Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 30 June 1921

Senator KEATING (Tasmania) . - In considering the motion for the ratification of the contract before us, it behoves us to look at all the circumstances of to-day surrounding our communication with the United Kingdom and Europe. Senator Thomas takes exception to the contract because it provides for something more than the carriage of mails. It is headed in large letters " Agreement for the Carriage of Mails," and probably Senator Thomas' objection on that score could be met by adding the words " and other purposes!" I do not share Senator Thomas' view as to the necessary character of a contract of this kind. He seems to suggest that a mail contract should be a contract that has for its ^object and purpose, and all its incidents, merely the transport of mails. He has -given illustrations in regard to other mail contracts in support of that view.

Before the Commonwealth was established, when the several States had their -own Postal Departments, it was custom - ary for them, in connexion with mail contracts, to assist in district or local development, and the Post Office was used for that purpose. Many a mail contract was entered into under the State regime which -embodied provisions that went far beyond -the mere carriage of mails. That was quite natural when the Department was administered by Governments which were also charged with the many functions in regard to internal development with which the several State Governments were then, and still are, intrusted. When, , however, the Postal and other Departments of the States were transferred to the Commonwealth, the transferred Departments, for the first ten years, were carried on under a bookeeping system which required a certain proportion of the Customs revenue to be returned to the States. Under what was known as the Braddon section, each of those transferred Departments began to realize that it was necessary to discharge only the functions that strictly appertained to it. I well remember the early days of the Commonwealth, when the policy of the Postal Department was very clearly to confine itself solely and wholly to the provision of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic facilities. Anything beyond that it did hot purport to do, even to the extent of painting telegraph poles in towns or cities.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Or- putting up a clock.

Senator KEATING - Or putting up a clock in a post-office tower. In the early days of the Commonwealth, the Postal Department said, " That was all very well when the Department was under the States, but now it has been transferred to the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth is under an obligation to provide only the facilities which a Postal Department ordinarily furnishes, and to carry out those duties as economically as possible. We must have regard to the fact that we are associated with the Customs Department, a large revenueearning concern, under the new regime, and that three-fourths of the net Customs and Excise revenue has to be. returned to the States. We are, therefore, not going to paint telegraph poles or erect structures which serve any other than mere utility purposes in connexion with the Department itself. We are not going to install clocks in vacant clock towers or to do anything in subvention of the opening up of territory, but we are going absolutely to confine ourselves to mails, telegraphs, and telephones." That is the attitude taken up by Senator Thomas. But I would remind the honorable senator that the Commonwealth is not now hampered, as it was during the first ten years of its existence, by a constitutional obligation to return to the States a certain proportion of its Customs and Excise revenue. Further, Australia's position to-day is very different from what it was when the last mail contract was entered into between the Commonwealth and the Orient Steam -ship Company. Since then there have been world-shaking events, and Australia, as part of the Empire, now feels more strongly than ever the necessity for keeping in close communication with other portions of that Empire, and especially with the heart of the Empire itself. That being so, and seeing that we have a certain number of vessels trading between Australia and the United Kingdom, the Postal Department set out in connexion with this contract to obtain something in the nature of regularity and frequency in our mail service. Prior to the war we had a contract with the Orient Steam-ship Company for a fortnightly mail service. That service, alternating with the service which the Peninsular and Oriental Company was providing under contract with the Imperial Government, gave to Australia and the United Kingdom a continuous and regular weekly service. The Orient Steamship "Company were contractors to the Commonwealth Government and the Peninsular and Oriental Company were contractors to the London Post Office, and these companies so alternated their sailings that between the United Kingdom and Australia we had a regular weekly service. During the war, 'however, there was a great disturbance in the conditions of communication between .ourselves and the Old Country. Even since the Armistice our communication has been irregular, although our mail service has been a little more frequent than it was during the war period itself. But those who have been in the habit of receiving mail matter from the Old Country know the annoyance 'to which "they have been subjected 'by reason of the fact Chat frequently weeks would pass without any English mail being received. Then suddenly their boxes would be crammed with books, letters, 'and other matter which had -come by ''the European mail. These books 'and letters rep'resented the .ac- cumulation -of three or f our weeks' mail matter. Perhaps a week later there -would be another big volume of -English correspondence, and this -would 'again be followed by a period of four -or five weeks during which 'no -oversea mail ''matter would be received. Such a- condition of things cannot be regarded as satisfactory. If there be one thing more than another which the new mail contract will- secure it is regularity in our mail service. It will also insure a more frequent service, even though the contract itself is for tlie despatch of vessels monthly. We know that a contract has been entered into by the Imperial Government with the Peninsular and Oriental Company for the carriage of mails from England to Australia, and if the arrangement which previously obtained between the Peninsular and Oriental Company and the Orient Steam-ship Company be continued, the sailings under these two contracts will alternate in such a way that we shall

Obtain a regular fortnightly service. That will constitute an immense improvement upon anything that we have had for years past. Takin'g all the circumstances into consideration, remembering the disturbance which has taken place in our communications consequent upon the 'war, the diminution of freights which are offering, as well as the difficulty of getting, as many bottoms as are available into actual service, the Government are to be congratulated upon having made a contract which will insure that very desirable frequency and regularity which I have referred. Senator Thomas has stressed the importance of 'any contract for the carriage of mails being exclusively confined to that service.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - If the honorable senator will .pardon me for interposing, 1 said that it would entirely depend upon the circumstances of the case. X said that years ago ,the contract should not have been limited to the carriage df mails.

Senator KEATING -.- The -honorable senator's view is that in- -the early days df Australian settlement it was quite possible "that -the .granting of subsidies 'for the establishment of a .mail service did -much "to promote the welfare of this country, and "was probably justified. But he is of 'opinion .-that Australia has mow emerged from its infancy in that 'regard, and that its .position to-day, irrespective

Parliament of the Commonwealth, obviously all that the Postal Department should consider would be the transit of mail .matter from Fremantle in the West, or Darwin in the North, to the nearest suitable European rail port, or, perhaps, to the nearest suitable Asiatic rail port.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - No, to London.

Senator KEATING - The contract is for the carriage of mails from Fremantle to an approved southern European port. If, therefore, we were to adopt the narrow view outlined by the honorable senator we should merely have to consider the transit of mails from Fremantle or Darwin to the nearest port on the European continent which enjoys regular and rapid communication with London. If we made provision for that, no doubt we could get vessels specially constructed for the service. Twenty-five years ago the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company established a line of small boats which ran between Port Said and Brindisi. These supplemented the services of larger vessels. They carried the mails very rapidly from Port Said to Brindisi. They also conveyed passengers who desired to shorten their journey, and who transferred to them from the larger vessels ; but those passengers, owing to the vibration caused by the speed at which these smaller vessels travelled, had to submit to great discomforts. If, therefore, we .were to regard this contract merely from the stand-point of the transit of mails, I have no doubt that if we selected some European port which is in rapid communication with London we could secure a line of very fast steamers which would convey our mails from Fremantle or Darwin to that port.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - What port does the honorable senator suggest?

Senator KEATING - Some southern European port. I am merely indicating what would be the logical course for us to adopt if we agreed with the view which has been expressed by Senator Thomas. In that case there would be no necessity for us to consider a provision in our mail contract that our mail steamers should call at Adelaide or Hobart. Perhaps Senator Thomas would then be satisfied. I do not think that mail steamers specially built for such a short and rapid transit of mails would be constructed with any view totheir calling at Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I asked merely for poundage rates.

Senator KEATING - The honorable senator seems to prefer poundage rates to a subsidy, because he believes that the development of the Commonwealth is such that we can always be assured of boats calling at our ports, and, therefore, of the carriage of our mails. As honorable senators are aware, we have, under our Post and Telegraph Act, power to place our mails upon any vessel leaving our ports. All vessels before leaving our ports are required to give the Post Office a certain amount of notice of their intended departure in order that iiic Department may, should it feel so disposed, place mails on board them. The owners of such vessels are required to accept for this service remuneration upon a scale that has been fixed by the International Postal Union. But if we only exercised our powers in that regard, we certainly should not satisfy the people of the Commonwealth.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I admit that we possess that power now. Under the existing contract, £170,000 is being annually paid to the Orient Steam-ship Company for the carriage of our mails, and consequently the Government endeavour to forward every letter that they possibly can by an Orient boat. They would have to pay £170,000 to. the Orient Steam-ship Company if the company never carried a letter.

Senator KEATING - That is so, but if Senator Thomas' suggestion were adopted, and we had in hand the £130,000 proposed as subsidy, the disposition of the Postal Department would certainly be to put mails on every outgoing steamer.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Not necessarily. They would not put mails on a slow boat.

Senator KEATING - They might not make use of a vessel which was known to be slow, but they would put mails; on steamers leaving Australia which might take a considerable time to arrive, at their port of destination.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - If a man indicates on his letter that he desires it to go by a certain boat, it will be sent by that Boat, and so the people have some say as to the vessels by which their correspondence shall be conveyed.

Senator KEATING - The public generally do not take much notice of the dates at which particular boats are leaving Australia.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The business man does, though I admit that the ordinary citizen does not.

Senator KEATING - A vessel may leave ite last port of departure in the Commonwealth with the intention to arrive at a port in the United Kingdom by a certain date, but in these days of wireless telegraphy it may be diverted, and instead of reaching the United Kingdom in six or seven weeks after leaving Australia, it may not do so for twelve weeks. The Postal Department would have no assurance when a boat went away that it would go direct to the United Kingdom, although at the time it left Australia the master of the vessel might have fully intended to go direct. I am inclined to think that if we adopted the poundage system we . should have to pay for an irregular and uncertain service quite as much as the subsidy provided for under the Agreement. Senator Thomas suggested that we would save a considerable amount of the subsidy if we adopted the system of the transport of mails at poundage rates, and that the money so saved might be applied to the increase of cable facilities and the reduction of cable charges. I doubt very much whether the adoption of the poundage . system would give us a surplus which would warrant its investment in the direction indicated by the honorable senator. I doubt whether it would be possible, except in isolated instances, to send by cable -such orders as are now sent by mail from wholesale distributing houses here to buying agents in London or direct to manufacturers in the United Kingdom.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I should say that it would, but I am not an expert in the matter.

Senator KEATING - I am in the same position as the honorable senator in that regard. But in the course of business I have seen huge orders, covering pages of many different columns, with marks that were pure hieroglyphics to any one not connected with the particular industry to which they referred. They are eent by mail, and at the other end are understood as dearly as if they were written in ordinary English. I cannot imagine such orders being cabled to the Old Country,

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Most business companies have elaborate code systems.

Senator KEATING - I believe that is so; but a very long message would require a considerable number even of code words. I say that the Government are to be congratulated upon securing this Agreement. The term of the contract commends itself very much to me. It will tide us over the present position, and will put an end to the uncertainty and irregularity of mail communication which we have had to put up with for some time past. It will give the Commonwealth authorities time to look around. I must say that I am, personally, a little surprised that the Orient Steam-ship Company have been induced to enter into a contract for so short a term. Senator Gardiner assured us that the company would get everything from the contract, and would hold the thick end of the stick, but, in view of the term of the contract, I think that the Commonwealth Government are getting the advantage. Senator Gardiner has told us that, in his opinion, the best way of carrying mails between Australia and the United Kingdom is to use our own Commonwealth ships for the purpose. The trouble is that we have no Commonwealth ships at present available for that purpose.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I advocated that many years ago.

Senator KEATING - No doubt if cur ships were available we could utilize them for the carriage of mails. The term of this contract will give the Government an opportunity to consider the practicability of the course proposed by Senator Gardiner and the best means to adopt to carry it out. Having regard to existing circumstances, I consider that this contract is one upon which the Commonwealth Government can be congratulated. Senator Gardiner has said that under it the mail vessels will not be required to call at Hobart as frequently as under the previously existing contract. That objection applies with equal force to every port referred to in the contract. The reduction in the number of calls at a particular port is proportionate to the reduction in the frequency of the service. I would point out to the honorable senator that while the contract imposes upon the company the necessity of calling a certain minimum number of times at certain ports, there is nothing in it to prevent them calling at those' ports more frequently if they so desire. The contract does not interfere in the slightest degree with the vessels of any other steam-ship line calling at the ports referred to. I have noi doubt that whatever may be the conditions of the contract between the Peninsular and Oriental Company and the Loudon Postal Department, the boats of that company will be prepared to call at Tasmanian ports if business offers, as well as at ports in New South Wales. What the company will do in this matter rests with themselves, and will depend entirely upon the business offering at various ports. It is with very great pleasure indeed that I support the motion for the ratification of this contract.

Suggest corrections