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Wednesday, 10 July 1946

Mr HARRISON (Wentworth) . - In concluding his second -reading speech on this bill the Minister for Information (Mr. Calwell) said -

The measure before the House is not a party measure, but one that is brought forward as part of an Empire-wide scheme to which all governments of the Empire have subscribed and which they are committed to introduce. It is in this spirit that 1 commend the bill to all honorable members.

The Opposition proposes to deal with the measure in that spirit, but it believes that such a fundamental change should be fully debated before the measure becomes law. In the course of his speech the Minister also said -

Although the efficiencyand enterprise of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited in operating and developing overseas radiotelegraph services are beyond question . . .

I looked in vain for some further tribute by the Minister to that efficient organization. As Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited pioneered the beam service in Australia, and has done much to maintain Australia's reputation in the field of radio-telegraphy, I thought that in his historical summary the Minister would have paid a high tribute to that organization for what it had done. He has failed to do so, except for the few lines to which I have already referred. Through its research activities Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited has contributed much to the world's knowledge of radio-telegraphy, but now, at the very peak of its efficiency, its organization and its research officers are to be interruptedin their work. The history of telegraphic communications has been given by the Minister, and I do not think it necessary to add much to what he said in that connexion. It is true, as he pointed out, that this bill is the outcome of an Empire-wide plan which was recommended by the British Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference, held inLondon in July and August, 1945, and accepted by all the Governments represented, subject, of course to ratification by the various parliaments of the Empire. I understand that Australia is likely to be the first country to ratify the agreement.

Mr Chifley - A bill has already been presented to the British House of Commons.

Mr HARRISON - Although the ratification of the agreement appears to be highly desirable, various countries which subscribed to it at the conference are examining it closely before presenting it to their Parliaments for ratification. It seems, therefore, that good reasons exist why the bill should be discussed thoroughly in this Parliament, in order that we may understand how it will affect Australia and the Empire as a whole. The question before us is not so much whether the Parliament should ratify the agreement, but rather how best it can be implemented. That can be done in either of two ways, each of which is deserving of our careful consideration. First, there can be a complete merger of all the interests involved, namely, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, Cables and Wireless Limited, and the Postmaster-General's Department, under the control of the Commonwealth' Government. Secondly, effect could be given to the agreement by the formation of a new communications company, consisting of the companies now in the field and the Government, with control in the hands of the Government. Those alternative means of controlling communications were investigated by previous governments, and it was found -that each of them contained certain attractive features. Before we decide on any plan it may be well to consider these alternative schemes. The proposal contained in the bill provides for the setting up of a commission to control communications. The alternative scheme that has been suggested deals only with communications, and, therefore, it would naturally follow that that aspect would be segregated entirely from the commercial activities of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited. In his second-reading speech the Minister said -

The Government proposes to retain its proportionate shareholding in the reconstituted company if the private shareholders ofAmalgamated Wireless ( Australasia.) Limited so desire.

That raises the question of the Government's interest in the commercial aspects of radio- telegraphy. My firm belief is. that it would be better for Australia if the Government were to keep out of commercial enterprises. It is interesting to note that although the Government's policy provides for nationalization of industries generally, it proposes to consult the shareholders of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited in this matter. At this stage it is impossible to say what the shareholders will decide, but, regardless of their decision, I strongly urge the Government to keep out of the commercial field entirely .

Mr Calwell - Would the honorable member be prepared to sell the Post Office?

Mr HARRISON - No. If I had that in mind I should oppose this bill. I have, however, strong views on the use of the Postmaster-General's Department as a taxing medium. At present three organizations control communications, but it would be far more economical to merge them, under Commonwealth control. That would be best in the interests of the taxpayers and of those who will use the service. This proposal will have a tendency to eliminate approximately 4,000 miles of private telegraph lines that have been used exclusively by the two companies. These lines run parallel to lines of the Postmaster-General's Department and could be used by the department to further the interests of subscribers by providing additional services which otherwise could not be made available at present owing to the lack of equipment. Another important advantage will be that in time of war or national crisis, all communications will be under one control. This is most desirable for the application of censorship, and to keep a check on all communications reaching or leaving the country. At present, the Postmaster-General's Department controls approximately 91 per cent. of the traffic load of internal and external communications, the remainder being controlled by the two companies.. At least, that was the position in 1939 just prior to the outbreak of war. The overseas communication services include the following : -

(a)   The cable system forming part of the Imperial submarine telegraph cable network, controlled by Cable and Wireless Limited;

(b)   Two radio beam telegraphic services, controlled by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, working to England and Canada, respectively;

(c)   Radio telephone services, controlled by the Post Office, working to England, New Zealand, United States, Java, andRabaul;

(d)   Coastal radio stations controlled by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited and working to ships at sea;

(e)   Radio telegraph stations owned and operated by the Navy and Air Force.

The internal communication services include -

(i)   The Post Office telephone and telegraph network of land-lines, including two radio stations for the treatment of internal traffic;

(ii)   The national broadcasting system, controlled and operated by the Post Office;

(iii)   The licensed broadcasting stations, operated by private enterprise under the control of the Post Office;

(iv)   Groups of low-powered stations with their associated base stations, owned and operated by private enterprise under the control of the Post Office, for handling telegraph traffic in the interior;

(v)   Groups of stations owned and operated by public utilities - police, fire, electricity sup ply authorities, ambulances, &c. - under the control of the Post Office;

(vi)   Amateur experimental transmitting sets privately owned and operated under the control of the Post Office;

(vii)   Groups of radio telegraph and telephone stations owned and operated by the three fighting services and the Civil Aviation Department..

So, of eleven services, seven are controlled by the Postmaster-General's Department, two by Amalagmated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, and two by the Department of the Navy and the Department of Air. The important point is that 91 per cent. of the traffic load is carried by the PostmasterGeneral's Department itself. My next point - one to which the Minister referred in his second- reading speech - concerns the embarrassment that has been, and may be, caused to a government by the action of a company acting at variance with government policy. The 1929 "conference agreed that the opening of additional radio-telegraph services should be resisted, and honorable members will recall the importuning that occurred following the action . by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited to open up new radio-telegraph communications with the United States of America and Japan. An explanation of that matter was given by the Minister, but the fact remains that because of the desire of Amalgamated Wireless . (Australasia) Limited to open up new channels, embarrassment was caused to the then government in view of the 1929 agreement. Such a state of affairs could not recur under exclusive . governmental control.

Deep sea cables are of great strategic value, and under this proposal the security of these services will be safeguarded. There is, however, one matter to which I ask the Minister to give some attention, and that is the nature of staffs at the foreign cable terminals. In the past these staffs have been employees of private or semi-private companies; now, the terminals will be manned by government officers and I am wondering what will be the reaction of foreign governments. Cable services have proved to be the only secure method of transmitting messages in time of war. They cannot be disrupted easily, and should disruption occur, they can be restored with reasonable speed. On the other hand, beam wireless services can be subjected, to a great deal of interference,as the Minister has mentioned. Therefore, any action- that can be taken to ensure the security of cable services is worthy of consideration.

I come now to the .planning for future developments. Telegraph and wireless communications have been pioneered by private companies, and. the question that now arises is whether >any government can carry out experimental work as efficiently as it has been done in the past. Governments are notoriously slow to act, whereas the private companies ' have devoted considerable time and money to research. They have a responsibility to their shareholders to provide an adequate return for their investment, and therefore are urged to operate efficiently. The Government is interfering with a highly efficient undertaking, and it should -be in a position to give an assurance that the great progress that has been made in the development of communications in the past shall be continued. The services might operate efficiently under a commission, but such a body, subject to ministerial direction, will of necessity be slow and may not be- able to ensure the development that would occur should the services remain under private control. Another disadvantage is that the Government may use this body as a taxing authority. The Minister said -

The internal communication services are owned hy the nation in the national and public interest, and it is illogical to have the external services operated by companies whose first duty is to their shareholders. There are very obvious reasons why the profit motive should be dissociated entirely the conduct of these external tele-communication services. H excess revenues fl-re derived from their operation they should lie applied in reduction of charges to the public or in improving the services, rather than for the benefit of private shareholders.

That is just a pious hope. We know that none of the immense profits, made by the Postmaster-General's Department has been used for the improvement of services or as a means ; of reducing charges. The department's profits have been paid into Consolidated Revenue, out of which the department draws its requirements from time, to time. The present arrangement whereby the department is required to submit yearly estimates in respect of its requirements is retarding the development of its services. When I was PostmasterGeneral I. was investigating a five-year plan of development, because I realized the need to give to .the department the opportunity to plan ahead for at least that period. The nature of the department's operations makes long-range planning imperative. Last year the department's surplus of £6,000,000 was transferred to Consolidated Revenue. That money was not used to improve departmental services, or to confer a single benefit upon telephone subscribers by way of increasing services or reducing existing charges. In view of that fact, the pious hope expressed by the Minister in this matter will not satisfy the taxpayers of Australia. The war-time increase of the postage rate by a half-penny and the increase of the telephone subscriber's charge by a farthing a call represented an increased income to the department of £2,000,000. I hope that the Government will abolish those additional charges when the Treasurer is framing his next budget.

Mr Calwell - Was not the honorable gentleman Postmaster-General when the postal rate was increased to 2-^d. ?

Mr HARRISON -I do not deny that. I point out that the additional halfpenny was imposed as. a war-time measure. Now that the war is over, I sincerely hope that the Government will reduce the imposts. I said previously that none of the surplus of the department was "used in the provision of additional services. The need for such services is emphasized by the fact that approximately 80,000 applicants are waiting for telephone facilities to be made available to them. This position, may be due to a shortage of materials. I do not deny that such a shortage exists. These facts emphasize the need for the department to lay down a long-range developmental plan. Indeed, the Minister in his statement concurs with that view. However, he will not meet this need simply by giving expression to a pious hope. Definite action must be taken along those lines. I do hot support nationalization in the sense that the Government should take over indiscriminately services which arc not essentially national. However, the whole of our telecommunication system is wrapped up with the problem of defence. Indeed, these lines of communications are' the arteries through which flow messages relating to defence, and the Government must, in the interests of security, control them. For that reason I believe that the measure should receive the approval of honorable members, subject to certain undertakings being given by the Government.

Mr Calwell - The defence argument could justify nationalization of airlines also.

Mr HARRISON - I do not agree with the nationalization of airlines. I know that I shall be out of order should I attempt to debate that subject. However, when the Minister seeks to capitalize the suggestion which I have just made with regard to defence I shall not fall into his trap. Most thinking people accept the view that we shall be dependent upon Great Britain entirely for our existence should we he menaced. I know that honorable members opposite entertain inhibitions upon that subject. It is quite patent that the cable and wireless services should be almost a United Kingdom undertaking, and that telecommunications, because of our need to establish quick contact with other, parts of the Dominions in a time of crisis, should be controlled by the Government, in order to meet the need for frequent consultation with other members of the British Commonwealth on matters of defence as well as commercial activities, trade agreements, and all matters closely associated with the welfare of the British Commonwealth of Nations. These matters are highly secret, and secrecy in respect of them must be preserved. Therefore, a merger under one control is necessary. But which is preferable - control by the Postmaster-General's Department, or control by the commission which has been outlined by the Minister? We must study both these systems carefully and realize whither each leads. I am not one of those who believe that a commission of this kind is other than a job-finding body for some particular people whom the Government has in mind.

Mr Calwell - That is a* scandalous observation.

Mr HARRISON - We have seen how the ex-member for Henty was rewarded for services rendered.

Mr Calwell - That is despicable.

Mr HARRISON - That view is commonly accepted. I do not believe that a commission of this nature is other than a job-finding body. On the other hand, the Postmaster-General's Department, as I have pointed out, already controls 91 per cent, of the traffic load of telecommunications, both internal and external. The department has a highly qualified technical staff, and a research section which compares more than favorably with the research sections of similar bodies in other countries. The department also possesses, the necessary equipment and organization to give immediate effect to this scheme. Indeed, the commission which is to be set up will, take advantage of the department's existing organization. We are told that the three existing bodies involve wasteful expenditure of men and money ; but the Government proposes to appoint two authorities to- control telecommunications. That is equally wasteful. The commission, the Minister says, will work in close liaison with the PostmasterGeneral's Department. In fact, it will use almost the entire facilities of the department. It will use the department's staff, equipment, land-lines and research section. A commission is to be set up to run parallel with an organization that is efficient and is functioning well and controls 91 per cent, of the traffic.

With regard to segregation of tele- * communications from the other operations of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, I hope that the Government will get out of the commercial field. I do not think it should give to the private shareholders the right to determine whether the Commonwealth should retain its shareholding in the reconstituted company. The principle is wrong. Taxpayer's money should not be used by the Government to compete with taxpayers in commercial pursuits. Every commercial enterprise that the Government has undertaken has hopelessly crashed. That is shown by the consistent and continuous losses that they have shown over the years.

The Minister said that the Government was negotiating with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited relative to compensation. Whilst I believe that an efficient organization like that company should receive adequate compensation, I do not believe that taxpayers' money should be used unnecessarily to buy it off. There should be fair compensation. The Government is taking away the goodwill and services of an efficient company, which has all the facilities needed to handle radio telecommunications. The company will leave the. radio telecommunications field and concentrate on the other sections of its operations, but the Government is taking away the biggest means of the shareholders getting a return from their investments. That calls for adequate compensation, but only adequate compensation.

Mr Calwell - I assure the honorable member that the compensation will be adequate. This Government always acts justly.

Mr HARRISON - The company's claims for compensation should be well considered by the Government and, if necessary, it should err on the right side.

Mr Calwell - What does the honorable member mean by the "right side"?

Mr HARRISON - The tremendous development that will take place in the field of telecommunication cannot be computed by the Minister, the Government or the company. In assessing compensation, the Government must pay due regard to the vast possibilities of the future.

Mr Calwell - All those things are taken into consideration in determining what is adequate. *

Mr HARRISON - I am glad to know that, but I warn the Minister to ensure that compensation shall be fair and just. There is no need for the Government to say, " We take this service over. We have an act of Parliament enabling us to do f.o." The Government must not ride rough-shod over the company and deny it adequate compensation. Neither must it, for the sake of smoothness, be lavish, not that I think that the Minister would be lavish in matters of this kind.

Mr Calwell - This Government is always fair and just.

Mr HARRISON - One problem that concerns me, as it must concern all honorable gentlemen, is that of the staff. Clause 18 provides, inter aiia - (JO.) Notwithstanding anything contained in this section, every employee, of the Company wlm, in pursuance of the Agreements between the Commonwealth and the Company, dated respectively the twenty-eighth day of March, One thousand nine hundred and twentytwo, the twentieth day of August, One thousand nine hundred and twentyfour, and the fifteenth day of November, One thousand nine hundred and twenty-seven, was taken over from the Commonwealth by the Company and is at the date of acquisition by the Commission of the radiocommunication assets specified in sub-section (1.) of section twenty-three of this Act exclusively engaged in Australia, in or in connexion with radiocommunication services shall be entitled to appointment to a position in the service of the Commission with such advancement in status and salary, beyond those held and received by him in the service of the Commonwealth immediately prior to his being taken over by the Company, as the Commission in the circumstances thinks just, and shall preserve any pension, superannuation, retiring allowance or furlough rights which would have accrued to him if his service in the Commission had been a continuance of his service with thu Company. (11.) Notwithstanding anything contained in this section, any other employee of the Company or any employee of Cable and Wireless Ltd. who, at the date of acquisition by' the Commission of thu telecommunication assets referred to respectively in sub-sections (1.) and (2.) of section twenty-three of this Act. is exclusively engaged in Australia in or in connexion with telecommunication services and has been so exclusively engaged for a period of three years, and for whom the Commission can find suitable employment shall bc entitled to a. position in the service of the Commission with such status and salary and under such conditions as the Commission determines :

Provided that, in determining the conditions us to the employment of any such employee, thu Commission shall take into consideration any pension or other like rights accruing to bini in respect of his service with whichever Company he was previously employed and shall, subject to the approval of the Treasurer of the Commonwealth, make .such allowance for those rights as, in the view of the Commission, is just.

Mr Calwell - In what respect does that worry the honorable member?

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