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Thursday, 23 November 1911

Senator McCOLL (Victoria) . - Senator Millen moved the adjournment of the debate on the second reading of this Bill ; but as he has had a very hard night, and did more work during it than I did, I am glad to take his place in resuming the consideration of this measure. It is rather unfortunate to have to take up the discussion of so important a question as ".this after a continuous sitting of thirty-four hours. I shall probably not be able to conclude my remarks before the usual dinner adjournment; and if it is not intended that the Senate shall sit later, I shall have to ask leave at that hour to resume my speech at a later date: I do not believe that the importance of this question is fully realized by the general public, or that it was given the prominence which at deserved in another place. Apart from the question of linking up these distant parts of Australia, there is another question of equal importance looming ahead, and that is the unification of the railway gauges throughout the Commonwealth. That must take place some time or other, and the gauge decided upon for this line will, in all probability, t)e the gauge eventually fixed for Australia. Some of the States will delay unification of gauge, and Queensland may do so for a very long time; but we shall ultimately, throughout Australia, for economic, industrial, and military purposes, require to adopt a uniform railway gauge. In connexion with the development of the Northern Territory, I imagine that it will not be proposed to extend the present line any further on the existing 3-ft. 6-in. gauge.

We shall not be able to utilize such a line to any great advantage in the development of the Territory, and I assume that when it is proposed to complete the Northern Territory line, the extension will be made on the gauge which will be adopted for this transcontinental railway. The fact that the existing 3-ft. 6-in. line in the Northern Territory can be of very little service seems to justify the vote I gave against the taking over of the Northern Territory. This measure raises the question of the uniform gauge for Australia, and I propose to deal with that subject at some length. I hope we shall be permitted sufficient latitude in the debate to discuss the matter fully. At first glance, the 4-ft. 8j-in. gauge may seem to be the best to adopt ; but we must remember that new railways in other countries similar to Australia are being constructed on wider gauges than 4 ft. 8£ in. In the circumstances, I say that " we should not rush the consideration of this Bill. Whilst, no doubt, a number of honorable senators are very desirous to see it passed, the questions it involves are of such immense importance to the future of '-Australia that we should seek the best expert1 advice we can obtain, in order that we may not make mistakes, and- later on lament, as America is doing to-day, that we- did hot adopt a wider' gauge than that proposed in this Bill. In this matter South Australia and Victoria are somewhat at a disadvantage, from the fact that the engineer appointed to superintend this line is a gentleman who has been connected all his life with railways on the 4-ft. 8j-in. gauge, and has managed railways run on that gauge. He is . an English engineer, and we know that a man is influenced by his environment. It is difficult for him to recognise virtue in any system but that to which he has been accustomed. I believe that this gentleman is also very much interested in people being buyers of English stock, and this may unconsciously bias him, and account, to some extent, for his desire that this Parliament should approve of the 4-ft. 8J-in. gauge for this railway.

Senator Walker - He recommends it because it is the standard gauge.

Senator McCOLL - That is merely a phrase, and I shall show directly that the 4-ft. 8J-in. gauge is no more a standard gauge than others that might be mentioned. It would have been very much better if the Government had fortified themselves with the advice of modern experts familiar with the latest ideas in engineering, and with experience of both broad and narrow gauges. This is not a matter of favouring any State, nor is it a party matter. The only question to be considered is: Which gauge is the best for Australia, not for to-day or to-morrow, but for the years to come, when our railway construction will have been so extended that, if a wise choice of gauge is not made to-day, it will be found, as in other countries, almost impossible to alter the gauges then in use. I do not think that any one in this Parliament possesses sufficient technical knowledge to justify him in pronouncing on the question of the best gauge to adopt. The consideration of this matter has throughout been dominated by one man, Mr. Deane. This has been a one-man proposal from the beginning, and we have not had the advantage of hearing the opinions of outside experts on the matter. The proposal to adopt the 4-ft. 8£-in. gauge is founded, practically, on the Conference of Railways Commissioners that met in Melbourne in 1897. That Conference recommended that the 4-ft. 8j-in. gauge should be adopted as the standard gauge for Australia. The only rea.son given for the recommendation was that of cost, and the statement that it would cost a great deal less to convert existing lines to the 4-ft. 8j-in. gauge than it would to convert them to the 5-ft. 3-in. gauge. We had a War Railway Council sitting, but they based their recommendation on what the Railways Commissioners had previously done. Later on we had State engineers meeting together, and they also based their recommendations on the action of the Railways Commissioners' Conference. So that practically the basis of the recommendation of the 4-ft. 8j-in. gauge is to be found in the Conference which was held in Melbourne in 1897. But we have in this matter to consider the States. All our attempts at securing a uniform railway gauge will be in vain unless we can induce the State Governments to fall into line. I believe that two of the States, Victoria and South- Australia, desire further evidence on this question to enable a wise decision to be arrived at as to the gauge best adapted to a country such as this. On my motion, submitted a little time ago, the correspondence which passed between the State and Commonwealth Governments was printed, but I am given to understand that a letter from Mr. Verran, the Premier of South Australia, is not included in the printed correspondence. The Minister of Defence will probably be able to say whether that is so or not.

Senator Pearce - Was it received since or before the papers were printed?

Senator McCOLL - I understand that it was received before the papers were printed. There is one letter from Victoria and another from South Australia, and I am given to understand that the letter of the Premier of South Australia has not been printed. No doubt it will be printed later, and if it is in hand now we shall be very glad to see it. We require not only uniformity of gauge, but unanimity amongst the States. Unless the State Governments are satisfied with the gauge proposed to be adopted as a standard they may simply decline to convert their railways to that gauge.

Senator Pearce - A letter from the Premier of Victoria is included in the correspondence.

Senator McCOLL - 1 was given to understand that the letter from the Premier of South Australia came to hand at about the same time. If the State Governments declined to convert their lines ti> the gauge decided upon we should have to set aside our hopes for the better development of the Commonwealth by the adoption of a uniform gauge. We ought not to rush the States in this matter. There is no reason why we should put the final touches on this measure this session. It should not take very long to obtain expert evidence on the question of gauge. I think that in such a matter the Government should look beyond party considerations, and consult the best interests of Australia. By doing so they will reflect more credit upon themselves than they will by forcing this measure through at the expense, perhaps, of disaster later on, and the ill-will of some of the States.

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - Does the honorable senator not thinK that we ought to build the other railway first - the. line from Oodnadatta to Pine Creek?

Senator McCOLL - I shall not discuss that at the present time. I have to say that the proposed transcontinental railway is not absolutely necessary at the present time. I think that it was Major-General Hutton who said that until we had put our Defence Force in proper order, and it can be mobilized and made ready for action, it would be a disaster to construct this line, if we are to regard it as a line for military purposes. In his opinion, to construct a line to any place at which an enemy might land, before we had a sufficient force to repel a landing, would only be inviting an enemy, and placing ourselves at his mercy. It must be remembered also that it will be a very long time before this . railway will pay. In another place estimates of expenditure and revenue were given, and it was suggested very hopefully that it would pay in ten years' time. I was glad to notice that the Minister of Defence was not so sanguine. He adopted a prudent course, and admitted that it is quite impossible to say when this railway will pay. It might be generations before it will pay. It will always have to compete with sea traffic. The country through which it goes is not developed, and we do not know sufficient of it to say to what extent it can be developed. This will not be like the great railways of America and Canada, where settlement on great areas has been carried out by private companies. In obtaining permission to construct their lines these companies have been given concessions of very large grants in alternate blocks of 10 miles square. They have realized that their lines can only be made to pay by introducing people, and they have made it their special business to get the people, and settle them on the land, to enable the lines to pay. People mean dividends, and without them' there can be no dividends for the owners of such lines. We have not a similar incentive here. The Government do not betray any great anxiety to bring people here in order to make our lines pay. We cannot construct a line like this, 1,063 miles long, in the way lines have been constructed in America and Canada.

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - Look at the benefit which has followed the policy adopted in Canada.

Senator Walker - I call attention to the state of the Senate. [Quorum formed.]

Senator McCOLL - The statements which have been made in respect both of the land and water to be found on the route of this projected line are somewhat hazy. The position from the stand-point of whether supplies of water are available is very obscure indeed. We have no Andes or Rockies traversing the country ; and if such an essential as water be absent, we cannot expect to promote settlement, and, consequently, the railway cannot pay. If settlement is to proceed upon pastoral lines, we must recollect that the pastoralist has to cope with numerous pests, and that, consequently, his capital outlay will be very heavy. The estimates which have been made of the probable traffic on the railway are very problematical. Consequently, I say that in this matter we ought to hasten slowly. Under the very best auspices, the undertaking will prove a burden on the Commonwealth for a great many years. We are entitled to make the best bargain that we can. The adoption of any gauge save that of 5 ft'. 3 in. will prove disastrous both to Victoria and South Australia. Nevertheless, those States will not stand in the way of another gauge being adopted, so long as it will fulfil all that is required of it. I wish honorable senators to realize what they are doing in this matter. They are fixing the economic and industrial future of Australia for all time. Consequently, the Bill requires full discussion, in order that we may have as much light thrown upon it as possible. In another place it was somewhat disappointing to find that the Minister in charge of the measure was almost dumb upon it. His entire speech occupied only five pages of Hansard, and he had to be pressed, even by the members of .his own party, for information.

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