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Thursday, 11 October 1956

Mr WHEELER (Mitchell) .- I wish to direct my remarks to the proposed vote for the Postmaster-General's Department, because I believe that that department is one of the most important of government departments for the ordinary citizen, since its services enter so intimately into his life. Nowhere else doss successful administration depend so much on understanding of human nature, lt is precisely the lack of this quality in the official mind - probably due to demands of finance and increasing costs - that from time to time it gets out of touch with the actual requirements and outlook of the people. For this reason, I think there is a great need for the Parliament itself to watch closely the activities of organizations such as the PostmasterGeneral's Department. The recent proposal by officials of the department concerning the introduction of shared telephones is an illustration of what I mean. We have been told that the idea is under consideration, and that, as the introduction of shared telephone services would involve the adoption of a new policy, a paper is being prepared for submission to Cabinet. The shared telephone proposal obviously has been under consideration by the departmental officials for a long time, which is only reasonable, because one would not wish to see such a proposition decided upon without a great deal of deliberation. But what distresses me is that there is a good deal to indicate that the department has already made up its mind to introduce this system and is adopting the well-known technique of trying to influence the Cabinet to reach a decision along those lines.

I submit that a matter of this nature, which affects the everyday representation by the private member of his constituents, not only merits the serious consideration of the Cabinet but also demands the consideration of the Parliament itself. After all, the question involves knowing what the public wants. The Minister is no more qualified to speak in this respect than is a private member. In fact, a private member frequently, particularly in matters of this kind, is more qualified to speak than is a Minister, because he has more time to think over the problems involved, and because his association with his constituents often is closer than that of a Minister. As a private member, I am sure that the public of Australia does not want this proposal, at least in the form which so far has been placed before it. The people want privacy in their telephone conversations. With the shared telephone, as distinct from the duplex system, they would have no privacy. Each party could listen to the other's conversation. A Postal Department spokesman, extolling the virtues of the new system, pointed out that the subscriber, or subscribers, who shared a line would be able not only to listen in, but also to join in conversations. He said that if one party wanted to make an urgent call while the line was in use, he could break in and ask the other subscriber to hang up. If he could do that, of course he could ask the other subscriber to do almost anything. The possibilities opened up by the scheme are endless. One can imagine the telephone outdoing television as a modern entertainment medium.

We have been told that shared telephones are common in Great Britain and the United States of America. That is so, but if we take those countries as guides, the people of Australia should also be told that the shared system in those countries is not popular. As I said during the debate on the Post and Telegraph Rates Bill, which recently was before the Parliament, we should not be obliged to follow blindly the example of Great Britain and America, and that if we adopt the system that applies in those countries we should modify it to meet Australian conditions. The fact that the shared system is unpopular in Great Britain and America should deter us from embarking on the scheme.

Share-telephone systems meet the peculiar requirements of the country, and there may he some people in Australia who are will ing to accept the share-telephone system as something better than no service at all. But the acceptance of the service should be at the individual's option and not upon any arbitrary decision of the PostmasterGeneral's Department. There should be no departmental pressure or compulsion in the acceptance of the proposed new service. For instance, we do not want these people to be faced with the alternative that they can have a share-line immediately or wait until an exclusive line is available - perhaps in a few years, perhaps never. In other words, if a person applies for a telephone service in an area where the likely revenue in relation to capital expenditure indicates, from the departmental point of view, that a share system is desirable, then the applicant should have the choice of the share service or paying more for an exclusive service.

There is a danger of a tendency', under the new proposals, to create a privileged class among telephone users, based on social and business position. We have been told that it is not intended to force doctors or other professional men to share their lines, and I should hope that they would not be forced to share them. But the observance of this principle will necessitate some difficult system of priorities among users which has been in practice for some years past in order to decide who should have a telephone. I must state that I shall not be satisfied until it is laid down that the department will not force anybody to share a line service. I am not without sympathy for the difficulties presented to the PostmasterGeneral's Department in its effort to supply a service worthy of the people. Shortly after the war, there was a dual scarcity of materials and labour. To-day, the capacity to manufacture materials is greater than the demand for them. But the overriding consideration, always, is finance. I do not think that the answer to our problems is to provide a second-rate service for the Australian people, particularly when we know that the shared-telephone service is not popular in other countries in which it operates.

The Postmaster-General has shown a great deal of tolerance in discussions on this matter. I was pleased to hear him say, in reply to a question asked by the honorable member for Bradfield (Mr. Turner) last week, that he was disposed to give honorable members any information which he had in his possession with regard to sharedtelephone proposals. At the same time, the Minister said that he intended to submit this matter to Cabinet for decision. I repeat that I, for one, believe that Parliament itself should be given all the details of this innovation. After all, the Cabinet decision reflects only the knowledge and opinion of its own members. In this matter it cannot be conceded that the Cabinet has a monopoly of knowledge. In this case, even though the proposal may be technically desirable, it may be entirely undesirable from the point of view of the well-being of community life. Accordingly, I believe that the question of share telephone systems is of such interest to the public and to private members who represent the public that all the technical reports upon which it is intended that a decision shall be made by the Cabinet should be made available to Parliament itself.

Another matter which I wish to mention briefly is the proposed introduction of an installation fee for new telephones. In this regard my opinions are shared by the honorable member for Wimmera (Mr. Lawrence) and other private members. This new charge is inevitable. We do not contest that at all. But I feel that it carries the danger of unfair discrimination, which I hope that the Government will remove. If we charge an installation fee to those unfortunate people who have applied for telephones over the last few years and who have not been able to get them, we shall make them victims of a double penalty. In the main, getting a telephone has depended on two things - who you were, and where you were. If one lived in a rapidly expanding area where exchange and cable facilities were overtaxed, one had an unbelievably long wait. I know this only too well, because a large part of my electorate of Mitchell comes within this category, and some applications for telephones have been outstanding for years in that electorate. Also, in any location, preference has been given to doctors, business men and others who were considered to have had special claims.

For the most part, these applicants belonged to the upper income group. Those who had no priority and who did not get a telephone at that time are now to be charged an installation fee of £10. In many instances, this charge will fall on the lower income group. The extra charge is an unintentional case of taxing those who are least able to bear it. I believe there is a very strong case for exempting from the installation fee those persons whose applications had been lodged before this new fee was announced. If, however, it is felt that this would involve the loss of too much revenue, I suggest that any application which had been lodged, say, six months prior to the introduction of the new fee should have exemption from payment of the amount of £10. That is a proposal which I earnestly submit for the consideration of the Postmaster-General and the Government itself.

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