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Tuesday, 16 March 1965

Senator CANT (Western Australia) . - 1 move -

That the Senate, at its rising, adjourn until the next day of sitting at 3. IS p.m.

It is well known that an application for assistance to complete the major works on the Ord River was made to the Commonwealth Government by the Western Australian Government some 12 months ago. The plan was set out in detail and included the amount of money required over a period of time and the works that were proposed to be carried out. At no time has the Commonwealth Government requested further information from the Western Australian Government on this matter. Nevertheless in answer to a question today in another place the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) said that no decision in respect of this matter had been made and he did not expect that a decision would be made until the Government had received sufficient information. I do not know what sort of duplicity this is. If the Commonwealth Government was in any doubt about the details of plans that the Western Australian Government had placed before it for assistance in this matter I would have thought that, in a period of less than 12 months, it would have sought further information in order to make up its mind as to whether the assistance would be forthcoming or not. This is the latest development and it is the first time that I have heard that the Commonwealth Government requires further information from the Western Australian Government or even from its own Northern Division within the Department of National Development.

It rather amazes one when we come to this stage, in view of the various statements which have been made over this time by the Prime Minister in respect of the granting of assistance. Nevertheless this application has been in the hands of the Commonwealth Government for a period of approximately twelve months and nothing further has been heard about it. It is now approximately twelve months since the Commonwealth Government appointed the Director of the Northern Division of the Department of National Development. Dr. Rex Patterson is head of that Division, but nothing has been done in the north since he was appointed. Of course, I exclude the beef roads and the brigalow land development, which were programmes which had been approved prior to the Northern Division being set up. Since the Northern Division was set up there has not been one penny forthcoming for nothern development in Australia. Nevertheless Dr. Patterson has expressed himself as being 100 per cent, in favour of the completion of the Ord River project, but nothing more has been heard of it.

During the Senate election campaign - this is where I accuse the Prime Minister of duplicity - the Prime Minister told the people of Western Australia that consideration of the grant for the continuation of the construction of the Ord River scheme would be given priority at the first Cabinet meeting after the election. It is now four months since that election took place and, again, we have heard nothing from the Prime Minister about this matter except in an answer which was given to a question today. It goes a little further than that, too. I know that in July 1963 the Prime Minister, at the invitation of the Western Australian Government, went to Kununurra to open the diversion dam. I happened to be in Wyndham at the time that the dam was opened. I was not at the opening because I was not invited to attend. As reported in "The West Australian ", the Prime Minister said at that time -

We are not at the end of something her* today - we are at the beginning of something.

And he saw the major project on the Ord River as something which could not be postponed indefinitely. This was in 1963. He went on to say -

If this were just a matter of opening a dam of this particular size - if this were just a matter of opening something that deals with a relatively few thousand acres of land - somebody might say that intrinsically that is a matter of no great moment. That kind of thing must be duplicated in many places of the world.

But it is more than that. This is a ' most symbolic occasion. Man has here conquered nature in the most spectacular fashion, and has done it in a part of Australia in which it was needed - and needed desperately for the future of our country.

But it has happened and, having happened, it will go on. And, as it goes on, more and more people living 1,500 or 2,000 miles away from here will become interested in it and will come to realise that what is going on up here is rather more important than what is going on in Toorak or Bellevue Hill.

That is the opinion that the Prime Minister had of it in July 1963.

This encouraged the Western Australian Government to go into some detail and prepare a case for assistance. That case was submitted to the Commonwealth Government but nothing further was heard about it. lt seems to me that the Commonwealth Government in respect of this particular project has more faces than Eve. We hear contradictory statements all the time. I seem to remember some talk some time ago about faces in another connection, but I think there are more faces associated with this matter than there was in respect of that one.

The application for assistance by the Government of Western Australia is rather a minor one when one considers the manner in which it is made. The actual dam to store approximately seven times as much water as is contained in Sydney Harbour will cost £8i million. That is not the end of it, of course. It is no good just having the water in the dam. Some use has to be made of it. There are associated works in connection with irrigation. Another £11 million will be needed to complete the irrigation works, making a total expenditure for the dam and the irrigation works of approximately £19i million. Up to date, approximately £8.5 million has been spent on this project. I hope to show later that in the short time that the project has been in production it has proved to be quite an economical proposition and that it is well worth the expenditure of the money for which the Western Australian Government has asked. I suggest that if the money for the completion of the scheme - the extra £30 million for which the Government of Western Australia asks - is not forthcoming, then very much of the £8.5 million that has been spent on the preliminary works, if I may term them as such, will be wasted because the project will be too small to be an economic proposition. The water, while it can be stored and while the dam is not silted up, could be used for various purposes but, gradually, over a period of time, the £8.5 million would go for nothing. Therefore, it is important that the decision in respect of this matter be made fairly quickly or, at least, that the Western Australian Government be told where it stands in respect of this particular project.

The Commonwealth Government, when it made the grant to Western Australia in 1958 to enable it to spend £5 million north of the 20th parallel on projects approved by it, approved a portion of that money being spent on the Ord River project. That very fact was sufficient to encourage the people of Western Australia and, indeed, the people of Australia, to believe that the rest of the money would be available for the completion of the scheme. On several occasions since I have been in the Senate, I have asked questions as to whether the Government would be prepared to con

I suggest that the people of Western Australia are becoming a little bit tired of this state of affairs. I think the people of Australia are becoming a little bit tired of it too. After all, what happens on the Ord River scheme can be taken, I think, as the yardstick for what will happen in respect of northern development within, perhaps, the next 25 years. This is a matter that we have to look at. There have been various estimates of the length of time that Australia has to develop and populate its north. I am not going to be one of the star gazers in respect of this matter. But the most firm prediction that I have seen anywhere limited the Australian Government to 25 years to start to develop and populate northern Australia or, at least, to encourage some other nation to think of doing it for us. The application by the Government of Western Australia for £30 million is spread over 15 years, or three fifths of the estimated time that we have for the development of this part of Australia. So, honorable senators can see that if some move is not started in this direction, then the people of Australia cannot be blamed if they relieve that this Government is insincere when it talks about the development of northern Australia. The possibility of the development of this belief has to be forestalled because the people have been encouraged to believe by various projects that have been put into operation at different limes by the Government - and I do not take any credit away from the Government for those projects - that the development of northern Australia was at least gaining some momentum.

This was particularly so in the last 12 months' period When the Government said that the development of northern Australia was so important that it intended to set up the Northern Division in the Department of National Development. That was done, but nothing further has been done. I do not know whether Dr. Patterson or his officers have made any recommendations to the Government. 1 do know that Dr. Patterson has said publicly that he favours this particular project. Nevertheless, the Government has mot done anything in this regard during the last 12 months when the Australian people were expecting that northern development would receive some momentum. I cannot repeat too often that the people of Australia, and particularly of Queensland and Western Australia, are looking to what happens at the Ord River to indicate whether the Government is sincere in its attitude towards northern development because They regard this scheme as the barometer of what may happen in northern Australia. At this stage the Commonwealth Government cannot afford the delay in making up its mind. If more information is required from the West Austraiian Government or from the Department of National Development, then the Commonwealth Government should be seeking that information with the greatest haste.

This must be done at once because even now approximately two years of development has been lost as a result of the Government delaying a decision which the Prime Minister said would be made early after the Senate election. The West Australian Government expected a decision - a favourable decision, of course - in December or

January. This would have given lt tha opportunity to call tenders throughout the world for the work to be performed, to process those tenders and to allocate contracts! If a decision is made now some, but not all, of the lost time can. be salvaged. lt will take some months to call for tenders and then allocate the contracts. There is only a comparatively short dry season in which to perform work in this part of the world and for this reason decisions have to be made somewhat in advance.

It is true that at present one contractor is still on the field. Thiess Bros. Pty. Ltd. is still doing some irrigation work but other contractors have left and have taken their workmen and plant with them. All this has to be returned to the site before work can recommence.

Even though the State Government wants £30 million spread over 15 years, which averages out at only peanuts - £2 million a year - it does not even want £2 million a year in the first two years. The State Government has asked for £320,000 in 1964-65 to enable it to build access roads and to do other things that are necessary to allow contractors to get in to the area to perform the required works at the site of the main dam. The amount required for 1965-66 is only £700,000. These are not great demands on the Treasury. The highest amount that would be required in any one year in the 15-year period is £2,900,000.

I do not want to be critical of Commonwealth expenditure in other avenues. Least of all do I want to be critical of the expenditure by the Commonwealth Government in Papua and New Guinea, which is running at approximately £30 million a year. If the recommendations that have been put forward are accepted, this will increase to £50 million a year. I do not deny that the Australian Government has a responsibility to advance the cause of independence in Papua and New Guinea. Nevertheless there is no certain gain to Australia for the expenditure of this amount. If we bring Papua and New Guinea to a stage of independence within a reasonable time we will gain a large measure of international goodwill. We hope that we will gain the friendship and goodwill of the people of Papua and New Guinea, but there is no guarantee of this.

Here the West Australian Government is seeking funds for a minor project, one that will require over 15 years about the same amount that is expended >n Papua and New Guinea every year. I hope to be able to show that this amount will be expended profitably for Australian producers and for the people of Australia generally.

The Commonwealth Government also spends between f 20 million and £30 million annually on the Snowy Mountains scheme, depending on the work programmed for the year. This annual expenditure somewhat approximates the amount that the West Australian Government requires over a period of 15 years. Then we are committed to sizeable annual expenditure on the Colombo Plan and to a maximum expenditure of £6 million on the development of the Indus basin. These are two worthwhile projects, but are they any more worthwhile than the development of the northern part of Australia? That is the question that I pose to the Government. ] do not regard the other projects that I have mentioned as being of no importance, but I say to the Senate and to the Australian people that the development of our northern area is of prime importance to the Australian nation.

It may be thought that this matter is not urgent and that it could have stood over until some other time, but every day that is lost now while we wait for a decision by the Commonwealth Government loses us not one day but months and perhaps years in the completion of the scheme. We know that we are running into a time of full employment. This is a hard area in which to work and while there is full employment contractors will have difficulty in getting labour to go to this isolated district. This is a factor that the Government must take into consideration. While some unskilled labour is available - the labour available now is mainly unskilled - a decision should be made so that contractors can commence building up their labour force. Let me emphasise that the time lost by waiting for a decision accumulates at a rapid rate and as a consequence there will be a hiatus in the development of the Ord River scheme if a decision is not made fairly quickly. In fact, if a decision is not made within the next month the Commonwealth Government might just as well postpone a decision until next December because there will be no possibility of doing any work during the financial year 1964-65. This would set back the scheme much further.

The total amount required for the dam and associated water works is £19.3 million. In addition, the Western Australian Government desires to construct hydro-electric works at the dam to produce power as cheaply as possible for use by the farmers and any secondary industry that may raise its head in the area. It is also necessary to provide housing for the work force that will be required and for the farmers who will be in the area. An additional £10.7 million is required for the hydro-electric works and for housing. The proposed hydro-electric works are not quite as urgent as are the dam and irrigation works and could be commenced at any time after the main project begins. If the Commonwealth Government thinks that these works should be considered separately, some £7 million could be held back from the grant required by the Western Australian Government. The £4 million required for housing could quite easily be made a repayable loan because the people who obtain the accommodation will either rent or purchase it from the State Government. Thus, if the Commonwealth does not agree to the proposed hydro-electric works, the amount of Commonwealth expenditure in the initial stage will be only about £20 million. I do not think this is a very big price for a State Government to ask in order to give momentum to the development of approximately half of Australia. It is something that the Commonwealth Government should take into consideration.

It may be argued that the scheme has not yet proved itself. 1 suppose this is something that is worthy of argument. I took the trouble to go to Kununurra a fortnight ago in order to make a closer examination of the activities there and to gather information about what had happened in past years, remembering that farm production had operated for only one season prior to the present season. I found that the five farmers growing cotton on the Ord River last year planted approximately 272 acres each. I am speaking of average figures. The average production of each farm was 121,870 lb. of lint cotton. There was a variation between farms. One farm showed a loss owing to the ill health of the farmer who was not able to work his farm. This, of course, not only made his farm show a loss but considerably reduced the average production of the five farms.

It had been said for some time that Australia could not economically grow cotton. However, the price received for the cotton lint was 49.6d. per lb. Admittedly, this is a subsidised price, but we must consider that the farmers were for the first time in their lives farming in a tropical area which they did not understand and growing a crop which they had never previously grown and which had not previously been grown in that part of the world. With the exception of one farm which, while it showed a loss, actually cleared its costs, although there was nothing allowed for the wages of the farmer, the results F have mentioned were achieved.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Drake-Brockman). Order! The honorable senator's time has expired.

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