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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 55

Public Works Expenditure

Public Works Expenditure.

Mr J. M. Ritchie moved the following resolution :—"That in order to strengthen the hands of Otago members of Parliament in resisting the beginning of new public works, especially the East and West Coast railway, and generally those involving an increase of borrowing on the part of the Colony, this chamber are of opinion that it is desirable to forego the proposed expenditure for this year on the Otago Central railway, if by so doing the objects indicated above are gained." He had not time, and did not know that it would be desirable to occupy the chamber with any lengthy remarks. It was a matter of notoriety, and had been frequently commented upon, that the increasing inclination, on the part of the Government and members of Parliament to claim the full share of what they deemed necessary expenditure for public works, and to increase borrowing for that purpose was becoming a serious matter for all who had the interest of the Colony at heart. He did not know that he need say much to emphasise this fact. It was patent before our eyes, and the present Government—about whom he was not going to say anything good or bad, because after all they were representatives of the people, and were merely pressing what was in the main the mind of the people—were assisting by all means in their power to have these strong inclinations given effect to. He need only refer to one or two points in proof. The first was the extraordinary action in reference to the Port Chalmers dock, which had after all simply put facilities in the way of increased borrowing. Then there was the large expenditure authorised for the North Island railway, and, worst of all, the expenditure which the Government were determined to commence, if they could, on the East and West Coast railway. He might take it as proved that there was no appearance on the part of the Government of any inclination to curb the borrowing inclinations of the people. It was true the House seemed to have a strong leaning towards economy, and had attempted by various means to give effect to this; but there was no evidence yet that they had brought themselves to the point of allowing their efforts to have any direct effect upon the districts which each section of the House represented. That was to to say, members were very willing to talk about the necessity for decreasing the expenditure, but it must be in every case somewhere else than in the particular district represented by each member. In short, every member seemed perfectly willing to sacrifice the last drop of his brother's blood, but none of his own. It seemed to the speaker that if this went on the present evils were likely to be indefinitely perpetuated. The £150,000 proposed to be spent on the East and West Coast railway, small as it seemed, was merely the thin end of the wedge, and was the beginning of an expenditure of something like three millions. The only means by which a cure for this state of things might be looked for was by someone having the courage and self-denial to make a beginning in the direction of the principle which they all believed to be so important. For this reason he had brought forward his motion, and would only say that we in Otago seemed to be in a position to make the sacrifice with a better grace, or at any rate with less actual harm to the works in our own district than any page break other section of the Colony. We had got the Otago Central railway begun, and a good deal of money had been spent upon it, and it was so far advanced that it must be finished. Of course a large sum was lying idle in connection with the line, but on the other hand the year's expenditure at the outside would have but an imperceptible effect in bringing the line into a revenue-producing state, and we could fairly allow such a period to elapse without suffering much thereby. He had been told by one or two to whom he had spoken that this motion was too specific, meaning that they should pass some resolution more general in tone, and should not be so specific in reference to any particular work. He did not, however, agree with this, and he was intentionally thus specific in the wording of the resolution. The fact was that anything short of a specific act of self-denial would simply be relegating the motion into the region of generalities, and would have very small effect indeed with those they were seeking to influence. Beside*, they felt that specific works in the North should be postponed, and of course the arguments of the supporters of these works would be that the Otago people should be the last to complain, having already got what they wanted—that Otago had its line and had no right to say a word about other places. There was, of course, a broader view from which the matter might be looked at; but they all knew what human nature was; it was impossible to give their arguments any weight by merely advocating general principles. He had purposely abstained from any reference to the specific question affecting the Otago Central railway. It would be very likely pointed out in answer that hundreds of thousands of pounds were lying idle, and that a large section of the line only wanted a certain further sum spent to make it in a measure productive. To tell the honest truth, he had no idea of the position of the Otago Central railway as regarded these sections, but he felt that unless there was some extraordinary objection upon specific grounds there would be no serious disadvantage to the country or district in carrying such a motion. He was sure the effect of it on the Government and the House would be very strong indeed. It would be the first exhibition of a desire on the part of the country to bring matters within proper bounds, regardless of how hard the consequences might press on special districts. He might say that he had been an opponent of the Otago Central from the first, and never had been able to see that the expenditure had done much good to Dunedin or to the district. The hopes of gain from such expenditure had been very much over-estimated, and he thought this hope of benefit to towns by expenditure was one of the main reasons for Parliament pressing its various schemes. He could repeat the argument used by Mr Donald Reid in speaking of the Port Chalmers dock, and say that he firmly believed if the East and West Coast railway could be laid down to-morrow—in one day,—there would not be a man in Christchurch grateful for it. There was merely an idea that expenditure would be good in these depressed times. If that were so, it was a very dangerous principle to go on, and was merely putting off the day when we should have to act very differently in setting our house in order. They all knew the extent to which the prices of our products had fallen, and that very morning there came a message telling of a fall in the value of our wool which would, he believed, make hundreds of thousands of pounds difference. The whole tendency was downwards, and this was the time, by whatever means, to bring matters to a point and speak out with a voice no Government could refuse to listen to, saying that we have had enough borrowing, and that it must be suspended until we see how far we can get along with the burdens we already have.

Mr A. C. Begg said he had much pleasure in seconding the motion. If this East and West Coast railway were commenced the Colony would be committed to an expenditure of between two and three millions. Then the reports about the line showed that it would be no use until the whole of it was made, for the whole of the estimates were based on through traffic. Everything that could be done should be done in the way of discouraging a liability of this kind. With regard to the Otago Central he never had great hopes of it, and if it were carried through to Wanaka now he had no hesitation in saying that there would not be enough traffic on it to run a train three times a week. Even when the line did pay working expenses it would pay very little more for a long time. If the West Coast line were gone on with the Colony would have to pay £150,000 a year for interest without the line paying anything towards it. Even those who were most favourable to the line would have to admit, after reading the reports, that it would be many years before it could be expected to pay more than working expenses. He did not believe that even the Canterbury members who were agitating for it thought it would pay. The pressure was only brought to bear at the instance of those who wished now to make a profit out of what would eventually be an immense loss to the Colony at large.

The Chairman said Mr Ritchie was evidently not aware of the amount already expended on the Otago Central. He might just mention that according to the Public Works Statement the amount, including liabilities, was £203,000. This sum would nearly complete the line to Strath-Taieri, and it would then be of some value in opening up the country.

Mr D. Reid thought the motion placed the chamber in a dilemma, and that the Otago Central line should not be singled out so that they might make martyrs of themselves to obviate what they considered another wrong. He thought the latter part of the motion was a mistake. It would be much better to alter the motion to read that any vote proposed for the initiation of the East and West Coast railway should be opposed irrespective of the effect of such opposition on other works in the Public I Works Estimates. His opinion about the Otago Central railway was that it was a very desirable work commenced about 10 years too soon. It had now been six years in progress, so that the 10 years were nearly up.

Mr Ritchie said he had no objection to the proposed alteration. With reference to what had been said about singling out one work, that had been forced upon him because the Otago Central was the only large work in Otago. If there had been a number of large votes on the Estimates for Otago he should not have singled out that particular railway. Again, he singled out that railway because the people of Dunedin had been all along the most consistent supporters of that line. They had done three page break times as much as any up-country community towards pushing on this railway.

The Chairman asked Mr Begg if he agreed to the amendment.

Mr Begg : Certainly. It makes it quite definite—just as definite as if the Otago Central had been mentioned.

The motion, as amended, was then put and carried unanimously.