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Tuesday, 30 April 1957

Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) .- The honorable member for Batman (Mr. Bird) is to be congratulated on submitting this matter to the House for discussion as a matter of urgency, because there is no doubt that roads are our greatest internal problem. It is of no use to ask what some other government or some other authority did. We have to face the problem to-day, and we must ask ourselves whether the present position is or is not satisfactory. I do not think that one honorable member would say that it is anything like satisfactory. Less than a year ago, we saw the main highway between the two greatest cities in Australia break down completely. It was impassable for many days, and trucks transporting important produce were unable to get through. The honorable member for Port Adelaide (Mr. Thompson) mentioned that he had seen one transport, which was carrying a load of 16 tons and which would weigh, all told, something like 25 tons. I can tell the honorable member that, not on a main highway, but on a minor shire road, one truck was found to be carrying 52 tons. Needless to say, it was bogged. There is no doubt at all that these great transports are the main cause of the breaking up of our roads.

I think that the problem is becoming worse, because, when the main roads disintegrate, the transports try to use secondary roads. In this respect, there is already a serious problem in my electorate, and I do not doubt that similar problems exist in many other areas. The minor shire roads that are being used by heavy transports because the main roads have deteriorated were never designed to bear vehicles carrying loads of 52 tons. As a consequence, the shire authorities are doing their best to prevent these heavy vehicles from using those roads, and for this purpose they have imposed load limits. However, the police have been told that the shires must police these restrictions themselves. This they are unable to do, and the road hauliers know that they can exceed with impunity the load limits imposed by local authorities. The position has become so serious that a conference has been called to consider it. This conference, which will be held in my electorate on 24th June, will be attended by representatives of, I think, 52 shires in New South Wales and Victoria, and the main subject for discussion will be the difficulties of maintaining shire roads when these tremendous transports are breaking them up.

This is a very serious problem. What are we to do about it? The first thing to be done is for the Government to implement at the earliest possible moment the recommendations made by Government supporters and Opposition members in reports on the standardization of rail gauges. If standardization is put in hand very quickly, it will help to take a great deal of heavy traffic off the roads and thereby limit the deterioration of the main highways. We know that, at the present time, 5,000 tons of goods a day are transported from Melbourne to Sydney over the Hume Highway. The conversion of the railway from Melbourne to Albury to standard gauge would enable a great deal of this traffic to be carried by rail. I was going to say that it would increase the profits of the New South Wales and Victorian railways, but perhaps I should say that it would reduce the losses. I hope that the Government will take vigorous action immediately to provide finance for this project, which, I point out, would reduce the expenditure on road maintenance.

Secondly, we can and should ensure that the heavy transport vehicles using the roads make a reasonable contribution to meet the cost of repairing the damage that they do. For that reason, I wholeheartedly support the proposal of the honorable member for Batman that diesel fuel should be taxed at a reasonable rate which would meet the costs incurred in repairing the roads. The Australian Automobile Association has suggested a rate that would return something like £4,500,000 a year for expenditure on road maintenance and reconstruction, and I wholeheartedly agree with the proposal. 1 do not think that such a tax would increase the prices of the goods carried, because at the present time the greatest item of cost in transport is the replacement of tyres and other items of equipment that break down and wear out quickly because of the heavy wear and tear imposed by poor roads. The transport operators themselves would welcome any scheme that would enable us to improve the standard of our roads, even if they had to contribute towards the cost. As other honorable members have pointed out, diesel fuel used by transport vehicles is taxed in the United States of America, and if such a scheme works there, it could be made to work here. Finance is the crux of the problem. It is of no use to talk about altering the formula under which the Federal Aid Roads grants are apportioned between the States, as some honorable members have suggested should be done. That would not enable 100 yards more of road to be built. It might mean that one State could construct more roads, but if it did, it would mean that another could construct less. Let us get down to tin tacks. Both Federal and State governments must provide additional funds for road works. I have mentioned some of the ways in which the Commonwealth could help. The State governments also could help materially. The heavy interstate transport vehicles that are so numerous on our roads at the present time are subject to a registration fee of only 30s. a year. That is ludicrous.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (WANNON, VICTORIA) - That is in New South Wales.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - That is so. No one would be foolish enough to register such a vehicle anywhere else than in New South Wales. South Australia is trying to impose a much higher fee, but road hauliers will not register their vehicles in that State when they can register them in New South Wales for 30s. a year. Surely this anomaly could be removed. I understand that the South Australian Premier has now proposed a scheme that he believes could withstand any challenge in the High Court of Australia. I am sure that we can get greater value in road-building for our money. This is primarily the States' responsibility, but I feel certain that if the States were to ensure that they got better value for their money, partly by calling tenders for contracts, and partly by better supervision, we would find ourselves in a very much better position than we are in to-day.

There is a very strong case to be made out for the Government making a greater return of petrol tax money to the States.

We know that some of this petrol tax revenue has always been used for other than road-making purposes. In the past that has been so, but there has been a big alteration in the position. To-day, more people are using the roads and there is a far greater demand for roads. Even though this Government has done its best by quadrupling the money made available to the States, the position is still not satisfactory. The money provided is not enough.

We can, too, investigate the use of toll roads. Some people say that toll roads are a thing of the past and that they are going out in America. I still cannot see why certain selected areas in Australia cannot be used for toll roads. I am sure that many people would far sooner pay a toll and get a decent road to travel on than pay nothing and get a bad road.

This discussion on roads has been a most useful exercise in the House to-day. The time has come for all governments, Federal and State, to get their heads together and realize that something must be done. I hope that to-day's discussion will bring that day a little closer.

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