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Tuesday, 21 May 1957

Mr E JAMES HARRISON (BLAXLAND, NEW SOUTH WALES) .- This debate might well be regarded by the Government as a sounding board for the purpose of gathering information from honorable members who circulate among the people and so discover what the people are thinking and what is agitating the public mind.

I shall direct my speech to the subject of transport, of which I have some experience and knowledge, and the subject of health. A meeting of the Australian Loan Council will be held in Canberra this week. It is generally known that when the Deputy Prime Minister and the Premiers meet, the important question of rail transport will be raised. I appeal to the Government, when dealing with this question at the Premiers conference, not to regard rail transport as merely being the responsibility of the States. The fact is that at long last we have reached some degree of unity, stripped of politics, in respect of the great need to solve our railway transport problems. I say that it is to some degree stripped of politics because we have the Bolte anti-Labour Government in Victoria and the Cahill Labour Government in New South Wales, both of the one mind in respect of the importance of the problem. The time has arrived when we must have at the very least one standardized connecting line between Melbourne and Sydney as the first instalment of a programme of railway gauge standardization. It may not be common knowledge, but there is an urge to prevent that from happening. My advice to the Government is not to let anything of a political or other nature stand in the way of our doing something to solve the present transport problems of Australia and prevent chaos.

As I have said in this House before, 33 per cent, of the price of commodities in this country is represented by transport costs. It is not usual for me to clash with the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt), as I did in this House the other night. That clash occurred when I found that the Government was prepared to put still further imposts on the cost of transport in Australia by increasing the stevedoring industry charge. I became alarmed as to whether the Government was really awake to its responsibilities in respect of transport.

I am beginning to think that by the end of the 1950's the Australian Loan Council, which was established in the 1920's, may be found to have outlived its usefulness. I fear that when the transport question comes before the council this week it will be dealt with in the usual wrangle between the Commonwealth and the States as to division of responsibility. If we have reached a stage in our political progress when the only attitude that the council can take to such an important national matter is to argue about division of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and States, it is time the council ceased to exist and was replaced by an organization that would have more regard for the needs of Australia's development as a nation. I make that statement very deliberately. I cannot help feel, as the result of what happened at the last meeting of the Australian Loan Council, and at the one before that, and at meetings of the council right back to the time of the Labour government, that that organization has outlived its usefulness.

I am happy to see at the table the Minister for the Interior and Minister for Works (Mr. Fairhall) with whom I have had some discussions on previous occasions about road construction. The problem of road construction and road development is another phase of our transport problem connected with which is our long haulage problem, which has really brought many great worries to this country.

The thing that upset me the other night when the Minister for Labour and National Service was piloting the Stevedoring Industry Charge Bill through the House, was that the bill provided for an increase from ls. 7d. to 2s. a man-hour in a charge that would mean increased transport costs amounting to £3 a week for every registered watersider working a 30-hour week. The thing that agitated my mind then, as it does now, is that Australia, as a nation, cannot afford to adopt that approach to its transport problems. What it will do is to upset the balance between sea transport and road transport. Sea transport will be pushed out of the picture and the present problem of road transport ruining our highways will be further aggravated. I urge the Government to press on with railway gauge unification. If the Loan Council is alive to its responsibilities, at its forthcoming meeting it will prohibit, as far as it can through its financial powers, the further construction of nonstandard gauge railways. During the life of this Government - and I do not blame this Government for what has happened - hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent in South Australia to push the 5 ft. 3 in. gauge line through to Mount Gambier. That is wrong. South Australia now want to push a 5 ft. 3 in. gauge line through to Broken Hill, and that is equally wrong.

I want to deal quickly with the Mount Isa-Townsville line. My friends from Queensland may condemn me for what I am about to say, but I take the view that, although our friends may criticize our opinions, it is our duty to express them if we believe them to be in the best interests of Australia. This morning the Minister had something to say about the development of the mineral resources of Australia. The Mount Isa mines would be regarded in many other countries as a bonanza, but the efficient utilization of the minerals there is being hindered by high transport costs. Unless transport costs are reduced, a great deal of ore-bearing material that would produce 4i per cent, of copper will never be smelted. Transport charges at present are such that any ore that would produce less than 4-i per cent, of copper is not worth mining. The main reason for the high transport charges on the Mount Isa-Townsville line is that it is a 3 ft. 6 in. gauge line. If a 4 ft. 8 in. gauge line were built between those two centres haulage costs would be greatly reduced.

As an illustration of this, I remind honorable members that as a result of the 4 ft. 8 in. gauge line being built between Leigh Creek and Stirling North, in South Australia, the transport charges between those two points have been reduced to approximately a halfpenny per ton-mile. It is common knowledge that if transport costs between Mount Isa and Townsville could be reduced even to three farthings per tonmile, it would be worth while to extract ore-bearing quartz that would yield 2i per cent, of copper. For this nation to turn its back on a situation of that kind is nothing short of tragic. If the Loan Council were willing to make funds available to construct that line, transport costs would be reduced and this nation would have the benefit of the far greater wealth that would be produced, because it would then be economical to extract and process the great body of ore-bearing quartz capable of producing from 2i per cent, to 4i per cent, copper which is now being left in the ground.

We have to think of the future generations, and it is not good enough for us to turn our backs on this great transport problem. If the Queensland Government will not deal with this matter, my advice to the Loan Council and to the Commonwealth Government is to be firm. If that Government or any other government will not do something to reduce transport costs in Australia, it should not be granted any more funds from the Loan Council until it agrees to do so. Mount Isa is a classic example of what could be done to increase the wealth of the nation by improving rail transport facilities. I say that the time has arrived for the Loan Council, this Government, and all of us to show whether we are really concerned with the future of Australia. The responsibility has been placed on us to care for Australia, to protect it, to build it up and to make something of it.

Mr Bowden - Would the honorable member apply sanctions in a free country?

Mr E JAMES HARRISON (BLAXLAND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If it were proved beyond reasonable doubt that the application of sanctions was necessary to prevent a nation from being destroyed by bad government, it would be a failure on our part if sanctions were not applied. People change governments because they find them to be failures. I wish to turn to another matter which I hope the Government will consider carefully and will stress at the forthcoming Loan Council meetings. At this moment, the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) is representing Australia at the meeting of the World Health Organization in Geneva. I am sure that no honorable member will deny that the Minister will capably represent our country and thoroughly state the case with regard to its health problems, but it seems to me that when the Minister addresses the organization on behalf of Australia he will have to admit that Australia is a backward nation in health services. The World Health Organization has laid it down, over a long period of years, that it is essential for the development of a nation to provide sanitation. People must be educated in cleanliness and sanitation, which are most necessary for good health. I wonder how the Minister will describe the sanitation services that operate in Australia.

I hear an honorable member say that he would hardly describe Australia as a sewage dump. The honorable member ought to be concerned about the health of Australia, He should realize that the real problem is not the provision of hospitals, but the provision of ways and means to prevent people from going into hospital. That should be the attitude of us all. I wish to illustrate my argument by referring to Bankstown, a municipality on behalf of which I presented a petition yesterday. It bore 2,833 signatures, which were gathered in ten days from residents, many of whom have children going to school. The Bankstown public schools are attended by between 1,000 and 1,100 children, but are not provided with sewerage facilities. I do not blame this Government for that state of affairs, but it is another illustration of the fact that the Loan Council has outlived its usefulness. Bankstown is a classic example of the growth of Australia. What has happened there has happened in other centres. In the ten years from 1947 to 1957 the population of Bankstown has increased from 42,000 to 137,000, and the number of homes has risen from 10,304 to 34,363. Industries in that municipality have increased from 47 to 472, and the improved valuation of properties has risen from £10,000,000 to £109,500,000. That area represents a great section of our community, but the people there have been told, frankly and deliberately, that under present financial arrangements they cannot expect to be supplied with sewerage in the area for another twenty years.

That state of affairs reflects the policy of the Loan Council, which tells local government and semi-government bodies that they can have only a limited amount of loan money. In Sydney the great Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board organization is subject, financially, to the control of the Loan Council. For the last three years it has been allowed by the Loan Council to raise £6,500,000, but its real financial requirement is at least double that sum. A worse feature is that that board will not know what money the Loan Council will allocate to it in this next financial year until the forthcoming meetings have been held. Consequently, it is not able to make any plans in advance. It is not able to negotiate with private enterprise to supply pipes and essential equipment. When the new financial year begins on 1st July next, the board will have £1,000,000 made avail able to it by the New South Wales Government. For the rest of its finance it will have to depend on the loan market and the amount that the Loan Council allows it to borrow. If it borrows more than the sum prescribed, it will be made to hand the surplus back to the Treasurer.

As a result of this policy the number of unsewered homes in the Sydney metropolitan area has increased from 90,000 to 180,000 in the last five years. Many areas are growing as Bankstown has grown, and it is said that owing to this tremendous development the stage has been reached where forward planning is essential. In my own humble capacity as a back-bencher, I have examined this question for some months, and I believe that this week's meeting will be the test of whether the Loan Council can survive. Once we reach the stage where the standards of the World Health Organization cannot be applied here, we must look for the reason. It is merely that the necessary money is not being provided.

The Sydney Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board says that it can provide all the machinery needed, and that it has lists of men waiting for employment. It is merely waiting for the green light, but this will not go on unless more money is made available. Of the £6,500,000 that the Loan Council allowed the board last year £3,000,000 or £3,500,000 had to be spent on the Warragamba dam, which must be finished in the minimum time possible. If we had eighteen months of this dry weather, thousands of people would find that no water would come through their taps, so Warragamba has to go through to completion. In addition, a major project at Salt Pan Creek, which will cost £2,000,000, must be undertaken before any of this great area can be sewered.

It is of little use for the Government to send to the meeting of the World Health Organization a representative of the great capacity of our Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) if he has to admit - if tested - that the municipality of Bankstown, which has grown so greatly in the last ten years, bears all the marks of a community in a backward nation. Neither the present Minister for Health nor his predecessor, the right honorable member for Cowper (Sir Earle Page), would relish being put in that position at Geneva right now; but that is the situation. The matter can be rectified in a substantial way only by a changed approach on the part of the Loan Council to the whole developmental plan for Australia. I do not blame this Government, for it inherited the Loan Council system, as did the previous Labour government. The Loan Council, which had its early growth because of the lack of Australian development, was at its peak during the depression years. It has never risen above depression standards and its members are always divided on national issues. The Federal Government is intent upon protecting its own interests, and each State has a similar approach. New South Wales is concerned with its problems, and South Australia is concerned with still other problems. The factor of overriding importance is that the Loan Council appears to have forgotten the need to work on behalf of Australia and the Australian people.

I have made those points, not by way of condemning this Government, but in order to try to alert this Parliament and the nation to where we are being led by an organization which was set up in the twenties and which, in the 'fifties, has outlived its usefulness. The Loan Council is meeting here this week and the way in which it decides the two questions that I have raised will, in my view, decide whether it should be allowed to continue to throttle Australia's progress as it has in recent years, or should be replaced by some fullblooded organization with a really Australian outlook which will give the nation the things to which it is justly entitled - the high position to which it can rise if the brake now being applied by the Loan Council is removed.

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