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Wednesday, 25 February 1959

Sir EARLE PAGE (Cowper) .- As the oldest member of this House I should like to congratulate the new members on both sides of the chamber who have made their very bright maiden speeches. I was very pleased to note that they were all optimists. Apparently the honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant) has become a little pessimistic, if we are to judge by the speech he has just made. Probably if a Labour government were elected to office he would become optimistic again. I read the reports of the speeches of new members whom I was not present to hear and I was pleased to note that they all spoke for an "Australia Unlimited." I congratulate them upon having that attitude.

I should like to say quite plainly at the very beginning of my speech that I do not think we can get " Australia unlimited " unless we do something to revise our methods of financing the developments that are necessary. I do not believe that this generation can afford to find, out of taxes or loans, the money needed to fix up all the public works necessary for perhaps four or five times as many people in 50 years' time. Therefore, we have to make certain that we find other sources from which to secure the wealth that is necessary.

My main reason for speaking to-night is to refer to a matter that has been brought very closely to my mind by the two major floods which occurred during the last few weeks in the northern part of New South Wales. They were extraordinary floods - floods that rose at the rate of 8, 9 or 10 feet an hour for consecutive hours - the fastest ever known, and consequently most dangerous to the townspeople lower down the river, because they were not given time to evacuate their homes as would be the case had the floods risen more slowly.

I want to indicate the measures that I think are necessary, first, to give relief to the people who have suffered all these troubles, and, secondly, to provide a permanent solution of the difficulties that have faced them, and do something that will really prevent floods in this country. Objectively, the floods we have in Australia - there has been no real attempt to prevent them - are not merely a hazard to development, and not merely the cause of a tremendous amount of waste of natural resources, but, subjectively, they develop a sense of hopeless futility and despair even among people who are indomitable in the way in which they face their difficulties, when they are left with their homes flooded, their furnishings and other possessions swept away, their stock drowned and their pastures unproductive for many months. At present, there are thousands of thousands of acres of farming land in the northern rivers area under water, and likely to remain under water until the winter is past.

For some unknown reason the flood waters of the Clarence have a strange habit of entering the towns in the dark. They steal in stealthily like a burglar, at night, or come in the very early morning. They always come at times that are very inconvenient, and it is absolutely indispensable that the people affected should have word beforehand to enable them to evacuate their houses.

What happens with regard to these floods? Commonwealth revenue suffers, State revenue suffers and local government revenue suffers. There is loss all along the line. We have losses of production, losses of overseas trade and losses of tax revenue. Also, by doing nothing in a permanent way to prevent floods, we suffer a monetary loss in that funds have to be spent on flood relief. That money is washed away like flotsam in the floods year after year. So we must make certain that we apply the right cure. That cure, of course, is to preserve both the money and the water. We must store our waters and thereby make certain that they cannot come with this desperate rapidity which causes all the trouble. I am quite convinced that in my lifetime many dams could have been built with the money spent by governments on relief for people affected by disastrous floods. Those floods could have been avoided completely had the money we were forced to spend on that relief been earlier used on proper preventive measures.

I find that Australia is the only country in the world which is able to afford such a foolhardy lack of action. I find also that it is the only country that has division of authority in regard to flood control. The United States of America, which is roughly about the same size as Australia, and is, like Australia, a federation, has placed the control of navigation under absolute federal authority. It is, therefore, able to guard against floods to a great extent, but, should floods occur, it is able to put relief measures into motion immediately.

The January flood on the Clarence, followed by a second flood the following week, in February, emphasizes the need for federal powers in this connexion. I am glad that the Constitution Review Committee, as mentioned in the GovernorGeneral's Speech, has recommended that the control of navigation be exclusively a Commonwealth function. We would then be following the American method of dealing with this problem. The federal authorities in America control navigation right from the highest rill in the hills to where the water debouches into the sea. The river systems of America are entirely under the control of one government.

T remind the House once again of what has happened in this country due to division of authority. When these last floods occurred, they not only rose with extraordinary rapidity, but they rose in rivers which had not been on recent occasions very severely flooded. The result of these floods in rivers which had been fairly free from flooding was that the flood waters brought down an enormous amount of debris - logs and all sorts of rubbish - which blocked all the bridges and the egresses of the small creeks. The flood waters could not get away, completely isolating many people in their homes and many cattle in the pastures. I applied at once to the Minister for Works (Mr. Freeth) for a dragline which the Commonwealth Government had provided freely during the floods in 1954 and 1955, and which had given inestimable service. He said he was quite willing to make it available, but after he had looked into the matter he found that he could not let us have the dragline except on the request of the State Government. 1 said that 1 would guarantee the payment of the rent, and he replied that that was no good, and that even a request from a local government authority would not do. We had to get a request from the State Government. That conversation occurred on a Monday, I think. It took us until the following Friday before we could get any request made by the Stale Government for the dragline, although we had every member from that area in the New South Wales Parliament working to ensure that the request was made.

I find from the reply that the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) gave to-day to a question that I asked yesterday, that there has been no actual request for relief, such as is ordinarily made by the New South Wales Government when any of these disastrous floods occur, even though these floods, which began three weeks ago, have not abated. The Prime Minister read his reply at a time when, unfortunately, I had left the chamber. 1 had spent 35 minutes here waiting for the reply but, as the Prime Minister had not mentioned it, I left the chamber thinking he had forgotten it. The Prime Minister said -

At the request of the New South Wales Government, the dragline mentioned by the right honorable member for Cowper has been made available by the Commonwealth Department of Works on two occasions of major flooding in the Clarence River area, to assist in the clearance of debris. I have ascertained that on this occasion, following arrangements between State authorities and the Commonwealth Department of Works, the dragline arrived in the area on 4th February and is being employed in accordance with locally arranged task priorities. It is under the control of the district engineer of the New South Wales Public Works Department, who is in contact with local government authorities in the area. The cost involved - approximately £1,000 per month for some three months - has been provisionally accepted by the New South Wales Government. In accordance with its usual practice, the Commonwealth Government will consider sympathetically any requests that may be received from New South Wales relating to these floods.

I wish to point out that the people affected - the ratepayers of the flooded shires - will not have any revenue for months and months. Those shires will have to free the roads of debris, repair damage, and do lots of other things as a result of the floods, and they have not a dog's chance of finding the money to pay for them. It will come, i believe, ultimately from the Commonwealth Government, because I am sure that, sooner or later, the State government will realize its constitutional responsibilities and deal with this matter in the way that it has always been dealt with hitherto. If the State government makes its request for relief, the thing can be dealt with at once.

Some lime ago I asked the Prime Minister whether he would constitute a permanent emergency flood relief committee of this Parliament, which would always be in existence, with members from every State on it, and which could immediately approach State and Federal governments - as would be necessary under the present constitutional set-up - to get something done. I know that everybody will remember that the honorable member for Macarthur (Mr. Jeff Bate) has done a yeoman job in connexion with floods in New South Wales on five or six occasions, because he was in an executive position and able to get on with the job. He has been extraordinarily useful to us in that regard. I hope that the committee will be set up at once so that we will be able to make contact with the State governments immediately the need arises. In Queensland, there is really just as much trouble as there has been in New South Wales.

I must commend my State colleagues in New South Wales. They worked sedulously to secure the help of the New South Wales Premier, but they could not contact him. Finally, they approached the permanent head of the Treasury, who made contact with the officials, and the dragline has gone forward. However, I have been informed by wire now that the dragline will be removed almost at once. I do not know what will happen, but the decision to move the dragline seems silly. Water is lying on the land and will remain there until something is done to let it run away. While the land remains under water, tremendous losses are being suffered.

The big advantage of the Commonwealth having control of relief of this nature is that it already has an organization in the Army and the Air Force which have the necessary equipment and so could get on with the job immediately. Personnel from these services have done invaluable work in the- past. If the Commonwealth had full control, immediate action could be taken when the floods occurred. At this time, I should like to thank the Commonwealth officials who did so- much during- the last and other floods. We feel that we owe them a tremendous debt, and we should like to express our gratitude to the Minister.

The permanent solution of our problem is within the realm of possibility. Researches by experts over the last 60 years have always reached the same conclusion - that a dam at the gorge on the Clarence River, where practically al! the tributaries coalesce, would prevent all flooding and would provide water for irrigation, give access to 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 acres of timber that at present are inaccessible, and would permit a very big head of power to be established. Such a dam would pay for itself. Yet we can get nothing done! I venture to say that this is because of the magnitude of the job. Nothing was done with the Snowy River until the Commonwealth Government, under Mr. Chifley, started the scheme. I regret to say that this was at the end of his term of office; I wish it had been started earlier. 1 have been fighting for the Snowy scheme as well as the Clarence and the Burdekin schemes all my life. The River Murray Waters Commission, the Wyangala dam and many other ventures were started either on the initiative of the Commonwealth or with the assistance of the Commonwealth. I feel that we will never get the waters of this nation harnessed unless the Commonwealth takes the initiative. Australia is the driest continent and we need to use the water that we have to the fullest advantage.

Harnessing the waters of the Clarence River would not merely prevent flooding but would also provide many ancillary benefits. I am rather surprised that there should be any difficulty with the New South Wales Government at this time. On 22nd March, 1955, almost four years ago, the "Daily Telegraph " published the following report: -

The Government has been investigating proposals to mitigate floods.

Mr. Cahillreferred in a broadcast last night to organised relief in flood areas. He said: " What is exercising the Government's mind is prevention ".

That is what is exercising my mind heretonight. We know how to- prevent the floods but- no one- will do anything about- it because it is such1 a big job-.

Mr Curtin - Why does the Commonwealth Government, not do it?

Sir EARLE PAGE - That is what I have suggested al! along and' that is what I suggest again to-night. I shall deal with the question of the financing of this scheme. When one looks at the enormous amount of money raised in taxes and l'oans, and when one realizes that' this is still not enough to do a whole host of indispensable jobs in Australia, it is obvious that we must find some other way to finance this scheme, or we will be left three or four laps behind in the race-.

Mr Curtin - What about the Commonwealth Bank?

Sir EARLE PAGE - That would not do. If we used the bank too freely, we would bump up costs and less would be done. There is a way we can get this done, if we follow the example of the United States of America. The United States of America, like ourselves, had a population of 4,000,000 when it federated some 150 years ago. In the first 100 years, it faced all sorts of problems, just as we are facing problems now. But it realized that it could not develop the country out of the savings or the production of the people and that it needed more men and more capital. Therefore, it went out of its way to attract both capital and man-power. For some years it had terms of trade with the rest of the world against it. For 30 or 40 years it imported more than it exported. I hope that people will rid their minds of the idea that imports are necessarily bad. The important point with imports is the way in which they are paid for. At the end of 30 or 40 years, the United States of America found that it had a population of between 60,000,000 and 70,000,000 people, and within two or three years it had a surplus of exports over imports. In a very short time, the country was able to repay hundreds of millions of pounds that had been expended on building railways and other projects. Capital, other than that invested in Government bonds, had been attracted to pay for the work.

At the present time, we have all sorts of tff' difficulties in obtaining sufficient money for State works, for local government works and- for Commonwealth works. It seems tome that the time has come when the Australian Loan Council should not merely concern itself with the raising of public loans but should also take into its hands the question of attracting capital from overseas for developmental or semi-business works. That would enable us to get these works done at the same time as we build houses, sewers and all the other essential, things. My hope is that we will build enough houses not only for those who are already here but for those who may come to this country. lt seems to me that in a real immigration programme we should build enough houses to provide for the needs of immigrants. I am sure that if a house were available for every family that wanted to come to Australia, we would be able to get the best people from every nation to help us build' this country.

I hope that the floods that have done so much damage in northern New South- Wales and. in Queensland will be a fingerpost pointing the way we must move forward to get results. This work will not be done if we rely on- government loans for the necessary finance. Trouble is experienced now in finding sufficient loan funds to satisfy the needs of the State governments and localgoverning authorities. If loan funds cannot be found for this flood prevention work, other capital must be attracted for it. If these works were done on a charter and franchise basis with overseas capital, we would reap the benefit of the need of overseas investors to get the work done quickly. These people must see that the capital they control earns dividends for their shareholders, and the work is usually finished and paying its way very quickly. Unfortunately, in Australia we have developed the habit of taking 20 or 30 years to build a dam such as the Glenbawn dam. The Keepit dam, of course, fills up with dirt almost as quickly as the height of the wall is raised. Instead of taking so long to complete these public works, we should finish them in a year or two years. The contractors on the Snowy Mountains scheme have shown that big works can be completed two years ahead of schedule.

What we in this country need to do is to get on with the- job in this way that will give us these amenities very quickly. I may be getting a bit long in the tooth and rather old, but I hope to live long enough to enjoy some of these amenities that we have been trying to get for all these years, and I am very keen- indeed that my children's children should enjoy them in their lifetime, too. Instead of merely talking to them about these things being provided in the future, I want to see them really here. Therefore, I say that we have to do something about the matter.

I can give a very sharp illustration of the way in which the present methods work badly for us all. There is an area of land in South Grafton which could be reclaimed. It was necessary to resume it before the reclamation could be undertaken, and therefore it became a job for the Graft03 City Council. The banks were approached for finance, and they said that they were prepared jointly to provide the money required. Had the reclamation been undertaken, I suppose about- 1,000 people who have been forced to leave their homes during the last couple of weeks would have been able to remain undisturbed. After the banks had said that they would find the money needed to reclaim the land, the New South Wales Treasury told the city council, " If you find this money to reclaim the land, the amount will be taken off your allocation of loan funds, even though it will not be a public debt ". Surely we must alter that situation. We must not reduce an authority's allocation of loan funds by an amount equivalent to any finance obtained by the giving of a franchise or a charter, or on overdraft, particularly where the money is to be used for purposes such as flood mitigation and prevention, or for making people safe from disaster. If money is found for these purposes, we must not deprive the people, for that very reason, of sewerage or some amenity or service that is absolutely indispensable in a city or municipality. But this is- what is happening at the present time.

For these reasons, I suggest that the Australian Loan Council should undertake two functions. First, it should do the real job for which it was established and, secondly, it should get on with the job of vetting proposals for overseas investment in this country and encouraging overseas investors to bring capital into Australia and undertake these big works. If such investors come here to invest their money, they will bring a lot of specialists in these fields of work who will have a fund of up-to-date knowledge and who will know what ought to be done. They will be extraordinarily valuable to us in the further development of this country.

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