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Tuesday, 28 November 1911

Senator STEWART (Queensland) . - I have read in a book with which I presume most honorable senators are, or ought to be, more or less conversant, something about a deathbed repentance. Even at this late hour of the day, even after Parliament has authorized the construction of this railway, the members of the Senate ought to reconsider the situation, which is attempted to be created by the present Bill. I am not going to deal with the defence aspect of the question.

Senator Vardon - There is nothing in it.

Senator STEWART - My opinion is that, no matter if we had 50,000 miles of railway, our position, from the defence point of view, would not be one whit better than it is now. What we want for the purpose of defence is more population. When we have more people in Australia, then we shall be in a better position to defend ourselves against foreign aggression. Having come to that conclusion, I ask myself how many persons this precious railway of 1,000 miles in length, and estimated to cost £5,000,000, is going to settle on the soil of the Commonwealth? Will it settle one person per mile of its length?

Senator McGregor - Yes.

Senator STEWART - Will it settle 1,000 persons?

Senator McGregor - Yes.

Senator STEWART - Will it settle 100,000 people?

Senator McGregor - Yes.

Senator STEWART -The honorable senator says " Yes," but he knows just as much about the matter as the man in the moon, and that is nothing. If we are going to estimate the settlement along the line by the territory through which it will pass, I think I am very safe in saying that, at the very most, it will not settle more than 10,000 persons. What is the nature of this country ? Everybody knows that it is practically country at which even a squatter will not look. It is, to all intents and purposes, a desert; no one can say anything else. It is within a reasonable distance of the coast, and if it had been anything like useful country I am sure that it would have been settled a long time ago. In the 1,000 miles of its length, I do not believe that there are a dozen settlers. Yet the Commonwealth is asked to spend a huge sum - a sum which, I think, might be very profitably expended in other directions, and in other portions of the Commonwealth - in building a line which is not going to be of the slightest use, either to the Commonwealth as a whole or to the people of Western Australia. I have np doubt that we shall be told that Western Australia wants this railway. Of course every State, every municipality, every shire council, every tin-pot place in the Commonwealth wants public money expended in its particular locality. Western Australia is just like other portions of the Commonwealth. What the Western Australians, and the South Australians, too - for they are both in the one boat - say, I have no doubt, is this : " This railway will cost £5,000,000. The money will be spent within our boundaries, some of it is bound to stick to our fists, and, therefore, of course, we are in favour of the expenditure. The Commonwealth will bear the burden; we will reap the benefit, and all will be well." Again, if the line is ever built, it will have to be kept in good running condition, whether there is any traffic or not, and I believe that that expense will be very large. The country to be traversed is more or less a desert, with, I believe, a large amount of drifting sand. That being the case, the sand plough will, I suppose, have to be kept going constantly, whether passenger or other trains are run or not. I think it is something approaching a national crime to waste public money in this fashion - money which, as I have said, might be very much more profitably utilized in other directions. If we 'want to strengthen Australia for defence purposes, our policy is obvious. Let us get more people settled on the soil and create industries. That, it appears to me, would be a much more serviceable policy with regard to the defence of Australia than the mere building of a railway through a desert. That is one reason why I oppose this proposal, and ask the members of the Senate, notwithstanding what has been done hitherto, to, even at this late hour, throw it out, and show its capability of rising to the height of useful patriotism. We have reports here, and, of course, we know' that they are more or less coloured by the wishes of the Government of the day. When you are dealing with public servants, you get, in nine cases out of ten, the kind of report which they think you want. It is just the same as when you consult a lawyer ; he tries to find out, first, the kind of opinion which you are anxious to get, and then he gives it to you.

Senator St Ledger - Is that your experience ?

Senator STEWART - I have had very little experience, I am thankful to say; but I have profited by that of other persons. I do not think that this railway will settle many persons on the soil, for the simple reason that the country is not suitable for settlement. Therefore, I am of opinion that it will be exceedingly unprofitable for the Commonwealth to build it. We have an estimate of revenue and expenditure. I do not know the principle on which the engineers or the writers of this report proceeded in framing their estimate.

Senator Chataway - Mr. Deane says he does not know what the revenue will be.

Senator STEWART - No ; the engineers do not know anything about the revenue. They have calculated it at about £200 per mile, but I do not know where they are going to get it. I think I am very safe in saying that very few of the people of Western Australia will patronize the line in any shape or form. They certainly will not get their goods from the eastern portion of Australia by that means, because they can get them carried very much more cheaply by steamer to Fremantle, and distributed from there by the existing railways in Western Australia. The passenger traffic across the proposed line will be very small indeed. In fact, I believe that the bulk of the traffic will be composed of the carriage of members of Parliament, who will go across on their free passes, simply because the Government will not pay their fares by steamer. If they could get a steamboat passage to Fremantle, I am sure that they would very much prefer to travel by water to being hurled 1,000 or 1,500 miles across a trackless desert.

Senator O'Keefe - Have you ever crossed the Australian Bight in rough weather ?

Senator STEWART - Yes, and I have never been sick there yet.

Senator O'Keefe - I envy you.

Senator Millen - No man who is qualified to be a member of Parliament ought to be frightened of that Bight.

Senator STEWART - It is a very small Bight. I have been trying to discover in Queensland a railway that will bear comparison with the proposed line, even in the faintest way. I have not been able to get one which I could fairly say is on similar lines. But I have found one which I may cite, and that is a line from a place called Julia Creek in North Queensland to Cloncurry. That part of the country is known to Senators Givens, Sayers, and St. Ledger.

Senator St Ledger - I have been over it two or three times.

Senator STEWART - I am certain that the country there is very much better than anything between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie. During last year the revenue derived from the line was only £220 per mile, or £20 per mile more than the estimated revenue from this 1,000-mile line across a desert.

Senator Pearce - How many people are there at Cloncurry?

Senator STEWART - There is a very considerable number of people in that district.

Senator Pearce - How many - a thousand?

Senator STEWART - I really do not know the population.

Senator Pearce - Are there 10,000?

Senator STEWART - I am certain that there are more people in Julia Creek itself - and it is a very small township - than there are along the route of the proposed line from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie.

Senator Pearce - That does not affect the question. It is the number of people at the terminal points that affects the traffic.

Senator STEWART - How many people are there at Kalgoorlie?

Senator Pearce - Seventy thousand.

Senator STEWART - How many people will there be at Kalgoorlie twenty years from now, when the mines will be exhausted? Will they travel by rail across to Port Augusta, or will they go down to the coast and take a steamer from Fremantle ? Is any honorable senator here silly enough to imagine that the Western Australian Government is going to play into the hands ot the Commonwealth Government in connexion with this railway? Is it not more than likely that, in order to attract the traffic from Kalgoorlie and all the points west of that" place to Perth and Fremantle special fares will be charged by the State Government for fear-

Senator Lynch - Where will the InterState Commission be then?

Senator STEWART - We have not an Inter-State Commission yet. I do not know whether we are going to have one or not. But I know that the Western Australian Government, which is dominated largely by the people who live in Perth and Fremantle, will do everything in its power to attract the traffic westward, and will not assist the Commonwealth railway in any way.

Senator Pearce - That statement is absolutely incorrect. The majority of the members of the present Government of Western Australia do not represent coastal districts.

Senator STEWART - I know that the people in Perth and Fremantle wield a very great influence in the affairs of Western Australia.

Senator Pearce - Australia has moved ahead since you left. Do you not know that there is a Labour Government in Western Australia now?

Senator STEWART - I believe there is, but it has not been there very long, and we do not know how long it may remain. Even a Labour Government cannot always do-

Senator Barker - Right.

Senator STEWART - That is the very word that I wanted. A Labour Government cannot always do right. Any Government in Western Australia will be compelled by the wishes of the electors to give facilities for people to travel westward to Perth and Fremantle, so that as much of their money as they can get out of them will be spent there, rather than that they should travel eastward along the Commonwealth line. From whatever point of view one examines this matter, the only conclusion which can be arrived at is that the line will not pay its way for at any rate fifty years. At least, that is the opinion at which I have deliberately arrived, although I may be wrong. There may be some remarkable discovery of gold and minerals.

I hope there will be. But we have no guarantee that anything of the kind will happen. That is the only hope.

Senator Givens - The information we have is that there is no mineral country along the greater part of the route of this railway.

Senator STEWART - No, it is just drifting sand. It is not fit for agricultural, pastoral, or mineral development. What in the name of goodness is it fit for ? It is country that, if Western Australia were left to herself, she would never seek to develop, because she would know perfectly well that it could not be profitably done. But the Commonwealth has a broad back and a long purse. If the Commonwealth has not the money in its purse, it knows where to find it, and the people of Australia will be able, if they are not very willing, to bear the burden.

Senator Lynch - They help to bear the burden of the sugar industry.

Senator STEWART - The honorable senator is always talking about the sugar industry, as if it were a great incubus on Australia. I intend to mention one fact for the information of the honorable senator. I hope that you, sir, will permit me to do so. I did not drag in the sugar industry, but as it has been dragged into the discussion I may be permitted to say that we are paying just a trifle more per pound for our sugar in Australia than the people are paying in Free Trade Great Britain. That is a nut for Senator Lynch to crack.

Senator Pearce - A trifle of £6 per ton.

Senator STEWART - That argument comes well from Protectionists, but what about the other protected industries ? Would honorable senators sacrifice them also? However, I do not intend to go into that matter.

Senator Lynch - This is just as much a national question as is the protection to the sugar industry.

Senator STEWART - This is not a national question, when every other State in the Commonwealth has - built its own railways.

Senator Lynch - Queensland was glad to get help to build up her sugar industry.

Senator O'Keefe - This is a question of sand, not sugar.

Senator STEWART - I do not want to see the money of the Commonwealth engulfed in this sandy, windy desert. I want to see the Commonwealth protected against such a mad scheme as this. It is one of the maddest ideas that ever entered the brain of man to propose the construction of a railway through this waste. Hitherto, in Australia, railways have been associated with the development of the country. Where is the country to be developed by this line? Even the people who made the trial survey did not attempt to say that the country was fit for settlement.

Senator Gardiner - That is exactly what used to be said of Queensland a few years ago.

Senator STEWART - No; people who knew Queensland never said anything of the kind. If Senator Gardiner wishes to see country worth looking at let him go up to Queensland.

Senator Gardiner - I have been there, and have seen the best country in the world.

Senator Millen - The proof is not in what people said, but in what they did ; and they have settled Queensland.

Senator STEWART - Yes, in Queensland we built our railways ourselves. We borrowed the money for the purpose, and it has not yet been paid back, but we did build our own railways, and gradually settled the country. That is an example which I think Western Australia, might very well be asked to follow. We have heard a great deal about the wealth of Western Australia. We are told that she is the richest State in the Commonwealth, and yet she comes begging at the gate of the Commonwealth, beseeching the people of the rest of Australia to build a railway for her.

Senator Pearce - If the country is a sandy desert, does the honorable senator not think that Western Australia needs some assistance?

Senator STEWART - Though I should object, in any case, to the Commonwealth building railways purely for State purposes I could see some reason, some sense, and some profit in this proposal if it could be shown that the railway would develop country and settle people upon the soil. But to build a railway through country of this character seems to me to be the height of madness. What is more, it will, if constructed, be a highway for some enemy to enable them to cross this desert waste in comfort, whereas, if this country were left without railway communication the march of the enemy across this desert would be like the march of Napoleon from Moscow. I am not going to say anything about the gauge.

Senator Givens - Does the honorable senator not think that the mortgage will be of some importance?

Senator STEWART - Yes, I suppose it will be the only gauge of any consequence in connexion with this railway if it is ever built. I hope the Senate will throw the Bill out.

Senator Barker - I do not think it will.

Senator STEWART - Probably not. People do the most foolish things imaginable. Even wise men very often do extremely foolish things, especially when they are dealing with other people's money. If it was their own they were dealing with, I do not suppose they would put sixpence into such a proposal. I do not suppose that there is an honorable senator in this chamber to-night who would put sixpence of his own money into this railway. But we are dealing with the money of the Commonwealth, and some honoraBle senators are prepared to throw £5,000,000 away on a scheme like this.

Senator Vardon - lt will be nearer £6,000,000, I think.

Senator STEWART - I am taking the estimate of the supporters of this proposal. I believe, with Senator Vardon, that it will cost very much nearer £6,000,000. Goodness knows, the Commonwealth bill of costs is mounting up with alarming rapidity, and, so far as I can discover, this railway will only result in an annual charge upon the Commonwealth of at least £100,000, and that for a period of anything from twenty to fifty years. Honorable senators should consider seriously before they embark upon an undertaking of this character. They ought to view every aspect of the question, and .try to find out for themselves whether this proposal is likely to be for the benefit of the people of Australia. I think the statement cannot be made too often that if the defence argument is of any value at all, what we want for the defence of Australia is more people. How many people will the spending of this £[5,000,000 settle upon the soil. There are parts of Australia where, if we spend £500,000,000 on the settlement of the land, we should be able to settle probably 200,000 persons. We cannot settle 10,000 people in this country. So far as I can see, from the point of view of defence, this line will be of very little value at all.

Senator Givens - It will be covered up with sand.

Senator STEWART - Yes, the sand will be continually drifting over it, and we shall require to have gangs of men always going east and west to keep it clear. I believe it will cost a great deal of money per annum to keep this line clear of sand. Whether there is any traffic, little traffic or no traffic on it, the expense of maintenance will always continue. The cost of maintaining the line from Julia Creek to Cloncurry was about £170 a mile, whilst the income was £220 per mile. A very low estimate of the cost of maintaining this line will be £170 per mile. Whichever way one looks at it, the only apparent conclusion is that it will result in a very large annual deficit. The report of the Engineers-in-Chief estimates the deficit for one year at £68,000. That is a very large deficiency per annum for the people of the Commonwealth to have to meet in addition to the other obligations upon the Treasury. But when we double that, and say that the annual deficit will be from £100,000 to £120,000 or £130,000, the matter becomes serious, and honorable senators should pause before committing the people to such an alarming annual payment. I intend to vote against the second reading of this Bill. I have been against this proposal from the beginning. I have never yet heard an argument or read of a fact which would induce me to alter my mind on the subject. I do not believe in these wild-cat schemes. I think that nations as well as individuals should be particularly careful as to how they spend their money. I think the money spent on this railway will be wasted. Five millions sterling of Commonwealth money will be engulfed and swallowed up in the sands of this desert. Some day we may have to send an expedition out to look for the railway. It will be covered up with sand, and no one will know where it is. I trust that the majority of the members of the Senate will vote with me against the second reading of this Bill, and thus show that they are capable of looking after the interests of the Commonwealth sometimes.

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