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Thursday, 13 May 1915

Senator RUSSELL (Victoria) (Assistant Minister) . - In reply to the question raised by Senators de Largie, Henderson, and Needham, concerning the proposal to purchase sleepers from the Western Australian Government, I have to say that some time ago a deputation, supported by various members from Western Australia, waited upon the Home Affairs Department with a request that at least 1,000,000 sleepers should be purchased. The object stated was not that the Government should purchase them directly in connexion with the transAustralian railway, because at the present time we have contracts in hand for the supply of 30,000 sleepers a month.

Senator de Largie - For the present railway ?

Senator RUSSELL - Yes; and under the present contracts, in five months' time, we shall have sufficient sleepers for the construction of that railway. The proposal made by the deputation went further than that. It was to the. effect that the Government should purchase the sleepers, irrespective of what might be the policy of the Commonwealth Government, that they should hold a stock of them, and it was suggested that if the railways policy were not developed, we might be able, later on, to sell the sleepers and make a profit out of the transaction. That is all very well, and I might say that the Ministry treated the proposal sympathetically, because of the fact that there was a considerable amount of unemployment in Western Australia. They were anxious to do something in the matter. But there was another difficulty. Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales were in the same position, and if it were desirable that the Government should purchase sleepers for which they had no immediate need, but merely as a business proposition, and on the prospect of some railway being built in the future, then each State had an equal right to participate in the production of those sleepers.

Senator Henderson - Of course they would have if they had the timber. Why not?

Senator RUSSELL - The Commonwealth Government have not exactly a free hand, though I am hopeful, and believe, that ultimately they will go in for a policy of railway building, but no one is in a position to say when that" policy will be undertaken. A fatal objection is here interposed. Despite the opinions of honorable senators, we have to remember that in the Department there are certain experts who are employed because of their expert knowledge, and their opinions ought to be respected. For instance, the railway engineers ought to be able to tell us what is the effect on timber exposed to weather conditions, and, in this connexion, the engineering staff have reported to the Minister that sleepers, if stored in the open, will deteriorate.

Senator de Largie - That is rich. Will you give me the name of the engineer who gave that as his opinion?

Senator RUSSELL - The responsible engineers of the Department, I suppose, from the Chief Engineer downward, hold that view, because that is the report they have made.

Senator de Largie - Does Mr. Bell say that?

Senator RUSSELL - Yes, he definitely made that statement in a report.

Senator de Largie - If that is the sort of engineers that the Commonwealth Government have to advise them, I am sorry.

Senator RUSSELL - The fact that Senator de Largie disagrees with Mr. Bell might not mean that Mr. Bell is not a competent person to advise the Government. I take it that experts are in the Department because of their expertknowledge, and I take it that they are in a position to advise the Government. The Ministry felt doubtful whether they had the power to sell the sleepers in the event of their not being required for railway purposes. Tasmania was in a difficult position, and the honorable senator from that State, though he advocated that we should purchase a certain quantity of Tasmanian sleepers in connexion with our railway policy, was not prepared to take the responsibility of saying how we should get rid of the sleepers in the event of their not being required. Therefore, in these circairn stances, the Government felt that they could not purchase the sleepers.

Senator de Largie - Could you use Tasmanian sleepers as you would -use Western Australian sleepers for the transcontinental railway ?

Senator RUSSELL - Yes, if we could get permission to build a certain railway, but, unfortunately, we have not that power yet. With regard to the matter raised by Senator Needham concerning the Navigation Act, an advertisement recently appeared in the Commonwealth Gazette for a secretary to the Department. He has been selected by the Public Service Commissioner, and will take up duty in a day or two. It has been a big task to draft the regulations for the Navigation Act, as there are more in that case than in any three or four Acts that this Parliament has ever passed. I understand that the Director and Secretary of the Department are undertaking to draft them. We hope that when the Amending Navigation Bill is passed by another place, it will not be long before it is put into operation; but we do not pretend to be able to name the exact date on which the Act will be proclaimed. I am rather sorry Senator Needham took up the line he did in regard to lighthouses. The lighthouses would have been taken over and proclaimed before this but for the difficulty that has arisen with tlie States. We were anxious to take them over and get to work, and for that purpose let a contract for three boats for lighthouse work to be built in Australia, and certain necessary works were undertaken on the Northern Territory and Queensland coasts in anticipation; but, as I say, difficulties have arisen with the States, which previously had lighting charges, and some of them have refused to give them up. The Commonwealth Government desire to make the Lighthouse Branch pay its own way by means of Commonwealth light dues, but we anticipated that the States would first repeal their own lighting charges. I understand that three States have given way ; and the Commonwealth is now faced with the problem whether to ignore the action of the other States and impose double taxation on the ship-owners in those .cases for lighting purposes, or make another effort to get all the States into line. There should be no rush in the matter. All that we desire is fair play, so that there may be no double taxation of shipping. The Commonwealth charges will be 8d. per ton, but for this it is proposed to give shipping a good and effective lighting service. It would be unfair, however, for both Commonwealth and States to tax ship-owners for the one service. The moment that we get over the difficulty with the other three States; the Lighthouse Branch will be transferred on the shortest possible notice.

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