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Tuesday, 30 April 1957

Mr LUCHETTI (Macquarie) .- This is, indeed, an urgent matter of public importance, and I desire to offer my congratulations to the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Bird) for initiating this debate. Of the great issues facing Australia, I believe that the question of better transportation looms largely as one of the most important. It is one on which honorable members might well address themselves to the people of this country. I believe that little time has been taken to reflect upon what has been lost over the years by the disorganization, chaos and difficulties caused by the lack of proper roads in this country. No apology from honorable members on the Government side of the House and no excuse or alibi can relieve the Government of its responsibility. Neither can the Commonwealth Government excuse itself by saying that if all the funds collected by means of petrol tax were to be made available for the construction and maintenance of roads they would still be inadequate to produce the kind of roads needed by the people of Australia at the present time. That is perfectly true. No one on this side of the House suggests for a moment that the total proceeds of the petrol tax would do the complete job. But we say - and I join with the honorable member for Batman in saying this - that the Government has no moral right to retain one penny piece collected in petrol tax.

When we consider the legislation that was introduced in 1926 by an anti-Labour government, and when we note the assurances given by the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet at the time, we are fortified, strengthened, and made certain in our belief that the money collected by means of the petrol tax rightly belongs to the road users of Australia. It is necessary that vast sums of money should be made available for making better roads in Australia. I am not one of those who are dedicated to the idea of building speedways from capital city to capital city. I believe that it is necessary that we should try to conceive of some road system which will penetrate, as the arteries do in the human body, into the hinterland and into the centres of production so that goods may be able to flow freely, easily, speedily and expeditiously to the centres where they are required. If they are intended for the export market they should be able to find their way to the seaboard. If they are intended for internal consumption they should be able to find their way to the markets from which they can be distributed to where they are needed.

In relation to all these things it is also necessary that the use of our roads should be available at all. For, in addition to providing for trade and commerce and the movement of goods from their place of production, it is also necessary that for social intercourse, for children going to school, for people attending functions in the big centres of population scattered throughout Australia, better roads should be provided. No excuses can mitigate the urgency of this matter. The condition of the roads has a direct bearing on mail deliveries. I have among my correspondence a letter that tells the story of a mail man who was unable to travel to certain parts of his district, and as a consequence, people were denied a mail service for quite a lengthy period of time. I ask honorable members on the Government side of the House, who try to evade their responsibility now but who were very vocal when Labour was in office, to be consistent this afternoon. If they said, in the days of a Labour government, that the total proceeds of the petrol tax should be applied to road-making purposes, I ask them to stand in their places this afternoon and say exactly the same thing. I have here a copy of the Federal Aid Roads Act No. 46 of 1926. In the preamble, it says -

Whereas it is expedient to provide for financial assistance to the several States for the purpose of the construction and reconstruction of roads:

That is precisely what we are speaking about here this afternoon. The then Prime Minister of Australia set out to make it clear that those people who paid petrol tax would get value for their money in the form of better roads. According to " Hansard " of 3rd August, 1926, at page 4800 of volume 1 14, Mr. Bruce said -

But the Government, having received further information on this subject, is now prepared to insert an amendment in the bill that will enable a rebate to be given to those users of petrol who are not road users. I think that disposes of the first legitimate objection to the Government's proposal.

That is a clear-cut statement of the Prime Minister of the day. His statement was supported by Mr. Latham, Mr. Perkins, Mr. Cook and various other speakers. That belongs to history. What we are concerned about is that our road system must be planned and must have regard to local needs, State needs and Commonwealth needs. With that end in view, a conference should be called as speedily as possible with the three agencies of government - local government, State governments and federal government. The representatives of those government agencies should meet, not for the purpose of formulating some overall plan, because it is money more than plans that is required, but to examine the matter of financial responsibility so that in the light of that examination positive action might be taken.

In other words, I believe that our road system must be properly integrated. Local government would then have no opposition to offer against the State road authorities being required to plan their roads having regard to State responsibility nor to the Commonwealth playing its part in relation to Commonwealth responsibilities. In referring to this matter I want to remind the House, and the Minister for Defence (Sir Philip McBride) in particular, that over the last three years approximately £2,100,000 was taken from federal funds for strategic roads and that only £1,407,000 of that money was spent, leaving an unspent balance of £692,210. Who can say that there is no need' for strategic roads in Australia? The construction of strategic roads is a matter of urgency. I cross swords with those people who seem to think that roads are not important. Roads are all-important. I recall the days of World War II. when there was a search for a means of access to the hinterland of Australia in the event of the adoption of a burnt or scorched-earth policy. I can visualize the state of helpless and hopeless confusion that would occur nowadays if one bomb were to be dropped on any Australian capital city, how the roads would be crowded, and how chaos would reign supreme.

But let me return to the existing facts. During the last nine months, no less than £34,265,462 was collected in the form of petrol tax and excise. Of that sum, £23,913,249 was paid to the States, and £10,352,213 was retained by the Commonwealth Government without its having any moral right to it. The Commonwealth has retained that money although our roads are breaking up, although it is almost impossible to proceed along the main highways, and although, because of the lack of bridges, the centres of population in the back country are thrown into a state of disorder as soon as it rains, children cannot go to school and mailmen cannot deliver the mail that is so necessary to enable farmers and others to conduct their business. Surely those conditions call for immediate action!

Mr.ACTING DEPUTY SPEAKEROrder! The honorable member's time has expired.

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