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Thursday, 25 October 1956

Mr WEBB (Stirling) .- I want to take this opportunity to grieve about the Government's inactivity in relation to the standardization of rail gauges. It is true that the Government appointed a committee of Government supporters to report on this matter, but I think it is regrettable that when the Opposition proposed that a committee representative of both sides of the House be formed to consider the standardization of rail gauges the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) did not see fit to appoint such a committee. If we can believe newspaper reports that we have read it appears that the views of the committee of Government supporters and those of a transport committee appointed by the Opposition practically coincide. This matter should not be considered in a party political spirit. The standardization of rail gauges should be a national project entirely divorced from politics.

The Opposition transport committee has made certain recommendations on this very important matter. Its first recommendation was that in view of the urgency of coordinating rail and road transport the Commonwealth should take steps immediately to begin the construction of 4-ft. 8i-in. gauge rail links between Broken Hill and Adelaide via Port Pirie, between Albury and Melbourne, and between Kalgoorlie and Fremantle. Because these three rail links were mentioned in that order in the report it does not necessarily mean that the committee regarded that as an order of priority. lt purposely refrained from suggesting any priority because it acknowledged that there may be arguments about which link should be given priority. That point should be left to the experts. The Commonwealth Railways Commissioner, for example, believes that the link between Broken Hill and Port Pirie should receive priority, because it would provide a standard-gauge line from Brisbane right through to Kalgoorlie. However, there are different views on that matter, and for that reason the Opposition committee considered that it should be left for the experts to determine.

If standard-gauge links were constructed between the centres I have mentioned all the capital cities on the mainland would be linked by lines of a standard gauge of 4-ft. 8i-in. stretching right across the continent from Brisbane to Fremantle.

That would be a worthy achievement. We estimate that, or present day cost levels, it would cost £14,000,000 to provide the link between Broken Hill and Adelaide, £10,000,000 for the section from Melbourne to Albury, and £15,000,000 for the Kalgoorlie to Fremantle section. The total amount involved is £39,000,000, which is not excessive when we consider the importance of linking these centres. The Commonwealth Railways Commissioner has suggested that the connexion between Port Pirie and Broken Hill would cost £10,000,000, and that it could be completed within eighteen months, thus providing a standard rail gauge from Brisbane to Kalgoorlie.

In the past many reports have been submitted regarding this important matter. In 1921, it was estimated that most of the main lines could have been connected by a standard gauge at a cost of £21,000,000. Another report in 1945 suggested that the work could have been done for about £76,000,000. The important point is that the longer we delay the more it will cost us to complete this work. We believe that the work of linking the centres I have mentioned could be completed within five years, at an average annual cost of £8,000,000. We do not suggest that that would necessarily be the cost in the first year, but it would be the average annual cost in the five-year period. Our second recommendation is that, with a view to arriving at an amicable arrangement for the provision of a standard-gauge railway between these points, early consultation should take place between the Commonwealth and the States affected. I repeat that we do not believe that a project of this nature should be delayed because of financial considerations. The Commonwealth should meet the whole of the expenditure. On this aspect of the matter, if the newspaper reports are accurate, we again agree with the committee that will shortly submit a report.

Mr Duthie - The Commonwealth should finance the work as a defence project.

Mr WEBB - Yes, as a defence project, but also because of its economic importance. Consultation should take place between the Commonwealth and the- States in regard to this important matter, because section 51 (xxxiv) of the Commonwealth

Constitution gives power to the Commonwealth to construct or extend railways in any State, with the consent of the State. I suggest that it would not be very difficult to reach an agreement for work of this nature to be done, particularly if the whole of the cost were borne by the Commonwealth. As a matter of fact, the Premiers resolved, at their 1945 conference that the work of standardization should be proceeded with as being essential to national defence and development.

The third recommendation that we make, and which, if the newspaper reports arc correct, is not recommended by the committee to which I have referred, reads as follows: -

For the purpose of co-ordinating transport in Australia, a federal body should be set up, to be known as the Australian Interstate Commerce Commission, with power to -

(a)   control all types of interstate transport in Australia (rail, road and water), and

(b)   to fix rates and charges for all such forms of transport and control conditions of carriage.

This is a very important recommendation, in our opinion. The Constitution provides for the establishment of an interstate commission for this very purpose, and there is no doubt that such a body should be constituted. It is obvious that some national body should be set up on the lines of the American Interstate Commerce Commission, which has power to do the very things that we wish to achieve by the establishment of the proposed commission. Sections 101 and 102 of the Constitution make the necessary provision. We suggest that the body could be known as the Australian Interstate Commerce Commission and that it should have the powers that I have already outlined.

I draw attention also to the report on the operations of the Commonwealth Railways for 1955-56, in which, at page 4, the Commonwealth Railways Commissioner had this to say -

It is submitted that there is a real need in this country for a statutory authority with power to fix freights, fares and conditions of carriage for interstate railway traffic, and to enforce its decisions. Similar authorities operate in other countries; for example, the Interstate Commerce Commission in the U.S.A. This statutory body regulates those railroads, motor carriers, water carriers, pipelines (gas and water excluded), stockyards and freight forwarders operating in interstate and foreign commerce. Its jurisdiction covers, among other things, tariffs, rates, service and safety, and includes the power directly to prescribe intrastate rates when necessary to remove discrimination against interstate commerce. Among statutory bodies in the British Commonwealth, with somewhat similar functions, are the Transport Tribunal in Great Britain and the Boardof Transport Commissioners in Canada.

There is constitutional power for the Commonwealth to set up an interstate commission, with powers of adjudication and administration of the provisions of the Constitution relating to trade and commerceand laws made thereunder. And the power of the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to trade and commerce extends, inter alia, to railways the property of any State. It may be that, under the powers conferred by the Constitution, a statutory body could be set up having the duties and responsibilities suggested in the foregoing.

We believe that this commission could and should be established. We direct attention to the fact that due to recent decisions of the High Court the State governments have not been able to co-ordinate their transport systems, and certain legislation has been invalidated. There is, therefore, a greater need now than ever before for the establishment of an interstate commission to co-ordinate all forms of interstate transport.

A sub-committee of three members, selected from our full committee of fifteen, made certain recommendations which have been adopted by the Australian Labour party, and we ask that the Government give consideration to them.

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