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Thursday, 31 March 1966

Mr BUCHANAN (McMillan) .- I find myself in a somewhat difficult position in this matter. I firmly believe that wherever possible expenditure of public money of the required sum in connection with any public work should be referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on PublicWorks in the interests of the public. I speak as a member of the Public Works Committee. The duty of the Committee, as my friends opposite have said quite rightly, is to see that public money is spent to the best advantage. The Committee ensures that the facility that is required is provided in the proper way and, what is more to the point, that the interests of the taxpayer are safeguarded.

For a long time now, great disquiet has existed in the Committee about the fact that several projects have not been referred to it on various grounds. No member of the Committee can be blamed for feeling that sometimes the excuse that a matter is urgent is used for not referring a public work to the Committee. In this case, the Government is quite right in not referring this matter to the Committee. In the Public Works Committee Act, three provisos are set out quite clearly in this regard. The first is that no public work above a certain amount can be commenced until it has been referred to the Committee; secondly, the work cannot be commenced unless it has been brought before the Parliament and the permission of the Parliament has been obtained to proceed with the work without referring it to the Public Works Committee; thirdly, the Governor-General may decide that the work concerned is a defence project and that it would not be in the public interest to have it referred to the Public Works Committee.

The honorable member for Leichhardt (Mr. Fulton) mentioned that the former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, had agreed with the Committee that some of the public works that had not been referred to it probably should have been referred. Sir Robert Menzies expressed the hope that, in the future, these matters would be referred to the Committee. I sincerely hope that the various departments concerned will carry out this requirement, because it is rather important. Some of the defence projects which involve expenditure of money on buildings for the accommodation of troops or other similar purposes should come under the scrutiny of the Public Works Committee. However, if a security risk is involved, obviously it is better not to do so. We must trust the people concerned who are providing the facilities to the Services in these cases to have due regard to the safety of the public purse.

In this case, the Government is quite right in what it is doing. It has brought the matter to the House under a section of the Public Works Committee Act which provides that a matter can be referred to this Parliament and the Parliament can decide then whether it is expedient that the matter should be carried out without reference to the Public Works Committee. I do not think we can really decide this matter without considering the circumstances in which the project is not being referred. It has been regarded as an urgent job. An iron ore deposit is in a rather inaccessible place in the Northern Territory. Naturally it is desired to exploit this deposit, as iron ore is one of the very important materials in Australia at the present time. We have iron ore projects all over Western Australia and only a couple in the Northern Territory. In relation to the Western Australian projects the various companies have been required to provide railway, harbour, town and other facilities out of their own funds. Here we have my very good friends of Mount Morgan Ltd., in partnership with other people, with an interest in this iron ore deposit. They too have made a contract with the Japanese to supply the iron ore within a certain time. The contract has been approved by the Government. They now find themselves in a little difficulty in getting the iron ore to the port. Incidentally this is another case in which the particular port development project should have been referred to the Public Works Committee. The project was carried out as the result of a change of front in the Department of Territories which put the project through a statutory authority. We have no guarantee that this public money will be spent by that statutory authority in the right way and I believe that the Public Works Committee should look at the matter.

Now we have this Mount Bundey project. The Government is stepping in to help the contractors fulfil their contract with the Japanese. The situation is no different from that of the Mount Newman mine in Western Australia where the companies that hold the rights to the ore made contracts with the Japanese and now find themselves in some difficulty in complying with the requirements, of time particularly. A discussion is going on in Western Australia at the present time to decide how these companies can be helped. I believe that they should be helped in the same way as the Government is going to help in the Northern Territory, that is by the Government providing the money, as it intends to do at Mount Bundey. The money will later be refunded to the Government.

I do not recall whether it was mentioned, but in this case the Government intends to construct an additional length of road. Some road was to be built in connection with ordinary Northern Territory development anyway, but because of this iron ore deposit further out the Government intends to construct a longer road and build a bridge over the Adelaide River. This will enable the iron ore deposit to be exploited but the companies will pay the cost back to the Government. That is a very important point. The Government is financing the work but the companies concerned will eventually pay for it.

I now come back to the question whether the matter should be referred to the Public Works Committee. None of the Committee members knows how long these negotiations have been going on. The companies concerned did have a contract with the Japanese and then found that they could not deliver the material in the time specified. Japan has been good enough to extend the terms of the contract for a year in order to give the companies more time. The Government intends to help them and unless advantage is taken of the two dry seasons there will not be time to do this work. You cannot work up there in the wet as the river is then terrifically wide. Anyone who knows the Adelaide River will agree that this work should be commenced immediately.

The criticism I have to make is that we do not know how long these negotiations have been going on. I quite approve of the fact that the Government has brought this matter to the Parliament. That is important, because in many cases it has not brought such matters to the Parliament for decision at all. My criticism is that we do not know how long the Government has taken to arrive at the decision to bring the matter before the House. Where public money is being spent, and we have a Public Works Committee which has been entrusted by this Parliament with the task of watching over the expenditure of public money the Committee should always be given the opportunity to carry out its work properly. In the circumstances we can do nothing but accept what has happened, but I express the criticism that this matter should have come before the Committee in time to allow it to be examined.

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