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Thursday, 28 March 1957

Sir WILFRED KENT HUGHES (Chisholm) . - Unfortunately, under what appear to me to be ' the somewhat "strange rules of procedure, we are debating at one and die same time a Vote of censure and the Address-in-Reply. This means that honorable members who wish to talk on subjects other than housing are left with no alternative but to ask the indulgence of other honorable members to divert the main theme of the discussion. I want to join with certain other honorable members, particularly on this side of the House, who have already spoken on the transport problems. I do not want it thought that I in any way belittle the housing problem, but I confess that if there is a problem, it seems to me the solution is relatively simple. In fact, it is as simple as it will be, when a vote is taken to dispose of this censure motion moved by the left-wing Labour party.

The debate began with excellent and interesting maiden speeches by the honorable member for Barker (Mr. Forbes) and the honorable member for Wentworth (Mr. Bury), and is now in its closing stages. But before it concludes I want to join with some other honorable members in discussing the transport problem. I do not think anybody will deny that transport is a much more difficult problem than housing, because of the constitutional obstacles that stand in the way and the difficulty of obtaining unanimity among, or agreement with, the six States, which have a very large responsibility in that respect. I believe, too, that all members will agree that there is probably no problem more vital than the transport problem to the stability of the Australian economy in general. If honorable members doubt that, I would like to refer them to several authorities. The first is the Tariff Board's pre-war report entitled " Efficiency and Costs of Production in Australian Industries ". The second is the Rural Reconstruction Commission's six,th report, dated 11th April, 1943, which refers very trenchantly to the importance of the transport problem. There is also the 1949 report of the Australian Transport Advisory Council, on the Australian transport policy, which is probably the best report on transport in Australia yet issued. With the latter I would include the last two reports by parliamentary members, which I think are excellent. If something more recent is required one has only to look at the newspapers. Last week, a visitor, Sir Charles Goodeve, director of the Iron and Steel Research Association of

Great Britain, stated in the press that our transport system is a costly relic. He went on to say -

A dual gauge railway in Victoria would save many times the cost of laying the extra line. 1 would also refer honorable members to what Mr. Harold F. Bell, the Australian Mutual Provident Society economist, told the plastics industry conference in Canberra. He said -

Our transport system is the gloomiest spot in an otherwise not altogether unhopeful outlook for costs in secondary industry in this country.

He might have added that transport is most important also to primary industry for the simple reason that transport costs represent up to SO per cent, of food prices.

All those reports should be taken into consideration. They are the reports of experts in their own field of research, and yet they have been consistently and almost contemptuously ignored, to the detriment of the Australian economy. We must realize that transport, is, if not our biggest, certainly one of our biggest industries. Let us look for a moment at what has happened since the war ended. As soon as the war was over, all transport industries were faced with a tremendous backlog of maintenance, rolling-stock replacement, and various other legacies of the terrific strain that was placed on all forms of transport by defence requirements. In that respect I think the Commonwealth Government has a moral, if not a constitutional financial responsibility, towards the State transport systems, because although rehabilitation has proceeded - steadily in some cases, unsteadily in others - it is yet very far from being completed. Furthermore, cargoes that should be carried by sea are carried by rail and road. Cargoes that should be going on the railways are going by road. Railway competition is going on for loads that probably would be better carried by road.

In all these matters a very big problem has to be faced, and I do not think people realize the size of the problem. Roads were deteriorating under the impact of inflation before the Hughes and Vale case, which was, I think, in 1954 - nearly three years ago. Since a decision was given by the Privy Council in that case, as the Government Members Committee on the standardization of rail gauges under the chairmanship of the honorable member for Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth) states very clearly, the ruin of the roads has gone on apace and £80,000,000 to £100,000,000 is being spent every year. A large portion of that amount is being ground into dust almost by the end of the year by heavy traffic that the roads were never meant to bear in the first place.

So one could go on with this review. In shipping, efforts varying from Herculian to Lilliputian have been made to overcome the congestion on the wharfs. The import restrictions have helped very materially in that respect. Both State and Federal spheres have responsibilities. Though a lot of work has been done, as I have said, it is still far from completed. Unfortunately, our freight rates on the coast are probably the highest in the world. As the honorable member for Forrest (Mr. Freeth) pointed out this morning, it costs more to bring jarrah from Perth to Adelaide than it does to bring oregon from Canada or the west coast of America to Adelaide.

Take the question of air. Civil aviation has been leaping ahead, and I think all members are glad to see that it has been developing so fast. On the other hand, it has, we must admit, been pampered and petted by subsidies out of all proportion to any other form of transport, or even to the excellent work it does in opening up outback areas and providing means of communication which were not there before. If a general survey of the whole situation since the war is taken and examined carefully, I am sure most members will agree that we seem to have taken up an attitude of " we could not care less ". We could not care less about transport - the biggest industry, primary, secondary, or tertiary, that exists in Australia to-day. It is an industry which, as I have said, represents 50 per cent, of food costs, which takes 30 per cent., and has been as high as 40 per cent., of annual expenditure, and which takes 20 per cent, or more of annual new capital expenditure. Therefore, I suggest that it is time we took far more interest in it and endeavoured to unravel some of the knots in which it seems to be tied at the present time.

Let me refer very briefly to subsidies. Every form of transport is, to a certain extent, subsidized. It was estimated, I think, that shipping is paid for to the extent of 85 per cent, by users and 15 per cent, by the Government in various small forms. It may be less than 15 per cent. now. Rail transport is subsidized very largely through the annual deficits and yet the railways have to pay for their road bed, signalling, traffic police, stations, and everything else. Other forms of transport do not have to meet many of those expenses. As 1 said, air transport is the highest subsidized of all. If honorable members read page five of the Government members' report on rail standardization, they will see that the Minister for Civil Aviation (Senator Paltridge) admitted that air received a subsidy of £4,250,000 last year, excluding an allowance for capital charges on aerodromes, which, if I remember rightly, amounted to £43,000,000. The subsidy of £4,250,000 is £2 a head for every passenger who steps on an aeroplane. Just imagine if somebody suggested the railways should be subsidized to that extent, even allowing for suburban traffic! Taking the 516,000,000 passenger journeys and dividing by three, it will work out at somewhere about £400,000,000 subsidy to the railways to put them on a comparable basis with the air. I have no prejudice against any form of transport; all forms of transport are important. But I think it is time we realized some of the foolish positions we are getting into when a heavily subsidized air transport causes uneconomic shipping, for instance, between Tasmania and the mainland. The Government, in order to continue running the ship, pays a subsidy of £100,000 a year to keep it operating. In other words, a government heavily subsidized air system causes a single ship running from Tasmania to the mainland to be heavily subsidized in order to compete.

It is difficult to know the extent of the subsidy on roads. Most authorities at present feel that 75 per cent, should be paid by the users and 25 per cent, by the landowners, although the land-owners do not pay anything to the railways unless they are under a betterment rate, which to-day does not exist, to my knowledge, anywhere in Australia. An article which recently appeared in the .Melbourne " Herald ", " Trucks set road riddle "'. shows that in America it has recently been estimated that 26,000 miles of roads can be built to carry the ordinary private motor cars up to 2 tons in weight at no greater cost than 737 miles of roads to carry heavy truck hauliers. The proportion of capital and maintenance costs caused by a relatively small percentage of the overall road transport can be estimated and some idea can be gained of how heavily subsidized that form of transport is. by private road-users. I do not know what percentage is paid by municipalities, but it must be kept in mind that nearly all municipalities seem to be going broke, or are almost broke, in their efforts to keep up with the construction and maintenance of the roads. 1 want to go back for a moment to the report on the Australian transport policy of 1949, to which I referred earlier. I had the honour of moving the motion in the advisory council which led to the report. The honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward), who was then Minister for Transport, had the direction and control, and the costs were borne by the Commonwealth under his administration at thai time. I hope nobody will be prejudiced by its mixed parentage or by any feeling of political race segregation. If any honorable members feel that way about it, I remind them that at the present time there is a large number of members on both sides of this House who are again in agreement. If honorable members do not believe that, then they should read the report of the Government members and the report of the Opposition members on rail standardization. When the report to which I have referred was produced in 1949, we all thought we were going places. We were! We were going bush, and we have stayed there for seven years. This is most unfortunate. That report was produced by the best transport experts in Australia. They had been a long time at it, but unfortunately, rather early in the piece, I felt, the Government blew out its transport brains when it dismissed that staff at very short notice. 1 have never been able to ascertain the reason, but I can only come to the conclusion that it was due to vindictiveness which arose out of internal jealousies in the department itself. Ever since then, their successors - their dismissals did not produce any reduction in staff - have endeavoured to make up their leeway in the experience which they did not have and have produced report after report bringing the figures of the original 1949 report up to date. The only result seems to have been that we have gone deeper and deeper into a forest of figures and statistics, and apparently no one is able to find a way through the forest, or find a way out of it by going back again. Therefore, wc find that frequently when we start a discussion on transport in general we are side-tracked immediately by some one who wants to discuss one particular detail, such as whether diesel fuel should be taxed or whether petrol should be coloured. It is the old strategy of diverting attention if you do not want to make a decision. It is about time that we concentrated on the main principles of a national transport policy, without allowing ourselves to be side-tracked. I believe that the present Minister for Shipping and Transport (Senator Paltridge) is very keen to do the job, but no Minister, however keen, can do a job if he is debarred all the time by a lack of decisions.

I am very upset, as are many other honorable members, to find that there is no reference at all in the Governor-General's Speech to transport, except in a very indirect way. We learn that a lot of things are under review. The Governor-General said -

My Government will continue to assist primary producers to increase output and improve efficiency.

The primary producers, however, depend to a large extent on transport facilities. The Governor-General said also -

A major undertaking associated with this development is the rehabilitation of the railway linking Mount Isa to the coast.

I would again recommend reference to the Government members' rail standardization committee and to its statements regarding that line, and its warning that we should not make another mistake such as was made with re-vamping the Darwin-Birdum line on a 3-ft. 6-in. gauge. The GovernorGeneral further said -

My Government is conscious of the increasing importance of civil air transport to national development and international relations. . . .

My Government continues to assist the development of an efficient coastal shipping service.

Everything seems to be under review. Before concluding I should like to suggest some form of action which might help us to come out of the bush and get back on a firm road, or on firm rails or some other transport system, so that we can do something which is really most important to the Australian economy.

The first thing I should like to suggest to honorable, members is that action should be taken to implement the three recommendations of the Government members' rail standardization committee and the first two recommendations of the Opposition members' committee. These latter recommendations are almost identical with those of the Government members' committee. If we do this we will be laying the foundations on which we can build the future edifice of a national transport policy. I know that it is very easy to say that the Commonwealth Government should pay all the costs. I suggest to the Government that in its discussions with the States it might start off on the South Australian basis of 70 per cent, payment by the Commonwealth and 30 per cent, by the States. That will not upset the existing agreement, and I think it will probably be found that the cost of construction of the actual track itself will not amount to 70 per cent, of the total cost of the various standardization projects which have been recommended. In any case, it is a basis on which to start, and a basis that was originally approved when the South Australian agreement was made. But do not let us wait for the budget sittings. Surely the Government can provide the £25,000 necessary for the Victorian survey to be made, so that some one can get on with the job that every one admits should be done immediately.

Mr E JAMES HARRISON (BLAXLAND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Some of the surveys have already been made.


That is so. Victoria asked the other day, I believe, for £25,000 to get on with what might be called the final surveys. The reports have been available now for five months, and surely a decision can be made on them.

The Australian Transport Advisory Committee has now presented another report. There are pages and pages of it. Many facts and figures have been made available, but the report says very little about the actual damage done to roads on a ton-mile basis by various vehicles. Surely the advisory committee under the chairmanship of the Commonwealth Minister, and including the State Ministers, could lay down a national roads plan and achieve some degree of uniformity among the various States. We will never achieve entire unanimity, so let us try to do what the majority believe to be the correct thing, whatever that may be, whether it has to be financed by way of taxation or some other means. I do not believe that we could not overcome the difficulties brought about by the Hughes- Vale case. I know that constitutional difficulties are hard to overcome. It is like the slogan widely adopted during the war, " Those things that are difficult take a little time; those things that are impossible take a little longer". We have had the little time and we have had the little longer, and I am perfectly certain that the Australian Transport Advisory Council, acting as an interstate transport commission, could make recommendations which could well be adopted and, at any rate, given a trial.

We should also review the subsidies that are in force, especially in regard to air transport, as part of a real attempt at coordination of transport based on: (a) the relevant importance of each form of transport in the national economy; (b) the cost per ton mile, which, not so long ago, was on the basis of 1-2-8-10 for sea, rail, road and air transport respectively, although those figures may have changed slightly; (c) the man-power ratio per ton-mile, which is most important to this country, and which was in the proportion of 1-4-10-46. All these things must be considered, and, as I said earlier, every form of transport has its place in the sun. Do not let us become prejudiced against any one particular form of transport. The necessary money is not provided by either the State or Federal Governments. It is provided by the people, and we are wasting a lot of this money by allowing the present chaos, confusion and indecision to continue. Therefore, I would appeal to all honorable members to consider this matter very seriously. I am not the only honorable member who has spoken on the matter. I have been preceded by the honorable member for Gwydir (Mr. Ian Allen), the honorable member for Farrer (Mr. Fairbairn), the honorable member for Calare (Mr. Howse), the honorable member for Blaxland (Mr. E. James Harrison), and probably others. Like them, I hope that I have given no offence to any one in stressing as strongly as I can the importance of the transport problem. I hope we have not been, as some one described it the other day, adding to the roar of the surf breaking ineffectually on the outer edges of the

Great Barrier Reef. I prefer to apply to our efforts the words of Arthur Hugh Clough-

For while the tired waves vainly breaking

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back through creeks and inlets making

Comes silent, flooding in the main.

If the tide does not come in steadily, even if it does not flood, then I fear that the ship of state, which some people think will be safely tied up in port, will find itself, with the barges of transport, stranded on the mudbanks of indecision.

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