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Wednesday, 23 March 1966

Dr PATTERSON (Dawson) .- It is very easy for any member to criticise a policy or an action of the Government, particularly if he is in opposition, but I sincerely believe that the negative and blundering actions of this Government in its failure to counter the devastating and tragic effects of the droughts which are tearing the economy of this country apart, and which, because of our expansion policy, will become more serious in the future, are deserving of the highest level of condemnation that can be given any responsible government.

I make this statement because drought affects not only the primary producers and the people who work directly for primary producers but also townspeople and people in metropolitan areas. The greatest domestic problem facing Australia today is the tragedy of drought and the apparent inability of this Government to counter it by effective planning. In support of that argument, I quote the statement made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Holt) during the course of a speech in this House several weeks ago, when he declared that Australia had been relatively free of drought over a reasonably long period of years. As I mentioned before, apparently the Prime Minister only moves around in Victoria. But I can. understand the statement by the Prime Minister because he has been dominated for so long by the attitudes of the Treasury economists. I was rather disturbed to read the policy speech made by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr. McEwen) which he delivered for the Country Party in the Dawson by-election. The Deputy Prime Minister did not even mention the subject of drought or the subject of water conservation although the Dawson electorate has been torn apart by the ravages of drought.

Mr Robinson - The honorable member does not know his area very well.

Dr PATTERSON - I do know it very well. The honorable member did not even remember the name of the town in which he was speaking. I was most disturbed to read also that the Treasurer (Mr. McMahon) on 14th March gave a learned lecture in Brisbane on the development of Queensland in which he did not even mention the word water. He spoke about the tourist industry but even then did not mention water. The Treasurer made this statement -

Nothing could damage the cause of development more than to invest resources in projects and schemes which take years before they yield any reasonable return and which, in the meantime, yield little or no income to those involved.

In other words, it is all right to exploit our minerals and to overstock our pastures in order to secure a quick return but any action to conserve water - a project of a long term nature - does not arouse the interest of this Government.

The Australian Labour Party has raised this matter because it believes it is urgent. It will continue to hammer the need for conservation of water as long as it can. Members of the Country Party are interjecting. I hope that they will continue to interject and that I will be given the opporttunity to answer them. Then, when " Hansard " is published, the people in their electorates will be able to read their interjections. However, I hope that those members of the Country Party will take some of their colleagues with them and go into some areas of northern New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and other areas and have a look at what is happening there today because of the drought.

Mr Nixon - I have been there, you know.

Dr PATTERSON - Yes, the honorable member has been there, occasionally. But let honorable members opposite see the conditions there or preferably let them stay there for a week or two, and live with the cattle and sheep which are looking for a drink of water. Last year, I was in an area in which I helped a cattle man to pull 56 head of breeders out of a bog. Then we shot the lot because there was no feed although there was plenty of water. If a scheme for the conservation of water had been available along with a practical demonstration of the availability of credit, he could have had fodder conservation.

Mr Robinson - Where was this? Name the area?

Dr PATTERSON - This happened in Dawson. We also see the absurd paradox of millions of acre feet of water flowing down to the coast of Queensland into the sea. This water flows through areas which have been stricken by drought for the last two years. These are areas which have been investigated by State authorities. Because of a lack of funds, Queensland cannot go ahead with efforts to conserve water. I refer, for example, to such areas as Kolan and the Mingo Crossing in the Burnett area where a devastating drought has been suffered in the last two years. The losses that have occurred in the sugar cane and cattle industries in these areas alone exceed the cost of the construction of major water storages. Similarly, floods have occurred in the Monto, Eidsvold and Pioneer areas. If this water had been conserved, the drought problem would have been greatly alleviated. Water in the Fitzroy and Burdekin system is dangerously low. The low levels of underground water in the Pioneer areas are causing major problems.

All of these things add up to one answer. We should be able to provide the funds for water conservation in these areas where we have proven and established industries. Practical investigations have been carried out by State authorities. Surely this Government can see its way clear to provide the necessary finance. This money is needed urgently so that these areas can make moves straightaway to construct water storages. The products which will come from these areas have a sound future. Fundamentally, they are based on the cattle industry and indirectly include fodder, grain sorghum and maize, all of which have a sound future.

The question has been asked many times: How are these schemes to be financed? There is no doubt that we can finance them. Those who know and who can understand Treasury documents will see that in the matter of a short span of years we would be getting back into the Treasury something like $50 million annually. So, repayments in connection with the Snowy Mountains scheme, instead of going into the Consolidated Revenue Fund, should be earmarked immediately for use for the future conservation of water. Similarly, if this Government took a more positive approach to the reallocation of resources, giving emphasis to those projects which have the highest priority, then certainly we would see more money being provided for water conservation.

We come now to the question of how this work should be done. Obviously it is beyond the resources of the States to do it. Certainly, the State Governments have good engineers who can play their part. But on our doorstep we have the greatest authority on water conservation in Australia slowly dying because of the attitude of this Government to it. I refer, of course, to the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. Our water problems could be minimised if the Government allowed this Authority to put its staff into these areas immediately to investigate water conservation and let the Authority start work in conjunction with the States in solving these major problems. This should be done particularly in the areas where drought has been such a menace in recent years and then concentrated on the newer areas where we know water conservation would prove to be one of the greatest assets that that country could have.

It is no good saying that the States do not want the assistance of the Snowy Mountains Authority. The Premier of Queensland, Mr. Nicklin, has publicly asked in newspapers on several occasions for the use of the Authority in his State. There are many developmental bodies throughout northern Australia which are asking almost every week for the use of the Snowy Mountains Authority. If this Authority could be used in Queensland in conjunction with the officers of that State, it would make one of the greatest contributions to the development of this country in terms of the marriage of land and water -resources that could be achieved.

The attitude of the Government to the development of our water resources is most difficult to believe. Cannot the Government realise that because of its negative, short term and complacent attitudes to the subject of water conservation, this country has become so dangerously unprepared to face a national drought and water shortage crisis that we could find ourselves in the greatest economic emergency of all times? This matter is above politics. It is a national responsibility and in the eyes of future generations this Government will forever stand condemned unless it acts quickly to preserve the most precious, natural resource that this country has, and that is water.

Mr England - What does the honorable member call proven areas?

Dr PATTERSON - The honorable member for Calare would not know.

Mr England - I am asking the honorable member for Dawson. He is the expert.

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