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Thursday, 1 March 1984
Page: 241


Senator TEAGUE(4.28) —The matter of public importance which has been raised by the Opposition today in the Senate is set out as follows:

The political manoeuvrings of the Government to avoid its election undertaking to construct the Alice Springs to Darwin railway and the consequent denial to Australia of the advantages of the railway.

In the present stage of the Australian Labor Party Government's manoeuvrings on this matter, to recant from its election undertaking, we had presented before us only this week in the Senate the report of the Hill Independent Economic Inquiry into Transport Services to the Northern Territory. In this first week of sitting , South Australian and Northern Territory representatives are raising a matter which has unified that State and the Territory more than any other issue in recent times. I believe it is the key issue which led to the overwhelming success of the Northern Territory Government. Of course, positive virtues and policies were put by Mr Everingham and the Northern Territory Government in that election. But the people of the Northern Territory were alerted to Mr Everingham and the Country Liberal Party taking up this key development issue for their part of Australia. They overwhelmingly rejected the action of the Hawke Labor Government in its political manoeuvrings to deny its election commitment. In South Australia I do not know of one politician-let them stand up now if they want to deny it-whether from the Liberal Party, the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Democrats or the National Party, who is not in favour of the Government presently committing itself to this project. The Premier of South Australia, Mr Bannon, is on record all through last year and again following the Hill inquiry as saying that this project must proceed. He is leading the Labor Party in lobbying for it. Not one Labor member of the South Australian Government is opposed to what Mr Bannon is doing.

Let any member of the Labor Party in the House of Representatives or the Senate deny that they support what Mr Bannon is doing. Even more vocally and, I believe with more credibility, the politicians representing the Liberal Party are outspoken in calling for this project to go ahead. It has unified all sides of politics in South Australia and the Northern Territory. That is perhaps with the exception only of Senator Robertson, though he did say at the beginning of his speech that the decision had yet to be made by the Hawke Government and there was still yet some hope that the Hawke Government-despite the findings of the inquiry it set up and the terms of reference given it-might decide to go ahead with the rail link. Even with the withdrawing, recanting, half-hearted series of excuses by Senator Robertson in his speech he still, in his heart of hearts, wants to see that railway go ahead. Why he does not more forthrightly represent the view of the people of the Northern Territory I do not know. I would be quite happy if the speeches today of Senator Robertson and Senator Kilgariff concerning this issue were circulated to every voter in the Northern Territory so they could make a clear comparison between who is best representing them.

I will now note something of the recent history of this matter. The Tarcoola to Alice Springs railway which excited so many people in South Australia and the Northern Territory was begun in 1975 and completed in 1980. At that time the inquiry into the viability of continuing the rail link from Alice Springs to Darwin was also completed and those recommendations were put before the Fraser Government. In 1980 the then Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, committed the Government to building the Alice Springs to Darwin link by 1990. On 14 January 1983 the same Prime Minister-again typifying the initiatives of the Liberal and National Country Parties-firmly announced that that program would go ahead and that the railway would be completed two years earlier in 1988 at a cost of $545m. It was not a vague promise. It was specific as to scope, timing and cost. In fact, it was so specific that during the election campaign of the next month Mr Morris the then shadow Minister for Transport and now the Minister for Transport said:

. . . at the 1980 election, Labor supported the construction of the remaining leg from Alice Springs to Darwin and that support continues.

But Senator Robertson said that lo and behold in arriving in office after the election these Ministers found there was a financial problem facing the country. That was despite the fact that on 15 March-after all the facts were known-Mr Morris told the Northern Territory Opposition leader, Bob Collins, that Labor's commitment to the railway was not simply a parochial one for the Territory but a project of national and international significance which the Labor Party would honour. Indeed in April 1983 Mr Morris again assured the Northern Territory Labor leader that preparations for the construction of the Alice Springs-Darwin rail link were proceeding on schedule and that necessary legislation was being drafted and a Budget submission prepared for Cabinet. On 8 April 1983 Mr Morris announced that public meetings would be held at various places in the Northern Territory over the next week at which details of the rail link would be explained. However, around the middle of April we saw the political manoeuvrings of Hawke himself when he interfered with his Minister for Transport in the same way he had interfered with numerous other Ministers of his Government. The Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, took the initiative that led to the Keating Treasurer statement on 19 May, a month or so later.

The first whispers that the project was starting to be in doubt and that it was time for the ALP in the Northern Territory to try to rescue what was looking like going down the chute were heard on 26 April. By 3 May those whispers even reached in a very direct and tangible way the Leader of the Government in the Northern Territory. He saw that everything was up for grabs and immediately a telegram and writing campaign was instituted by the Northern Territory Government. Nevertheless on 19 May in the economic package announced by the Treasurer, Hawke's decision was announced to Australia. Of course that was that this very valuable project would be proceeded with but only on the basis that 60 per cent of the funds would come from the Federal government and 40 per cent from the Northern Territory. That 40 per cent of funds amounted to $216m. That $ 216m is equivalent to an extra tax on every resident in the Northern Territory of $20 a week for 50 years. Does the Government expect the Northern Territory Government to raise $20 from every resident every week for 50 years?

Moreover a fraud was involved in the 60 per cent national-40 per cent Territory so-called funding division. Not only was it impossible but also it did not take account of the $200m fiscal claw-back that followed in the economics of the project. The total cost, then estimated at $540m, would have resulted in $220m being paid by the Territory and $320m by the national government. In a number of items in terms of indirect tax on materials, income tax on the 2,000 jobs to be generated every year of the building of the project and through savings in various costs-these items have been carefully analysed by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry South Australia, Inc., and acknowledged by the South Australian Government-it was estimated that there would have been a $200m claw- back to the Federal Government during the expenditure of that $540m.

The inquirer, Mr Hill, fundamentally does not question that $540m construction cost. I know that the Northern Territory response to the Hill finding, which is in detail, finds all sorts of anomalies, lack of definition and imprecise methodology exhibited in the Hill report. But those criticisms will stand. Fundamentally Mr Hill in his inquiry did not disagree with an approximate $540m construction cost for the railway. However, he dismissed that claw-back of $200m by saying that although 2,000 jobs each year for every year of construction would be created of course they could be located in some other national project if the railway project did not go ahead. He said that that claw-back would therefore have come in some other way. Let it be taken in either mode, I do not mind. Let us understand the impact upon the Australian economy if such a commitment to this project was made and the claw-back resulted from the Northern Territory railway project. As I said, this was a fraud and the project would have meant that there was a net outlay of only $120m from the Federal Government compared with the $220m being demanded of the Northern Territory by the Hawke Government. It was impossible from the start and the Government knew it. That is what we mean by manoeuvrings. Instead of making a clear-cut decision that that railway would not be proceeded with and an honest answer being given to the people of Australia, there is this manoeuvring. But it did not work.

Mr Reeves, the House of Representatives member for the Northern Territory, said in his maiden speech in May 1983 that the rail link was the linchpin for the whole of the Territory's development. It was the most important project for the Territory. He still believes it and so do the great majority of people involved in the Northern Territory and South Australia, as would, I suspect, the majority of Australians generally if they studied the matter. Mr Reeves was not convinced and he continued to make loud noises. South Australian industry, immediately after the Keating statement, said that it would lose $200m in contracts if construction of the line was halted. The breakdown of that amount is clearly set out. The Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd immediately retrenched 1,400 steel workers. It knew that the project was under question, abandoned, and that there was no way it could retain that work force. However in late May the Opposition said that it would confirm its original commitment. Mr Peacock, the then Leader of the National Party of Australia, Mr Anthony, and our spokesman on transport, Mr Lusher, all made clear commitments that a future Liberal-National Party government would honour a commitment to fund the railway. A like commitment was made after the Hill report was brought down.

I turn to the South Australian Government. Mr Bannon's response was headlined in the newspapers: 'Now is time to start rail link-Bannon'. There is unanimity on all sides of the Parliament in South Australia. Jack Wright, the Deputy Premier, was the principal speaker at a conference of all parliamentarians convened in mid-August last year. There was not a whisper from any side of politics or from any side of industry in opposition to what I am saying. Even after the Hill report was presented Bannon and Everingham, as recently as the last fortnight, have been working together to overturn the Hawke Government's decision, to stop these political manoeuvrings and to maximise the advantages for Australia that are in the project. The advantages are clear. This side of the Parliament, which has the ability to summon a majority in the Senate, can embarrass this Government any time. I appeal to Ministers to act upon the speeches that have been made here today and, despite the pessimism of the Hill finding, go back to the evidence that was put by the South Australian and Northern Territory governments and Opposition spokesmen, and ensure that this vital national project goes ahead to the advantage of Australia.