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Thursday, 17 November 1927

Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE (Western Australia) (Vice-President of Executive Council) [S.50]. - I do not propose to debate the merits of the railway which Senator Foll is advocating. My intention is merely to state the view of the Government with reference to the motion. I wish it to be clearly understood that the Government is not expressing any opinion as to the merits of the projected line. We have appointed a North Australia Commission, and the primary duty of the Commonwealth in regard to direct railway construction is in respect to the territory which is under its control. Parliament, when it authorized the appointment of the North Australia Commission, directed that body to consider the best means to develop that territory, and instructed it to outline a works programme, to be spread over, a period of five years, which, in its opinion would best serve to that end. That obviously means that it must take into consideration the question of roads and railway construction within the territory itself, as well as railway communication with other portions of Australia. There can be no doubt that the commission, in the course of its inquiry, will consider the linking up of the railway system in North Australia with railways in the other States. Members of that body have for the last twelve months been traversing the Territory for the purpose of becoming conversant with its requirements. It is anticipated that their report will be presented at an early date. Since the development of that portion of Australia is the direct responsibility of the Commonwealth it is desirable, before any action is taken, that we should have the report of the commission before us. The commission may recommend the railway suggested by Senator Foll. In that event the Government will take its recommendation into consideration as a question of policy, and determine how best to give effect to it. In the circumstances honorable senators will, I think, agree that the Government could not be expected, at this stage, to commit itself to approval of the motion. I may say, however, that I am one of those who believe that if this country is going to be held and developed by the white races we must give our endorsement to a vigorous policy of internal railway construction. We must not be guided solely by such considerations as whether a proposed line will pay working expenses and interest on capital expenditure. Such a policy may be safe, financially, but we may have to pay a terrible price for it in the years to come. We cannot afford to leave the vast interior of this country unoccupied, and certainly we cannot afford to leave the great north of Australia unpeopled. I am afraid that people living in our capital cities do not realize the immense value of these internal developmental railways. Let me give an illustration of their value. Some time ago a pastoralist from Queensland called on me at the Home and Territories Department and asked to be put in touch with the land officer of that department, his desire being to take up territory in North Australia. I complied with his request and had the satisfaction of learning subsequently that he had taken up a considerable area in the interior of Northern Australia. I may add that the gentleman in question owns a large cattle station in ' Queensland. I did not see him again for a couple of years. Unfortunately during that time that portion of Queensland in which his station is situated was stricken with drought, and when I saw him again he informed me that whilst his cattle were dying on his Queensland property, there was abundance of grass on his holding in Northern Australia. He added that if there had been internal railway communication it would have been possible for him not only to save every head of stock on his Queensland station by railing them to his holding in North Australia, but, in addition, to fatten them as well as many more there. With internal railway communication and ports of shipment there, the wealth thus lost would have been saved to Australia. That man's experience may be cited as typical of that of many other pastoralists in Queensland recently, when an enormous number of sheep and cattle were lost owing to drought conditions. I understand, however, that considerable numbers of sheep were successfully transferred by other means from drought ureas in Queensland to North Australia, where there was abundant pasturage. I therefore deprecate the opinions that are sometimes voiced that the question of the building of internal railways must be determined by their direct earning capacity. It is not reasonable to expect such railways at the outset to pay interest on capital and working expenses; in many instances, however, it will not be many years before they will not only do that, but also encourage people to settle in areas that are at present unoccupied. I well remember as a boy being taught geography from maps which depicted great areas in the central portion of Australia as vast deserts, and yet I have lived to see not only those, but other areas, occupied by a thriving aud prosperous population. I have lived to see some of those areas come into active use. It is not so long since all the country between the Murray River and the South Australian border, with the exception of Mount Gambier, was shown on the maps as a vast desert. Nearly the whole of that country has since been opened up by railways, and some of it, notably Pinnaroo, near the South Australian border, is now regarded as amongst the richest wheat-growing land in that State. I understand that some of the improved farms in that district now realize from .£10 to £12 an acre. I have visited the interior of Australia, and have also seen the desert areas of the Western States of America, and I can say, without fear of contradiction, thai I have never seen in Australia anything so hopeless as the alkali plains of the Arizona desert. If the arguments that have been advanced in. some instances against railway construction in Australia had been employed in America, the lines which stretch across that vast country would never have been built, because it would have been said that they would, traverse desert country from which notraffic could be expected. I have alsotravelled for two days and three nightsacross the great Gobi desert in Siberia.. Although the Russians are not regarded, as an enterprising people, they built a. railway across that desert to connect Eastern Siberia with Russia.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - If the proposal had come before the South Australian Commissioner he would have turned it down.

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE.And many other people would have done the same. In railway construction proposals we must, of course proceed cautiously. We must be quite sure that the route determined upon is the best one, because once a railway is put down it is there for all time. The question of the route to be followed by a line linking up the north with the more populous centres will require careful consideration, and in the light of the fact that we shall shortly have a report from the North Australia Commission, I ask Senator Poll not to press his motion. The Government does not condemn the proposal embodied in it. It is willing to sympathetically consider it, but suggests that it should not be pressed at this juncture. The Government does not think the Senate should be asked to commit itself to a definite route, until the report to which I have -referred is received, when the Government will bring forward its proposals. If these do not meet with the approval of honorable senators, Parliament will have an opportunity of reviewing the whole situation.

Senator Herbert Hays - Will "the proposals of the North Australian Commission be submitted to the Government before any action is taken.

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE.The act provides that the commission shall first of all submit a scheme showing the developmental works it proposes to undertake over a period of five years, and also submit a programme of works to be undertaken for the first year of that period. When this is done the Government, if it approves of the scheme, will ask Parliament to vote the necessary money, for the work which the, commission proposes to carry out.

Senator Herbert Hays - What steps will the Govern ment take to see that any railways constructed in the Northern Territory connect with existing railway systems?

Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE - That is what the Government has to consider. I should say that it is unthinkable that any body of men considering a railway system for North Australia would not take into consideration existing railway services in other States and look into the question of how that scheme would ultimately join up with them, until the Government receives the report of the commission, however, I do not think the Senate would be wise in expressing an opinion on any particular route. The Government does not condemn the proposal or say that it is unjustified, or unworthy of investigation ; that it merely says the Senate should not commit itself to an expression of an opinion until it has before it the report of the North Australia Commission which was appointed by Parliament.

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