Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 29 September 1927


Senator DUNCAN (New South Wales) . - Quite a long time has elapsed since this subject was first brought before the Senate by Senator Foll, and I am afraid that much of the valuable information he then gave us has been lost sight of because of the rush of events in the meantime. But the great value if the proposal made by Senator Foll has not been overlooked by representative bodies and individuals outside this parliament. A great deal of interest has been taken in the question by very representative organizations since he raised it, during the last sittings of the Senate in Melbourne. A deputation representing the United Graziers' Associations, the Queensland Cattle Growers, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and the Brisbane Chamber of Commerce was introduced by the honorable senator to the Prime Minister when he was recently iti Brisbane. The deputation placed the whole position before the right honorable gentleman, and urged on him and on the Federal Government the construction of the railway as proposed by Senator Foll, It stated its case in a full and very fair way, and placed before the Prime Minister and his government sound and solid reasons why the proposed railway should and could be built by the government without prejudicing any other line already in course of construction or under consideration by it.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - Does the honorable senator mean that the deputation proposed that the line should be built by the Commonwealth Government ?


Senator DUNCAN - Yes, in cooperation with the State Governments concerned. The desire is to construct a railway to connect Western New South Wales and indeed the whole of the State and Western .Queensland with the Northern Territory. Three very important reasons were put forward why this new northsouth line should be built to link up the Northern Territory with the more thickly populated areas of Australia.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - Is the honorable senator suggesting that this is a new idea?


Senator DUNCAN - It is not a new idea; it is an old idea. In certain States, it has already been referred to public works committees, and the project has been constantly before the people of Australia, but unfortunately nothing has been done. Had the railway been built at the time when it was under serious consideration, and when there seemed to be a possibility of its construction, Australia would have been saved millions of pounds that have since been lost because of drought conditions.


Senator Thompson - If Lord Forrest had continued in office it would have been built many years ago.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - But on the other hand it would have lost a lot of money.


Senator DUNCAN - The chances are that it would have made a good deal of money. Sir Henry. Barwell evidently confuses this proposed line with that unfortunate line that runs north from Oodnadatta, and which is certainly bound to lose a great deal of money and may perhaps cost this government a great deal more than it can very well afford. Senator Foil's proposal is to build a separate line that will run through good country and give to the people of Australia some return for the capital expenditure upon it. It will have some reasonable hope of meeting the interest bill on the cost of construction, and it will afford an almost unlimited opportunity for the future development of the Northern Territory and the western areas of Queensland and New South Wales.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - Who has declared that it will return interest on cost of construction ?


Senator DUNCAN - I shall give reasons for my assertion. The first point put forward by the deputation that waited upon the Prime Minister, was that Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory are to-day the great cattle producing areas of A.ustralia. I shall enlarge upon that point later. The second point advanced was that the construction of the railway would provide an insurance against the effects of drought in the areas traversed by it, in a way that perhaps could not be provided for by any other scheme the Government or any one else could put forward. The third point was that it would lead to the opening up of large areas for the development of the sheep industry. A line built from Bourke to Berrigan and thence on to Cunnamulla and Camooweal, would open up sufficient new country to carry 10,000,000 sheep, the annual value of which would be £5,000,000. A railway running through country providing for such intense development would certainly offer every reasonable prospect of returning interest upon cost of production, and perhaps also an adequate sinking fund to repay the capital cost in the course of years.


Senator McLachlan - Are there any accurate figures regarding the number of sheep the country would carry?


Senator DUNCAN - There are figures available that can be very largely relied on. A great deal of the country through which the line would run has already been settled, but because of the almost insurmountable difficulties of transport has never been developed to the extent it should have been, in view of its value for sheep production.


Senator J B Hayes - Has the cost of the proposed line been approximately ascertained %


Senator DUNCAN - -Yes, I have the figures. There are no engineering dif ficulties to be encountered. The line would' pass through easy country.


Senator J B Hayes - The cost would run into millions.


Senator DUNCAN - It would certainly do so, but country that will provide for the agistment of anything up to 10,000,000 sheep is worthy of the expenditure of millions upon it.


Senator Verran - That is merely supposition. .


Senator DUNCAN - We have spent millions in other directions. We propose to spend millions on another railway although the greater part of' the area through which it runs, would provide only for the agistment of camels.


Senator Verran - The honorable senator has not seen that country.


Senator DUNCAN - I have. The New South Wales Graziers' Association which was represented through the United Graziers' Association at the deputation to the Prime Minister, has been advocating the construction of this railway for at least ten years. In the opinion of this association the building of the line would develop country notonly in New South Wales and Queensland, but also on the Barkly Tableland in Commonwealth territory. It was said by gentlemen who know the country which the suggested line would serve that the markets for the products ®f the Barkly Tableland do not lie in the south. The difficulties of transport in thenorth are great, because of the fact that the principal markets for beef and mutton, particularly beef, are in the eastern States. To give theproducers in that area direct communication with Melbourne and Sydney and other large centres of population, theconstruction of a line over the route suggested is essential.


Senator Ogden - Is the Senate theright body to decide upon railway routes ?


Senator DUNCAN - We are discussing only general principles. We. are not suggesting any particular route; that i* not the- work of the Senate or any legislative body.


Senator Ogden - The honorable senator is suggesting that a line be constructed through the Barkly Tableland?


Senator DUNCAN - I am advocating the construction of a line in that direction, as that is the only way in which it would be generally advantageous.


Senator Thompson - The route suggested was recommended by experts long ago.


Senator DUNCAN - Yes, by several competent authorities.


Senator Ogden - Some are of the opinion that a direct route should be taken.


Senator DUNCAN - Yes, I know that there are some who hold that opinion, particularly in South Australia, but they are in favour of the traffic going over another line.


Senator Sampson - The north-south railway should first be completed before serious consideration is given to this proposal.


Senator DUNCAN - I do not wish to confuse this proposal with any other scheme already determined. The Senate has agreed to the expenditure of large sums of money on the construction of a. direct north-south railway in order to honour a promise given by the Commonwealth to the people of South Australia. Senator Barwell and other honorable senators know that I supported the northsouth railway when the bill was before the Senate, because of thar promise.


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - But the honorable senator does .ot know how close the north-south railway will go to Barkly Tableland.


Senator DUNCAN - I am pointing out that although the north-south line may run close to the Barkly Tableland products from that part of the Commonwealth will have to be taken over an enormous distance by rail to reach the principal markets. If the products of the Barkly Tableland were taken to Adelaide they would then have to be transported to Melbourne and Sydney, thus making the cost so prohibitive that business would be unprofitable. Surely we ought to give the people settled on the Barkly Tableland direct communication with the large centres of population on the east coast instead of compelling them to send their produce to Adelaide. South Australia will benefit by the northsouth railway, which will provide direct communication between the north and the south, and give great assistance to settlement. This suggested railway is more in the nature of a developmental line to tap country and undeveloped resources that the north-south railway cannot in any circumstances assist. I submit that there is ample justification for the construction of the two lines. If the construction of the north-south line is necessary we are even more justified in supporting the building of a railway over the route I suggest.


Senator Foll - They would not be competitive lines.


Senator DUNCAN - No. According to statements made by members of the deputation which waited upon the Prime Minister the trend of development in Australia is in the direction of slowly squeezing out large landholders, who, in the past, have undertaken the scientific breeding of stock. The smaller landholders have not the same resources at their command, and Australia's prominent position to-day in the matter of wool production is due to the fact that large landholders have been able to carry out their experimental work on an extensive scale.


Senator Hebert Hays - The country under consideration could not be profitably worked by small landholders.


Senator DUNCAN - I know that. I am pointing out that the large pastoralists are gradually being forced further back owing to the compulsory acquisition of land for closer settlement. If, as a result of the imposition' of unimproved land values taxation, and the compulsory acquistion of lands for closer settlement, these men are being forced further out, it is the duty of the Commonwealth and States to provide them with adequate railway facilities instead of making it practically impossible for them to obtain a return for their industry. Here is a way in which we can assist them. As SenatorThompson interjected a little while ago this proposal has been made on several previous occasions. Some years ago the New South Wales Parliament discussed the construction of the New South Wales section, and referred the scheme to the Public Works Committee of that State. The subject was fully considered, but. owing to financial problems then confronting the Commonwealth nothing was done. In 1914 the Commonwealth Government of the day asked the Queensland Government to be represented at a conference to consider the construction of such a line, but as at that time it was fully occupied in building a north coast railway to Cairns and was involved in other big financial obligations it had regretfully to decline the invitation of the Commonwealth to confer. Shortly after, the war supervened and all railway construction projects of any magnitude were temporarily abandoned. It was, I think, in 1918 that the Queensland Government approached the Commonwealth authorities and said that it was then in a position to favorably consider the construction of its portion of the work, but the Commonwealth Government was not prepared to go on and nothing further was done. Discussions have taken place and reports have been submitted from time to time; but up to date nothing effective has been accomplished. In the interest of the Commonwealth and of Australia generally this line should be built. If this motion is carried by the Senate and agreed to in another place the whole matter will be re-opened and negotiations between the Commonwealth and the governments of Queensland and New South Wales will then be proceeded with. As a result of such a conference an agreement may be reached under which it will be practicable - taking into consideration the financial positions of the States - to proceed with the construction of the line. If the suggested line was in existence to-day it would be possible for millions of sheep which, owing to drought conditions, are now, unfortunately, being lost in western Queensland and western New South Wales, to reach good pasture lands. The present drought is one of the most severe that has been experienced in recent years; it has resulted in the loss of about seven million sheep. In the Barkly Tableland and other similar good country there are almost unlimited supplies of feed. Had this line been in operation many thousands ' of those sheep would have been saved.


Senator Payne - What is "the rainfall there?


Senator DUNCAN - It is adequate. There is generally good feed there.


Senator Sampson - Who would operate the line?


Senator DUNCAN - The sections within State boundaries would be operated by the States concerned.


Senator Sampson - What would be the responsibility of the Commonwealth?


Senator DUNCAN - It would construct and operate the section in the territory under its control.


Senator Sir HENRY Barwell - What was the Prime Minister's reply to the deputation which waited upon him?


Senator DUNCAN - The Prime Minister stated that the deputation wa3 asking the Commonwealth to do something which it had not previously done.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - In what way?


Senator DUNCAN - He said that the deputation was asking the Commonwealth to undertake what was really really a State activity; but he forgot to say that the Commonwealth had already established a precedent. The Commonwealth is assisting the States in the construction and maintenance of main roads, which is essentially a State activity. Surely if it is within its rights in doing that work it would be acting constitutionally in- entering into an agreement with the States for the construction of developmental railways.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - They may be realizing that the precedent is one which should not be followed.


Senator DUNCAN - That may be so ; nevertheless the precedent has been established. The construction of this line would assist the development of the Northern Territory, and incidentally portions of western New South Wales and western Queensland. From the Commonwealth viewpoint such a line would develop the Northern Territory in a way that no other line could.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - To put it briefly, the Prime Minister let the deputation down.


Senator DUNCAN - He was not very sympathetic. But I do not know that the Senate need heed the dictum of the Prime Minister, on such an important matter as that. We are here to determine for ourselves what should be done. The Prime Minister may change his mind if he realises that an important body of opinion in this Parliament favors at least an investigation of the proposal; he may acquiesce in the suggestion that a conference be held between the Commonwealth and the State Governments with regard to the matter. The importance of the north-south line from a defence standpoint has been stressed on many occasions. We have been told that the Northern Territory and other portions of Australia contiguous to it cannot be defended adequately without railway communication which would permit of the ready transportation of troops. I submit, therefore, that from a defence point of view, the proposal now under consideration is also of supreme importance, because if the line is constructed it will place the northern portion of Australia in direct touch with the larger centres of population. To transport troops to the north, it would be necessary, with the existing railway facilities, to send them from the eastern States through Melbourne to Adelaide, and thence on to Darwin. The railway which we are now advocating would give direct communication between the larger centres of population and Northern Australia. Thus, from a defence standpoint, quite apart from the other considerations I have named, the Government would be fully justified in giving it careful consideration.


Senator Ogden - An enemy might also use such a line for the transportation of its troops. v


Senator DUNCAN - It would be the business of the defence authorities to prevent that. Australians, I remind the honorable senator, are not in the habit of providing opportunities for other people in that way. I leave the matter there. I appeal to honorable senators to consider the proposal not in a parochial spirit, but from the broader viewpoint as to what would be best in the interests of the Commonwealth. This scheme should not be prejudiced by the suggestion that it might come into some competition with the direct north-south railway.


Senator Sampson - What is the proposed gauge?


Senator DUNCAN - The standard gauge, of course.


Senator Sampson - Is there a standard gauge in Australia ?


Senator DUNCAN - Certainly - 4 ft. 8-£ inches. That gauge was agreed upon . by the Commonwealth after consultation with representatives of the States. But it is not for the Senate at this stage to say what the gauge should be. That is a matter which we might very well leave to experts to determine. All we are asking now is that the Senate shall, by endorsing the motion, intimate to the Government that the proposal is well worthy of consideration. If we do that I feel sure that the Ministry will enter into negotiations with the States with a view to enquiring into the feasibility and probable cost of the proposal.

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL (South Australia) [4.25].- I had not intended to speak to the motion thi.3 afternoon, but as no other honorable senator appears to be prepared to continue the debate I cannot allow it to pass without comment. I submit in the first place that it should not have been brought before the Senate, because this chamber is not the proper body to determine a proposal of this kind. I refer honorable senators to section 15 of the Commonwealth Public Works Committee Act 1913, which reads : -

(1)   No public work of any kind whatsoever (except such works as have already been authorized by Parliament or which are authorized during the present session, and except works for the naval or military defence of the Commonwealth exempted by Order in Council from the operation of the Act) the estimated cost of completing which exceeds twenty-five thousand pounds and whether such work is a continuation, completion, repair, reconstruction, extension, or a new work, shall be commenced unless sanctioned as in this section provided.

(2)   Every such proposed work shall in the first place, be submitted and explained in the House of Representatives by a Minister of State, in this section referred to as "the Minister."


Senator Sampson - All we are asked to do now is to express an opinion upon the proposal.


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - Exactly. And I am endeavouring to explain to honorable, senators that before any such proposal can properly come before this chamber, there must be a preliminary inquiry by the Public Works Committee into the whole of the details, and that the committee must make its report to the House of Representatives.


Senator Foll - Very often public works are discussed in Parliament before they are submitted to the Public Works Committee.

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL.That' may be so ; but the Senate should not be asked to commit itself to any public works proposal before the preliminary inquiry has been made by the Public Works Committee. That clearly is the intention of the act. The committee was specially appointed to gather information and data of all description for the purpose of making a recommendation to another place as to proposed works. The act distinctly lays it down that any work estimated to cost over £25,000 shall be referred to the Public Works Committee, and that before this is done it shall be explained in the House of Representatives by a Minister. The section of the act goes on to state : -

(3)   The explanation shall comprise an estimate of the cost of the work when completed, together with such plans and specifications or other descriptions as the Minister deems proper, together with the prescribed reports on the probable cost of construction and maintenance and estimates of the probable revenue (if any) to be derived therefrom, such estimates, plans, specifications, descriptions, and reports to be authenticated or verified in the prescribed manner.

What is the object of that provision? Obviously the idea is that Parliament shall be fully informed as to a proposed work before it is asked to express «an opinion upon it.


Senator Duncan - This Parliament was committed to the north-south line before it met.


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - But other Parliaments had already dealt with that proposal. The section states further -

(4)   Upon motion made in the usual manner by the Minister, or by any member of the House of Representatives, the proposed work shall be referred to the committee for their report thereon.

All this takes place before reference of any proposed public works to the committee at all. Then comes this provision -

(5)   The committee shall, with all convenient despatch, deal with the matter and shall, as soon as conveniently practicable, regard being had to the nature and importance of the proposed work, report to the House of Representatives the result of their inquiries.

(6)   After receipt of the report of the committee, the House of Representatives shall by resolution declare, either that it is expedient to carry out the proposed work, or that it is not expedient to carry it out:

Provided that the House of Representatives may, instead of declaring affirmatively or negatively as aforesaid, resolve that the report of the committee shall, for reasons or purposes stated in the resolution, be remitted for their further consideration and report to the committee; in which case the committee shall consider the matter of the new reference, and report thereon accordingly.

Since all action in connexion with any proposed public work must originate in the House of Representatives, I feel sure that Senator Foll, who introduced the motion, and Senator Duncan, who seconded it, will realize, on reflection, that the course adopted is not the proper one to take. The1 proposal outlined in the motion should have been introduced in the House of Representatives, and by a member of the Government, with the object of having it referred to the Public Works Committee for investigation and report. That committee would make a report to the House of Representatives, which would then decide whether or not it should be adopted.


Senator Payne - Could not that action be preceded by a request from this chamber?

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL.This chamber might request that the question be considered; that is a totally different matter. I invite honorable senators to consider the terms of the motion.


Senator Sampson - It is all right as far as the word " south " in line 2.


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - I do not agree that it is. To me it is objectionable throughout. It reads -

That the Senate is of opinion that it is essential for the proper development of North Australia that a railway should be constructed from north to south -


Senator Sampson - It should stop there.

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL.Let us stop there for a moment. Is it right that this Senate should commit itself to even that extent before the scheme has been considered by the Government, introduced into the House of Representatives, and by that chamber referred to the Public Works Committee?


Senator Thompson - The motion merely brings to the notice of the Government a desirable work.

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL.It does more than that. It asks this Senate definitely to commit itself to the statement that it is essential that this work be proceeded with, and that the Government should treat the matter as urgent. Another reason for opposing the motion has just occurred to me. Last session the North Australia Commission was appointed to consider the development of the whole of the Northern Territory, and to ascertain the measures necessary for the expansion of its resources. That commission has been at work for twelve months, and it is expected that the Government will receive its first report shortly. It may recommend this particular work.


Senator Thompson - I think it surely will.

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL.That may be. But since this commission has been appointed to go into the matter, and has obtained data concerning the development of the whole of Northern Australia, would it not be unwise of the Senate to commit itself to the proposal embodied in the motion before the presentation of the commission's report?


Senator Foll - Is the honorable senator prepared to leave in the hands of the North Australia Commission the question of what railways should be constructed in the future?


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - Thai matter cannot be left entirely in the hands of the commission, because our laws provide, firstly, that it must report to the Government, and then that any railway proposal contemplated by the Government shall be introduced in the House of Representatives, which must refer the question to the Public Works Committee for investigation and report.


Senator Thompson - Is the honorable senator prepared to move an amendment to refer this proposal to the Public Works Committee?


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - I am not ; it is not my baby. I realize how deplorable is the loss of stock occasioned by drought in this particular part of the Commonwealth. If anything can be done to obviate such losses in the future it ought to be clone. I admit that the whole question should be investigated very carefully. I believe in the construction of railways for the settlement and development of the country; but I am not prepared at this stage to commit myself to the proposal contained in the motion. Surely honorable senators would be acting wrongly if they did not await the report of the North Australia Commission, which will be furnished in a few months, and will outline the steps which it thinks ought to be taken. I do not for a moment consider that this line would pay interest on the cost of construction. I doubt if it would pay even working expenses. It certainly would prove helpful in times of drought. But the Barkly Tableland does not often experience a drought such as that through which we are passing at the present time.


Senator Foll - The Barkly Tableland would have a considerable area of agistment country at times when other portions of the Territory were droughtstricken.

Senator Sir HENRYBARWELL.That is quite probable


Senator McLachlan - Sheep could not be taken there.


Senator Foll - Thousands of sheep have been taken there in the past.


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - Sheep could not be taken there under existing conditions. When I was in the Territory in 1923, I met a man who was running 4,000 sheep north-west of Alice Springs. He sent them to the Adelaide market, where they fetched the top price. He informedme, however, that he had to give up sheepraising there because of the ravages of wild dogs. The blacks were totally unreliable as shepherds, and allowed the dogs to get into the holdings.


Senator Foll - The proposed railway would provide cheaper transport for wire netting for dog-proof fences.


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - It certainly would be of assistance in that direction. Doubtless, that aspect of the matter has been considered by the North Australia Commission, and would be investigated by the Public Works Committee.


Senator Duncan - Why did not the honorable senator express these views when the North-South Railway was being considered by the Senate?


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - If the honorable senator will peruse the speech that I then made on the matter he will find that I referred to the raising of sheep, and admitted that a line such as this would be of assistance in obtaining supplies of wire netting for dog-proof fences.


Senator Duncan - The honorable senator does not anticipate that the northsouth line will pay interest on the cost of construction?


Senator Sir HENRY BARWELL - It will not for many years. If we were to construct another line running parallel to the north-south railway now in course of construction it would take from that line portion of the revenue that it would otherwise receive. I am perfectly certain that no honorable senator has in his possession sufficient information to enable him to say whether or not this line would pay interest on the cost of construction, or even working expenses. We are advised by financial experts, and by our creditors in the Old Country, that it is necessary to restrict our borrowing, and that public expenditure must be confined at present to reproductive works. In a young country there must be a certain amount of expenditure on public works that will not be immediately reproductive; but it is essential that we should exercise the greatest care in view of the serious financial position in whichwe find ourselves to-day. That is another reason why the Senate should not be asked to commit itself blindly to a proposal involving the expenditure of several millions of pounds. If the matter were brought before Parliament after' reports had been obtained from the North Australia Commission, the Senate, having already agreed to this motion, would be in in the position of having bound itself in ignorance of the facts of the case. That would be entirely wrong, and it is a step that honorable senators should not be asked to take. I sincerely hope that the Senate will not agree to the motion.







Suggest corrections