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Thursday, 17 November 1938

Mr BARNARD (Bass) . - I have listened with more than ordinary interest to the debate on this particular matter. I join with other honorable members in congratulating the honorable member for Maribyrnong (Mr. Drakeford)' on the thoughtfulness he has displayed in the preparation of the material for the speech he has' made to-day. I know from contact with that honorable member that he has given a good deal of consideration to this matter over a period of years. As an ex-railwayman, he has an inside knowledge of the disabilities caused by breaks-of-gauge. In some degree I can join with him, because, as most honorable members know, I also have some knowledge of railways and railway works.

I cannot say that I was very greatly impressed with the opening remarks of the Minister for the Interior (Mr. McEwen). In the first place, he attacked the Opposition on the ground that it was making this a party political question. I assert that the attitude of the Opposition has been amply justified to-day, because it has brought from the Government a statement of its future proposals in this regard. Digressing for a moment, the policy of the Government seems to be one of secrecy. The House is told nothing of what action it proposes to take until the Opposition moves a motion for the adjournment of the House or a censure motion. It is interesting to note that the Minister for the Interior went to a lot of pains to justify the Government's ineptitude in this matter. It is merely begging the question to say that the Commonwealth Government has resolutely set about tackling the problem of the breaks of gauge. Practically only at election time do we hear anything of the project. An attempt to " pass the buck " to the States is not an answer to the charge levelled by the Opposition. The Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) in 1934 made a very definite statement as to what was to be done. How much has been done since that time? The honorable member for

Maribyrnong has demonstrated how long it would taKe to effect the standardization of the whole of the railway gauges of Australia at the rate of progress so far made by this Government.

The Minister for Defence (Mr. Street) has tackled the matter from the point of view of the Department of Defence. He has made the amazing statement that that department regards standardization as of the least importance. He has spoken of providing transport, of ballasting certain already constructed railways, and of building new lines. It may be argued that the general standardization of the railway systems throughout Australia could be placed last; but, in my view, the standardization of essential trunk lines for the purpose of moving troops from one point to another, even if only to provide against raids, is essential, so that transport may be effected in the most expeditious way. It is easy to visualize the hopeless mess Australia would be in if it became necessary to shift large numbers of our population quickly.

The necessity for standardized railway gauges in Australia has been discussed since the very early days of settlement in this country. Away back in 1840 the issue was before the public. But as the years have gone by, different States have built railways of varying gauges. It seems to me that the time has now come for the 'Commonwealth Government to take the initiative. Nothing will be done to correct the present deplorable condition if we wait for agreement among the States. The Prime Minister declared in his policy speech in 1934 that the standardization of railway gauges would he an important element in government policy if his party were returned to power. Yet in 1938, we are told that all the Government can do is to call another conference in 1939 ! The 1934 promise of the Prime Minister has therefore gone the way of many other promises he has made. The right honorable gentleman could have given effect to his undertakings if he had been strongly disposed to do so, for his Government has always had a majority in both Houses of the legislature. Yet, although eminent visiting railway men, as well as military leaders, from other countries have referred in almost scathing terms to the impossible position created by our different railway gauges, nothing has been done in any effective way to remedy the position. The Government has lamentably failed either to declare a policy on the subject or to put in hand any effective work. In the United States of America, the gauges of 13,000 miles of railway have been standardized since 1S86, and to-day the United States of America has 305,000 miles of 4-ft. 8$-ki. gauge railway.

Mr Jennings - What was the cost of the standardization operations?

Mr BARNARD - I have not those figures at hand. If the United States of America could carry out an undertaking of this description Australia could also do it.

I entirely -disagree with the view expressed a few moments ago by the Minister for Defence (Mr. .Street.) on the importance of standardized railway gauges for defence purposes. Military experts have declared that under existing conditions it would take five weeks to transport 20,000 men from the eastern States to Western Australia. Surely some effective steps should be taken immediately to correct such a major disability. Although the Government proposes to spend £43,000,000 on defence works within the next two or three years, no effort is to "be made, apparently, to standardize our railway gauges. I strongly support the attitude of the honorable member for Maribyrnong (Mr. Drakeford) on this subject. Sir FREDERICK STEWART (Parramatta) [4.58]. - Like the Minister for the Interior (Mr. McEwen) I agree that the honorable member for Maribyrnong (Mr. Drakeford) has brought under our notice a subject of transcendent importance to the Commonwealth-; and I endorse the view of the Minister that he somewhat spoilt his action by importing into the discussion a degree of political rancour which the circumstances do not justify. I take second place to no honorable member in this chamber in my anxiety to see our railway gauges standardized; but if we wish to look for the real culprits to blame for the delay that has occurred, we must look beyond the Commonwealth Government. The honorable member for Hindmarsh (Mr. Makin) spoke truly when he said that there was little hope of any real advance being made in connexion with this matter until such time as the whole of the railways of Australia are under Commonwealth control. I would even go farther than that. I believe that, unwittingly or otherwise, the honorable member for Hindmarsh exculpated the Commonwealth . Government from blame, although some of his colleagues have roundly condemned it. I was pleased to hear the Minister for the Interior say that the subject will be revived in the new year. I hope that the resurrection on this occasion will be effective. Reference has been made in the course of this discussion to a promise purported to have been made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) in his policy speech in 1934. Too much has been made of the right honorable gentleman's observations on that occasion, for all that he said was that, in seeking means by which the unemployed, people of Australia could be put back into work, consideration would be given to large public works such as the standardization of our railway gauges.No definite or specific promise wasmade under this heading. Had a definite undertaking been given, I might still have been Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment, for I could have bound the Prime Minister down to a definite promise.

Mr Mahoney -Why did not the honorable member retain his position?

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