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Thursday, 26 August 1920

Mr WISE - I know that. The honorable member for Illawarra (Mr. Hector Lamond) quoted figures which show that on 1st July over 9,000 people throughout Australia had applied for telephone services and were still waiting to be supplied. Many of them will have to wait a considerable time longer. Those who are seeking connexion with the North Sydney exchange will have to wait, from the time the new switchboard was ordered, about fourteen months before they get any remedy at all. The tender has been placed abroad, and foreign contractors for this class of material will not bind themselves to deliver within any specified time.

Mr Fenton - Is there no hope of getting material in Australia?

Mr WISE - Not switchboards. Honorable members may have read in the press recently that after a tremendous amount of work, the United States of America is just overtaking telephonic and telegraphic arrears which accumulated during the war. They will understand that until those arrears are overtaken American manufacturers will not be sending any material to other countries. We anticipate getting the switchboard for North Sydney within about ten months, and a further three or four months will be occupied in installing it. All the applications for telephones which have not been met are held up for one of three reasons: Either the switchboards in their districts are full and we have to wait for other switchboards, or they are in localities where the telephone line is carried in cables which are full and we have to wait for a fresh supply of cables, or they are in districts where the telephone lines are carried by wires on poles and we have to wait for a further supply of wires. Orders have been placed for considerable quantities of these various materials, and until they come to hand, we can do nothing at all. So far as the Treasurer is concerned, the only question he has asked, when I have requested money, has been as to whether the amount can be expended within the financial year. He has pointed out that it is useless to load the Estimates with votes for works if there is no possibility of the requisite material earning to hand within the financial period. That is the only limitation placed upon the Department in regard to the extension of telephonic and telegraphic services. Tenders are being called or nave been accepted for all requirements, and we are endeavouring to obtain the material as quickly as possible. Both honorable members and the public will have to possess themselves in patience, because no matter what is said or done, we cannot move more quickly than we are doing at the present time.

Mr Considine - Does the shortage of material apply also to wireless?

Mr WISE - In a much smaller degree, but wireless is a very big question.

I shall make only a passing reference to the miserable parochial remarks of the honorable member for Illawarra.

Mr Hector Lamond - Because there is no possible reply to them.

Mr WISE - Unfortunately the honorable member thinks that everything a man does is coloured by the State in which he resides. The honorable member for Grampians (Mr. Jowett) has already shown that nearly every PostmasterGeneral has been representative of a New South Wales constituency, and as a Victorian I have no complaint to make against any of them in regard to the equality of treatment all States received from them.

Mr Hector Lamond - In view of the figures I have quoted, the Minister would be most ungrateful if he thought otherwise.

Mr WISE - That, of course, is an insinuation that these representatives of New South Wales did not play fair with their own State. I maintain, emphatically, that the three Victorian PostmastersGeneral who have preceded me in the office, including Mr. Mauger. who was in control of the Department for a few months, and whose name was not mentioned by the honorable member for Grampians, did not care whether applications came from the east, west, or north, from Tasmania, Western Australia, or any other State. A member of a Government who views matters that come under his notice from the basis of the State from which he hails is utterly unworthy of being in a Government.

Mr Hector Lamond - What is the explanation of the . 5,000 applications not attended to in New South Wales as compared with the 2,000 in Victoria?

Mr WISE - I shall get the figures detailed, but I thought the honorable member was one of those who are always boasting about the greater progress and greater population of New South Wales as compared with Victoria. If one State is more progressive than another and has a greater population, we would naturally expect it to have a larger number of applications than would be received in a smaller State.

Mr Hector Lamond - The implication therefore is that New South Wales is two and a half times more progressive than Victoria. I do not think the Minister means to imply that.

Mr WISE - Does the honorable member claim that New South Wales is not two and a half times more progressive than Victoria? No; he will not answer that question.

Ever since I have been in this Parliament, complaints have been made by honorable members about the allowance paid to postmasters and postmistresses who are in charge of receiving and allowance offices. Every Postmaster-General finds that it is a most difficult matter to deal with these people.

Mr Considine - Are not they supposed to live on the allowance they receive ?

Mr WISE - No. It is utterly impossible to pay a living allowance in all these offices. The idea has always been that they should be attached to shops, and premises occupied by people with other means of earning a livelihood, and who thus may get a fair remuneration for the work they do for the Post and Telegraph Department, which is merely an adjunct to their other work. Unfortunately, however, in many cases these offices have fallen into the hands of women who have no other means of obtaining a livelihood, and it is on their behalf that representations are made by honorable members, who, however, are not prepared to recommend that for these small post-offices an adequate living allowance should be paid. There is hardly one of these officers who is not being paid more than the amount of revenue derived from the office.

Mr Hector Lamond - Should there not be some increase in the allowance because of the increased cost of living?

Mr WISE - As announced about a fortnight ago, the Government have agreed to increase the allowance paid to these offices by £67,000, based upon the principle of making some recompense for light and accommodation. It is certainly a small increase, but in many cases it will be a welcome one.

Mr PARKER MOLONEY (HUME, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What percentage will that increase represent?

Mr WISE - I cannot say from memory; but it is based on a certain amount per week, according to the size of the office.

Mr Considine - Is the PostmasterGeneral of opinion that fifty or sixty residents in a certain district should be deprived of postal facilities if there is not sufficient revenue from the allowance office?

Mr WISE - No.

Mr Considine - Then some one must be paid to do the work in that office.

Mr WISE - But payment for work done is quite different from the payment of a living allowance.

The drought allowance for mail contracts is another matter of considerable difficulty. We must remember that contracts are entered into as the result of tenders. As the Treasurer (Sir Joseph Cook) interjected, one man puts in a tender at a price which he thinks will cover all possible contingencies, whereas another man puts in a much lower price, making no allowance whatever for the risk of contingencies, believing that he can rely on the Government to make up to him any loss that he can show. One has to be careful in giving assistance in such circumstances, because it is a matter that strikes at the very root of the system of tendering. If a man knows that he can get his loss made up to him by the Government, he submits a tender at a lower price, and secures a contract over a man submitting a price to cover contingencies. Consequent upon the severe drought which prevailed in New SouthWales and Queensland last year, the sum of £25,000 was made available by Cabinet for the purpose of assisting mail contractors in those States. The maximum increase of subsidy in any case was not to exceed 25 per cent., and the period for which the increases operated was from the 1st January, 1919, to the 31st December, 1919. The actual amount paid to those mail contractors was approximately £18,000. However, since these payments were made, drought, conditions have, to a large extent, continued in New South Wales and Queensland, and, in the circumstances, it has been decided to afford further assistance to mail contractors in the drought-stricken areas whose contracts were entered into priorto the 1st July, 1919, and where it is shown that such assistance is warranted. The assistance will cover the period from the 1st January, ,1920, to the 30th September, 1920, and it is estimated that the amount required will be about £14,450. The honorable member for Hume (Mr. Parker Moloney) asked why the. allowances should not be granted to those contractors whose contracts commenced on the 1st January of the present year, and the answer given was that the man who took up a contract on the 1st January of this year had a pretty fair idea - he was in the middle of the drought then - that he must look forward to drought conditions prevailing, and was not entitled to the same consideration which was extended to a. man who had entered into a contract commencing in the middle of last year.

Mr Stewart - And who was unexpectedly met 'by a drought.

Mr WISE - Yes. That was the reason why the allowance was limited. However, it is for the Treasurer to consider whether there are specially hard cases in which an exception might be made. The man who entered into a contract at the beginning of this year is not on the same footing, so far as the merits of his case are concerned, as is the man who entered into a contract at the middle of last year, and might easily have anticipated the breaking up of the drought in the following spring. In any case, the man who entered into a contract which was to commence at the beginning of this year had the opportunity of asking the Department to relieve him of it, and if he had been held to it by the Department, it would then have been fair for him to claim consideration on the ground that he was forced to continue his contract. But not one application as far as I know was received from any man asking to be relieved of his contract.

Mr WISE - The honorable member for Hume in his amendment urges that further facilities; should be granted, but he has not given us any idea of what in his opinion those further facilities should consist.

Mr PARKER MOLONEY (HUME, NEW SOUTH WALES) - One cannot set out everything in a simple amendment.

Mr WISE - Quite so; but " further facilities " might mean anything. I have pointed out that the last concession to country districts in regard to the guarantee required in connexion with the construction of telephone lines was made ten years ago, and that we have made a further concession of 50 per cent, in the then existing conditions. I represent a country constituency which, with the exception of part of the electorate of Indi, has fewer railway facilities, and is, perhaps, more inaccessible than any other division in Victoria, and my constituents appreciate very much indeed the concessions that have been made. So far as I can remember, all the applications for telephone services which were held up because of the large contributions which the people concerned were informed they would have to make are now being taken up under the recent concessions. In every case the new conditions laid down by us have been readily accepted, and the people concerned have undertaken to supply the cash, labour, or material required of them by the Department. As the result of these new concessions I do not think that in any one case the contributions which the people were originally told they would have to make have been required.

As I said at the outset of my remarks, I do not take the view that the Postal Department should be a revenue producing service. At the same time, since it has been made to pay its way I should like it, if possible, to continue to do so. But I am not out for any surplus. I would prefer to extend any anticipated surplus in the provision of further facilities for country districts. One honorable member said during the debate that the conditions laid down in respect of the construction of country telephone lines were not- insisted upon in the case of telephone trunk lines, or town or city services. I can only say in reply that the same conditions apply all round. If a projected country line will pay from the start it is erected free of cost to the persons to be served. It rarely happens, however, that a country line will pay its way from its inception. In my own electorate only two lines - one 4 miles long and another 6 miles in length - have been erected without any contribution or guarantee being required from the persons to be served.

Mr McWilliams - 'But the requirement as to a contribution or guarantee works great hardship in some cases.

Mr WISE - No doubt it does. I should like to see the whole country riddled, so to speak, with telephone lines. I do not agree* with the statement once made in a rural district by the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Mathews), that telephones are a luxury. When he made that statement no doubt he had in mind telephone services in our large cities; but in country districts they are not luxuries, but absolute necessities. One of the difficulties in the way of our complying with applications for new lines at the present time is the heavy cost of material. With wire, for instance, costing us £65 per ton, as against £12 per ton prior to the war, and the cost of other material having gone up proportionately, it will be readily recognised that we have not the opportunities for extending the service that were offering before the war. Then there is the further trouble that great delay is experienced in obtaining supplies of material. The Department, however, is doing its very best to meet the applications for telephone services now in hand. It is the policy of the Government to assist the country districts in so far as these matters are concerned in every possible way, and honorable members will discover later that that policy applies also in other directions. The Treasurer (Sir Joseph Cook) has placed no difficulty in the way of the Department, so far as money is concerned. When he is asked to supply funds to enlarge the activities of my Department, his only inquiry is, " Can you spend the amount for which you ask within the financial year ? If you can, you can have the money.", Honorable members know perfectly (well that, although provision is made for a large expenditure on the purchase of material, that expenditure is often unlikely' to take place in the .year for which it is provided, because of the diffi culty in securing prompt delivery of mgterial. Some of the material which wasordered as a result of the grant made tothe Postal Department in February of last year is only now coming to hand. In the beginning of the present year the Treasurer gave me authority to call for tenders for the supply of material to the value of £500,000, but the great bulk of that material will not come to hand until the beginning of next year. I repeat that we are doing all that we .can to meet the requirements of country districts, and that there is no hesitation on the part of the Treasurer in supplying the necessary funds. The real difficulty lies in the fact that we have to wait some time for material to come to hand. . In that respect, we are not singular. Like the rest of the world, we are trying to overtake the arrears which accumulated during the war.

Mr Riley - Is the Department doing anything in regard to the demand for city telephone services?

Mr WISE - Yes. I have already referred to the difficulty we experience in obtaining supplies. One trouble in connexion with the Sydney telephone service, for instance, is the delay in obtaining the large switchboard required for the City North exchange. The contractor whose tender was accepted for the supply of that switchboard would not bind himself to deliver it within any specified time. We expect it to arrive, however, within the next ten or twelve months, and an additional three or four months will be spent in putting it in position. We are doing everything within our power to overtake arrears, and to bring all our work up to date.

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