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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

The Control of Our Railways

The Control of Our Railways.

The question of how our railways should be controlled is one of vast importance, and to it I have given a large amount of earnest thought and consideration, and may as well say at once that I have arrived at the conclusion that direct Parliamentary control is the only proper form of government. This is not a mere impression, but a thorough conviction formed after most careful study and extensive reading.

In dealing with such a vast interest as the railways of the country it is not possible to devise any form of control that will not be open to some objections, but I say that under Parliamentary control the public is least exposed to danger, and without hesitation I say that it would not be possible to invent any form of government so full of peril to the best interests of the community, or one that will more certainly page 56 lead to direful results than the present system of irresponsible control. It appears to me that the very demon of madness must have seized the people of Victoria when they conceived the idea of handing over such vast interests to irresponsible men; but mad as they were, we were worse. They took some small safeguards for the public. Our Government Railways Act of 1887 is simply a contemptible abandonment of every public right. I have always regarded it as a national disgrace, as the act of men who were not able to rise to the occasion and deal with a difficulty.

It is worth while to pause and consider what this railway interest really is. Our railways, then, mean the great highways of the country, the channels along which its trade, commerce, and social intercourse must flow. To construct these highways has cost us over 15¾ millions. That is their paid-up capital. This represents over two and a-half times the paid-up capital of all the six banks doing business not only here, but in numerous other countries. It is only a million short of all their assets; it is one and a-half times all their deposits; it is three times the value of all the land, buildings, and plant employed in all our industries, the frozen meat industry included; it produces more than one-quarter of our gross revenue; it causes a third of our expenditure; it employs more than half our civil servants; and it is not too much to say, that directly and indirectly it employs one-half of our community and absolutely controls the other half.

Such is this vast department which, with so little thought, we have handed over to three irresponsible men to deal with just as they please. To suppose that such an act was necessary in the interests of the public is a libel on our intelligence.

I have carefully read the letters which appeared in the "Christchurch Press," and those in the pamphlet issued in Otago bearing on this subject, and hope I shall not be thought disrespectful, or accused of egotism, if I say that this great question is not to be dealt with by men whose only knowledge of railway administration is that which they have gained as "great users" of the lines. It was a very easy matter for the Commissioners to secure the approbation of this class by giving them a few small concessions, and this appears to have been done. I notice that the writers of these letters do not appear to know the difference between railway management and the policy that should govern that management. It is the question of policy, that portion of the work which in England and America is performed in the board-rooms, that I have dealt with.

I object to irresponsible control because it is utterly contrary to the spirit of British institutions. As Englishmen we claim the right to manage our own affairs, and to institute the most minute inquiries as to how our public servants discharge their duties. By the Act of 1887, at one sweep, the people of this page 57 colony were deprived of all right to challenge the actions of more than half its civil servants. I need give no better proof of this than what occurred last session. In a printed letter circulated through Parliament I charged the Commissioners with abuse of their powers, and cited their own figures in proof of my statement. That letter was sent to the Commissioners by the Premier. Instead of attempting to reply, they contented themselves with heaping upon me personal abuse. It is the old story: 'No case; abuse the plaintiff's counsel.' If a Royal Commission of inquiry were set up it would be just the same, they would set it at defiance.

I object to irresponsible board management because it places half of our civil servants in a different position from the other half, and creates a separate and distinct interest in the community, which will soon develop into powerful proportions. We have an instance already of what it may mean in the demand of the employees that the Government should pay £1 for £1 to their Insurance Fund. This irresponsible system, too, means giving two or three men the power to ruin any district or any individual user of the railways. It also stops all reform in administration, as witness the determined opposition of our Commissioners to any measure of reform. Irresponsible board management has proved a disastrous failure in Victoria, where it has been longest on trial, and is fast breaking down in the other countries that have adopted it. Perhaps the most fatal objection to this form of government is its demoralising effect on the community and on Parliament. We already see its effect on the community in the fact that it is now almost impossible to induce either the people or the Press to devote any attention to railway matters. They say, and naturally enough, that it is no use, they cannot in any way command or interfere with the Commissioners, and people do not like to go on bended knees to their own highly paid servants. As to its effect on Parliament, the Railway Department is by far the largest and most important Government department. As such it ought to command the most constant, careful, and minute inspection and supervision by the Government of the country. If it is right to place such a department in the hands of irresponsible men, why not place all the other and less important departments in irresponsible hands also. In short, why not set up a despotism at once. That is the logical outcome of such a system, and one would imagine is what its originators aimed at.

If all the departments were administered by irresponsible boards the only thing Parliament would have to do would be to meet and endorse their actions; but what kind of a Parliament would it be, and what kind of people.

Another serious objection to the irresponsible system is the way it practically gags the Press. Prior to the establishment page 58 of the Commission the Press took keen, active interest in railway matters, but of late years it has taken no notice of the action of our railway controllers, and no wonder after what has happened in the Speight-Syms libel cases.

The excuse for placing our railways under an irresponsible board was that it would remove them from political influence. At the time I pointed out that it really meant placing them under the very worst form of political influence, that is to say, under the influence of a political party. This was furiously denied at the time; but is it denied now? It is to be earnestly hoped that during next session an act will be passed absolutely repealing the Government Railways Act of 1887, and reverting to the old position. I believe that this would be the first step towards a better state of things. As a matter of fact, it is impossible to remove railways from political influence, therefore let us have that influence openly. It seems to me curious that while all the older countries, after sixty years' experience of private ownership, are clamouring for more direct governmental control, we should have legislated to bring about all the worst forms of private control.