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Thursday, 22 March 1928

Senator NEEDHAM (Western Australia) . - I find myself in a unique position, in that on this occasion I purpose supporting a motion which has been introduced by a supporter of the Government. As a rule, motions submitted by the Government or its followers are antagonistic to the ideals held by honorable senators on this side of the chamber. The motion of Senator Thomas is not, however, in that category. On the contrary it is in accordance with the ideals of the Labour party, and for that reason it has their support. It reads -

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the rate paid to the Amalgamated Wireless Company for messages from Australia to England, in plain language and not marked" urgent," should not exceed a penny a word.

When examined thoroughly, the motion is not so impracticable or revolutionary as some honorable senators probably think it is. If it is carried it will mean the nationalization of wireless. I compliment Senator Thomas on the able manner in which he presented his case, but in my opinion it contained one weakness. I understood the honorable gentleman to say that even' if agreement with his motion necessitated a subsidy from the Government to the Amalgamated Wireless Company, that would be worth while in order to obtain the privilege of sending messages by wireless for a penny a word.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I intended to say that even if there was a loss the Government should make it up.

Senator NEEDHAM - I should not favour the payment of a subsidy to the company, even to get messages sent at a cheap rate. It would be better for the Government to undertake the work. Government control of wireless would mean that wireless communications would be governed in the interests of every section of the community. I understand that the motion relates only to the transmission of wireless messages from Australia overseas. I agree with Senator Thomas that the more popular we can make these messages the more closely shall we be in touch with our kinsmen in other lands. To my mind it would hasten the bringing about of what I might call an ideal Empire wireless chain, annihilating the vast distances that separate the nations of the British Commonwealth of Nations. If, therefore, for no other purpose than the sentimental one of uniting the Empire, the Senate would be justified, not only in agreeing to the motion submitted by Senator Thomas, but also in going further and seeing that it is put into practical effect. Quite recently we had a very keen debate on the agreement entered into between the Commonwealth Government and Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited. On that occasion every honorable senator who spoke admitted the great and important part that wireless was playing, not only i'i Empire, but also in international matters, and several attempted to visualize the still more wondrous results that would flow from its further development. Looking at the matter from every stand-point, not forgetting that of defence, I am under the impression that it would be better in every way to have Id. a word wireless messages instead of the charges now imposed. I am pleased that Senator Thomas has kept aloft the beacon he carried many years ago in regard to the control of public utilities and that he has not forgotten his association with the Labour party. He has already said that every Thursday his then colleague, Senator Pearce, was accustomed to- move for the nationalization of something. I hope that honorable senators -sitting alongside Senator Thomas will see the reasonableness of his request and the advantage to be derived from giving effect to it. There is something in' the old saying that there are none so blind as those who will not see. I believe that there are honorable senators supporting the Government who, while agreeing to the principle set out in the motion submitted by Senator Thomas, may not be willing to put it into effect. I. am not a Biblical scholar, but on this occasion I ma'y be pardoned for quoting the words of the Saviour, in his parable of the sowers -

And their ears are dull of hearing and their eyes they have closed; lost at any time they should see with 'their eyes and hear with their ears and should understand with their heart and should be converted.

After listening to the excellent address delivered by Senator McLachlan in reply to Senator Thomas, ]t" am. with all due reverence, compelled to class him among those whose ears are dull of hearing, and who shut their eyes, lest at any time they may hear or see something that their hearts will understand and that may convert them. Senator Thomas pointed out the vast difference in the cost of establishing and maintaining wireless stations as against that of establishing and maintaining telegraph stations. The. disparity is considerable. I agree with the honorable senator that just as the Government of the day in Australia controls telephonic and telegraphic communications so it should control wireless telegraphy and wireless telephony. The Government of Great Britain, which is in no sense a Liberal administration, is in full control of wireless telegraphy through its Postmaster-General. In Australia we have a very cheap telegraphic system, because of Government control, and for that reason if for no other we should seriously consider any proposal to establish government control over wireless charges. In his reply to Senator Thomas the Honorary Munster apologized for the charges i made by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited. One would imagine "from the figures he quoted that the company had suddenly developed a philanthropic conscience and was conferring the benefit of cheap rates on the people of Australia. It has certainly done good work in Australia by pioneering wireless; but it has been well paid for what it has done. It has not been altogether free from blame in certain respects. When the royal commission was inquiring into wireless telegraphy, it was shown in evidence that Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited was not all that it -was supposed to be. The commission in one part of its report said - . ,

The evidence disclosed that the operations of this company extended over every field of radio, and in almost . every instance have created friction and dissatisfaction.

Despite the report of that royal commission, the Commonwealth Government has entered into another agreement with this company. The Honorary Minister told us the other night that Australia should be proud of the company. I am not here to pay any homage to it, or to bestow fulsome flattery upon it. Nor am I here to attack it, and I do not propose to do so. Senator McLachlan asked us not to bring within the ambit of our discussion the reasonableness or otherwise of the company's charges. But if the charges imposed are not excessive, what has the Government and the company to fear? The company is no philanthropic institution. It is run in the interests of its shareholders. It is out for big business. Like all companies, it wants to make profits and pay dividends. I do not blame it for doing so. But that is just the. difference between a public utility controlled by a company and one that is controlled by the Government in the interests of the community. Wireless is a matter that in time of Avar should be controlled by the duly elected representatives of the people. And even in times of peace it should be controlled by the Government, so that the charges made for the service rendered may place it within the reach of all. Dealing with this aspect of the question, the royal commission said -

The interests of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited are primarily commercial. The policy of the PostmasterGeneral is public service . at the lowest cost.

That is another difference between a public utility, Government-controlled, and one which is managed by a private concern. What would have happened if a private company had been in charge of Australia's telegraphic service? At present, we have the most up to date and cheapest telegraphic system in the world. A private company could not have done what the Government has done in extending telegraphic and telephonic facilities in every direction, nor have taken the risks that the Government has taken ; and I venture to say that the rates charged by it would have been infinitely higher than they are under Government control. Despite our heavy cost of construction and maintenance in Australia, we have a telegraphic system second to none in the world, and the cost of sending messages to any part of Australia does not exceed Id. a word. A private company would not have given us that service. As the distance extended from 50 miles to 100 miles, so would the cost of messages have been increased. If our telegraphic system were under the control of a private company, we should probably have to pay 3d. a word for telegraphic messages.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It costs 6s. to send a message of sixteen words from San Francisco to Washington ; such a message can be despatched a similar distance in Australia for ls. 4d.

Senator NEEDHAM - Yes ;. and if our telegraphic system were in the hands of private enterprise the people would possibly be exploited to the same extent. Portions of the speech of the Honorary Minister suggested that he was somewhat favorable to the proposal submitted by Senator Thomas, as he stated that 43 per cent, of the total beam traffic was handled at 1 5/8d. and 25 per cent, at 2d. a word. As the people are taking full advantage of these rates it appears to me that, if the rate were lowered to Id. per word the volume of business would increase tremendously. The Honorary Minister further stated that over 68 per cent, of the messages transmitted by the beam ' system were paid for at less than 2d. a word, and that the present inwards and outwards traffic between the United Kingdom and Australia totalled about 13,000,000 words a year. If that number of words are despatched at the existing rates we can readily imagine the great increase In traffic which would follow a reduction to Id. a word.

Senator Andrew - Wireless is used particularly for transmitting commercial messages. What is likely to increase? traffic ?

Senator NEEDHAM - If the rate were reduced t.o1d. a word, a large number of what I may term social or domestic messages would pass between Australia and Great Britain. If persons living in Australia could send wireless messages to England, Scotland, and Ireland at the cost of1d. a word, instead of sending letters in the ordinary course and having to wait over two months for a reply, the increase in the volume of traffic would he most pronounced. The Honorary Minister said he felt sure the company would seize every opportunity to advance its interests and to secure as much business as possible. It would be foolish if it did not, particularly as it is a business concern anxious to obtain all it can for its shareholders. He also said -

Having regard to the outside interests involved, it seems to me that it is impossible under present conditions to ask Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited to reduce its charges.

The Government appears to be more concerned with outside interests than it ls with the wolfare of the people of the Commonwealth. In what way are we concerned with the interests of the company apart from the shares which the Commonwealth holds in it? We should determine if it is not practicable for the Commonwealth to successfully conduct the wireless service between Australia and Great Britain.

Senator Lynch - Have not the Government an interest in the company?

SenatorNEEDHAM. - Yes, it owns a majority of the shares and has representatives on the board of directors; but I am sure Senator Lynch would not favour dual control of our telegraphic and telephonic system. The representation of the Government on the board does not dispose of the fact that the service wouldbe more effectively conducted by the Government. The Bri tishGovernment, which controls wireless services in Great Britain, has not yet instituted a ld.-a-word service ; but that Government, conservative as it is, may yet reduce its rate to a more reasonable figure. The wireless system, under government control, even with slightly higher rates, would be preferable to private control at1d. a word. Although it has been said that the com pany is. desirous of reducing the charges to the public, I have not as yet seen any indication Of that desire. The Honorary Minister, who did not devote sufficient time to the value of a wireless service from a defence view-point, said that a conference sitting in London was dealing with that phase of the question. Even if no other arguments could be adduced in favour of governmental control, the value of such a service to the nation for defence purposes should bc sufficiently, apparent to influence the Government to bring about a change. If, unfortunately, we should again be plunged into the horrors of war, the Government would not hesitate to assume control of wireless. If we cannot depend on private enterprise in a crisis, we should not depend upon the service it renders in times of peace. We. were also informed. that the wireless and cable companies were considering amalgamation, and this was given as one reason why the motion submitted by Senator Thomas should be opposed. I believe that immediately amalgamation was proposed, . the shares of one of the cable companies increased in price to 70s. The suggested amalgamation was only a move on the part of certain interests to increase the price of shares. In conclusion, I repeat that the Government should assume control of wireless at the earliest possible moment, and then reduce the charge for the transmission of messages to1d. a word. I do not think that there is much likelihood of Senator Thomas's ambitions being realized whilst the service is under the control of private enterprise ; but I believe that when the people of Australia have had an opportunity to express their opinions of ' the present administration they will return a government which will negotiate for the control Of this essential service. I am fully convinced of the necessity and practicability of the claim submitted by' the mover of the motion, and I trustthat we shall soon have a wireless service between the United Kingdom and Australia controlled and operated by the Government, in the interests of not only the Commonwealth, but the Empire as a whole. I support the motion.

Debate (on motionby Senator Lynch) adjourned.

Senate adjournedat 5.36 p.m.

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