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Tuesday, 30 April 1957

Mr DAVIS (Deakin) .- I listened to the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Bird) with that degree of interest which, I think, the House always accords to the honorable gentleman when he speaks on this subject, because his continued interest in the problem of roads is well known. It can be said generally that he speaks on this subject fairly and without undue political prejudice; but, unfortunately, sometimes he gets his figures a little confused. I think he set the pattern for this debate. By and large, my view on this sort of debate is that its main purpose is to fill a little extra space in the newspapers and to waste a little extra time in this House. However, I agree with the honorable member for Batman on one point, which is that attention cannot be too often directed to the roads problem. We should look at the form of attention which should be directed to it, and at the form of solution that should be applied.

It is, I think,, admitted by all who have any acquaintance with this problem, that the road situation in Australia reflects little credit on any of the governments concerned. The suggestions I have heard in this House over the years, by and large have not been directed to the realities of the situation just as, in the present debate, whilst the honorable gentleman from Batman adopted what I regard as a logical, balanced approach to the problem, his solution was obviously in conflict with the facts that he produced to support his argument that our roads need attention. If I recollect aright, he said that something like £164,000,000 a year should be spent on road-building, over a period of years, according to a plan submitted to the Australian Transport Advisory Council, in order to bring the roads to the condition that they should be in. At the same time, however, the honorable member proposed that an extra £20,000,000 a year should be made available for that purpose, which would bring the total amount to only £140,000,000 a year. The honorable member for Wilmot (Mr. Duthie) supported that proposal. But, there would still be a gap of a good many millions of pounds between the figures proposed by the honorable member for Batman and the cost of meeting the very needs that he puts to the House.

Over the years we have debated this problem of our roads time and time again, and it seems inexcusable that men who have given serious attention to this problem should now, apparently, suggest that the solution of the problem is to distribute all the petrol tax revenue to the States. The first point that arises in respect of that suggestion is that, whatever may have been intended in the 1920's, when this unfortunate process was first instituted, never in the history of the petrol tax has the amount of tax per gallon been related to the total amount needed to maintain the roads of this country; nor is it related to it to-day. If we talk in terms of using the petrol tax revenue to meet the problems of road construction throughout Australia then it is obvious that the only approach is to say that we accept this figure of £164,000,000 and will raise it by petrol tax and from other sources connected with the motor vehicle industry. If that is the approach, it is a logical approach; but if that is not the approach, it is not a logical approach, and it offers little towards a solution of this grave and increasing problem.

The honorable member for Batman tried, I think, to juggle with figures for a brief second or two when he quoted some which showed the amount of petrol tax which various Commonwealth governments had retained. Of course, to quote one set of figures in isolation from other relevant sets of figures is to give a distorted picture. Had the honorable gentleman proceeded in his usual frank style in this place he would have, at the same time, quoted the amount of petrol tax revenue that had been distributed each year by the Commonwealth. Neither the honorable member for Batman nor I want to conduct the debate on that ground but, since that element has been introduced, let me say that one of the few facts that can be established in this debate is that the present Government has made more money available from petrol tax each year than has any previous government, and that it has made available to the States for road purposes a greater percentage of the petrol tax revenue than any previous government has done. That is a fact. It is not a solution of the problem.

The honorable member for Wilmot had two bob each way on this issue of the road problem. On the one hand, he attacked the State governments for their admitted failure to agree on the problem of interstate transport, and on the other hand he attacked the Commonwealth Government for refusing, as he said, to accept the advice of the very State Ministers who could not themselves agree on their own approach to the problem. I put it to the House in all seriousness that there can be only one possible solution of the major problem of roads and that is - here I again agree with the honorable member for Batman - a national roads plan prepared and calculated to achieve a reasonable rate of road construction and maintenance over a period of years, financed from the Consolidated Revenue Fund and not related to any particular tax, because to relate it to a tax would be to perpetuate the existing anomalies. That would be bad in principle and inefficient in practice. The continuance of such a system would delay the ultimate solution. I believe that we should have a national roads plan. I also believe that a prerequisite of such a plan is agreement between the States on the very problem mentioned by the honorable member for Wilmot - interstate transport - and agreement on relating the needs of interstate transport to the needs and the efficiency of our railway systems.

The honorable member for Wilmot rightly, in my opinion, referred to the need for a uniform rail gauge. The loss occasioned our economy at present by the differences in rail gauges between States is astonishing. At the same time, consideration should be given to the use of our interstate shipping services since, after all, sea transport is the cheapest form of transport of goods. The percentage of goods carried each year by interstate shipping, as honorable members know, is declining. All these things should be done.

Under the existing formula, which has been in existence for many years, there is no question but that Victoria has been penalized. One can juggle with figures if one cares to, but any one who has carefully taken the matter into consideration will agree with that statement. Victoria has developed industrially and economically with a consequent increase of population but, because of the formula, Victoria is increasingly unable to meet its needs with regard to transport. I believe that as long as the present policy remains in existence, consideration should be given by this Parliament to the making of a special grant to Victoria to meet its particular needs.

I have heard it said in this House and outside that this amendment or that amendment should be made to the formula by which the proceeds of the petrol tax are distributed to the States. I do not think that the honorable member for Batman will quarrel with me when I say that the truth of that matter is that it is not a question of what this Government or any previous government has done or of what any future government will do. It is a question of what this Parliament will do, because there is no question but that Victoria has suffered particular disabilities under the act. That is admitted. I do not want to engage in argument with my friends from Western

Australia or Queensland. That situation admittedly exists. In this House, Victorians are in a minority.

Mr Bird - A pretty intelligent minority.

Mr DAVIS - Of course, history proves that the minority is frequently right. In this case, it is unquestionably right. There is no possible combination of Victorian members in this House which could force through a bill to bring justice to Victoria against the wishes of the other States.


Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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