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Wednesday, 19 May 1920

Dr EARLE PAGE (COWPER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I hope so; but I am speaking before the preparation of the new Estimates in order to make sure that the matter is not overlooked. It has been pointed out that, although many of the services of the Postal Department are non -paying in themselves, they act aa feeders, and add materially to the total profit made, and if we eliminate those facilities sooner or later the entire profit will disappear. The history of almost every telephone line and postal service ever inaugurated is that, in the first couple of years it did not pay, but gradually it became reproductive. Rrefusing to erect telephone lines in the country districts, the Department is only delaying the time when the telephone services will became profitable. To secure the best results in the Postal Department we require real economy, not that economy which is represented by the reduction of the salaries and status of officials, but economy by the proper organization of the whole machinery of administration. We should increase the business and revenue-earning capacity of the Department in every possible way, and to "do that there should be a definite policy wisely conceived and intelligently directed with a full knowledge of the conditions obtaining in Australia and elsewhere. It seems as if in Australia we lack such a policy, because when I asked the Postmaster-General last week whether there was any definite system of interchange of highly technical officers with, other countries, he replied that there was no settled policy. Sir Robert Anderson, in a report on the postal ad- ministration,which he submitted in 1915, said -

Sending Men Abroad for Experience.

The supply of engineers for some yearshas been short, and this shortage seems to have arisen from two causes -

(a)   Insufficient pay offered to induce good men to come in, and

(b)   want of appreciation of men with scientific attainments.

It being necessary that we should have the' latest information that the world has to offer, and desirable that we should have it regularly, a plan preferable to importing men would seem to be to send our likely men abroad. While this is obviously necessary in the case of engineers, it would pay the Department well to send promising men from every branch of the Service - Accounts, Clerical, and even General Division (sorters and mailmen). The information they would gain, applied to their knowledge of local conditions and necessities, would be of value far in excess of any cost incurred in obtaining it.

I understand that a certain telephone device, in regard towhich there is a certain amount of doubt, if installed between Sydney and Melbourne at acost of £14,000 or £15,000, would result in an increase of the revenue on that line by £15,000 per annum. This proposal is being held in abeyance owing to lack of personal experience of its working, and a suggestion to completely duplicate the line at a probable cost of £100,000 is being considered as an alternative. That is due simply to the fact that there is no settled policy, in the Postal Department for the interchange of technical experts with the Departments of other countries. In the medical profession, such an interchange is absolutely essential.If a doctor cannot go overseas every five or six years, orget into close contact with men who have been overseas to acquire universal experience, he becomes backward in his profession. I know of motor engineers who, although they have only small businesses, go abroad every five or six years in order to study the conditions in America and other manufacturing countries. I. understand that a Melbourne electrical company has a man always travelling abroad, in order to keep his principals abreast of the times in regard to lighting systems. But in the Postal Department, which has a revenue of about £6,500,000 per annum, there is no settled policy of this kind to achieve more efficient and cheaper services and increased revenue for the Department. In fact, in respect of the whole Depart ment, there has been always a striking lack of any broad-minded policy. Ever since the Department was taken over by the Commonwealth, the various State systems have been maintained, and in each State the Department is controlled by a Deputy Postmaster-General, almost as if it were a water-tight compartment, with no connexion with other States. Because of that, we have such anomalies as places like Murwillumbah, on the Tweed, which is less than 100 miles from Brisbane, being controlled by the Deputy Postmaster-General in Sydney, which is several hundredmiles distant; and the Riverina being administered from Sydney instead of from Melbourne, to which it is a great deal closer. The Deputy Postmaster-General, being so remote from these places, is unable to give personal attention to their requirements, or to acquire an intimate knowledge of the needs of the people. As a result, little progress is made. Furthermore, the circumlocution which has been deplored by every Commission which has ever inquired into the administration of the Postal Department is rendered inevitable bycontinuing the policy of working the post-offices as State activities, instead of as a uniform Commonwealth Department. In regard to this matter, Sir Robert Anderson said -

Prior to Federation the States of Australia were working under separate and distinct postal laws and regulations. In each State the internal organization of the Department differed in many respects, and postal, telephone, and telegraph rates varied. The Federal Post and Telegraph Act was a compromise of the various State Acts modelled by a conference of State representatives. It provides for a permanent head (the Secretary), in whom, under the Postmaster-General, the control of the Department is vested, and also provides for a Deputy Postmaster-General as the principal officer in the Department in each State, but the organization of a Central Administration is not defined. No provision was made in the Act to alter the States' internal organization, and no definite action seems to have been taken to uniformly organize and define the functions of the various officers of the Central Office and of the States. The Central Administration dictates matters of policy to the States, but it possesses no machinery to insure its instructions being carried out. It interferes with rather than rules the States, hence lack of uniformity in working.

That is the position throughout the Commonwealth. The system we are operating is Federal only in name; it is still a State activity in its operations. The undoubted inefficiency of the Department in certain directions is often quoted as an instance of Federal mismanagement, but ic is nothing of the sort; it is an instance of the persistence of State anachronisms in Federal machinery. In addition to the handicap of continuing the State organization which is the cause of so many faults, the Post Office has been regarded, ever since the beginning of Federation, as the milch cow of every other Department. In .the first few years of Federation, it was starved continuously. Sir Robert Anderson im his report of 1915 said -

During the first ten years of Federation a false economy seems to have been the order of the day in the Public Services, the object being to pay as large a sum as possible to the various States under the financial provisions of the Constitution, and it was certainly overdone. The inevitable happened - the Department was starved.

He went on to relate exactly what took place. During the last ten years, a similar policy has been pursued, and in the last report of the Department, Mr. Webster complained bitterly of the manner in which he was treated in respect of the allocation of public funds to enable him to carry on his operations. Not only was he refused extra grants, but he was also deprived of the fruit of his own husbandry. Under the heading of " The Systematic Starvation Policy," he said, in. his report of 31st December, 1919 -

Inasmuch as I have been subjected to much misrepresentation and unjust criticism regarding the developmental work of the Department, I deem it my duty to place on record in this report some striking facts, as set out in the following statement. The delay and intermittent doling out of inadequate sums, apart from the systematic cutting down on the bedrock estimates of "the Department, is mainly responsible for the position existing to-day, and which must be seriously accentuated in the immediate future. Unfortunately, such defects cannot be remedied quickly, as it will take months before the necessary equipment and material can be procured, much less installed. Meanwhile, the public services must inevitably suffer. I have repeatedly appealed for more liberal and business-like treatment, as the files will show, and have pointed out what would be the inevitable result of the starvation policy. Such appeals mainly fell upon deaf ears. As the table shows, the greater the needs the less the allocation. Such delays and curtailment almost spelt disaster. Expedients and make-shifts, ever costly and unsatisfactory, have had to be adopted. Serious loss of revenue is part of the penalty we have to pay. This loss increases day by day, and is the result of the systematic starvation policy.

I ask honorable members to remember the second last sentence, " Serious loss of revenue is part of the penalty we have to pay." Those are the views held by th'e PostmasterGeneral after an experience of four years in the administration of the Department. They bear out my statement that the Department, if properly managed and administered, according to an intelligent, well-conceived policy, would return a much greater profit. During the past two years the receipts have exceeded the expenditure, but there is still need for the best business management. At present, there is the Central Administration Branch, controlled by the Postmaster-General, and the principal permanent head, the Secretary to the Department; and in each State there is a Deputy PostmasterGeneral, and, associated with him, certain experts. Although the State of New South Wales is half as big again as Germany or France, the Deputy PostmasterGeneral in control of it cannot spend on his own authority more than £1,000, and the electrical engineer for the State cannot authorize the spending of more than £25. The State is divided into divisions, which are supervised by inspectors, and these, again, cannot spend more than £25, although 'some of the divisions are practically as large as England. Assisting the postal inspectors are engineers, but the boundaries of the engineers' districts do not coincide with those of the postal inspectors' districts. The engineer is not allowed to spend without authority more than £5 on any work coming under his control. Every honorable member is conversant with the delays and annoyances that arise out of this system of management. Members are lucky if when any application from a constituent passes through them to the Department, it is finally dealt with before sixty or seventy minutes have been written about it, and the result is then probably a statement that the necessary material is not available. Let me quote again from Sir Robert Anderson's report -

The functions of the Department in each State are divided into branches, each controlled by a senior officer, and, as the duties and responsibilities of these senior officers' are not clearly defined or co-ordinated, where the Deputy is not strong" and competent, supervision is apt to become lax and the work, therefore, inefficient. The lack of co- ordination amongst the officers results in circumlocutory methods, entailing endless and costly delay. In the anxiety for self-protection, inter-communications, including references from one room to another, and even from table to table in the same room, are done on paper. Generally speaking, short-cut or business methods arc absent, probably because the system followed shuns responsibility. As a common instance, an application for a new telephone line may be subjected to no less than thirty-two handlings.

After the papers have gone through thirty-two hands, they are decently interred in the General Post Office Records Branch. There have been cases in which, after the people of a district had become tired of waiting for a telephone line, the Department awakened to the fact that it should be erected, and then discovered that it had been approved of four years earlier. My opinion is that Australia should be treated as a whole, and I cannot understand why the Labour party, when in possession of the Treasury bench, did not give effect to a policy of unification in postal administration. The artificial State boundaries should have been disregarded, and approximately equal divisions should have been agreed upon, which would have allowed of greater efficiency in the working of the service, and would have avoided the severe criticism of the Department with which the newspapers have been full during the past few years. Big centres like Sydney and Newcastle, whose postal, telephonic, and telegraphic requirements are very great, should not have a large area of surrounding country attached to them as part of their postal division, and in dividing up the States generally, care should be taken to equalize conditions as regards the quantity of work as far as possible, so as to secure economy, efficient control, and a certain amount of useful rivalry. No useful postal comparison could be made between New South Wales and Tasmania, but, under the system of divisions which I advocate, useful divisional comparisons could bo made in regard to working costs and conditions generally, and wholesome rivalry would be promoted. Civilization has been defined as communication, and if this country is to be properly settled, this or some other Government must improve its means of communications. There should be in charge of the Postal Department a general business manager, chosen for his commercial ability and experience, and his business acumen. It is absurd to say that, in Australia, where there are such large businesses as that of the Broken Hill Proprietary, Anthony Hordern and Company, and many others, a. man of the necessary capacity could not be obtained. Of course, he would have to be well paid. Associated with him should be the best technical experts who should be allowed to travel in the way I have referred to, and in accordance with the recommendations made in Sir Robert Anderson's report. The practice and policy of the Department should be standardized throughout Australia. Furthermore, an expert should always be travelling abroad to pick up ideas and suggest improvements, and useful inventions should be encouraged. In place of the Deputy Postmasters-General there would be general divisional managers, men of practical business experience, less highly paid; and associated with them, postal and engineering experts. These local general managers should be allowed to authorize expenditure to the amount of the average expenditure on ordinary works within their divisions. The divisions being small, they would have an opportunity of making themselves perfectly acquainted with their conditions and requirements, and could properly and personally supervise their postmasters and other officials. Under these circumstances, a great deal of the writing of minutes that now takes place would be avoided, and there would be a continual devolution of responsibility and power. I think that the postmasters should be allowed to spend more freely, with proper checks. We waste more money by the ridiculous safeguards which are set up to prevent pilfering than is saved by them. The Deputy PostmasterGeneral of New South Wales has never, so far as I know, visited my district, and is certainly not able to determine from personal knowledge whether proposed works should, or should not, be carried out there. His area is too big to permit him to know the State thoroughly. Quite recently an allowance office, which had been open for fifty years, and serves 200 persons, has been closed because its revenue is a few pounds short of what is necessary to secure for the person in charge a decent remuneration. A more elastic administration, based on personal knowledge, would have kept it open. In addition to the improvement of its organization, the Department needs a sinking fund to enable works to be carried out expeditiously and with continuity. It cannot make bricks without straw. Mr. Webster, in his report, states definitely that he had great difficulty in obtaining money from the Treasurer. He suggested the creation of a trust fund to enable the Department to undertake a continuous policy of construction unhindered by the "waitandsee" methods of the Treasury. On this subject he said -

In order to meet the demands of the public, a programme of works was arranged for 1919- 20, which was to cost about £1,270,000. This amount would cover such work as could be performed within the year if money were available from July to June, but would not cover the arrears of former years. Even this sum the Treasurer insisted upon reducing to £564,000. As the estimate was very carefully prepared, and included only works which were absolutely necessary to meet public requirements, it is obvious that the reduced amount will be insufficient, and must inevitably result in increasing the proportion of applications for service which must be refused - already about one in ten have been refused. This will mean a serious loss of revenue to the Department, a substantial increase in maintenance cost, and the dismissal of temporary officers - many of whom are returned soldiers - to say nothing of the inconvenience to the ever-increasing number of people who are unable to obtain telephone service.

The action of the Treasurer in refusing funds for new works places this Department in a very embarrassing position, especially in view of the fact that we hold a monopoly of this important public service, which is a commercial necessity. Our officers are at a loss to find a suitable excuse to offer prospective subscribers when refusing to provide service for them. The old plea that material is unprocurable is met with the very reasonable answer that it is over twelve months since the Armistice was signed, whilst it appears ridiculous to argue that we have no money for new telephones, in view of the fact that the telephone service is now returning a handsome profit.

As an instance of the false economy brought about by the refusal of funds, certain trunk lines are held over, although it is estimated that their construction would return a handsome profit from the date the services could be put into operation.

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