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Wednesday, 14 October 1964

Senator KENNELLY (Victoria) .- I desire to make a few comments on the estimates of the Department of External Affairs. I hope that Senator Cormack will bear with me because I want to cover the estimates from Division 172 to Division 236. I want to be serious about this matter. Recently I was fortunate enough to visit a large number of our embassies in various parts of Europe. I was most grateful for the help and kindness extended by the personnel of the embassies. They could hot have treated me better if I had been personally known to them for a long period of years. As far as the officers are concerned, 1 think that we are well catered for. I am saying nothing about their work, but I am concerned with the lack of business acumen on the part of the Department of External Affairs in relation to buildings and other matters in various parts of tha world.

I have made only a very rough calculation, but I should say that we are paying between £600,000 and £630,000 in rent far various embassy offices and, no doubt, residences.

Senator Morris - I would have expected the figure to be greater.

Senator KENNELLY - You may be better at calculations than I am. I have made a rough calculation. No doubt if I were to ask the Minister for Works (Senator Gorton) how much the Department of External Affairs pays in rent for offices and residences in the various embassies throughout the world, he could put us both right. I do not think I have taken into consideration in that calculation provision for our offices in London, which come under the control of the Prime Minister's Department. I feel that we should purchase, as far as it is practicable, a number of offices overseas because to me it is bad business to pay more than £600,000 a year in rent. It is true that we own the embassy in Washington, and 1 understand that land has been bought on which other buildings may be constructed.

Because offices have to be rented, sometimes they are not situated in the best positions. We have to rent them wherever we can get them. I do not think that adds to the prestige of this country. Surely we are in a position to own some of our offices overseas. As I have said, that would be a much better proposition than to pay out money in rent. As Senator Morris was so concerned about the cost, and as he probably is a much better mathematician than I am, perhaps he will inform me how far we can go with a building programme overseas if we capitalise on our assets. It would be much better to do this from the point of view of Australia's prestige. At the same time, it would give our representatives overseas much better office accommodation than they now have.

I now want to refer to our officers. The officers to whom I spoke overseas told me, without growling in any way about their conditions, that they do not fare as well as do the Canadians, for example. Admittedly the Americans are better off than anyone. It is not my purpose now to do any more than to see that our officers are brought to a level that is at least comparable with that of officers who represent countries which have possibly only 7,000,000 or 8,000,000 more people than we have. It must be understood that all officers in the various embassies mix together socially and otherwise, and I do not think that Australia's representatives should be the poor relations. I understand that the Public Service Board reviews the conditions of overseas officers about every two years. I point out again that only in one case, and then only because I asked the direct question, did I hear anything in the nature of a complaint. However, I made a point of probing this matter in subsequent conversations elsewhere. I do not think the present arrangement is good enough. If we have representatives overseas they should not be regarded as our poor relations. I wonder whether it would not be wise to remove the officers of the Department of External Affairs from the control of the Public Service Board. That thought was pretty widely held many years ago. However, all I am concerned about is that officers representing Australia overseas should receive remuneration somewhat comparable to that received by representatives of other countries.

No business acumen is shown even in the purchase of motor vehicles. When I was overseas I rode on one occasion in one of our cars. I asked the officer how long hehad had it. He mentioned the period and added that if the Department of External Affairs was wise it would trade in the vehicles much sooner than it did. I do not know why the Department should lay down the rule that these motor vehicles cannot be traded until they have been in service for at least two years. We are entitled to up to date facilities. To trade in motor vehicles sooner would not cost the Department very much because everyone knows that even if sales tax is levied in the countries concerned, these vehicles are purchased free of sales tax. This is another matter lo which I think the Department should give, some thought.

It is not my purpose to build up our officers overseas so that they overlord their fellow officers in Australia, but it must be remembered that they sometimes suffer very great family disabilities when they accept overseas appointments. As a rule, they are away from home for three years and serious difficulties can arise when their children reach the age at which higher education is essential. I was informed that in one instance the parents thought so much of their child's education that they left the child in boarding school in Australia before they proceeded overseas. We must do the right thing by these people.

I am sure that every honorable senator who has been fortunate enough to meet our overseas representatives will agree with me when I say how pleased we were to meet them and how courteous they were to us. Unfortunately the Department, and the Public Service Board which I understand still controls the salaries of the officers concerned, wants to get them on the cheap. 1 do not think that is good enough. Our representatives should be at least on the same level as are the officers of comparable countries. 1 particularly ask the Minister to discuss with his colleague the desirability of owning our own buildings overseas, for financial reasons if for no others. Honorable senators who have been in London recently no doubt have seen the very fine building which was built by the New Zealand Government. Admittedly it is a new building among a lot of old buildings, but it is still a fine structure. From information I have obtained, the New Zealand Government is making a profit on the building because the rent it is receiving for the space that it is not using is more than sufficient to cover the capital cost of the building and the interest. With all due respect, if I had my way I would tear down our present building and erect a decent one in its place.

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