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Thursday, 4 May 1939

Mr DRAKEFORD (Maribyrnong) . - I move -

That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the following matters: -

(a)   The permanent filling of higher positions in the Commonwealth Public Service;

(b)   The temporary filling of higher positions in the Commonwealth Public Service;

(c)   The administration of the PostmasterGeneral's Department concerning the replacement of condemned telegraph poles; and

(d)   The administration by the PostmasterGeneral's Department of the provisions of the arbitration award relating to line staffs.

These are four matters about which employees inthe various branches of the Commonwealth Public Service, and particularly those in the PostmasterGeneral's Department, feel strongly. It will be seen from the records that representations havebeen made in this House from time to time on the subjects covered by my motion. Some of them were brought under the notice of preceding Postmasters-General, and I might add here that when the honorable member for Barker (Mr. Archie Cameron) was

Postmaster-General asai the matter covered 'by item (c) was brought under his notice, he gave immediate attention to it. He realized that something should be done to provide for the safety of men who might be engaged in replacing dangerous telegraph poles; and at a time when it was proposed, particularly in Victoria, to dismiss a large number of men, most of whom were returned soldiers, he was good enough to take action, with the result that many of them were kept on. However, many dangerous telegraph poles which have been condemmed by officers of the department are still in use, and linesmen detailed to replace them run the risk of serious personal injury, and the danger continues to exist.

The first matter embodied in my motion concerns the permanent filling of higher positions in the Commonwealth Public Service. This is covered by section 50 of the Commonwealth Public Service Act. .Complaints made in this respect rest on the ground that many efficient senior officers have been passed over for promotion in favour of junior officers of no greater efficiency, who have been selected by the department without due regard being paid to the claims of their seniors. I do not know whether the present Postmaster-General (Mr. Harrison) has had an opportunity to look into this matter. I hardly think so, but on studying the records he will find that serious complaints have been made from time to time in this House concerning this matter. In fact, the time of this Parliament is frequently taken up in considering matters which could be more advantageously referred for investigation to a select committee. If this were done the atmosphere would be cleared and the employees generally would be assured of a fairer deal. At present promotion rests in the first instance on selection by the department, unsuccessful applicants having the right of appeal to the Public Service Board. This right of appeal, as it is now operated, however, is not regarded with any great favour by the employees. For instance, the number of promotions appealed against is anything from 40 per cent, to 50 per cent, annually, whilst the proportion of appeals upheld is from 15 per cent, to 19 per cent. I am not suggesting that the right of appeal is not of value, but when we find so high a percentage of appeals we must conclude that there is something faulty about the method of administration. It looks as though the Appeal Board will be kept in permanent employment. The object of my motion is to remedy this state of affairs. I suggest that the select committee should be representative of all parties. After investigating the matter such a body should be able to make recommendations which would improve the present state of affairs. The matter of promotions has been the subject of representations by the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union, and other organizations within the Public Service, to the department, the Public Service Board and the Government on various occasions during the last few years, but these representations have proved of no avail. In these circumstances it is held that an inquiry by a select committee is desirable. It is felt that the methods at present adopted by the Postal Department and the Public Service Board are unsatisfactory. I believe that it was the intention of Parliament that the Public Service Board should consist of men who would deal with appeals without any partisanship whatever, but employees of the Postal Department, at all events, feel that this is not the case. They feel that they cannot get justice through the ordinary channels now open to them. It should be made quite clear, however, that the men are not contending that senior officers should receive promotion, regardless of efficiency. It is realized that any such contention would conflict with section 50 of the Public Service Act. The temporary filling of higher positions relates to instances in which permanent officers are required to carry out the duties of higher positions for varying periods, involving payment of higher duties allowance, and has a bearing on subsequent promotion. This matter is covered by Public Service Regulation 116, which reads -

When it is necessary to fill a position temporarily by the transfer of an officer of lower classification the chief officer is required to make a selection from the available officers on the basis of efficiency and seniority.

The organizations which desire that a select committee should be appointed as I suggest do not urge that men should be promoted only on seniority. They realize that efficiency must count, but they claim that the deputy directors of posts and telegraphs in the various States have frequently overlooked efficient senior officers- and given preference to juniors.

I know of no more prolific cause of dissatisfaction in any government service than the practice of ignoring seniority in cases of this kind. If this grievance were remedied, much of the dissatisfaction now existing among postal employees would disappear and we could hope for more enthusiastic service on their part. The Postmaster-General's Department is very fortunate in that it is one branch of governmental activity which produces a very handsome annual profit. In fact honorable members often dispute as to the best means of utilizing those profits. It has been suggested, for instance, that they might be utilized in reducing postal charges. Other branches of the Public Service, however, cannot be regarded as commercial departments. The railways might be said to fall into this category; viewed from a commercial standpoint only they are a losing proposition. The PostmasterGeneral's Department operates at a profit and this is an additional reason why the grievances of its employees should receive urgent consideration. Last year when my motion was first placed upon the notice-paper I asked the late Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) whether an opportunity would be given to the House to discuss it last session. He expressed regret that that could not be done, but added that it would be dealt with this session. I am under the impression that the former Postmaster-General (Mr. Archie Cameron) made some investigation of these complaints, and I realize that his successor (Mr. Harrison) may not yet have had an opportunity to give hisattention to them. Therefore, he might feel that he is placed at a disadvantage at this stage by this request for the appointment of a select committee. I believe, however, that he will give careful consideration to the views put forward, and I hope that the matter will not be dealt with hastily, lt will, I believe, be in the interests of the department to have the request for the select committee dealt with favorably.

I again direct attention to Public Service Regulation 116. It specifically provides -

When it is necessary to fill a position temporarily by the transfer of an officer of a lower classification, the Chief Officer is required to make a selection from available officers on the basis of efficiency and seniority.

The Amalgamated Postal "Workers Union claims that this regulation is not being observed. Responsible officers of that organization assert that many competent officers have been passed over and higher positions have been given to officers who are junior to them.

The select committee, if appointed, will be able to make a thorough investigation of the complaints and, if necessary, it will submit recommendations which if accepted would be for the guidance of " the department. It is claimed that a former Deputy Director of Postal Services in New South Wales, an officer who has been given a higher appointment recently, owes bis promotion to the fact that he speeded up the work of the department by pitting one man against another, a practice which "led to a great deal of dissatisfaction, particularly in Sydney.

Mr Lane - We have not heard of that. Senior officers who feel aggrieved may exercise their right of appeal.

Mr DRAKEFORD - I know that they have the right of appeal to the board, and I am informed that this privilege is used to such an extent that appeals are lodged against 40 per cent, or 50 per. cent, of the appointments made. Many appeals, I understand, have been upheld. The trouble is due to the fact that, in making appointments, due regard has not been paid to seniority.

Mr Lane - Seniority would apply, other things being equal.

Mr DRAKEFORD - The men say that that principle is not observed, and there is no doubt that if departmental officials adopt unreasonable speeding-up methods, dissatisfaction will occur.

Mr Lane - Is the honorable member claiming, that those conditions exist to-day?

Mr DRAKEFORD - I am merely voicing the claim put forward by members of the union, who ask that these charges be investigated by an independent tribunal. I do not say that I have evidence to support the charges; but I think that the honorable member for Barton (Mr. Lane) will admit that complaints have been made from time to time about promotions in the department.

Mr Jennings - Does the honorable member mean that complaints are being made now?

Mr DRAKEFORD - Not particularly now, possibly because some of the cause for dissatisfaction has been removed by the promotion of the Deputy Director to another position in which speeding-up methods may be justifiable.

Mr Lane - Mr. Duncan was succeeded by Mr. Newman from the Melbourne Post Office.

Mr DRAKEFORD - Yes, but I refer to Mr. Corbett.

Mr GEORGE LAWSON (BRISBANE, QUEENSLAND) - Mr.Corbett is at Brisbane.

Mr Francis - The honorable member for Maribyrnong does not know his facts.

Mr DRAKEFORD - I do not mind being corrected by the honorable member for Moreton (Mr. Francis) or the honorable member for Brisbane (Mr. George Lawson). I am merely telling the House that complaints have been made about Mr. Corbett's tactics.

Mr GEORGE LAWSON (BRISBANE, QUEENSLAND) - He was in Sydney, but has been transferred to Brisbane recently.

Mr Francis - Mr. Corbett was never Deputy Director in Sydney.

Mr DRAKEFORD - I am aware of that; he was a senior officer against whose methods there were frequent complaints. The complaints are not directed only against deputy directors; they apply to senior officers in high administrative positions.

Mr Jennings - Have complaints been made against the present Deputy Director in Sydney?

Mr DRAKEFORD - I have not specified that; the complaints are against the methods of the administration generally. This is why a select committee should be appointed to conduct a thorough investigation.

The Public Service Board's view of the application of Public Service Regulation 116 is that where two officers are available for selection to act temporarily in a higher position, and the senior of those officers has proved efficient in his normal duties and no reason exists for believing that he cannot carry out with efficiency the duties of the office to be temporarily filled, he shall be given the opportunity to act in the higher position in preference to the junior officer. The Amalgamated Postal Workers Union claims to be able to cite numerous instances in which, despite equal efficiency among applicants for promotion, seniority has not been observed in making the appointments.

Mr Lane - Has a man named Burke communicated with the honorable member ?

Mr DRAKEFORD - My remarks are not the outcome of communications from any particular person, though I note that the name Burke seems to irritate the honorable member for Barton. The complaints made are against senior officers in administrative positions generally, and a select committee enquiry would clear up whether or not this is justified against some of them.

The construction placed on Public Service Regulation 116 by the Public Service Board is largely ignored by the chief officers or deputy directors of the Postal Department in the various States, with the result that juniors are often promoted to the detriment of competent senior officers. This is the definite charge that is made by the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union and which, it is desired, should be investigated by a select committee of this House.

The temporary filling of higher positions has been the subject of representations to the Postmaster-General's Department and the Public Service Board by the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union and other service unions on a number of occasions, but up to date little or nothing has been done to improve the position. How can satisfactory service be expected from employees when complaints of this kind are made and no action is taken? Employees of the Postmaster-General's Department are, and have been, rendering very good service under difficult conditions, and they now seek the appointment of a select committee to investigate their grievances. It is because I think there is foundation for the complaints that I have submitted this motion. I believe that the Postmaster-General wants to be fair, and desires that the employees of bis department shall be treated reasonably.

It is claimed by the union that the replacement of condemned telegraph poles is frequently delayed for lengthy periods, particularly in the States of New South Wales and Victoria, with consequent danger to linemen. This has been going on for some years, despite repeated complaints from the New South Wales and Victorian branches of the union. It is stated that at a time when the department was dispensing with the services of many employees there were in Victoria alone 8,000 condemned telegraph poles awaiting replacement. Surely that was not right. These condemned poles were a menace to the men who were obliged to work on them. I think that the Postmaster-General will agree with me that such a state of affairs should not be permitted. When representations in this connexion were made last year, the then Postmaster-General, I understand, took some steps to have the men kept on for the purpose of renewing the poles, so the department must have recognized then that there was good reason for the complaints. A few months ago an employee was killed in Sydney while working on the cross-arms of a condemned telegraph pole which gave way. The failure of the department to replace this condemned pole before the accident was the subject of adverse comment by the coroner at the inquest. I have personal knowledge of several accidents in which men have been killed or injured while working on condemned poles in Victoria. No Commonwealth department should allow conditions to exist that may expose employees to danger. This applies to all departments, but more especially to the Postal Department, which last year produced a surplus of £3;500,000. A department which makes so much profit can easily afford to make the working conditions of its employees safe and cannot justify the poles being left in an unsafe condition. Whilst accidents due to condemned poles may not be a very high proportion of the total, they are usually of a serious nature, and some of them prove fatal. I know that the removal of all condemned poles will take time, but this work should be undertaken on a rapid and systematic basis. There is ample labour available to do this work because, at the present time, there are 150,000 people out of work in Australia, and 118,500 persons are existing on sustenance. With very little training, many of these people would be capable of undertaking portion of this work. The necessary money and labour being available, there is no excuse for further postponing this work.

The reference to the administration of the arbitration award relating to line staffs is chiefly confined to New South Wales, and has relation to the frequent infringements which are brought under the notice of the union from time to time in that State. It should be borne in mind that the federal service unions cannot proceed in law for breaches or infringements of arbitration awards. They certainly have the power to apply to the Arbitrator for interpretation of the provisions of awards, but a distinction is made between interpretations and infringements of awards. The law on this point, as explained by the Arbitrator, is that " charges of breaches of awards are not grounds for an application for interpretation." The difficulty does not arise in ordinary awards.

If a select committee were appointed by Parliament to inquire into the four matters to which I have referred, there is every reason to believe that evidence could be produced by the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union and other service unions in support of the allegations that I have pu:t forward without making specific charges against any individual. If the select committee were appointed, representatives of the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union and other Public Service unions would be prepared to give detailed evidence concerning the representations which have been made to the responsible authorities, the Postmaster-General's Department, the Public Service Board and the Government, in connexion with each of the subjects of inquiry. It will be recognized that organizations of the importance of the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union, which cover a very large number of the members of the Public Service, would not be likely to make assertions which could not be backed up by evidence. It might be that the select committee, having made its inquiry, would take the view that the alleged grievances are not so grave as the unions claim, but from information that I have, there is grave cause for dissatisfaction, and the Postmaster-General and the Ministry as a whole should take a favorable view of the request for the appointment of a select committee. I ask that serious consideration be given to this request. There are honorable gentlemen on both sides of this House who are willing to act on such a committee. Seven members would be required if the Government favoured its appointment. The committee could conduct its inquiry quickly, and make recommendations which, if adopted, would bring about a better state of affairs in the Service. The elimination of the present dissatisfaction would obviate this House having its time taken up by a discussion of grievances in the Public Service.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Harrison) adjourned.

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