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Thursday, 30 August 1928


Mr THEODORE (Dalley) .- T do not wish to take the discussion' away from the two items concerning which honorable members desire to obtain an answer from Ministers, but the occasion warrants consideration of the proposals for the development of Northern Australia. The North Australia Commission was appointed last year, and in its annual report, which was ordered to be printed on the 2nd May, it has submitted proposals for the development of the Territory. During the last year there has been no discussion in this Parliament upon the development and progress of North Australia. The Government, I think, has been negligent towards this problem. In the past there has been much criticism of previous administrations for their lack of a vigorous policy in regard to the Territory, but the position to-day is no more satisfactory than it was before the Commission was appointed. The Treasurer and other Commonwealth Ministers have advocated greater development and settlement in the States, but I contend that they have neglected their own . immediate responsibility in regard to North Australia. It is time that this Committee considered whether the steps now being taken, and the provisions now made in the appropriations and Estimates before the chamber, are sufficient to carry into effect an adequate policy of development for that portion of the Commonwealth. The Northern Territory was taken over by the Commonwealth in 1911, and since then there has been little or no development of it, certainly none commensurate with the obligations undertaken by the Commonwealth. North Australia is a very large territory, comprising land suitable for pastoral, agricultural, and dairying settlement, but the Commonwealth Government has not been able to formulate a policy that does justice to that country. When the North Australia Commission was appointed the Government promised new life and vigour in the development of the north; but what have they accomplished? The North Australia Commission is labouring under the same disabilities and limitations as were encountered by other administrative authorities previously controlling the Northern Territory. The gentlemen who comprise the North Australia Commission were here in Canberra a few months ago, apparently awaiting instructions, and consulting with the Minister regarding their plans and future activities. They were here for many weeks. Whether they received adequate instructions and authority to proceed with the work they recommended, I do not know. Their report discloses a programme of work which, if properly financed, might make for reasonable initial development in North Australia; but the appropriations included in the Commonwealth Budget for this year are quite inadequate to finalize that programme. I do not know how the present Administration justifies its policy towards North Australia, or its attitude towards the States when it criticizes them for the lack of a vigorous land settlement policy, especially as it has neglected its own opportunities in the North. The Commission draws attention to the wonderful asset that Australia has in North Australia, and in its report of the 6th December, 1927, it says -

The reason that North Australia is not more developed than it is to-day is, however, certainly not attributable to a lack of natural resources. As a matter of fact, portions of the other States of the Commonwealth, which are now thriving centres, had not, as a foundation, country of as good a class as that which exists in North Australia.

It is regrettable that people, many of whom arc not competent to express an opinion and whose acquaintance with the country - limited, generally speaking, to a short visit to the town of Darwin, or merely to hearsay - should decry the heritage possessed in North Australia.

It needs to be stressed that, even if North Australia was comprised of inferior pastoral lands, it is incumbent that they be settled and developed, if the opportunity is not to be allowed to remain for some other nation to establish itself in Australia.

On the contrary, however, the lands, as a whole in North Australia, have, every claim to being classed as good average country, well endowed by nature, and capable of producing a wide range of products'. It is essential that, instead of such a heritage being allowed to remain idle, the asset possessed should be put to its greatest practicable use.

If the other States, which, in the words of the North Australia Commission, commenced their governmental activities with no greater advantages than now exist in North Australia, had not been more successful in developing their respective territories than the Commonwealth Government has been in North Australia, practically the whole of Australia to-day would be a wilderness. In 1900, when South Australia was administering North Australia, there was a population there, of 4,857. When it was taken over by the Commonwealth in 1911 there were in the territory 3,350 persons. Last year, according to the report of the North Australia Commission, there was a total population in the territory of 3,406, of whom 1,050 were non-European, so that the European population comprises only approximately 2,400. That is the European population of the territory after it has been under the control of the Commonwealth for thirteen or fourteen years. That is not progress, and the policy which the Government hari adopted towards the place has not made for reasonable development or for any development that is discernible during the last ten years. The Prime Minister and other Ministers have called attention to the heed for more population in Australia, pointing out that our title to the country can be justified in the eyes of the world only by the right of occupation. What are they themselves doing towards securing a greater population for North Australia? They are not doing anything adequate. In the Estimates which have been submitted, it is proposed to appropriate £100,000 from loan funds towards a scheme of development and settlement. If that is merely an initial advance towards a comprehensive scheme, it might be endorsed as a satisfactory first step, but if it determines the rate of development at £100,000 a year, then I say the provision is inadequate and the Government is merely trifling with the problem. Under the North Australia Act, the Commission is charged with certain responsibilities, but the act is framed in such a way as to place the control of North Australia now, as heretofore, in the hands of a subordinate Minister. The Minister requires the Commissioners to attend at Canberra for a certain period each year to consult with him, and to receive their instructions. I believe they spent three months this year waiting in Canberra for these instructions. One wonders whether they left at the end of that time with adequate instructions and resources to carry out a policy of development. I doubt it. I consider that it is a great injustice that the fate of that Territory should be left to the caprice of a subordinate Minister, one not answerable to this chamber, and perhaps not sympathetic towards the needs of the Territory. The Government is not facing this problem in a proper way. The authority set up for the development of North Australia should be clothed with powers equivalent to those enjoyed by State Governments. It should be given power to formulate a programme, and authority to. raise money to finance that programme. You cannot, it is true, divest this Parliament of control of the Territory, but for ordinary purposes the local authority should be invested with full administrative powers to carry out its developmental schemes, and should be answerable to Parliament, not to a Minister who can veto any proposal put forward. Forty years ago there were 145 miles of railway in North Australia. Today there are only 199 miles completed, and 160 miles under construction. That indicates a period of absolute stagnation. According to the report issued by the Commission there are at present 73,000,000 acres of unoccupied Crown land in the Territory. There are, roughly, 100,000,000 acres of pastoral leases and licences, and freehold land amounts to 500,000 acres. Of the land held under pastoral lease six lessees hold 50,000;000 acres. It seems to me that the land position in the Northern Territory needs to be attacked very vigorously. I know that until such time as proper communications are established, there is no hope of getting closer settlement there, or of getting the land now used only partially for grazing purposes used as agricultural ground, or for grazing and agriculture. It is necessary to make roads, railways, and harbours, and the North Australia Commission should be given the maximum of assistance by the Commonwealth Government. I do not know whether this matter has come directly under the notice of the Treasurer ; whether he was asked to make an appropriation sufficient to give effect to the recommendations of the North Australian Commission; and, if so, whether he blue pencilled them. The Commission recommended the construction and maintenance of roads and stock routes; the erection of telegraph and telephone lines; the conservation of water; the development of ports and harbours, and the encouragement and establishment of air services. I know, from my experience of the money necessary for such facilities that £100,000, the amount set down in these Estimates, is not sufficient for even a respectable proportion of the works indicated. The sum mentioned is totally inadequate, even as an initial provision, for the proper development of North Australia, where there is a vast area of first class grazing and good agricultural land, awaiting settlement.


Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Not a vast area of good agricultural land, I am afraid.


Mr THEODORE - The honorable member for Wannon is in error. There are millions of acres of good agricultural land in North Australia.


Mr Stewart -- But the trouble is that there is no market for the produce.


Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - The failure of Vestey Brothers' enterprise in North Australia hangs like a cloud over that part of the country.


Mr THEODORE - A considerable portion of the Northern Territory lies within the 40-in. rainfall belt, and a vast area has a 20-in. rainfall.


Mr Foster - But it is not good wheatgrowing country.


Mr THEODORE - I do not say that it is. There is not a big area in Queensland suitable for wheat-growing, and yet Queensland is a great agricultural State. The honorable member for Wimmera said just now that the difficulty would be to market the produce grown in North Australia. I am aware of that. But the difficulties there will not be greater than those experienced by any of the States in their initial stages of development. Those difficulties must be faced and overcome. One of the means to this end .is the adequate provision for transport. The failure of Vestey Bros.' enterprise in North Australia, mentioned by the honorable member for Wannon, can be attributed to a number of causes. In the first place it was an isolated venture, and it encountered unusual difficulties at the outset. Most of the labour required to operate the works had to be brought from the southern States at enormous cost, and the men,- when there, had to be paid high wages. Moreover, the enterprise was subject to seasonal vagaries, and there were unlooked for difficulties in regard to shipping as well as the unexpected collapse of the meat market. But because there has been a partial failure in these attempts at development, we must not condemn North Australia. On the contrary, because of the millions of acres of good agricultural land - as good as can be found in any other part of Australia - awaiting development, there is very good reason why we should have the greatest faith in its future.


Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - We have had a few experimental farms in North Australia.


Mr THEODORE - Yes, and if, instead of being abandoned, experimental work on those farms had been conducted vigorously we should be able to show better results to-day. The Batchelor Farm was established, I think, in 1912. Unfortunately, the war broke out a couple of years later, and diverted the energies of the Government in other directions. Within 200 miles of the northern seaboard of North Australia there is an average rainfall of nearly 20 . inches per annum, and a considerable area is within the 40 inch rainfall. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of wellwatered open black-soil plains, and millions of acres of good mixed pastoral land. The whole of this country is interspersed with large rivers, many of them perennial in their flow. In this respect North Australia differs entirely from the central and considerable areas over the southern portions of the continent.


Mr Killen - A large area there is almost useless.


Mr THEODORE - That may be said of certain portions of almost every State. It is true of New South Wales; and yet there is a great area in that State suitable for agriculture. Along the Macarthur, the Victoria, the Daly, and numerous other rivers in North Australia there are extensive fertile river flats capable of producing almost all kinds, of tropical products.


Mr Maxwell - Where are the men with the pioneering spirit to-day ? Why do not they settle in the country to develop it?


Mr THEODORE - It is of no use to expect men imbued with the pioneering spirit to take up land in North Australia, unless the Government is prepared to provide facilities for the marketing of their produce. Improved harbours are an urgent necessity. The Barkly Tableland comprises, I suppose, 10,000,000 acres of first class pastoral country, carrying heavy growths of Mitchell, Flinders and blue grass. That part of the country enjoys a good rainfall, and I under stand that it is possible to secure subartesian water almost anywhere at a depth of not more than 200 feet; but, owing to the lack of marketing facilities, there are practically no sheep being grazed over that area.


Mr Killen - The Barkly ' Tableland could carry 8,000,000 sheep.


Mr THEODORE - I agree with the honorable member. It is potentially a very wealthy region ; but, as I have said, nothing is being done to develop it. The Commonwealth Government has, at times, contemplated the building of a railway across the Barkly Tableland from Daly Waters through Brunette Downs to Camooweal. Although I do not wish to disturb the equanimity of the South Australian members in this Parliament - they think that if a, railway is to be built it should be constructed through the centre of the continent to link up with the existing railway at Oodnadatta - I sincerely believe that the first developmental line should be from Daly Waters across the Barkly Tableland to join with the Queensland railway system. The Barkly Tableland is only one portion of North Australia. On each of the great rivers which I have mentioned, there are extensive tracts of country suitable for closer settlement, and yet, in the whole of North Australia there are to-day fewer than 3,000 Europeans. The Government has a definite responsibility in this matter. Because the money market may be difficult at the moment, the Treasurer is not justified in holding up the development of North Australia. The money required for this purpose could be raised easily enough in the Australian market. Local financial stringency should not affect a long-range policy for the development of North Australia. No honorable member would object to the enunciation of a policy visualizing the development of North Australia extending over a tenyear period, and involving, possibly the expenditure of £2,000,000 a year, so long as there was a definite objective. No one would cavil at the Government establishing an authority to formulate a proper and orderly scheme. There is no justification for delay, and there is no reason whatever why the Government should ignore this pressing problem. Up to date we have expended more than £10,000,000 in establishing the Federal Capital iri Canberra. The expenditure of that sum in North Australia would have produced an asset of infinitely greater value than we have in the Federal Capital, because it would have ensured development where development .is necessary. If we are to avoid criticism in regard to our determination to hold Australia exclusively for the white race, and almost exclusively for the British race, we can only do so by initiating a vigorous policy for the occupation and development of the northern portion of this continent. The lack of it constitutes a serious weakness in our national policy. In contrast with the position in North Australia, I point to Northern Queensland. North of the tropic of Capricorn in that State there are approximately 200,000 people settled. North Australia could sustain the same number of people; and yet, as I have stated, only about 3,000 Europeans are living there. The position is a disgrace to Australia, and certainly a disgrace to the Commonwealth Government - not to. this Government alone, but to preceding governments also. I urge the Ministry to realize the necessity of adopting a policy that will lead to the settlement and development of North Australia. We cannot afford to be niggardly in the handling of this difficult problem. It should not be left to the caprice of a particular Ministry who may be out of sympathy with the people who have settled, or who wish to settle there. The Government should accept full responsibility, and should provide the necessary funds to ensure the satisfactory development of that portion of Australia.







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