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Thursday, 30 November 1911

Senator KEATING (Tasmania) . - In addressing myself to this Bill I wish to say as briefly as possible that I think that Senator Millen has made out avery good case indeed for the inquiry asked for in his amendment. It has to beremembered that this is one of the most important works that the Commonwealth has yet been asked to undertake. It is not only an important, but, I venture to say, an inevitable, work for the Commonwealth. The circumstances surrounding it are such that we' should enter upon it with the fullest consideration and the adoption of the most careful precautions such as are usually observed in connexion with similar undertakings in the States and in any selfgoverning community. Iam not referring now to the actual cost which it is estimated this work will entail. I realize that it means the initiation of a railway policy for the Commonwealth. We know that in each of the States there is a railway system. These have been brought into being by following different policies. In some respects they are the same, and in other respects they are totally dissimilar. We have the advantage of the experience of the States to guide us in this matter, but it would appear that insubmitting this proposition to Parliament the Government have not been minded by any considerations either of the past or the future. Senator Millen's amendment is aimed at securing information, much of which is regarded as essential in connexion with the submission of any railway proposition to a State Parliament. Other information asked for it isalmost indispensable that the Commonwealth Parliament should have before it enters upon a railway policy at all. Senator Millen has asked for information as to the route of the proposed railway, more definite information as to the cost of construction, the probable revenue and expenditure, and interest charged. So far as the route is concerned,itis a most important factor for consideration before any determination of the question whether or not this railway should be constructed. I am reminded of a very recent instance which occurred in one of the States, where the slightest deviation from what was understood to be the route of a certain railway led to a celebrated case in which certain suggestions were made which had to be determined upon by a Royal Commission, inasmuch as they involved the position, integrity, and status of one of the highest officers of the State. That position of affairs was brought about in the main by the fact that the question of route was not definitely determined upon, or rather was not made unmistakably understood by every member of the Parliament. It was thus fairly open to members of that Parliament and the public outside to assume that one route was taken which was hot the route which the

Government subsequently stated was intended to be taken. In connexion with the case, members of the State Parliament referred to gave evidence in which they honestly expressed their opinion as to the route proposed for a line which, so far as the length and importance are concerned, was a mere bagatelle in comparison to the line referred to in this Bill. Yet it was found that there were most complete divergencies of opinion on the subject honestly entertained by members of that Parliament themselves. So far, therefore, as the route of this railway" is concerned, it is eminently desirable that Parliament should be informed exactly as to the route of the proposed line. There are many reasons for thatwhich I need hardly dilate upon at length.

Senator Pearce - Does the honorable member say that the Bill does not indicate the route?

Senator KEATING - No, I do not say that. But provision is made for deviations, and I think the route should be indicated with sufficient accuracy, and only after it has been clearly ascertained that no competing route for which there is any measure of support outside or within this Chamber has been compared with it, and has been unequivocally set aside. I believe that it has been suggested, not only in this Chamber, but outside, that there aresources other than that proposed by the Government which this line might take with greater advantage to the Commonwealth, to the line as a line, so far as the cost of construction and the return of revenue from its working are concerned. I do not think that we have had sufficient information to enable us to clearly and unmistakably express our preference for the route proposed as against all the other routes that have been considered in connexion with this matter here as elsewhere. I should say that I regard the cost of construction, and the probable revenue and expenditure and interest charged, as secondary matters in the sense that I do not think that it is competent for anybody to lay down with anything like an approximation to reasonable accuracy what will be the cost of a line of this character, and still less to estimate the probable revenue and expenditure of the line. This work, as I have said, is not only important, but inevitable. It must be undertaken by the Commonwealth at some time or other, and there is no doubt that it will have to be undertaken early. But that does not justify us in walking into the enterprise blindfolded, neglectful of the ordinary precautions which any man would take about a matter which involved the expenditure of . £100 or£200. It is precisely because Senator Millen's amendment directs attention to the precautions which would be taken by a business man entering upon a transaction involving the expenditure of such a sum as I have mentioned, and because the precautions proposed are taken in every one of the States in connexion with works of a similar kind, that I think it should be regarded by the Government as essential in the proper consideration of this measure.

Senator Fraser - They should accept it.

Senator KEATING - Whether the Government are in a position to accept the amendment in relation to the course of business which they have laid down is a matter which is entirely within their knowledge, but I certainly think that, before asking Parliament to sanction this enterprise, precautions of this character should have been taken. In my opinion we would be regardless of our responsibilities - no matter how strongly we may believe in the necessity and justification for this connexion - if we said, " Oh, we have not the time to inquire into those circumstances. We have not the opportunity or chance of finding out if the line could be constructed under better conditions." That, in effect, is what the Bill says. Virtually it asks Parliament to sanction the construction of the line, and when the Government are asked what precautions they have taken in regard to the matters mentioned in the concluding paragraph of the amendment, what satisfaction have we got? Do we not all realize the state of uncertainty which exists in South Australia and Western Australia as to their policy towards the Commonwealth ? Do we not also realize the state of uncertainty as to what will be the policy of the Commonwealth to those two States in respect of this line if constructed? Why should we not have something more definite? Will any honorable senator say that, in the event of the railway being constructed with all these doubts and uncertainties surrounding the position, ten years afterwards, in connexion with some railway movement on the part of the Commonwealth, this may not be cited as an instance of its policy in relation to such matters? In matters of comparatively minor importance the Commonwealth has decided that it will take no course of action in relation to individual instances until it has a general policy which will apply to all cases. Is there any trouble in obtaining the information which is asked for in the amendment, or is there any doubt on the part of the Government as to what will be the result of taking such action as the amendment indicates should be taken? I do not think that there should be much trouble or much loss of time, and I believe that any differences which may exist between the three Governments would be solved on a principle of mutual understanding, and on a principle which, as far as the Commonwealth was concerned, would not, in relation to any future enterprises of this nature, prejudicially affect it or tie its hands in relation to other States. It will be realized that there are other railways which may possibly, in the very near future, come under consideration on the part of the Commonwealth Government. I allude, not merely to the possibility of a line from the northern part of South Australia to the southern or south-western part of the line from Port Darwin inland, providing that the line goes through the Northern Territory itself, but also the possibilities of lines which may be built either into or up to the borders of Queensland and New South Wales. There is the further possibility of a line to Western Australia, which may go more directly from east to west than does the proposed line; that is to say, farther north from the coast. There is not the slightest doubt that in connexion with any of these enterprises in the future, if they were decided upon, and certainly if they were contemplated, the Commonwealth will be bound to the respective States by whatever action it takes now in relation to South Australia and Western Australia. If we sanction this line, and proceed about its construction, is the Commonwealth, in respect to many matters, to be at the dictation of South Australia and Western Australia? If it is to be at such dictation in respect to any matters, then, assuredly, in the future, in connexion with any similar enterprise, it will find that it has made a precedent from which it will be hard to extricate itself. I think that it is not only desirable, but almost indispensable, that the information sought in the amendment should be obtained before further action is taken, because of the fact that we are now embarking upon a railway policy for the Commonwealth, and that whatever action is taken will bind the Commonwealth in the future. I intend to support the amendment on that ground alone.

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