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Tuesday, 9 April 1957

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) (Minister for Labour and National Service) . - I shall not try to follow the honorable member for Stirling (Mr. Webb) by making a purely party political speech. I believe that the subject of transport, which is raised in this proposal, is of very great importance, and, to that ' extent, I agree with the Opposition. However, I believe that we shall do better if we examine the problem constructively and try to work as the two committees appointed by the parties on both sides of the Parliament, to which the honorable member referred, attempted to do in the very useful and informative reports that they presented. As to the political charge. I say no more about it. at this stage at any rate, than this: I do not know of any Commonwealth government that has done more in its own sphere, and provided more funds, relative to the general requirements of transport in this country, than the present Government has done during the seven years in which it has held office. That is undeniable.

I suppose that the transport industries are about the most important in Australia. The total cash expenditure on both capital equipment and operations for the domestic transport services in recent years hits been calculated at roughly one-third of the national income. We get some idea of the magnitude of this burden on the Australian economy as a whole when we compare this proportion with the figure of about 10 per cent, other developed countries, including the United States of America. Our expenditure on transport in relation to our resources is therefore very much greater than has to be faced in other parts of the world. Within the transport field, the expenditure on road transport is highest. It amounts to some 70 per cent, of the total. Railways account for IS per cent, to 20 per cent., and sea and air transport, in that order, for the remainder. Various estimates of the transport component in the cost of our finished goods have been made. Again, the figure is very high, and the proportion that is now most commonly accepted is of the order of 30 per cent. So it will readily be perceived that, if we are to make a much-needed attack on the cost problem in Australia in the manner that we all agree to be desirable, an effective programme in relation to transport is vital. This Government has recognized that fact.

Constitutional powers in relation to transport are divided between the Commonwealth and the States. Roads and, except to a small extent, railways are constitutionally within the province of the States, and shipping, including stevedoring, and air transport between States, are within the federal sphere. That is not to say that the Commonwealth should be disinterested in the improvement of roads and railways. On the contrary, the Commonwealth has done a great deal in both fields to aid the States, more particularly in recent years.

Because we recognize the vital importance of transport, and because we see a comprehensive attack on this problem as one of the major tasks that we as a government must undertake in the years ahead, and not by any means in the remote future, we have constituted an important committee of the Cabinet to deal with the matter. It is not, as the honorable member for Stirling seems to imagine, a committee appointed solely to consider the standardization of rail gauges. This Government has more than once considered the problem of standardization, both early in its term and recently. It is quite clear to us, from our examination of that question, that, in order to deal effectively with problems posed by rail standardization, we must at the same time consider the problem of transport as a whole, because desirable and very useful aspects of the standardization of rail gauges may not, at a particular point of time, contribute as much in return for the capital resources devoted to it as would comparable expenditure on the improvement of ports and harbours. I mention that only as an illustration. I do not suggest that one is necessarily exclusive of the other, but it may well be the case - and I believe it is - that, in order to get the best results from a programme for the improvement of transport in Australia, the problem must be dealt with on each of the four fronts - rail, road, sea, and air transport. No one should be concentrated on to the exclusion of the others.

As to road transport, I think it is well known to honorable members that this Government has contributed very considerably in recent years to the financing of road construction. One penny of the increased petrol tax imposed on each gallon of petrol under the little budget of March. 1956. has been paid to the States as part of the Commonwealth's resistance in the financing of road works. Fo: t:,e financial year 1956-57, it is estimated that .£32,000,0011 will be paid to the States by the Commonwealth out of the petrol tax.

Mr Bird - The Commonwealth is holding millions of pounds for itself.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - As honorable gentlemen opposite seem to want to make a political attack on the Government over this matter, I might remind them that the Commonwealth's contribution out of the petrol tax in the financial year 1948-49 - the last in which Labour was in office - was £7,700,000, compared with the £32,000,000 that will be provided in the current financial year by this Government.

Mr Turnbull - What will Victoria receive?

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - Time will not permit me to deal with every aspect of this matter in anything like the thorough way that one would wish. As to roads, I merely add that, through the Australian Transport Advisory Council, the Commonwealth, in conjunction with the States, has attempted to find a formula under which the heavy transport engaged in interstate traffic can be made to contribute to the cost of road maintenance.

In the railway field, a vast programme of modernization and purchase of capital equipment has been proceeding since the end of World War II. That programme has been directly assisted by this Government through the various dollar loans negotiated by it with the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, out of which large sums have been set aside for the purchase of diesel-electric locomotives and other equipment for the railways.

I come now to the very interesting subject of the standardization of rail gauges. Many inquiries and reports in connexion with the break-of-gauge problem have been made. There was the important report made by Sir Harold Clapp in 1945, and other more recent reports could be mentioned. Coming closer to the present time, there are the reports of the two committees appointed by the Government parties and the Opposition party. I want to tell the House of a recent development which I believe is an earnest of this Government's interest in the standardization of gauges, and its determination to see it in relation to our transport needs and the other aspects of the transport problem. The Victorian Premier sought from the Commonwealth a grant of £25,000 to permit an authoritative survey with respect to the proposal for the standardization of the railway gauge from Wodonga to Melbourne. This Government has informed him that it will be willing, without putting a limit on the amount to be spent on the survey, to contribute to the cost £1 for £1 with the Victorian Government in order to enable the survey to he undertaken. We believe it will provide valuable information and carry the consideration of this important question one stage farther. I am glad to be able to tell honorable members that the Premier of Victoria has agreed to our proposal, and I have no doubt that he will proceed speedily with the survey.

So far as shipping is concerned, we must consider not only the composition of our coastal fleet, but also the provision of capital equipment in the ports and harbours themselves. There are constitutional problems as to Commonwealth and State responsibility, but where something is needed it should be provided, and we should be looking for ways of working out. with the State governments, a useful programme of port and harbour improvements for the years ahead. My colleague, the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner), who concerns himself with the coal industry, so far as its problems are within the competence of the Commonwealth, has stated that the provision of suitable coal-loading equipment in New South Wales could have the effect of reducing the price of coal to consumers to the extent of 10s. a ton. This would be a valuable saving and might do much to assist the coal industry in the difficult period through which it is passing.

Then there is the problem of obtaining a better performance on the waterfront of this country. Earlier this afternoon, in tabling a report of the Stevedoring Industry Board, I pointed to the very serious losses of working time which have been occurring on the waterfront. The waterfront work force constitutes only about 1 per cent, of the total Australian work force, yet in 1955 it was involved in 15 per cent, of the total working time lost in the whole of industry. In 1956, the worst of the post-war years so far as the waterfront was concerned, just on 50 per cent, of the working days lost in industry as a whole were lost on the waterfront. This was accompanied by a persistent decline in the volume of cargo handled by interstate shipping, and I suggest that the two were not unrelated. If there is no regularity of schedule around the coast, and interruption to the movement of shipping as a result of industrial trouble - and I do not seek to apportion the blame in this matter - clearly, those who normally would look to ships to carry their cargo will look elsewhere. We could make a quite dramatic improvement in the transport situation of Australia, and in the lowering of transport costs, if we could restore regularity of movement to our coastal shipping.

Time will not permit me to say much about the other aspects of transport, but I would like to mention the widely representative Cabinet committee which is surveying the transport position. Five mem bers of the Cabinet are meeting under the chairmanship of my colleague in the Ministry, the Minister for Shipping- and Transport (Senator Paltridge). Also, each State is represented. There is the Treasurer fr"'- Arthur Fadden) from Queensland, the Minister for National development (Senator Spooner) from New South Wales, the Minister for Immigration (Mr. Townley) from Tasmania, the Minister for Shipping and Transport (Senator Paltridge) from Western Australia, the Minister for Defence (Sir Philip McBride) from South Australia and myself from Victoria. Such a committee should be able to make the comprehensive approach to this vital problem which we think is needed.

The airlines - relatively speaking the infant of the transport industry - have not been overlooked by the Government. We have, in the agreement relating to Australian National Airways Proprietary Limited and Trans-Australia Airlines - encouraged rationalization of services. We have assisted operators to maintain the standard of their fleets with up-to-date aircraft. We have also fostered the development of outback air services and, in this way, assisted national development in remote areas.

To conclude as I began, I emphasize that the Government acknowledges transport to be perhaps the major problem for governments to examine at this time in relation to our Australian economy. We are determined to find answers which will bring useful reductions in costs to the Australian community.

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