways is the so-called " piggy-back " system under which a semitrailer is loaded at a factory in, say Melbourne. It is then run on to a flat-top truck, the prime mover is taken off and the loaded semi-trailer goes on to Sydney. On arrival another prime mover is hitched to the semitrailer and it is taken to the delivery point.

Mr Whitlam - That is already done on the trans-Australian railway.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - That is so, but we have seen no sign of it in Victoria or New South Wales. Both States have used the container system and the use of this, too, could be extended. A large container, which is provided by the railways, is loaded in the factory, put on a flat-top truck and delivered to its destination. In the past, however, the break of gauge at Albury has been detrimental to maximum efficiency under this system. The report on rail standardization has been tabled and will no doubt be considered by Cabinet. I only want to say something about the suggestion in a leader in to-day's " Sydney Morning Herald " that the States should contribute to the cost because of the increased revenue that they will derive from the standardization of the gauge. I suppose, in theory, that is right. But we all know that financially they are in a very bad way. I hope that the Federal Government's contribution will be the same, or more than, the contribution which it is making to the cost of altering the gauge of various lines near Mount Gambier in South Australia. There, it is providing 70 per cent, of the cost and loaning the other 30 per cent, to South Australia. That is a very generous contribution, because the lines affected have no defence significance. The line between Melbourne and Sydney is of considerable defence significance and the two State Governments concerned should be offered at least the terms enjoyed by South Australia and, preferably, something far better.

During the short time that is left at my disposal I should like to refer to that portion of His Excellency's Speech which states -

Research results of extreme importance to Australia are continuing to come forth from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Of particular interest is the research effecting the water supply of this, the world's driest continent. Already primary producers are beginning to make wide use of the process developed in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization for reducing evaporation from reservoirs and dams. The organization's wool textile research has also prospered, and recent research results on scouring and carbonizing wool will help wool to maintain its position as the leading textile fibre.

I congratulate the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization on the excellent work that it is doing. I am sorry that His Excellency did not refer to a happening in the last year which is of considerable significance. For the first time, a full-time scientist was appointed to work solely on the subject of bush-fire prevention. Sometimes we lose sight of the great importance of this subject. Bush-fires cost Australia never less than many millions of pounds annually. In the last financial year one fire in my area cost the Government of New South Wales £3,000,000. Every year large and costly bush-fires occur. They begin early up in Queensland and northwestern New South Wales, then come to the south-west of New South Wales and so on, down to the south coast of Victoria. A cutting taken at random from a newspaper recently reads -

A man was burnt to death in his car, four fire fighters received serious burns and a church, six homes and thousands of acres of rich grazing and timber lands were destroyed to-day . . .

That sort of thing goes on every day throughout Australia for months. The appointment of a full-time officer to investigate the bush-fire problem will do much to focus attention on the subject and help to eliminate the causes. Unfortunately, the problem is getting worse every year. Pasture improvement has greatly increased the extent of pasture in various areas. We are now growing four or five blades of grass where one grew before. Thus, more grass is available for firing in the summer. Any one who has seen a bush-fire with a fifteen or twenty mile front, and a really strong wind behind it, in pasture improved country will realize that checking such a fire is absolutely impossible.

Probably the appointment of which I have spoken will result in a comprehensive national plan for the prevention of bush fires. We can prevent a great many of the outbreaks which occur. That is not to say that we can prevent them all. Many are caused by lightning or something of the kind. However, the prime causes of fire outbreaks in the country are the diesel transports which blow out carbonized fuel, and persons who throw matches or lighted cigarettes along our main highways. I read a recent report that a diesel transport was believed to be responsible for eight grass fires which broke out between Baddaginnie and Benalla. That is typical of what is happening along our main highways, where diesel transports are used.

Local bush-fire brigade commanders should have the right to burn off on either side of the road, as is done by the railways.

The absence of a concerted plan is seen in the fact that such burning-off is allowed in Victoria but not in New South Wales. Bushfire brigade commanders are experienced and know when burning-off can be undertaken safely. They would see that the job was done well. Even between Albury and Holbrook, a distance of only 40 miles, eight outbreaks occurred this summer as a result of the sort of thing which I have described.

The number of outbreaks caused by diesel transports could be reduced by altering the direction in which the exhaust blows out. As honorable members know, the exhaust at present points sideways and blows carbonized fuel right onto the tinder-dry grass at the side of the road. It would be a simple matter to turn the exhaust backwards and blow the waste matter straight along the road. This would reduce the chance of fire outbreak. I know how easy it is to cause fires in this way. On one occasion when I was using a tractor to plough up some fallow a piece of carbon blew out of the exhaust. Luckily I was able to get it under control quickly. It is one of the major ways in which fires are lit to-day.

We should have a well-directed campaign to educate the public on the dangers of fire. I say " well-directed " because, though there are spasmodic campaigns, no one could call them well directed. I certainly do not regard slogans such as " Fire is a Good Servant but a Bad Master" as a well-directed campaign. The best-directed campaign is a notice saying, " You are prohibited from lighting a fire on this highway " during a stated period.

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