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Tuesday, 4 October 1983
Page: 1282

Mr LUSHER(6.16) —I wish to address my remarks to a couple of factors which emerged in the estimates. The first relates to the Northern Territory railway. The estimates for the Department of Transport included an amount of $5m for further study of track and other matters, which brings to something like $10 .3m the amount of money which has now been allocated to that study. I am concerned about this matter simply because the Government has not yet made any commitment to the project as a whole. I just want to put that into some sort of perspective. In 1981 the Commonwealth Government made a commitment to build the Alice Springs to Darwin railway. At that time the then Government announced a $ 545m program to construct the railway and to have it completed by 1988-89 as one of the bicentennial projects proposed by that Government. There was no doubt whatsoever that the then Labor Opposition clearly committed itself to that project during the build-up to the election campaign which culminated in its victory on 5 March. It is not simply a question of the Government, having come to office and having been confronted with a huge $9 billion or $10 billion deficit, deciding that this project could not be proceeded with. In fact, the incoming Government confirmed that it would proceed with it. The now Minister for Transport, Mr Peter Morris, on 15 March told the Northern Territory leader of the Opposition in Darwin, Mr Collins, that this was not a parochial project; it was a project of national and international significance which the Labor Party would honour. On 15 March the Treasurer, Mr Keating, branded a media report that the railway would go in Budget cut-backs as pure speculation. He said:

We are horrified that the railway has been singled out.

On 4 April, the Minister for Transport, Mr Peter Morris, said:

The Government has a long-standing commitment to the railway and legislation allowing it to go ahead could be passed in the May parliamentary sitting. The railway does not have any relationship to the losses being incurred by the various rail systems at the moment. It is a development project and a project of significant defence important.

Mr Braithwaite —Who said that?

Mr LUSHER —It was the Minister for Transport. Again on 8 April the Minister said to the Northern Territory Leader Opposition, Mr Collins:

Legislation is being drafted and a Budget submission is being prepared. Preparations for the construction of the rail link are proceeding on schedule.

Then in the Senate on 22 April the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Gietzelt, representing the Minister for Transport, said:

'No steps will be taken that will curtail that election commitment'.

As we all know, the mini-Budget decision to require the Northern Territory Government to fund 40 per cent of the project will effectively kill off the project. I make it clear that the Opposition's position is that the railway should go ahead. That position has been stated in the Northern Territory by myself as the Opposition spokesman, by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) and also by the Leader of the National Party (Mr Anthony). Regardless of what the outcome of the inquiry by Mr Hill might be, the fact is that the Government has got itself into a situation in which it ought not to go ahead with this $5m expenditure if in fact it is not to proceed with the railway. The $5m ought to be held up.

Mr Reeves —An expenditure of almost $4m was committed, and you know about that. You committed yourselves to it.

Mr LUSHER —We have committed ourselves to it.

Mr Reeves —The sum of $3.8m was spent before you did anything about it.

Mr LUSHER —That is right.

Mr Reeves —What is wrong with spending $5m before making a commitment?

Mr LUSHER —Because your Government effectively killed it off. We made the commitment to go ahead with it. The Government has created a situation, as it well knows, in which the Northern Territory has no hope of meeting the 40 per cent cost and it is then, in the light of that, proceeding to spend another $5m of taxpayers' funds. Mr Chairman, I seek leave to table some papers, which I have shown to the Minister for Transport, in relation to the matter.

The CHAIRMAN —Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted.

Mr LUSHER —I thank the Committee. I table the papers.

The Australian National Railways Commission concerns me a lot. I know it concerns the Minister because he and I served on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure which looked at this matter over a long period . He would know as well as I the concerns that we had in that inquiry and in the conclusions that were reached. I noticed also that in the Senate Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing report which came out the other day there was also a reference to the Australian National Railways. That report states:

Although ANR has only been operating in its present form since 1977-78, its results in that time raise some serious questions regarding its longer term financial viability . . . between 1977-78 to 1981-82 the accumulated real losses amounted to $397.1 million. This sum is particularly large when it is considered that the Australian Research Development Organisation estimated that in 1978-79 ANR's capital stock was valued at $600 million.

I mention that matter because I think it is another view as to the difficulties facing the Australian National Railways. One of the things that interests me about this matter is that as I understand it the last figures that we have on the ANR are the 1981-82 figures. In that period there was a deficit of $73.6m which, of course, is significantly higher than the deficit that it budgeted for in its corporate plan. One of the things about which the Expenditure Committee was critical was the situation in relation to the corporate plan. The fact of the matter is that the corporate plan has not come anywhere near achieving a break-even position by 1988, which is the stated ministerial target accepted by the Commission for its operations. In 1982, according to the fourth corporate plan, the Australian National Railways deficit should have been in the order of $60m; so it was very inaccurate.

The fourth plan also for the 1983 financial year again projects a deficit of about $60m and $55m for the 1984 financial year; yet in the estimates $106m was made available last year, I think, and $85m was made available this year. It is quite apparent that, as a result of all sorts of things which may be quite proper, the Australian National Railways' financial situation has deteriorated very dramatically from the position that existed when those corporate plans were made available to the Expenditure Committee. I wish to draw attention to something that was said in this House by the Minister's predecessor, which concerned me at the time. I hope it concerns him and I hope it concerns him more now. In response to the Expenditure Committe report, he said:

I note that, in the period since the Committee received the evidence on which it based these conclusions, the Commission has continued to refine its corporate planning processes in the light of the experience it has gained in the use of the techniques involved in corporate planning. There has been quite close correlation between the Commission's financial results and its projected performance. In the light of this I would not propose to intervene in the matter at this stage.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will not take the same attitude that the former Minister took because I think that that was a very unsatisfactory response. I want to know whether it is still the objective of this Government that the ANR should break even by 1988. If so, I challenge the Minister for Transport to show to this House in a statement how that will be done. If not, I challenge him to make a statement to this House about the continued haemorrhage of public funds that ANR involves. That is something which I think is very significant.

I would have liked to have made some comments in relation to the Australian National Line but time is running out. I would like to incorporate in Hansard a balance sheet which indicates briefly what the Government's capital injection has done.

The CHAIRMAN —Is the honourable member seeking leave?


The CHAIRMAN —Leave is granted. The incorporation is subject to the approval of the Speaker and the material proposed to be incorporated falling within the guidelines laid down by the Speaker.

The document read as follows-


Balance Sheet


1982 1982

$m $m Capital 36 126 Reserves 7 7

43 133 Less losses 15 15

28 118

Loans 183 123 Provisions 18 18

201 141

Current liabilities 139 139

368 398

Current assets 115 145 Fixed assets 253 253

368 398

Mr LUSHER —I thank the Committee. I think the Government should take advantage of the capital injection to look at the possibilities of disposing of the Australian National Line. I think the Minister should make a statement to the House as to why we need to have the Australian National Line as an Australian government-owned flag carrier.

The CHAIRMAN —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.