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Wednesday, 23 March 1966

Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) (Minister for National Development) . - I was glad to hear the honorable member for Dawson (Dr. Patterson) say that this matter is above politics. I only wish that he had treated it as such. To initiate this discussion at a time like this is to my way of thinking nothing less than a cheap, low political stunt. The honorable member for Gwydir (Mr. Ian Allan), a week ago introduced a motion on which any honorable member will be able to speak tomorrow. But the Opposition has tried to draw political kudos out of the sufferings and misery of people affected by drought, by initiating a debate today when it could easily have discussed this matter tomorrow on the motion that has been moved by the honorable member for Gwydir. The honorable member for Gwydir represents a very large area which is suffering severely as the result of the drought, and not an electorate which is green and lush at the present time because it is situated near the coast.

Let me get back to the matter before the House. I have great sympathy for people suffering from drought, because before I got caught up in this - might I say racket - I was a farmer and I have been through droughts myself. I can recall coming back from the war at the end of 1944 and spending three months chopping ensilage out of a pit each day to feed cattle. When the ensilage ran out we bought pumpkins, and I must say that the cattle did better on the pumpkins than they did on the ensilage. It seems to me, from my experience of droughts, that the proposal by the honorable member for Dawson about the need for the Government to counter the effects of current and future droughts by water conservation, is not the complete answer. Undoubtedly water conservation has some effect, but my view in relation to countering the effects of drought on a property is, first, that things have to be done on the property itself. It is no good having water hundreds of miles away in a dam. People living at Bourke in the north west of New South Wales would not get any advantage from a dam on the coast because it would be too far away for them to get water from it. What is needed is water conservation on the farms themselves, and the present New South Wales Government is implementing a scheme that will make long term loans available to farmers to undertake this work.

Mr Brimblecombe - A similar scheme is operating in Queensland.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - 1 was not certain of the position in Queensland, but I am glad to hear the honorable member's remark. Long term loans are needed to enable people to undertake fodder conservation. I am the first to realise that in some areas of Australia fodder conservation is not a practicable proposition, but many people who are now suffering from drought have seen good seasons go by when they could have conserved fodder had they had the energy and the finance to do so. We have recently announced that we will make long term loans available for this sort of work. As well as availability of finance and availability of fodder, we need availability of transport and roads. The Government has done all that it can, particularly in the northern beef areas, to ensure that roads are available so that in time of drought owners will be able to get their stock away and not be left to see stock become so poor on the property that they cannot walk to market. I think we have done quite a remarkable job in the provision of roads.

I think that all honorable members realise that, under the Constitution, water conservation is primarily the job of the States. However, this has not prevented us from giving considerable financial assistance to the States to enable them to increase the conservation of water. It is a fact that just before the war the total storage capacity of all large dams in Australia was 6.8 million acre feet. Today, the total storage of large dams in Australia is 25.5 million acre feet, and when the dams now under construction are completed it will be 36 million acre feet or five times the quantity that was conserved just before the war. I know it is very easy to say that that is not enough. We have become accustomed to hearing that parrot cry here. But I am sure that all honorable members realise that there are many conflicting and competing demands for finance from the National Parliament. Finance is required for roads, housing, defence, education and pensions, just to mention a few matters. All these must take their proper place. I would certainly like to see more spent on the conservation of water than is being spent today, but it is a question of how we can get the money. It is all very well for the honorable member for Dawson to say that this is quite easy, that in a few years we will be getting back a lot of money from the Snowy Mountains scheme. He mentioned $50 million, the figure is actually $30 million. But he does not seem to realise that the Snowy Mountains scheme will cost us then, as it does now, over £21 million or $42 million. There will still be a net drain on the Commonwealth Treasury by the Snowy Mountains scheme for quite a long time to come.

I mentioned that we have helped the States in many ways. The River Murray Commission is one way in which we have helped them. We bear a quarter share of the cost of storage on the River Murray. Not only have we done that, but with the last dam that is being built on the River Murray, the Chowilla Dam, we loaned money to New South Wales because it said it was unable to find its share. We made available an amount of $9 million to ensure that work on this enormous dam of five million acre feet proceeded. We also acted in this way to enable New South Wales to proceed with the construction of the Blowering Dam. We arranged for a loan of $21 million so that the Blowering Dam could proceed on time and be able to store much needed water for the Murrumbidgee River.

Mr Cross - What about Queensland?

Mr FAIRBAIRN - My colleague from Queensland will speak on the Queensland aspect. Let me concentrate on other aspects in New South Wales and further south. All the money for the Snowy Mountains scheme has been found by us. Up to the present, about £280 million has been found for this scheme, which is already diverting water into the Murrumbidgee River and which is just starting to divert water into the Murray River. This will turn an additional 2 million acre feet a year inland and enable increased irrigation to be undertaken in the Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys. We set up the Water Resources Council to assist the States to assess their resources. Roughly £500,000 will be made available this year to the States to enable them to assess their resources. Recently we made available to Western Australia another $10 million for its comprehensive water scheme, which will take water out on to farms. The Ord diversion dam was built almost completely with funds from the Commonwealth Government. I think of a total of just over £8 million, £6,250,000 was provided by the Commonwealth Government.

If water storage is not increasing at an adequate rate, where does the fault lie? I say that in New South Wales the Labour Government that held office for 24 years must take a very large share of the blame for the fact that today we are not as well off as we might be. It is incredible to know that in 24 years of office of a Labour Government a sovereign State such as New South Wales was able to commence and complete only one major dam. If we include the Menindee Lakes, the figure would be two, but one of the structures on the Menindee Lakes broke anyway. This is the incredible record of a Government that put water at such a low priority that it spent money on everything else. It spent money on the Opera House. In Chalmers Street in Sydney, it cost £300,000 to dig a hole and then it cost another £600,000 to fill it up again. This is the Government that we are told was unable to find funds for water conservation. Let me give a few other examples of the way it spent money. Uncompleted tunnelling works in the city of Sydney, which are supposed to be part of the Eastern Suburbs Railway, cost £2.2 million. I think the only use made of them is for growing mushrooms. Another $ 1 million was wasted on the purchase of Garrat steam engines that were never used because the contract was cancelled at a cost of £1 million. The New South Wales Government wasted £1 million in unsuccessfully trying to establish a State tile works.

This is the Government that started and brought to fruition one major dam in 24 years of office. How incredible! Being a true Labour Government, it worked on the principle of day labour, of stop and start. One wonders whether very often the starting occurred just before an election to ensure that the votes the Government obtained in certain areas were increased. But it had available to it financial assistance through loans and other means that could easily have been put into the construction of dams. Because of this incredible lack, northern New South Wales is now suffering. I do not want to say anything further on this aspect, because New South Wales now has a Government which is water minded and which gives a very high priority to the completion of work related to water conservation. I am sure we will see a major change in this State very soon.

The honorable member for Dawson spoke of the future of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. He said that it should carry out investigation work in the north, especially in Queensland. Of course, the Snowy Mountains Authority docs carry out a considerable number of investigations on a very broad scale. The honorable member said that the Authority is slowly dying. All I can say is that, if it is slowly dying, I have never seen a more active deathbed. I think it probably is spending more money now than it has at any other time in its entire history. Only today I received a couple of notes from the Authority. One said that Mount Isa Mines Ltd. had asked it to undertake some work. The other said that it has been approached to undertake some work on the Nam Gum hydro power station in Laos.

Mr Barnes - And at Bougainville.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Yes, at Bougainville roads are being planned and made. In Papua and New Guinea work has been undertaken by the Authority. I look forward to this work going on for a very long time because I see a continuing future for the Authority. I am sure that the Government is doing everything that it can to ensure that the skills of this great organisation are kept for the use of the nation. However, we face the problem of constitutional authority which I have already mentioned, but I am sure that with goodwill and understanding between State and Federal Governments we will be able to work this out to the benefit of Australia as a whole. I conclude by saying that it may be true - probably is - that all of us in this place would like to see more money spent on water conservation in Australia. I certainly would. However, we must realise that the Government faces enormous expenditures in so many different fields. Each one puts up a major case to show why it should have more money, and each one must be looked at in the light of the amount of money available to the Government.

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