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Wednesday, 10 October 1956

Mr DAVIDSON (Dawson) (PostmasterGeneral) . - I do not desire to intrude unduly into these discussions, or to take too much of the time that is available to honorable members to discuss various departments in connexion with the Estimates that are before the committee. Nevertheless, it is desirable that I should make some comments on the opinions that have been expressed by honorable members in connexion with the work of the PostmasterGeneral's Department. The honorable member for Moore (Mr. Leslie) referred to the operations of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and complained that no provision had been made for the Australian Broadcasting Commission team to conduct an Argonauts session at the Perth show. The honorable member said he was aware that I, as Minister, had no control over the Australian Broadcasting Commission programmes. That is correct, but I can assure him that a representative of the Australian Broadcasting Commission is in the chamber, and I know that the remarks made by the honorable member for Moore will be noted by him.

The honorable member for Banks (Mr. Costa) spent all the time available to him in dealing with the possible introduction of the system called Tress. He credited me with having said that the system would improve telegraph services in Australia. I join issue with him on some of his statements, and that statement which he attributed to me is not correct. I believe I said that the system was being investigated because it appeared that it might improve the service that is available in Australia.

It will be seen from figures that I shall cite that some improvement in the handling of telegraphic traffic is highly desirable. The latest figures available, which relate to the financial year ended 30th June, 1955, indicate that the operating costs in the handling of telegraphic traffic represent 3s. lOd. of the total expenditure of 5s. 2d. on each telegram. In that period, the average revenue from telegrams was about 3s. 6d. so there is a large labour component in operation costs. Therefore, some method of reducing the handling costs is highly desirable if we are to put those services on a sound economic basis.

The system known as Tress, which the honorable member described as the telephone reperforator electric switching system, was designed in the United States of America with the object of improving the handling of telegraphic traffic. I believe that it could be fairly described, without going into technicalities, as a method of repeating telegrams over long distances through several repeating stations by automatic mechanical means instead of by manual handling. In that respect, it is akin to a system that was introduced in Australia by the Postmaster-General's Department for the handling of long-range trunk-line telephone calls. That is the transit system, by which it is now possible to connect a call from Perth to a person in Brisbane without any manual handling in the stations in between.

The Tress system was developed, as the honorable member has said, in 1927, by the Western Union Company in the United States. It is correct that, so far, that is one of the few countries that are operating it. That does not mean that the service is not satisfactory. The Postmaster-General's Department has had the system under investigation for some time, because of the need for some method of reducing operational costs. The investigation was begun during the regime of my predecessor, the honorable member for Richmond (Mr. Anthony). Experiments have been conducted in Melbourne with a pilot plant, and inquiries have been made into the possible cost of installation. That is the position that has been reached so far in the investigations and, as yet, as I have said in this chamber previously, no firm determination to install the system has been reached. Two departmental officers were sent to the United States to investigate the system. They found that it was operating very well, and gave great promise of being worthy of introduction into Australia.

A lot of propaganda about the system has emanated from the secretary of the Third Division Postal Clerks and Telegraphists Union. He has written to most honorable members, I believe, but many of the statements that he has made are not in accordance with the facts as I have ascertained them for myself. The honorable member said that it was estimated that the introduction of this system would reduce the telegraphic staff by about 400. I understand that is correct; but that does not mean that there would be wholesale retrenchment in the department because if the system is to be introduced - I repeat that this has not yet been determined - it will be done gradually, over a period of years. Telegraphists who are now working and who may be displaced at the start will not be retrenched because there will be only a few involved and they will be absorbed in other sections of the department. The department has no intention whatsoever of allowing highly trained men who have served it for years to be put out on the streets. Any further reductions in staffing which will be possible as the system is developed can be taken care of by reducing the annual intake into the department. Thus, retrenchment of those already employed will be obviated. When the investigations to which 1 have referred are completed, I assure the committee that the introduction or non-introduction of the Tress system will be treated as a matter of policy which will be determined not by the department but by the Government.

Before leaving this subject, let me correct a few of the mis-statements that have been made about the Tress system by those who are attempting to decry it. It has been stated that a certain gentleman, who is a telegraph supervisor in Brisbane and who has been to the United States of America, said on his return that he was prepared to report that it should not be installed. This gentleman has had discussions with some of the senior officers of the department, and he has stated that in his opinion - he has made a written statement to this effect - the Tress system being operated in the United States by the Western Union Telegraph Company appeared to be 1 00 per cent, satisfactory on the circuits operated by that company. He said he had discussions with officers of that company who had been with it for over 25 years and that they gave him to understand that the present system was more efficient than the old one. He claimed that the system he saw in operation was efficient, virtually foolproof and laboursaving. I remind the committee that this is the gentleman who is supposed to have come back from America and decried the system. Addressing delegates at the annual conference of the Australian Fourth Division Telegraphists Union and the Postal Workers Union, this same gentleman said he was amazed at the efficiency of Tress and was completely confident that competent engineers would be able to make the system work satisfactorily here.

At this stage, it is appropriate to quote statements made by various men, most of them union officials in the United States, who have had experience of this system. These statements are all more or less commendatory. For instance, the vicepresident of the Philadelphia local area stated that the telegraph service was more efficient than ever before. He said that the reduction of the human error factor in this method had been instrumental in providing greater accuracy in the transmission of public telegram traffic. Mr. J. Racz, district chairman of the local 146 C.T.U. in America, said that the Australian Telegraphists Union had been misinformed, and that the service had definitely been improved following the introduction of the reperforator system. Those statements have been made not by departmental officers but by union representatives in America who have had experience of the system.

It has been stated also that one of the reasons why this system is obviously not satisfactory is that it is in use only in the United States and that it is not used by postal authorities anywhere else in the world. The fact is that in Argentina there is an efficient teleprinter reperforator switching system in use on the public telegraph service, and the postal administrations in South Africa and Western Germany are doing exactly what Australia is doing - they are making investigations into the system with a view to adopting it if it proves to be satisfactory. In addition, the Indian administration is considering the matter and so also are the telegraph operating companies of Canada which are private companies. This is a relatively recently developed system, and that is the reason why it has not yet been adopted in other countries outside America. However, it is under urgent investigation by other countries, and the fact that it is not yet adopted by them does not mean that it is not satisfactory.

That is the position as I know it in connexion with this system. I have set out to give a factual statement in reply to what the honorable member for Banks has said. I repeat that as yet no determination has been given, but I anticipate that within the next few weeks a report will be made to me from the department. Whatever happens after that will depend upon my interpretation of that report and the attitude of the Government towards it as a policy matter.

The honorable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr. H. V. Johnson) referred to the proposed new post office at Geraldton for which he has been pressing me and my predecessor so strongly over a period of years. The department has stated quite frankly that it knows that there is need for a new post office at Geraldton. In fact, a quite comprehensive scheme was developed a couple of years ago. The honorable member for Kalgoorlie gave the full history of the case and he was quite correct when he said that in the list of new buildings for this year no provision is made for the commencement of the work at Geraldton. I very much regret that fact, but the suggestion by the honorable member that it would seem to him from a perusal of the list of buildings that are to be commenced in Western Australia, that preference has been given to the construction of buildings in electorates represented by Government members is completely ill-founded. I do not think he really meant that very seriously. I have before me a list of the new works building programmes for all areas throughout Australia. It sets out the new buildings for the various States, and gives their order of priority. The fact is that because the department has not got all the money for new capital works that it would like to have this year - although in the circumstances generally it has been given a very generous allocation - some of the works on ' the Western Australian programme have had to be cut out, and at the moment the Geraldton proposal is not being undertaken. Far from that building being omitted from the list in order to make provision for others in electorates represented by honorable members on this side, the fact is that it was taken out of the proposed programme in order to make provision for proceeding with the work of improving the facilities in the main store at Perth.

Some little time ago, before I went to Perth, the federal secretary of the Australian Postal Workers Union saw me personally and wrote to me about the state of the main store in Perth and referred particulary to the conditions under which the men were working. He said that those conditions were very bad and that it appeared as though it might be two or three years before any improvement was made. He said that something should be done urgently because of the very bad working conditions in that store, and he asked me particularly to have a look at the store. I had a look at it, and I agree with his statement that the conditions are bad. In summer the building is extremely hot, and during the wet season there is a great deal of stagnant water underneath it. Finally, in my own opinion, there was a very grave fire risk in this building which housed tens of thousands of pounds worth of departmental equipment. For those reasons, and after discussions with departmental officers, it has bien decided this year to proceed with the third and fourth stages of that main store. This will vastly improve conditions for the postal workers and also make it a much better building for the storage of departmental equipment. I acknowledge that the honorable member for Kalgoorlie has made a case for a new post office at Geraldton, and as that building happens to be the next item on the list to be dealt with immediately we get more finance, 1 shall not forget his representations.

The honorable member for Kalgoorlie mentioned another matter which has also been referred to recently by other honorable members from Western Australia, particularly the honorable member for Canning (Mr. Hamilton). It relates to broadcasting reception in Western Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board realizes that reception is not good in certain areas of Western Australia. It has been planning, for some time, to try to effect improvements in that State. This is not an easy task, because of the large sparsely populated areas. In actual fact, the national stations in the eastern States are required to cover a much greater number of people than the stations in Western Australia.

There are two ways in which the board hopes to improve reception in Western Australia. One is by increasing the power of the two stations at Perth which, I think, speaking from memory, are 6WF and 6WN; and also by increasing the power of station 6WA at Wagin. The power of this latter station is to be increased to 50,000 watts, and I understand that the work required for that purpose will proceed at some time in this financial year. I had the opportunity, with my friend, the honorable member for Canning (Mr. Hamilton), to see that station during my visit to the west. I believe, from representations made to me, that that increase in power will go a long way towards meeting the difficulties at present experienced in that area and towards Kalgoorlie.

The north-western part of Western Australia presents a much more difficult problem, because it is not economically or technically feasible to service that area by the installation of medium frequency stations. It has to be serviced by shortwave stations, and we find that those stations are subject to a considerable amount of interference by stations operating in the Near East. For instance, there are times at which considerable interference is experienced from foreign stations, due to the confused situation regarding the use of channels in the high frequency band and to the fact that certain nations, including the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, frequently transmit on channels assigned to other countries. Although representations are made to these countries from time to time, and although some adjustments have been made, the position is still not satisfactory from that stand-point.

Furthermore, the short-wave transmitters in Perth, which operate on two kilowatts and 10 kilowatts, respectively, are required to broadcast to areas in which some of the overseas stations which are powered with 100 kilowatts are also operating. So I hope it will be appreciated that the problem will not be an easy one. Nevertheless, I can assure honorable members from Western Australia - they are all interested in this matter - that the board is fully cognisant of the difficulties of reception in that State and will continue to do its utmost to improve these conditions, consistent with the funds available to it.

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