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Wednesday, 2 June 1915

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I shall be very pleased to hand it to the Minister. If that is characteristic of land administration in the Northern Territory, there is very little wonder that it should still continue to be a white elephant. I believe that the very beginning of Federal administration of the Northern Territory was based upon principles which were just about as far from sane business principles as anything could possibly be. There are in Australia practical men who have known the Northern Territory intimately for from twenty to forty years. If we had the most experienced and brainiest men to be found in Australia in charge of this tremendous work, they would deserve all the sympathy which the Federal Parliament and the people of the Commonwealth could give them in their efforts to solve the big complex problems involved in the settlement of this country. It seemed as though the Government of the day decided that practically no one should be employed in the Northern Territory who knew anything about it, and the appointments to the various positions there included scarcely a single man of experience. I regret to say, and this is the first time I have made the statement in this House, that the mistake began with the appointment of the Administrator of the Territory. He was called upon to perform work for which a university professor was not likely to be an ideal appointee. It was work in connexion with which an ounce of experience was worth a ton of theory.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - The Government which the honorable member supported would not leave the practical man there.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I do not agree, so far as the control and administration of the Northern Territory are concerned, with what has been done by any Federal Government so far. I did not intend to mention any Government, because I am not discussing this matter from a party stand-point at all; but since the honorable member has interjected, I think I should say that no man could have put in more devoted, conscientious, and earnest work towards the solving of this big problem than did the honorable member for Angas when he was Minister of External Affairs. The work of administering the Northern Territory, from the Ministerial and parliamentary point of view, is rendered more difficult because it involves the settlement of the country from the Seat of Government. On that account I maintain that there should be some form of local self-government established there.

Mr Thomas - Why did not the honorable member see to that when he had control of the Territory in the South Australian Parliament?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I want to tell the honorable member for Barrier that for years and years the South Australian Parliament was holding its hand in anticipation of the Federal Parliament taking the Territory over. I tell honorable members, as I have told them repeatedly before, that South Australia recognised the White Australia principle, and it was because the South Australian people desired to hand the Territory over to the Federal authorities on those lines that they did not do a very great deal more for its development than they did. If it had not been for their regard for that principle, the people of South Australia might have secured the investment of any amount of British and foreign capital in the Northern Territory. The honorable member for Grey, who knows the facts, will agree with me when I say that South Australia would have had no difficulty at all in inducing the investment of money in any quantity in the Northern Territory, and did not do so because otherwise the White Australia principle would not have been preserved. I hope that the last reproach we shall hear on the subject is that which we have just heard from the honorable member for Barrier, against South Australia, because she was not more successful in her administration. Unsuccessful as she may have been, her work in the Territory was infinitely more rational, and involved infinitely less of loss to the taxpayers, than the work of the administration since it has come under Federal control.

Mr Thomas - The cost to the taxpayers has been increased, but it has been passed on to the Federal Parliament, and we are now paying it.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I am including every penny that has been passed on. Since the Northern Territory came under Federal control the deficit there has grown until it has reached nearly £1,250,000. If we take the revenue derived from the Territory since it has come under Federal control, we shall find that it has been a diminishing quantity from the start.

Mr Joseph Cook - No : the revenue has increased from £46,000 to £76,000.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - If the right honorable gentleman eliminates the amount of public money spent at Darwin since the Territory has been under Federal control, and calculates the revenue on the basis upon which, it was collected prior to the transfer of the Territory to the Commonwealth, he will find that it has been on a diminishing scale.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - Will the honorable member say what was the debt we took over with the Territory?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I am not referring to the debt, but to the deficit. The debt, including that on the wharf at Port Augusta and the railway from Port Augusta to Oodnadattta, was between £6,000,000 and £7,000,000. I think that some of the loans falling due during the last few years have been paid.

Mr Joseph Cook - There is still over £6,000,000 of the original debt.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I believe there is still about £6,000,000 of the original debt due.

Mr Page - What does the honorable member suggest?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I suggest that, for the present, and, indeed, for a long time to come, we should abandon the idea of agriculture in the northern portion of the Territory. There has been a lot of money expended in order to promote agriculture there, and it might just as well have been thrown into the depths of the sea.

Mr Sampson - Where does the honorable member expect to get population from if he will not engage in agriculture there?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I shall deal with that in a moment. . We ought not to regard the Northern Territory as a wheat-growing proposition. I may tell the ex-Minister of External Affairs, the honorable member for Barrier, that this is not by any means a laughing matter when we take into consideration the amount of public money which has been thrown away as the result of administration, based upon inexperience and incapacity. It is impossible to grow wheat there.

Mr Riley - How does the honorable member know?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - That is my opinion. But if wheat can be grown there, it cannot be produced for less than 10s. per bushel.

Mr Thomas - How does the honorable member know that?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I know it from a long experience of wheat-growing. Indeed, my opinion is that it would cost nearer £1 per bushel to grow wheat there. But assuming that it could be produced in the Territory, it would be impossible to mill it.

Mr Thomas - The honorable "member ought to have made this speech before we took over the Territory.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I have made the same statement on several occasions. If we could produce wheat in the Northern Territory we could not mill it, because there would be too much moisture in the grain. It would be impossible to utilize it for milling purposes unless it were mixed with a large proportion of hard grain from a dry climate.

Mr Fleming - That statement does not apply to the whole of the Territory ?

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I am talking of that portion of the Territory in which such a lot of money has been absolutely wasted upon experiments in agriculture. Every practical man in this country knows that it is commercially impossible to conduct agricultural operations in the tropical portions of the Northern Territory and to successfully compete with the wheat-growing portions of Australia.

Mr Sampson - But there are other things besides wheat which can be grown.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - What other things can be grown ?

Mr Page - The finest wool in Australia has been grown on the Barclay Tablelands.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - I am not speaking of wool. The day will come when there will be many millions of sheep in the Territory, and the finest possible results will be obtained from them. But similar results will not flow from the establishment of the agricultural industry there. I do hope that the Government will ask the Public Accounts Committee to visit the Northern Territory for the purpose of investigating what money has been expended there and how it has been spent. Distant as we are from the scene of this public expenditure, Parliament ought to have some first-hand check on what has been done there. If closer settlement in the Territory is possible, our first task must be to secure suitable settlers. If we can only obtain them at the rate of one man in nine months, the sooner we abandon the idea of closer settlement the better. We ought to resolve this problem by definitely pushing forward with pastoral and mineral development. We must recollect that all Australia has been settled by the pioneering pastoralist. He has demonstrated the possibility or otherwise of closer settlement. If that process has characterized Australian development in the more favorably situated portions of this continent - portions in which there is a suitable soil and a reliable climate - how much more necessary is it that a similar process should be followed here? But if we intend to promote closer settlement in the Northern Territory we must commence by getting suitable families to settle there - families which can do the greater portion of their own work. I venture to say that we shall not get such families in Australia. There is not the shadow of a doubt about that, because there are in Australia untold undeveloped areas in districts which are relatively settled - districts which lie close to all the best phases of civilization. If there were any possibility of getting such families to settle in the Territory we should certainly have to offer them the inducement of the fee-simple. If men, after devoting the best portion of their lives to the task, succeeded in converting what is now comparatively a desert into a fruitful place, they would deserve every penny that they made. The latest report of the Administrator seems to breathe in every line a recognition of failure to attract this class of settler. From the very beginning I predicted that there was no likelihood of getting Australians to settle in the Territory, seeing that they could secure so much happier conditions nearer home. If a practical attempt is to be made to secure settlers from Southern Europe - as appears to be suggested by the Administrator - we shall have to maintain them for a few years, and even then, if they ultimately succeed, it will not be bad business on our part. But whatever chance there may have been of securing such immigrants a couple of years ago, the prospects are much less alluring to-day. I think it would be infinitely better for this Parliament to bend the whole of its energies to the development of this Territory on pastoral and mineral lines. There is just one other phase of this question to which I desire to refer. Hitherto only inexperienced men have been sent to the Territory to handle this complex problem. If these men would tell us the truth, they would admit that they are only just beginning to learn that they know very little about the Northern Territory. The only way in which this country can be developed along pastoral lines is by providing the pastoralists with adequate railway facilities. Until we do that, the heavy cost of cartage will be such a serious item that nobody can embark upon the industry except capitalists - and big capitalists at that. Then I would point out that drought-stricken areas have to be traversed in order to get stock to market from the more favorably situated climatic portions of the country. That is the difficulty that has been experienced in connexion with the pastoral settlement in the Macdonnell Ranges.

Mr Mathews - That is more evidence that we got a bad bargain from South Australia.

Mr RICHARD FOSTER - It is nothing of the kind. But the position in regard to both the east-west and the north-south railways is that a lot of inferior country will have to be traversed - country possessing only a limited rainfall and subject to periodic droughts. But we must not condemn a country which is big enough to be a continent in itself merely because, here and there, droughtstricken areas have to be traversed. I repeat that we shall not secure pastoral development to any great extent unless we face the railway question. I make bold to affirm that by bridging with a railway the country between Oodnadatta and the Macdonnell Ranges we shall secure an infinitely better financial proposition than we shall get from the east-west transcontinental line.

Sir Robert Best - Where is Sir John Forrest ?

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