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Thursday, 26 August 1920

Mr CUNNINGHAM (Gwydir) . - I have very much pleasure in supporting the amendment of the honorable member for Hume (Mr. Parker Moloney). We were all pleased to hear from the Treasurer that he is not withholding financial assistance from the PostmasterGeneral. I trust that the latter will avail himself of that assistance to the full, in order that he may provide the residents of country districts with adequate mail facilities, if only for the purpose of compensating them for the lack of telephonic communication which obtains there. The position has become very acute - so acute, indeed, that a previous PostmasterGeneral lost his seat in this Chamber in consequence of it. I am very much afraid that his successor will lose his seat unless a vast improvement is effected in this great arm of the Commonwealth service which so vitally affects our country interests. The position is worse than a scandal. Mail facilities which existed thirty years ago have either disappeared entirely or have been curtailed to such an extent that to-day they are not recognisable. The buildings of the Department are entirely inadequate. I want to draw attention to one of these at Narrabri, in my own electorate, which was erected with a view to accommodating eight employees, but which to-day houses no fewer than twenty-eight officers. This building is located in a hot climate, so that honorable members may readily imagine the conditions under which these employees work.

One great facility which country people formerly enjoyed was that of travelling post-offices. These "were withdrawn by a previous Administration, and thus the delivery of mails has been rendered slower than it otherwise would be. Repeated applications to the PostmasterGeneral only elicit the reply that he cannot see his way to restore these facilities. In view of the enormous shortage of telephones which exists at present, the best thing that the Government can do is to increase our country mail service, in order that rural residents may be able to deal with correspondence more expeditiously, and thus secure quicker communication with our towns and cities. The argument adduced by the Treasurer in regard to mail contracts is scarcely a sound one. He stated that ohe contractor may have contracted to provide a service for £100 a year, whilst another contractor has tendered for it at £120, and that if the successful tenderer were now granted a fodder allowance, his unsuccessful competitor would have cause for complaint. May I say that those contractors whose tenders were not accepted during the recent drought period have reason to thank their stars for it. The attitude which has been taken up by Ministers to-night, when the numbers are against them, is in vivid contrast with that of the PostmasterGeneral, who, yesterdey, stated that he entirely concurred in the view of this matter which had been expressed by the Deputy Postmaster-General.

I do not think the contention that we cannot manufacture telephones in Australia is a correct one. There are hundreds of returned soldiers undergoing vocational training here, and there is nothing very intricate in the manufacture of a telephone.

Mr Laird Smith - How does the honorable member know that? He should read the evidence which was given in the Arbitration Court upon that matter. His statement is a libel upon telephone employees.

Mr CUNNINGHAM - The Minister for the Navy can bring forward evidence of a certain character, and twist it to suit himself, but the fact remains that no effort has been made to manufacture telephones in Australia.

If we never attempt anything, we shall never achieve anything. So long as Ministers are permitted to retain their positions, and to do nothing, so long will residents in the country be deprived of necessary telephonic facilities. Members of the Government are prepared to go to any length in order to build up surpluses in the Postal Department, and we know that the late Postmaster-General claimed that he had made a profit of £500,000. He affirmed that this amount had been paid into the Consolidated Revenue, and kept from him, and that, as a result, he was prevented from effecting improvements in the service owing to lack of funds. He blamed the Cabinet for having placed him in a false position. He did not admit that he had allowed himself to be placed in that position. But when he knew that country residents were not getting a square deal, he should have resigned his position. That would have brought matters to a head. The position that we are in to-day is the result of funds having been withheld when they were urgently required for the development of this particular arm of the Commonwealth Service.

I may perhaps be permitted to mention one or two instances of the way in which country residents are suffering. In the electorate of New England, there is a town which thirty-five years ago had a daily mail service from Tamworth, but which to-day has a service upon only three days a week. Take the town of Bingara, in my own electorate. In the municipality there are 1,400 inhabitants, and of this number about 700 live in the town itself. For many years there was a letter-carrier in the township, but owing to' the enforcement of a policy of economy, he has been withdrawn. Another ease which may be mentioned is that of Longueville, in the Treasurer's electorate of Parramatta. Thirty years ago there were two mail deliveries there daily, but to-day there is only one delivery. Repeated requests for an additional delivery have met with a blank refusal. Notwithstanding that these districts have grown considerably during the period I have indicated, the people were better off thirty years ago than they are now. Great loss is being sustained, particularly by business men, the majority of whom absolutely depend upon the mail and telephone services for the transaction of their business - as the result of the curtailment of these mail facilities. To-night the Postmaster-General made a" statement, but there was nothing very definite in it. When he approaches the Cabinet upon these matters, we have no assurance that his proposals will not be turned down. The Treasurer has told us that he will not refuse his colleague financial assistance; but, even if he does not, the point is whether the Cabinet will do so. I understand that the amount provided on the Estimates for the purchase of telephones is likely to undergo serious revision. Only a few days ago, I asked that tenders should be called in Great Britain and America for the requisite supplies of material. Upon that occasion, I was asked to give notice of my question. To-night I understood the Postmaster-General to say that tenders had been called in those countries.

Mr Wise - Tenders have been called for the supply of some materials, and contracts have been accepted for the supply of others.

Mr CUNNINGHAM - I am very pleased to hear that. I am under the impression that proper efforts have not been made to scour the world in an attempt to procure the materials that are necessary to keep the services up to a good standard.

Mr Fenton - A sufficient endeavour i9 not made to get them in Australia.

Mr CUNNINGHAM - The honorable member for Maribyrnong represents a manufacturing district, and I have no doubt that he will be able to point to many instances in which the requisite materials can be obtained in Australia, though no attempt has been made to get them.

The Postmaster-General was not present when I was referring to the question of travelling post-offices. In view of the fact that the Treasurer has stated that ample funds are available. I would like to know whether he will restore to country residents the facilities which they formerly enjoyed in the shape of travelling post-offices upon mail trains? There was a travelling post-office on the north-west mail from Sydney to Moree which proved a wonderful convenience to the population all along the line. That service was abolished by the last Postmaster-

General, and thereby the back country districts were made to suffer great inconvenience. Droughts or shortage of material cannot be urged as excuses for the cutting off of this service. That action was taken in pursuance of a policy which must be recognised as false economy. I should like the present Postmaster-General to say that he will re-establish the travelling post-offices.

Mr Wise - Steps are being taken to arrange for the conveyance of correspondence between railway stations, and if the means provided are not satisfactory, something else will be done. I am determined that this convenience shall be restored.

Mr CUNNINGHAM - Do you mean that the travelling post-offices will be restored ?

Mr Wise - Yes, if they become necessary; 'but if the other means are successful, they will not be necessary.

Mr CUNNINGHAM - I do not know what other means are contemplated, but I am" prepared to await the honorable gentleman's scheme, to see if it will redress out grievance. If it does not, I hope that he will give, immediately, consideration to the reasonable request of the people of the north-western districts of New South Wales, that the travelling post-offices may be restored in order to improve their mail service.

I could deal at length with the treatment of the employees of the PostmasterGeneral's Department, but the motion to-night complains of the lack of postal facilities, and the conditions of the postal employees is a proper subject for a separate .discussion, which, on another occasion, might well engage honorable members to the exclusion of all other subjects. The conditions of the employees of this Department are deplorable, and until they have been improved, and the employees are satisfied, efficient service is not to be looked for. The employees are underpaid and overworked. I have already spoken of the application of the third degree at the General Post Office, Sydney, in connexion with the employment of telephone attendants. It has come to such a pass that on one occasion a girl was questioned and cross-questioned for over an hour, until she fell hysterical to the ground, and six other girls had to be carried out of the room, work on the- switchboard being suspended for some time. This may appear amusing to some honorable members, but it is a serious thing for the young women themselves.

I hope that not only the PostmasterGeneral, but the whole Cabinet, will recognise that the services given by his Department are of vital importance to the residents in country districts, more so than any of the other public services of the Commonwealth, and that they will, therefore, give the Postal Department more consideration than it has yet had from the Ministry.

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