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Thursday, 4 April 1968

Mr FAIRBAIRN (Farrer) (Minister for National Development) - I would like to get back to the motion that the honourable member for Dawson (Dr Patterson) has moved. Despite the fact that I have this motion in front of me I was finding some difficulty in understanding it. I thought that I would understand it a bit better after the honourable member had spoken. But, on the contrary, I find that he has left it completely alone and has spoken only about the need for water conservation. Let me read the motion to the House and let us discuss it. It states:

That a National Water Conservation and Constructing Authority, embracing the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, be established by the Commonwealth to carry out, in association wilh State governments, the systematic development of soundly based water storage projects in the major river systems serving those established and proven areas which are periodically devastated by recurring droughts.

There are so many questions here that have been left completely unanswered by the honourable member for Dawson. It is very easy to paint a broad brush picture like this, but when one gets down to tin tacks what does it really mean? What is to be the size of the organisation? What are to be its terms of reference? Where will it obtain finance and how much finance will be required? Do we just' give it $100m and say: 'Go away and spend this and come back to us when you want some more'? How does it work in with the States? We know the States have the constitutional authority and power to develop their water resources, but how does an authority such as this take over from the States?

The setting up of such a national water conservation and constructing authority without specific objectives or projects is neither workable nor necessary. We know perfectly well that when the Snowy Mountains Authority was set up it was not told: Go and have a look at the area, tell us what you want and we will give it to you'. The whole plan was worked out beforehand - before an authority was ever established. Firstly, there were discussions over a long period and consultation to see what was the best plan and the best way of developing this area. Eventually the Commonwealth, in co-ordination with the States and under Sir Louis Loder, produced a plan. Although there have been minor alterations since, it is on that basic plan that the Authority was set up. It is no good setting up an authority and immediately giving it completely free rein to establish a body of this nature, because that would be an abdication by the Government of all responsibility for water development. This is not the way that governments work. It would also be an abdication of responsibility for taxation, because decisions on water conservation and development of resources are made in the light of available taxation and of needs.

In the Department of National Development we have a water resources branch which is responsible to the Minister. Similarly, in forestry we have the Forestry and Timber Bureau and we have the Bureau of Mineral Resources for minerals. These bodies make recommendations to the Minister and the Minister makes recommendations to the Cabinet. We cannot just set up an overall authority and tell it to go ahead and develop Australia and come back when it needs more money. There are strong constitutional bars to the proposal that has been put forward by the honourable member for Dawson. After hearing him it is quite obvious that he has no desire to see the States operate as such. He is a unificationist and a Socialist, and he wants to see 'one vast central authority that will direct how the States shall meet all water development works in Australia.

Mr Duthie - With State co-operation.

Mr FAIRBAIRN - Yes, he said in cooperation with the States. But what does this mean? He obviously envisages a large central authority, because if one reads the honourable member's motion - which he did not do - one will see that he uses the words embracing the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority', which means that the authority that the honourable member wants to set up must at the very least be larger than the present Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority. At the present moment the Authority is geared to an annual expenditure of something like $50m, which is roughly of the same order as the amount of money that is being spent at the present moment by the States on water conservation. This means that if we ask the Snowy Mountains Authority to do this work there will be no work left for the States to do. Would the States be happy wilh this minor role? I am sure they would not be. I am sure they would desire to see that they continued to have the responsibility for developing their water resources with assistance from the Commonwealth Government.

The motion goes even further. It implies that State water developments have not been systematic or soundly based. As I have said, the honourable member for Dawson is obviously a Socialist and a unificationist. He believes that a central authority in Canberra would better be able to develop Australia's water resources than the State authorities which have, over a long period, attained considerable knowledge and expertise. I have worked with a number of of the State authorities and I have a high regard for them. At their head they have some of the finest men in the world in the field of water conservation and irrigation. But, no, the honourable member for Dawson wants those authorities replaced by some central authority in Canberra which will have the power to direct all water conservation in Australia.

The honourable member made extensive allusions to the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority. He fell into the common error that so many people fall into. He said that the Authority is being disbanded. We know that this is completely wrong. It is not being disbanded. We are retaining the skills that we believe are necessary. When the end of the Snowy scheme was in sight - and we know now that the work will be completed by 1974 or 1975 - the Government, a couple years ago, started looking closely at what should be the proper policy on the future of the Authority. It looked, first, to see what skills were available in the Authority - whether there were special skills. It decided, I think rightly, that in the fields of investigation - particularly of dam sites and of major projects - of design and of scientific services the Snowy Mountains Authority was quite pre-eminent in Australia. The Authority had collected skills that were not available elsewhere and which would be of great use in future developmental projects. On the other hand the Government decided that in respect of the supervision of construction - because the bulk of the work in the Snowy scheme is done by contractors - the Authority, although competent, was no better and no worse than most of the State bodies which have operated much longer than it has and some of which probably have had more experience.

The Government then looked at the likely work which was going to be available to the Authority. It seemed unlikely that sufficient suitable work would be available in the Territories. Undoubtedly some water conservation projects, mainly of a small nature, are necessary in the Northern Territory and and in the Australian Capital Territory, but we have the Department of Works which is quite competent to handle this work with assistance in designing from the Snowy Mountains Authority. The States were then approached and asked whether they were prepared to make work available for the maintenance of the Authority. With one exception the States said quite bluntly that they could see a future for the Authority as a consultative body so that the States, when commencing any construction job would not have to set up everything that went with investigating an area, designing a dam and preparing contracts and that sort of thing. They said the Authority had a future as a consultative body but that: 'We are perfectly competent to handle everything that we will be able to construct with the money we get in the foreseeable future'.

Mr England - Does that apply to all States?

Mr FAIRBAIRN - No, to all bar one. One State did suggest two projects but in so doing it did not say how the projects were to be financed. They were fairly major projects and shortly afterwards the State approached the Commonwealth Government for funds for one of the projects. It is obvious that the States see the maintenance of the Authority only as a lever to try to get additional funds over and above what the Commonwealth feels it can make available to the States.I am perfectly certain that this is what the honourable member for Dawson believes. The reason be wants the Snowy Mountains Authority maintained in its present constructing role is so that it can act as a lever to get more money out of the Commonwealth.

Mr Duthie - What is wrong with that?

Mr FAIRBAIRN - The greatest difficulty is in finding sufficient funds from the limited resources available in Australia. All authorities, which are concerned with developing Australia's water resources, regularly review their contributions to see whether they can make available more money. We have recently increased quite considerably the amount we are making available. But the proposal we are now considering is a subterfuge to try to squeeze even more from the Commonwealth than the Commonwealth feels it can provide. The pet topic of the honourable member for Dawson is water conservation. With someone else it might be social services, hospitals or roads. There is constant pressure on the Government for more money. The honourable member for Dawson has committed the common error of telling the public that the moment there is no constructing authority in the Snowy Mountains organisation, Australia cannot go ahead and build more dams. Nothing could be more wrong. If one examines activity in respect of water conservation in the last 20 years, one finds that more than five-sixths of the work has been undertaken by State water conservation authorities and less than one-sixth by the Snowy Mountains Authority. In other words we have ample constructing authorities available in Australia for every cent that we are able to afford.

We have been told that once the Snowy Mountains Authority is disbanded we will have no more ability to go ahead at the necessary rate, but the fact is that more than half of the Authority's work force consists of contractors, and when the contract work is completed they will be available to more elsewhere on other work. Of a total work force of 6,000 the actual retrenchment from the staff during the next 6 years will be about 170, and in 1975 an additional 113 will be retrenched. If this is going to mean the end of Australia's ability to increase its water conservation, then all I can say is: God help us'.

I return to the present proposal, because it is alleged that we do not have an overall plan in Australia. It is terribly easy to say that if we are to set up an organisation it should be centralised under one control and it should have one plan. But we must realise that we have a Constitution and whether we like it or not we have to live under it. This is how Australia developed. It is all very well to say' that we would like to do something, but we have to take account of the historical background and of the fact that the States have always had the authority and the constitutional right to develop their own water resources. We have a programme which takes account of this but which, over and above it,, superimposes Commonwealth assistance in many fields. I believe the programme suits Australian conditions. Some people ask why we do not adopt a procedure that was adopted in another country with completely different conditions 50 years ago.

Lel me detail the basic means of water conservation projects in Australia at present. Many of the bodies concerned have evolved during the last few years, and some during the last 3 or 4 years. First we have the Australian Water Resources Council, which is a Federal-State body .that was set up to make an assessment of Australia's resources so that future planning would occur in the knowledge of what our resources wore, lt now has a 10-year accelerated assessment programme. The Commonwealth alone over 6 years, has contributed $7im to it. This will double the number of stream gauging stations which are being set up in the Commonwealth. It will increase by about 100% the rate of investigation of underground water resources. The Council is doing a number of other things to co-ordinate investigation and research into such matters as desalination and evaporation.

After the Australian Water Resources Council we come to the State authorities which prepare and earn- out long term programmes. For example, Victoria has a 10-year programme. 1 understand that New South Wales is doing the same thing.

So the State governments are taking measures in order to have known programmes and to get stability in their work forces. Over and above this the Commonwealth fills in the gap in State programmes, particularly where the cost is beyond the financial capability of the States. Examples of this include the Snowy Mountains scheme, the Ord River scheme and the River Murray scheme. We have given assistance to a number of other projects, some of which were mentioned by the honourable member for Dawson. This is the third section of the national programme of water conservation.

The fourth section has only come into being fairly recently. I refer to the National Water Resources Development Programme. This Programme came into operation with a budget of $50m. From that sum the Government already has committed $20m for the Nogoa Dam at Emerald and $3 .6m for a couple of projects in Victoria aimed at keeping salt out of the River Murray. As T mentioned at question time this morning, a number of other requests from the States arc being looked into. We hope to be in a position to commit more funds from the National. Water Resources Development Programme later this year.

Finally, we shall have this consultative body of (he Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority which will be available for consultation by governments within or outside Australia. It is of interest to note that the Authority already has received a considerable number of projects from overseas as well as within Australia. These are under way. The Authority has been asked to act as a consultant and to design and prepare tenders and the like. In this body, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, will be preserved the best of the collective skills in the Snowy Mountains area which are worth retaining. In the light of this information I find it impossible to understand why people do not realise the true position of the Authority. I have made statements on numerous occasions saying that the Authority is not being disbanded; that we are keeping the skills that have been developed. Yet only last night I saw this editorial in a Melbourne evening newspaper:

The Snowy Mountains Authority will design Melbourne's big new water storage dam near Emerald. The Board of Works action in hiring the Authority for this work is doubly welcome.

The editorial continued and said, firstly, that this would help Melbourne's water supplies, and secondly: the Board's move is a convincing demonstration that the Snowy Mountains Authority need not be disbanded when the Snowy scheme is complete.

The Authority is not being disbanded. The skills acquired by the Authority are being used in the planning and construction of Melbourne's new water storage dam. Admittedly, we do not know what future requirement there will be for these skills. We are allowing the Authority to carry on in this way in order to see how many requests for assistance will be made. Obviously, an organisation of this size cannot be retained unless there is sufficient work for it to do. We are hopeful that in time there will be sufficient work available for it. In fact, the Commissioner of the Authority has told me that at the moment the Authority would be hard pressed to take on additional work as it is fully committed. The Government has a great plan for water conservation and development. Much of this plan has been drawn up only in recent years and I am sure that it will assist, in a constitutional way, to develop our water resources.

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