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Thursday, 1 December 1983
Page: 3182

Mr O'NEIL(3.56) —I am very happy to have the opportunity to speak on railways. My predecessor, Mr Laurie Wallis, who represented the seat of Grey for 14 years, made many fine contributions in this House on behalf of railways and railway workers. I bring to the attention of the House the fact that Laurie Wallis, the former member, is not well. I am sure that all honourable members in this House will wish him a speedy recovery.

Honourable members-Hear, hear!

Mr O'NEIL —I thank honourable members. As the honourable member for Hume (Mr Lusher) has said, this is not an easy time to be operating railway systems in Australia. We, on this side of the House, are very fortunate indeed to have such a dedicated, positive and constructive Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) in this position. Members of the Australian Labor Party's transport committee in particular must pay tribute to the Minister for Transport for the support he has given us in helping to formulate our policies, and our ideas in promoting railways. I am sure that the railway system throughout Australia will expand. It will expand very greatly and quickly under this very positive Australian Labor Party Government.

Mr White —What about the one you have just knocked back?

Mr O'NEIL —One of the members of the Opposition mentioned the Alice Springs- Darwin railway. I would be quite happy to comment on that. I quite firmly support the Alice Springs-Darwin railway line. However, the situation is that we are in harsh economic times. The Hawke Government has taken a positive approach to this and it has set up a committee of inquiry to which I have certainly made submissions. The committee of inquiry will shortly hand down its report. If the railway is viable then it will proceed. The Australian National Railways Act 1917, which the Australian National Railways Commission Bill and the Australian National Railways Commission (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill are designed to replace, came into effect at a very interesting stage in the development of Australian railways. The year 1917 was the year when , on 22 October, the first train to cross the Nullabor Plain on the newly completed transcontinental line left Port Augusta for Kalgoorlie. That event was very relevant to the concerns of this new legislation because it represented the first major achievement in terms of both national thinking and national action on railways. It was not achieved easily. The barriers to concerted national action were of a kind that are not entirely unknown today.

For instance in 1904, when the Deakin Government moved for an appropriation to finance a railway survey between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie, the issue of State versus Commonwealth development began to loom large. Interstate rivalry was another delaying factor. A Queensland senator echoed the sentiments of many when she said that, since every other State had borne the burden of its own public works, it would be unjust for the Commonwealth to build a line which should be the reponsibility of the Western Australian and South Australian governments. I think we have come a long way since then, even if it did take until 1969 to get the standard gauge through from Sydney to Perth.

The greatest obstacle today to a truly comprehensive and uniform national railway system would be less likely to be State rivalry than lack of financial resources to invest in a national system. As the Minister said in his second reading speech, in tight budgetary situations a careful and responsible assessment of priorities is necessary as a guide to any further investment in rail programs.

Mr White —He never would have built a railway in Australia.

Mr O'NEIL —It is priorities I want to talk about.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Order! The honourable member for Grey will resume his seat. The honourable member for McPherson will have his opportunity to address the House. I suggest that he should reserve his comments until that time .

Mr O'NEIL —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is priorities I want to talk about. I have already mentioned the early association between Port Augusta and the Transcontinental railway. At that early stage of federalism it was a highly innovative step to Commonwealth resources, to fill in a gap left by unco- ordinated State railways. The young Commonwealth railways organisation became very closely associated with this new line spanning the Nullarbor, with Port Augusta, already well established and well placed to become a communications and logistics hub for most of central and north central Australia. That was the start of an era. The national standard gauge rail system, linked by necessity to State systems using broad and narrow gauge, became the mainstay of a railway support industry existing mainly to cope with the complexities of the multi- gauge system and on the spot maintenance of the varied kinds of rolling stock.

Railway workshops which thrived at Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Peterborough, where lines of various gauges met, also had important roles to play in the system. As isolated industrial centres they all, to a greater or lesser extent, came to depend on railways for their existence. To be more precise, they came to depend on the peculiar style of railways demand dictated by the proliferation of gauges and the great distance from any capital city competition. We are now seeing some element of threat of an end of that era of railway-based decentralisation. This has been brought about largely by progress in the standardisation of track, resulting chiefly from the transfer of main-line South Australian railways to ANR by the former Dunstan Government. That was very desirable progress, but the element of irony that seems to be inseparable from most kinds of technical advance has had its usual effects. Many jobs have disappeared, others are destined to go. With the multiplier effect operating in reverse, at least one whole community is under threat in the old railway town of Peterborough.

I said earlier I wanted to talk about priorities. Perhaps it would have been more exact to call it value judgments because I want to stress here what I see as the greatest responsibility involved in change-the preservation of what is worth preserving or, if you like, avoiding the trap of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The Minister made it clear that he would expect ANR to operate efficiently along commercial lines to predetermined targets. It was acknowledged that railways sometimes had to take in functions of a non- commercial kind which may be socially desirable. These must be separately identified and submitted for Government approval. In this way independent checks could be kept on the railways' degree of success in operating as a commercial- type entity and, on the other hand, as a community service where considered necessary.

My first concern, of course, is with my electorate. I have seen plenty of need for tempering economic judgments with human understanding and tolerance in the process of rationalisation of ANR's resources which is under way and will continue for some time yet. I am sure that ANR is already very conscious of a responsibility to merge the old with the new to the best possible advantage of both. I hope that if any areas of doubt do arise the benefit might be given to those who have served the railways long and well. It is gratifying to note that ANR is getting $1.6m in 1983-84 from the Commonwealth's share of the community employment program and that this will be put into employing 130 people on resleepering and other railway projects in South Australia and Western Australia . So much, then, for the social effects of imminent change and the tasks of adjusting to meet it.

The foreseeable future for our national railways is going to be just as closely identified geographically with the area around Port Augusta as it was in the past. This will become increasingly so as north-south traffic from Adelaide continues to grow as more standard gauge lines come into use. The Tarcoola-Alice Springs link, which was started under the last Labor Government and completed in 1980, has had a considerable boosting effect on traffic in the northern region. It is not unreasonable to expect that when the new standard gauge passenger terminal at Keswick, Adelaide, comes into use in May next year and it becomes possible to board either the transcontinental or the Ghan at that terminal for a straight-through trip to Alice Springs or the West, this will considerably enhance ANR's role in the tourist industry that has been making great strides, especially in the near north. All this spells out to me that it would be in the interests of the Australian National Railways Commission, as well as in the interests of Port Augusta, if the Commission were to acknowledge in its future treatment of that northern Spencer Gulf city that it is going to be just as much the hub of national railways future development and activity as it has been from the start.

There will have to be some changes of function as a result of all the progress in gauge standardisation. The transcontinental and the Ghan, which normally have had their rolling stock based at Port Pirie and overhauled at Port Augusta, will logically be attended to in Adelaide when they become based there from next May. I understand it is ANR's intention to have all Indian Pacific rolling stock maintenance carried out at Port Augusta. This I applaud. A further boost to this decentralised workshop complex will come from looking after the increasing number of trucks bringing coal from Leigh Creek for the new power station, as well as from servicing ore trucks from the Broken Hill line.

South Australia generally may be expected to be a very live area for railways advancement for some time to come. The standard gauge conversion from Adelaide to Crystal Brook has been working successfully on freight carriage for several months now. We know that conversion of the Adelaide-Melbourne link is on the drawing board somewhere, and it is quite obvious that this cannot be held up indefinitely when the line becomes the only non-standard stretch between Brisbane and Perth. I am quite sure that when the standard gauge linking Adelaide with Alice Springs and Perth becomes fully functional for passenger traffic this will have a marked effect on patterns of tourist travel to the central areas of the continent and to the Northern Territory.

What I would like to see is a concentrated publicity campaign coinciding with the opening of what could be a new and exciting era in Australian rail travel. Admittedly Australia still has, as the Minister pointed out, five separate rail systems using three different gauges, but repeated efforts by various Federal and State governments have reduced the backlog of our original legacy from the State colonial administrations to a level where there is light at the end of the tunnel. If Lord Kitchener were able to visit this country now, as he did in 1910 , to assist in drawing up schemes of local defence, he would be somewhat less likely to say, as he did then:

Railway construction has, while developing the country, resulted in lines that would appear to be more favourable to any enemy invading Australia than to the defence of the country.

The terms of the Australian National Railways Commission Bill need, for maximum effect, the backing of a more consistent and innovative national transport policy than previous administrations have had the advantage of. I believe ANR has just this. For its own part ANR, as well as its employees, will need to accept the challenge of the opportunity being given to have a hand in re- creating the nation's own railway system along sound and efficient lines. I believe that the changes to financial policy incorporated in this Bill will help significantly in this task. The measurable separation of AN's activities into those that can be judged against broad commercial criteria and those which can be categorised as community services provides a necessary plank in the platform for improvement.

In keeping with the broadly bipartisan nature of this legislation, those measures are in line with the recommendations made by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure in its 1982 report on the Australian National Railways Commission, and also with the Government's social audit policy in transport. Although this Bill contains many of the features of an earlier Bill introduced by the former Minister for Transport, it differs importantly in its application to the accountability of the Commission for attaining financial targets.

In advance of each financial year AN will be required to set out its financial target, which will be subject to consultation between the Minister and the Commission. This will decide the level of the annual revenue supplement decided in the Budget as the Government's contribution to the Commission for the year. AN will be expected to review progress at agreed intervals so that if it is off course it can make whatever corrections are needed to get back on target for its predetermined financial objective. Should it be decided that this cannot be attained AN may borrow with the Treasurer's approval, but will have no further recourse to Budget funds.

Much of the practicality of this approach to AN funding will depend on the ability of the Government and the Commission to agree on a realistic annual revenue supplement. The financial target will become the yardstick against which AN's performance is measured, and it will have the benefit of any achievements it may make above that level during the year. The Bill will give AN a great deal more commercial freedom and responsibility. This ranges from the setting of fare and freight rate levels to the determining of the principles to form the basis of charges for prescribed services. There are, however, clearly defined and reasonable provisions for oversight by the Minister. These require ministerial approval for contracts valued at more than $2m, for participation by AN in the formation of companies, or in agreements for lease financing.

A notable departure from the old order is that AN will have power to construct small extensions to its railway network. This previously required an Act of Parliament. Such legislation will be needed in future only for railways more than 25 kilometres long. Given the new expectation for AN to display more competitive commercial awareness in the conduct of its affairs, this freedom of action will be significant. It will, for instance, allow AN to construct sidings or spur lines to clients' premises as a valuable aid to competition with other transport operators.

The keynote of increased independence and streamlining of procedures that runs through this legislation has been extended also to personnel practices. Rights of employees of the Commission, including those transferred from the former Tasmanian Railways and South Australian Railways have not been changed. But there have been improvements. AN staff will no longer have their conditions of employment decided by the Public Service Board, and salaries for senior positions will not in future need ministerial approval. In character with the new attitude towards AN, it will have matters of this kind left subject to its own commercial judgment. By giving AN the responsibilities and powers it needs, this Bill opens the way to levels of progress and competitiveness that should set new standards for our national railway services. I commend the Bill to the House.