05 March 2011

Debate in the People's House

Its been a month since my last post - hopefully the length of this one will assure readers that the gap between posting is proportionate with the effort entailed in preparing the next post!  So here goes with the parliamentary process...

The day that the Dubbo to Coonamble Railway Bill 1899 was introduced to the NSW Legislative Assembly for its First Reading the protectionist Lyne Government had held office for just over a month.  In introducing the legislation on 2 November 1899, the Secretary for Public Works, Mr O’Sullivan, proposed that the House:

… consider the expediency of bringing in a bill to sanction the construction of a line of railway from Dubbo to Coonamble, provided that before commencing the said work certain land required is contracted to be conveyed to the Crown, or an indemnity is given for the cost of resuming the same; to amend the provisions of the Public Works Act 1888, so far as they relate to the duty of the constructing authority to make and maintain fences along the said line of railway; to authorize (sic) the construction of the said line on certain public roads.

A cursory view of the Dubbo to Coonamble Railway Act 1899 may lead to the conclusion that it is a modest and unassuming piece of legislation.  It occupies less than two scant pages of the 1899 statute book.  It contains only six clauses and one schedule.  Excluding the preamble it amounts to a princely 359 words.  The long title of the legislation occupies one-third of its content.  Yet the majority of the Second Reading debate over the Bill in the Assembly was a torrid and robust affair, which occurred on the evening of 22 November 1899.

The controversy commenced shortly after 9:00pm when Mr W T Dick, the Member for Newcastle East, rose to oppose the legislation.  Noting that he had been the sole member of the Standing Committee who had voted against the Dubbo route in Committee, he again stated his opposition. 

During the following four hours and thirty-odd minutes Mr Dick was followed by the Members for Goulburn, Rylstone, Mudgee and Hartley (the later-to-be sixth Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Cook).  The eight core arguments advanced by these members against the construction of the Dubbo to Coonamble railway were:

1.             the alternative route through Mudgee would bring Coonamble 34 miles closer to Sydney than a line through Dubbo – this would produce lower freight charges and transit times;

2.            the Dubbo route passed through land which was unsuited for grazing, particularly the first 40 miles from Dubbo (including the Coalbaggie district);

3.            the Mudgee route would open up more land for settlement (as would be expected for the longest route);

4.            the extension to Coonamble would convert the loss-making Mudgee route into a financially viable line (in 1898 alone the Mudgee route lost approximately ₤26,000);

5.            the Dubbo route would put the station at Coonamble on the western side of the Castlereagh River whereas the town was placed on the eastern side (which was where a terminus of a line from Mudgee would be located);

6.            the Mudgee to Coonamble route would be preferable as it would open access to the mineral deposits in the Gulgong area;

7.            the construction of the Mudgee route would relieve traffic pressure on the already congested Great Western Line while the Dubbo route would only increase congestion on the Line; and

8.            some of the Dubbo route would pass through private land which would require resumption at some cost prior to construction.

The parochial views about the Mudgee line were to be expected from the Members for Mudgee and Rylstone as that line operated through those electorates.  However both members assured the chamber that their views were drawn from a deeper concern about the wider public interest and not from narrow sectional concerns.

The Member for Mudgee, in providing a vigorous testament to the utility of the line from his electorate, managed to spontaneously re-route the Mudgee railway through a large number of townships within his electorate.  This hybrid proposal for the line brought confusion and then mirth from a number of members.  It is perhaps best to explain this circuitous route by noting that it was advanced after 12:20am on the morning of 23 November at the end of a lengthy sitting day.

If parochial interests were evident from those opposing the legislation the parochial interests in favour of the Dubbo route were no less strident.  While it is somewhat difficult to explain the support from the members for East Maitland and Young (the latter of whom was the later-to-be third Australian Prime Minister, Johannes Watson, in 1904), the members for Bathurst, Dubbo and Barwon exclaimed that their support for the Dubbo line was equally motivated by a deep commitment to developing a great public work.

In professing his support, the Member for Barwon said little about the railway but much about the land around the Coalbaggie district.  It was his testimony that:

… a great deal has been said about what they call the inferior lands out to Coolbaggie (sic)… there is a lot of red sandy soil which is overgrown with pine and other scrubs… it is some of the best wheat producing land we have…

Incidentally, this appears to be the first reference by name to the Coalbaggie district in the colonial legislature.

It was however a 29 minute speech by Mr H MacDonald, the Member for Coonamble, which simultaneously provided the greatest ambiguity and depth of reasoning.  Facing an almost no-lose outcome for his electorate MacDonald opened his remarks by supporting the Mudgee route as the best for the township of Coonamble.  It was only after advancing a series of reasons concerning the wider and superior interests of (voters in) the Castlereagh district that he indicated that he would support the alternative Dubbo route.

Perhaps understanding that the only way Coonamble could lose from the debate that evening, MacDonald’s major contribution to the parliamentary discourse was a ‘fair protest (that) after twenty years of vexatious delay’ that the Assembly would ‘further delay consideration of the matter in which there is not one tittle of fresh evidence.’

The single greatest contribution to the debate came from Mr Willis, the Member for Barwon.   In 28 minutes bridging midnight he demonstrated a considerable familiarity with the land in which the two routes were proposed, the economics of railway administration and a commitment to the wider settlement of the region.  Willis opened his comments by noting that:

…I have travelled over both routes, and in the mind of any sane man there can be no doubt that the Dubbo – Coonamble line is the proper and legitimate route from every standpoint.

In reviewing the countryside through which the two competing routes would pass, Willis opined that:

…when you leave Mudgee and go to Gulgong, you get very good agricultural land, but most of it is alienated.  Then you go on until you get near Talbragar, within a few miles of which you get good land, but from there to within 50 miles of Coonamble it is barren waste, the home of the dingo and the kangaroo.  I travelled sheep over that country and I know it is very inferior country… there are tens of thousands of acres laying as waste land.  What are they to do with their sheep there? The little “cockies” have to build yards of stone and light fires around them so as to frighten away the dingoes.  They come down from their breeding places in the desert.

On the other route from Dubbo to Coonamble, a great deal has been said about what they call the inferior lands out to Coolbaggie (sic).  I admit there is a lot of red sandy soil there which is overgrown with pine and other scrubs; but I do not admit that it is land if cleared and put to proper use will not produce wheat.   It is some of the best wheat producing ground we have.  It is on par with the magnificent lands we have about Narromine, Trangie and Nevertire… The land between Dubbo and Coolbaggie, or 50 or 60 miles further towards Coonamble from Coolbaggie… is loose, loamy, sandy soil… when you get “cockies’ – the small men – onto it... they will get rid of the scrub and plough it up, and it will teem with fertility.

Willis concluded his speech by noting the various promises made to the people of Coonamble who had waited ‘twenty five years for railway communication’ with the competing proposals from Dubbo, Mudgee, Werris Creek, Nevertire and Wee Waa/Pilliga.  Shortly before resuming his seat he stated:

… the time is opportune; the hand is on the clock; the hour has arrived to give these people their railway and I don’t think we should have any more quibbling about it.  It has been demonstrated beyond all shadow of doubt that the most legitimate route has been chosen for a railway to Coonamble, every interest considered.

By the time that the Secretary for Public Works rose to make the Address-in-Reply, it was eight minutes past 1:00am on 23 November.  His and the previous speakers’ core arguments had been:

1.             the overall cost of the Dubbo route was less than half of that proposed for the Mudgee route, which would lessen the call on the Government’s borrowings whilst still unlocking the Castlereagh district;

2.            the Dubbo route had generally easier grades which would reduce maintenance, operating costs and the need for more powerful locomotives to work to Coonamble;

3.            while the land surrounding the Dubbo route was not suitable for a ‘sheep walk’ it was eminently suitable for crops, with estimates that land which would ‘not carry more than one sheep for every ten acres could produce 30 bushels of wheat or four to five tons of cut hay for each acre’;

4.            the establishment of crops would encourage closer settlement and sustain higher populations than grazing country;

5.            the Dubbo route would unlock the ‘great ironbark’ forest north of Dubbo and opportunities for pine sawmilling;

6.            the land along the Dubbo route had already been opened up to settlement and was in the process of being sold – meaning that the colonial treasury would receive an immediate  windfall from the higher rents from leases and receipts from land sales if the railway line proceeded immediately (but this would be lost if the construction of the railway was further delayed);

7.         the Dubbo route would connect the already established centres of Gilgandra and Gulargambone whereas the Mudgee route traveled through 90 miles of virtually uninhabited country;

8.            the cost of construction for each mile of the Dubbo route was also considerably lower than any alternative;

9.            the view of the experts was that the line would likely operate at a small loss in the initial year (under ₤2,000) but was forecast to develop traffic quickly so as to become a profitable branch line within three years; and

10.         the amount of good land served by the Dubbo route was greater than the Mudgee route – while the latter would open up more land in total it would also skirt the non-usable Warrumbungle Range for a considerable distance, meaning that it would only receive custom and produce from one side of the line only.

Following the Secretary’s commendation of the Bill to the Assembly a division resulted in 40 members supporting the legislation and nine members opposing it.

Immediately upon its passage, the Secretary for Public Works moved an amendment.  It required construction to be delayed until all land required for the line outside of townships of Dubbo, Gilgandra, Gulargambone and Coonamble was conveyed to the Crown free of cost.  It was adopted at 1:19am, but only after a subsequent amendment from the Member for Rylstone was also accepted which excised the requirement for conveyance ‘free of cost’.

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