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Thursday, 1 December 1983
Page: 3185

Mr WHITE(4.15) —I welcome the opportunity to join in this debate on the Australian National Railways Commission Bill and the Australian National Railways Commission (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill because it gives me a chance to talk about a vital national project which is in danger of being well and truly sunk. I refer particularly to the Alice Springs- Darwin railway line. This is one of the reasons why the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory is going to win and win well on Saturday. Other reasons are the absolutely chaotic mess over uranium in the Northern Territory and the land rights decision imposed on that State by the Federal Government.

It is interesting to note that the Australian Labor Party was fully committed to this project during the last election. It took up a commitment made by the previous Government and rightly so. It is worth while repeating some of the statements that have been made from the time of the last election up until the time this project was abandoned. On 15 March the current Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) said to Mr Collins, the Leader of the Opposition in the Northern Territory that this is not a parochial project. He said:

It is a project of national and international significance which the Labor Party will honour.

On 15 March the Treasurer (Mr Keating) branded a media report that the railway would go in Budget cutbacks as 'pure speculation'. He said: 'We are horrified that the railway has been singled out by the media'. On 4 April the Minister for Transport 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.

We know what happened in May; the project was abandoned. The Minister went on:

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 importance.

I will repeat that latter statement because later I want to come back to the defence implications of this railway. The Minister said that it was 'a project of significant defence importance'. On 8 April, the Minister said:

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

On 22 April the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) who represents the Minister for Transport in the Senate said:

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

The honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Reeves) devoted half his maiden speech to the railway and said, amongst other things: 'The railway is the linchpin in the development of the Northern Territory'. That will be remembered for a while. He said: 'The railway can be justified as a national development project. It will pay for itself as a national development project. It is the sort of project that Australia has pursued in the past when times were tough'.

On 19 May, having made all those commitments without qualification or reservation, the Treasurer, in a mini-Budget, successfully torpedoed the whole project by trying to insist that the Federal Government would pay only 60 per cent of the cost and that the Northern Territory Government would have to pay the other 40 per cent. He did this, of course, without saying how in the blazes the Northern Territory Government was going to get its hands on that 40 per cent . So this Government successfully killed the project. Subsequently, of course, because of pressure from various directions, not the least being the South Australian Government which this Government is desperately trying to prop up, the Federal Government used the classical parliamentary ploy-it set up another inquiry, namely, the inquiry into transport services to the Northern Territory which I understand is sitting at this moment in Darwin. The Government says that if the recommendation of this inquiry is favourable it will undertake to build the railway and, if we could believe it, that would be a fair commitment.

Mr Hand —What is wrong with that?

Mr WHITE —I will tell the honourable member for Melbourne. First of all, this Government has broken another election promise. If the honourable member has not seen the terms of reference of this inquiry I think he should read them. I will quote just one paragraph from the terms of reference. It states:

The inquiry should not seek to evaluate the defence implications of proposals. The Commonwealth Government will take account of these factors when considering the findings of the inquiry.

How can the Government possibly set up an inquiry into a railway from Alice Springs to Darwin without taking defence implications into account? It is a farce. This is symbolic of the Government's attitude to defence and the assault that has gone on in the services for the last eight months. I will quote the attitude towards defence and to this railway in particular of a senior member of the Government. On 17 November Senator Button was asked a question by Senator Harradine about this very question of the terms of reference. Senator Harradine asked: What is the Government's attitude? Why is it setting these restrictions on the terms of reference? Senator Button stated:

I do not in 1983 share the sort of assumptions which are implicit in Senator Harradine's question about the need for a large transit system--

as though it is something that is new-

such as a railway to move defence equipment and personnel. I doubt very much that that is relevant in contemporary defence terms--

he doubts very much if the railway is relevant-

and in the circumstances of a potential war with some other country.

Senator Button was not content to leave it there. He continued:

I express my own opinion only when I say that I would attach doubtful weight to the importance of a railway of that kind for defence purposes in the current defence environment.

He is right about one thing; in the current defence environment we might as well forget a railway and we might as well forget the defence forces of Australia. The Government is decimating them. The current Minister said in his introductory statement that it is a matter of road or rail. That is his approach. The Minister is completely wrong. It is not a matter of road or rail; it is a matter of both road and rail as the honourable member for the Northern Territory quite correctly said when he was commenting on the Minister's statement.

To come back to the defence implications, the railway to the Northern Territory , to Darwin and to the north west and north east, is a vital part of the defence infrastructure of this country. We have only to look back as far as exercise Kangaroo 83 in the last few months to see the difficulty of lodging and sustaining a force in the north-west of Western Australia by sea and by air without a proper heavy transport facility, such as rail. If we are to be committed to a rapid deployment procedure in the north and north-west of this country, as distinct from having troops stationed in that area, the only way to get our heavy equipment there-in some cases quickly-and the loads that are required is by rail. Exercise Kangaroo 83, if it proved nothing else, proved the massive cost and difficulty of lodging heavy equipment in that part of the world . It also proved that reliance on sea logistics in a hostile environment, considering what the Government has done to the Fleet Air Arm, is almost impossible. One of the lessons of that particular exercise is that no land based air force such as we are capable of putting into the field can possibly react or possibly give the amount of air cover that is required for a sea-borne force.

It is interesting that by the end of 1944 when there was a rail and road link of sorts to Darwin, as there is now, 147 trains per week were going into Darwin. That was in 1944 when the heat had been taken off. The fact is that Labor members, and other members too, I guess, from that part of the world screamed because not enough defence was placed in that area. It is unlikely that there will be another exercise let alone deployment in that area for some time because of the massive cost of getting equipment there by road, air and rail.

In Darwin the Royal Australian Navy base has been considerably expanded. The harbour is in the process of being upgraded. The Navy presence in Darwin will require massive supplies. As I said before, it is hazardous in times of war to rely on a sea-borne force. More to the point, there will be a massive air force build-up in Tindal. It is estimated that by the year 2000 as many as 10,000 people could be living in and around the town of Katherine. The fuel requirement alone for that force will be massive. If there is no railway and as the roads are subject to flooding, obviously that base will have problems as a permanent part of our defence structure.

Leaving defence aside, we have to ask: 'Is the Government serious about some of the other benefits that would have accrued from this development'? A total of 150,000 tonnes of steel, 100 bridges, 1,000 culverts, bores and air strips and 2 1/4 million sleepers will go into that railway line. Something like 2,000 people are to be employed on the railway stations, sidings and stockyards. Here is a government that says it is concerned about getting industry back on its feet and employing people yet a project that has traditionally-as one of the Government's own members has said-been undertaken when times are tough is thrown down the drain. It is very difficult to understand. I am quite sure the people of the Northern Territory will not be able to understand it. The other benefits are considerable. The railway would open up vast tracts of country for a properly developed and structured cattle industry. People will have a chance to send their cattle to ports in the north or south. The mining industry in the Northern Territory is relatively untouched. Of course, the Government has just finished off uranium mining for the time being. It is okay to mine in Roxby and prop up a government in South Australia, but it is not okay to mine in the Northern Territory. Despite all the rhetoric that has gone on about uranium mining in the last few weeks, no one has satisfactorily explained how we can mine at Roxby but mining has to be cut out in the Northern Territory. The surveys have revealed the massive--

Mr O'Neil —I can.

Mr WHITE —Yes, the honourable member probably could explain it but not to my satisfaction. The mining potential of the Northern Territory is tremendous. Here again we have a government saying 'Yes, let us develop this country', but it is going flat out to cut out jobs and cut out any reasonable development aimed at increasing the potential of this country. If we were to develop that railway, the agricultural industry in the Northern Territory would have a chance of succeeding because all the fertiliser that is badly needed in the north could be taken there relatively cheaply by rail. There are proposals to bring coal from the south and proposals to bring goods in through Darwin for southern and eastern ports so that they do not have to go all the way round by sea. The potential for tourism is enormous. One has only to look at what has happened since the standard gauge was completed to Darwin from Tarcoola. There was a massive increase in passengers last year. The traffic increased by 58 per cent. The growth of population in the Northern Territory is the highest of any State in Australia. Darwin harbour is being upgraded. Having said all that, no one denies that it is a very expensive project. If the Government bases its decision purely on a cost benefit analysis of that particular railway it will never be built. No railway in Australia would have been built. Development and benefit usually comes after a railway is built. In any part of Australia where a railway is built, the railway precedes the development.

Whichever government is in Canberra, it has a commitment to develop the north and, more particularly, to defend this country. It is not possible to defend the north properly without proper internal lines of communication. That is why I am so concerned about the present inquiry into transport services in the Northern Territory. It will be a farce if defence considerations are not included in its terms of reference. I urge the people of the Northern Territory to take all those factors into account when they are casting their vote on Saturday.