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Tuesday, 13 November 1973
Page: 3257

Mr KERIN (Macarthur) - Due to my constant petitioning of the Postmaster-General (Mr Lionel Bowen) - I think he takes it as persecution sometimes - I am now known as the member for Campbelltown telephones. Before I get on to that subject, as the Post Office is now undergoing an inquiry into all of its activities - I am sure it will touch on many of the areas that honourable members on both sides of the House have been raising - I thought it might be a proper time to speak briefly on the Post Office as an institution. The Post Office is a service and it is easily the biggest enterprise in Australia. Historically it has been a government operation because no private organisation could run postal services at a profit. It is proper that the Government should be involved in central operations of the nation's communications whether they be post, telephone or telecommunications. The real value of communications cannot be assessed simply in terms of profit and loss. The criteria for efficiency in communications, especially in a land where distance is the central fact of life, must be service. That is the ultimate product. Communication is something in which the whole community shares and from which the whole community benefits. It is too important to be thrown into the market place where standards of right or wrong, adequate or inadequate service, cannot be determined simply by profits.

There are many fallacies behind the criticisms of the Post Office and these are often based on the view that it should be run as a business. Certainly we should strive, as I know the Postmaster-General's Department does, to run it efficiently. The service provided should be at the lowest cost and it should involve the minimum number of people. There is a need to ensure that we do not spend money foolishly. It would be absurd to establish an automatic telephone exchange to service a few homes. Nevertheless, communications in this nation are too important to be left to businessmen. Businessmen are profit oriented. That may be all right in its place. However, the principal communication systems of this country are run by the Post Office. They meet needs and requirements, the importance and significance of which are unknown to a profit oriented organisation. Service oriented management is very different from profit oriented management. I say quite firmly that in my view the Post Office, by its nature, should maintain a direct and clear responsibility to this Parliament. It would be a fundamental error, in my opinion, for us to be deluded by slogans about running the Post Office efficiently or on a proper business basis.

We must recognise clearly that the communications systems in this country serve many social purposes, so obvious that they go unnoticed. Communications are the central infrastructure of our social, economic and business systems. Unfortunately, in my opinion the composition of the inquiry into the Post Office suggests that there is an over-emphasis on business notions as opposed to the social objectives which should and must underlie a proper national communications system. The idea that the Post Office should be removed from politics is very old. As to the question whether the Post Office can be removed, this has been tried in the United Kingdom and the United States of America without many noticeable effects. In fact, in the United Kingdom the Conservative Government found it necessary to sack the head of the so-called independent postal authority because he proposed to levy postal rates at a level that even that Government considered to be unacceptable. Overall, Australia at the present time compares well with other countries in relation to the cost of the postal services which it provides. But I would like to say as a matter of philosophy that if the commission of inquiry supports the setting up of a statutory corporation there will be immense problems.

In analysing the Post Office I believe that there are 2 central factors to be considered: Firstly, it is a service organisation of the highest significance and the ordinary profit and loss notions of efficiency are simply irrelevant and inapplicable in a nation of great distances.

Secondly, we must ensure that in our search for more effective organisation of postal and telephone services we keep clearly in mind that it is a community service of such importance that this Parliament cannot abdicate either its responsibility or its control. I think one could almost say the worst crime we could commit in this area would be to establish an independent, supposedly efficient, authority which later was shown to operate as a gigantic Government underwritten monopoly. I think if we had this situation we would have an authority that would become contemptuous. Already there are too many unions in the PostmasterGeneral's area of operations. I think we could get a worse situation if we had a Post Office statutory corporation. This is only my personal opinion but I think there are great problems in whatever recommendations come out of this inquiry.

Our role - the role of this Parliament - is to ensure that the Post Office gives good service at minimum cost. We must see that it remains genuinely responsive to the communication needs of the country. I believe that the political process is the best way democracies can deal with non-rational matters and that as the Post Office cannot perform on totally rational criteria it should remain under ministerial control. But I look forward to the recommendations of the commission which is working assiduously on the matters that many honourable members have raised. I also point out that some people are criticising the Post Office because courier services, for example, are supposed to deliver letters more quickly in cities. This seems to be a matter of confusion in the minds of many because the Post Office has to provide a service to all of Australia. If organisations can come in and simply skim the cream off the top, then they are not providing a service. I am not saying that the Post Office remaining under ministerial control should not aim at efficiency, cannot be improved or that the structure itself cannot be made more efficient. It may be essential to separate the postal departments from the telecommunications area.

But the Post Office - I think we all must acknowledge this - faces immense problems. The demand for telephones is running at an all time record level and growing exponentially. Last year some 322,000 new telephones were connected, and some 263,000 were installed the year before, making a total of 580,000. Last year $392m was spent yet we find that at 30 June this year 89,617 telephones still remained unconnected, and that is an increase of 24,000 on last year's figure. This year an amount of $454.6m will be spent on telecommunications plant and equipment. Delays in connecting telephones are great and in this context there has been a need for a second look at some of the practices of the previous Government. I believe that .the average household telephone connection costs between $1,500 and $2,000. Most household telephones do not yield a profit during the life of the telephone or the life of the household. What are the alternatives? Should we put up the connection fee immensely, abolish rental charges and increase telephone rates slightly? Should we aim for an overall tariff throughout Australia such as we have with postal facilities? All these things are under constant review. I am sure that the Postmaster-General has officers in his Department working on them.

I must compliment the postal and telephone managers in the electorate of Macarthur. The electorate is growing fast. One area, Campbelltown, will have nearly 250,000 people by the end of the century. There will be about 500,000 people in 3 towns in the district. The services are getting better even during the nine or ten months I have been privileged to be the member for Macarthur. They are getting better in the Shoalhaven area, but again at great cost. It has been estimated that it will cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to connect 40 new subscribers. There is a problem in some areas of the electorate of Macarthur where people have sold out in the city areas at great profit and have installed themselves down on the coast with a low priced block of land and immediately demand a telephone service. There is also a problem in regard to a lack of planning, a lack of phasing planning and a lack of co-ordination between the Australian and State governments. For example, in the Narellan area there was industrial subdivision without any consideration of whether telephone facilities would be available.

As I said at the beginning of my short speech, telephone services in Campbelltown are my biggest problem. At the present time Campbelltown is just on the edge of the Sydney telephone district. The fact that it is in another charging zone causes constant dis sension among people in the Campbelltown area, particularly business men who find that their telephone bills are virtually double what they would be if their telephone installation was a mile closer to Sydney. If the straight lines which at present delineate the Sydney telephone district were replaced with a circle Campbelltown would be just inside the Sydney area. But Camden, Appin and the other major growth areas, the other major extensions of Sydney which are presently in the Campbelltown district, would be left out.

The problem that the Postmaster-General faces is that if he extends the Sydney zone call rate to Campbelltown it would have to be extended to all the marginal areas of all capital cities, and this would cost at least another $llm. If the call rate were made cheaper in all these areas the immediate demand on the telephone facilities would be such that the lines would jam. Campbelltown is one of the key areas of the Government's planning in the south-west sector, and I think that the Department of Urban and Regional Development must give the matter I have raised special consideration. A small concession has been given in telephone call rates but yet rentals have gone up. It may be reasonable that rentals throughout Australia should be the same, but this is causing real problems for pensioners.

Again I must thank the Postmaster-General for the measures he has undertaken so far with respect to the undergrounding of aerial telephone lines. This also is a matter that has caused immense problems in the Campbelltown area, but in Campbelltown the council is able to phase in telephone lines underground with the electricity lines, and the flat development code has allowed this service to be carried out much more cheaply than in other like areas. I thank the PostmasterGeneral for the concessions he is now making and the way in which he has been able to work with other authorities.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Dr Jenkins) - Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

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