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Thursday, 11 October 1956

Mr DAVIDSON (Dawson) (PostmasterGeneral) . - Again I propose to comment on the remarks that have been made by honorable members about the operation and administration of the Postal Department, in the course of which some criticism was offered. Yesterday, the honorable member for Capricornia (Mr. Pearce) made some commendatory remarks about the amateur wireless operators and their value in the development of radio communications in Australia, their contribution to the war effort during World War II., and their very great service to the community recently in times of flood and cyclone. I am glad the honorable member commended these amateur operators. 1 consider that his remarks were completely just, and I commend the operators myself. The honorable member stated that I had indicated a desire to assist the amateur wireless operators, and that is quite true. So far as lies within my power, I shall do anything 1 can to assist them. 1 only want to point out in qualification of that assurance that many of the operations of amateur wireless enthusiasts are governed to a certain extent by international convention, and consequently there is a limit to what the Postmaster-General's Department can do to assist them. I think it is quite proper that in a debate such as this the valuable work of the amateur wireless operators should be mentioned.

The honorable member for Capricornia, following up his remarks about the amateur wireless operators, also mentioned the very great problem that is likely to arise from interference to television reception. I should like to inform the committee of what has been done to deal with this problem. Honorable members will recall that during the consideration of the Broadcasting and Television Bill 1956, last sessional period, 1 pointed out that the Government was well aware of the possible effects of interference to television reception. In that measure the Administration took power to make regulations to deal with such interference if necessary. 1 think I said at the time that the Government did not desire to make regulations and that, for a start, it would attempt, by co-operating through the Australian Broadcasting Control Board with the various bodies concerned, to deal with the problems that were likely to arise. I am glad to be able to inform the committee that the board has been applying itself to this problem for some time, and that considerable progress has already been made. 1 am not able to report that everything has been fixed, because, of course, it is too early to expect that. But 1 think the committee will be interested to know the progress that has been made in these discussions.

Interference with the reception of broadcasts falls under several headings. First, there is the interference caused by the ignition systems of motor vehicles. In an attempt to deal with this kind of interference, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board has been in touch with the chambers of manufactures in Sydney and Melbourne, and with the secretary of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries. These bodies represent all the manufacturers and assemblers of motor vehicles in Australia, and they have promised their utmost co-operation. Already they are investigating the fitting of suitable suppressor devices to all new vehicles. Branches and affiliated organizations have been circularized, and discussions will proceed. Interference from the ignition systems of those vehicles which are already on the road presents different problems. In this matter the board has been in touch with the Victorian Chief Secretary's Office and the New South Wales Commissioner for Motor Transport to see whether it is practicable for those authorities to promulgate suitable regulations under State laws to deal with the problem. The board has informed me that the Victorian Chief Secretary's Office is doubtful whether the present laws governing the use of motor vehicles in Victoria, empower it to make the necessary regulations, but the department is looking into the matter further. The New South Wales Commissioner for Motor Transport has intimated that he does not expect any particular difficulty to arise in taking the required action.

Interference can arise also from appliances fitted with electric motors, particularly those in common use in the home. In an attempt to deal with this aspect of the problem, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board has been in touch with the Federal Council of the Electrical Manufacturers Association, which has promised to ascertain what will have to be done. It is not to be assumed that every apparatus fitted with an electric motor is likely to cause interference to broadcasts, but, as many people already know, some are particularly likely to offend in this regard, and the whole matter will have to be inquired into very carefully. Representations have been made also to the New South Wales Physiotherapists Registration Board and the Victorian Hospital and Charities Commission in relation to various kinds of appa ratus used by the medical profession. These bodies also have promised to cooperate.

All that I can report so far, Mr. Chairman, is that these matters have been subject to investigation. All the bodies concerned have said that they realize the difficulties that may arise, that they do not want to market equipment that will seriously interfere with the vital medium of television, and that they are willing to do whatever they can to assist the Government to solve the problem of interference to television broadcasts. That is how the matter stands at the moment, and I hope to be able to inform honorable members from time to time of further developments. Several other matters were mentioned last evening by the honorable member for Robinvale - rather, the honorable member for Mallee (Mr. Turnbull), who was good enough to express his appreciation of the action taken by the Australian Broadcasting Commission with respect to certain news broadcasts in his electorate.

Mr Hamilton - Did he name any towns?

Mr DAVIDSON - 1 referred to him wrongly just now as " the honorable member for Robinvale "; but his representations on matters affecting Robinvale have been so frequent that my slip was pardonable. I am sure the Australian Broadcasting Commission will be glad to receive his commendation. I mention the matter only to indicate to the committee generally that, although I stand, as I have done all along, by the principle that the commission shall not be subject to ministerial ' control, any matter concerning the commission that is raised in this chamber receives very serious and, generally, favorable consideration.

The honorable member for Mallee also asked about the new post office at Robinvale. I have already told him in response to his very frequent representations on this matter that the project is listed in the current programme.

Mr Edmonds - It has received favorable consideration!

Mr DAVIDSON - I am very glad to be able to tell the committee of one matter at least in which the outcome of the consideration has been favorable. If the honorable member for Mallee looks at the schedule prepared by the Department of Works he will see that the new Robinvale post office and exchange is fourth in the list of Victorian works which will cost more than £20,000 each. The total estimated cost of the new post office and exchange is £36,000, and we hope that about £20,000 worth of work will be done on it in the current financial year. It may not be completed during this financial year, but I have very little doubt that the honorable member will have the great pleasure of officially opening it during next financial year.

The honorable member for Mitchell (Mr. Wheeler) last evening referred to two matters which he has previously mentioned in this chamber. The first was the sharedtelephone system. I do not propose to say much about it now, because I think I have already dealt with it sufficiently in answer to questions in the House. I want to say only that I thought the honorable member rather allowed his imagination to run riot when he predicted the dire consequences of the introduction of such a system. As he mentioned, this kind of system is very widely used in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and the consequences that he anticipates have not been experienced in those countries, the people of which have national characteristics very similar to our own.

Mr Wheeler - They do not like shared services.

Mr DAVIDSON - That is a matter of opinion. I have said previously that the proposal is still under investigation, and when a final report is received, it will be a matter for determination by the Government, and not by the department.

I was sorry to hear the honorable member for Mitchell suggest that I was out of touch with feeling in the electorates. May I say, with great respect, that I take exception to that statement. The fact that I was a private member for a long period - a little longer than the honorable member himself has been a member - and have had some months experience in the PostmasterGeneral's Department, has enabled me to form an opinion that is at least worthy of consideration. I have not forgotten what I learned when I represented my constituents as a private member, and I have now gained a wider knowledge of the requirements of the department.

As to the installation fee, I have dealt with this matter previously, but it is important, and I want to say more about it, as it has been mentioned by several honorable members. First, I shall refer to the justification for the fee. As I pointed out when explaining the general tariff proposal, the department has been falling behind in revenue in comparison with expenditure, to the extent of about £5,000,000. In addition, an amount of £250 is involved in the installation of every telephone. Previously, that capital expenditure was carried by Consolidated Revenue from which money was made available to the department, and no charge was made to the subscribers. I do not know of any utility in Australia, or anywhere else, where the subscriber - or whatever he may be - can get for nothing, service involving a capital outlay of £250. Because of the increasing costs that the Government and the department are facing in providing the whole field of Postal Department services, the retention of the old system could not be justified.

May I point out that the £10 installation fee is not recurring expenditure, lt is an initial capital expenditure and, therefore, it is not in exactly the same category as are increases of tariffs. That is to say, its impact on -the financial situation, and its inflationary effect, cannot be considered to be nearly as great as are other figures in the new tariff. For that reason, also, it is fully justified.

The second point regarding the fee relates to the date of application. 1 have referred to this matter previously in this chamber, but it is worthy of attention. In matters of this kind, it is difficult for a department to suit everybody; in fact, it is impossible to do so. Whatever decision was reached on the application of the new charge and the relevant date, somebody would have been dissatisfied. We were faced with two alternatives. First, we could have decided that the installation fee would be payable only in respect of applications received after 1st October. Secondly, we could have made the fee apply to all outstanding applications. Let us examine each of those alternatives.

First, if the fee were to apply only to applications received after 1st October, virtually no telephones installed in this financial year would carry the £10 installation fee, because there are about 86,000 applications for telephones outstanding. For purely practical reasons, it is necessary to obtain certain extra revenue in this financial year. If it were decided to forgo £800.000 to £1,000,000 in revenue on this item, other rates which have already been increased in the general tariff would have to be increased by a further amount of nearly £1,000,000 in this financial year to offset the loss. We cannot have it both ways. If we charge the fee, but apply it only to applications received after 1st October, we must agree to add a further £800,000 to £1,000,000 to other charges. That method was rejected by the Government and by me.

The alternative was that the fee should apply to all outstanding applications. That was not possible because, in some cases, a contract has been entered into between the department and intending subscribers. The requisite equipment being available, and the cables being laid, the department is prepared to begin the installation of the telephone. At that stage, the department communicates with, the applicant. It says to him, in effect: " We are ready to go ahead. This is the financial basis on which the telephone will be installed. If you agree, send in the first period's rent ". When this is received by the department, a contract has been entered into, and it cannot be waived. Therefore, the installation fee is not chargeable in respect of such an application, but only in respect of those where no money has passed between the applicant and the department.

The Government would have been delighted had it been in a position to delay this proposal for a year or two, but that was not practicable.

The alternative that was put forward by the honorable member for Mitchell and others was that, while they accepted the need for the fee. it might be possible to refrain from applying it to all applications that were received more than six months ago, or some other period. If we started to play around with dates, where would we stop? Why not make the period three months ago, or twelve months, or nine months? There is no logical argument in that suggestion. It is a stab in the dark, f prefer to stand by what we have decided, and I believe that it has some logic behind it.

The third point referred to the provisions governing the obligation to pay the fee. I have dealt with this matter briefly, also, but 1 shall devote some attention to it again. The fee applies where the department is required to provide exchange lines and equipment for the service. The provision excludes extra internal telephones that make use of only one exchange line. In the case of country party lines, where there is just one line to the exchange, the £10 fee is divided among all the parties. If there are five, they will pay £2 each. In country areas, where the trunk lines run to a country exchange from which exclusive services radiate to six, twelve or fifteen subscribers, the department has met the initial expenditure and. therefore, the fee is payable.

I believe that I have covered the provision generally, but, in the last week or two, several cases have been submitted to me by honorable members and private individuals which indicate that some of the provisions I have mentioned have not been applied. I have considered these matters carefully. In some cases, there has been misunderstanding on the part of the subscriber. He has seen cables going down and has asked when he is going to get his telephone. He has been told, " Not until after 1st October, and you will have to pay £10". There is no basis for such a proposition. If a contract has been entered into by the payment of the rental, a fee of £10 is not chargeable. In some cases, there has been confusion. The department has given a quotation to a subscriber and, realizing that the contract could . not be completed before 1st October, has stated that the £10 fee will be payable. In such cases, I have issued an instruction that, if the £10 had been included in the quotation, and the rental has been paid before 1st October, it will either be refunded or credited to the rental account. So, I am standing on the decision that I announced in this House, namely that a certain basis would be applied to the application of the fee, and if an honorable member brings any case to me in which that decision has been apparently departed from, I will certainly adjust the matter.

During the last few days, the honorable member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr. Curtin) has made some grave charges against the administration of the central office. As the charges he has levelled apply personally to some of the officers, who have no means of replying to them, I do not think it is fair that I should let those charges pass without a challenge. They were very grave charges; they were uttered in intemperate words, and were completely baseless. It would be fair to describe those charges as nothing more or less than rabble-raising rubbish. The honorable member for KingsfordSmith made charges from which the listening public could infer that the members of the central office are in a position where they determine their own salaries, that the head office is grossly overstaffed, and that considerable inefficiency exists. That is far from the truth.

Mr Curtin Mr. Curtininterjecting,

Mr DAVIDSON - The honorable member for Kingsford-Smith had his turn a few days ago, while I sat quietly listening. To-day, I am replying to those charges by stating the facts. I point out, for a start, that such criticism indicates a lack of knowledge of the widespread functions and responsibilities of the central administration which, after all, is controlling the largest organization in Australia; public or private. It is providing for all the essential communication services throughout Australia on a 24-hour basis. The central office has to control and direct the whole of the general operations of the department. It has to formulate and direct policy and all the procedures and research work that is going on; it has to co-ordinate programmes of operation and is responsible for the general oversight of the spending of money right throughout Australia in the various States. It is controlling an organization whose assets, at cost, are worth about £320,000,000, but which, if based on present-day value, would be worth something like £550,000,000. It is controlling an instrumentality which has a yearly financial turnover of £800,000,000.

The staff comprises 79,100 officers, but, in addition to that, there are semi-official and non-official postmasters, assistants and so on. It is a very vast organization.

I will now get away from generalizations and refer to various facts which will show' that there is no cause for any unfair criticism of the department. Dealing with the subject of staffing in the central office, I inform the committee that in 1949-50 when this Government took office after a government which the honorable member for Kingsford-

Smith supported had been in power for some considerable time, the staff of the central office numbered 887, which represented 1.24 per cent, of the total number of employees in the department throughout Australia. For 1955-56, the comparable staffing figure is 1,045. Some may say that we have increased the staff by 160 during that period. That is not so, because the figure for this year includes about 160 officers who, in 1949, were shown under the Victorian administration division but are now shown in the head office division. It will be seen, therefore, that virtually no increase has taken place in the staffing of the central office. The number still represents 1.12 per cent, of the total number of employees in the department, just slightly less than the percentage employed in head office in 1949-50.

From the point of view of finance I shall compare the cost of head office administration this year with that in 1949. The comparison which 1 offer to the committee is true unless the honorable member for Kingsford-Smith is prepared to admit that in 1949 things were in a very parlous and bad state in the central administration. If he does not concede that, he must concede that any sound comparison will show that the position is better now than it was in 1949. The total cost of head-quarters administration this financial year is estimated at £1,385,000, compared with an expenditure of £555,000 in 1949-50. But this year the total expenditure of the department is £121,600,000. Therefore, the cost of administration of the head office represents a shade more than 1 per cent, of the total expenditure of the whole department. In 1949-50, when the total expenditure of the department was £55,604,000, the cost of administration of head office was £555,000, which also represents 1 per cent, of the total expenditure of the department. So, there has been no departure from the ratio between the cost of administration of central office and the total expenditure of the department between the years 1949-50 and 1956-57. That, as I said, is a fair comparison.

The honorable member for KingsfordSmith, in his personal comments on the Director-General himself-

Mr Curtin - Who fixes his salary? That is what I want to know.

Mr DAVIDSON - 1 shall finish, ©a the subject of salaries. I make passing reference to the fact that the salaries' of all' employees of the Postal Department, excepting the Director-General, are determined by arbitration. The salary of the Director-General is fixed by the Government. At present, the Director-General receives £5,500 a year, compared with £4,000 in 1936. During the period from 1936-56 his salary has increased by £1,500. So, the percentage increase in the salary of the DirectorGeneral is only about half the percentage increase in salaries and wages generally throughout Australia.

My time is running out and- other honorable members desire to speak. The matters I have been dealing with are important. I did not have an opportunity to refer to them during the debate on the Post and Telegraph Rates Bill. I conclude by assuring the honorable member for Hume (Mr. Anderson) that his representations regarding rural' automatic exchanges will continue to receive the careful attention of the department. When this Government took over in 1949, 192 rural automatic exchanges were in operation throughout Australia, whereas now the number is in the vicinity of 900. They are being put in at the rate of 100 a year, and last year the department installed a few more than 100. tt is anticipated that that rate of installation, which is about the maximum possible will be continued. I notice the honorable member for Maranoa (Mr. Brimblecombe) looking at me, because he, too, has been talking to me about rural automatic exchanges..

I wish also to refer briefly to the statement made by the honorable member for Grayndler (Mr. Daly), who wanted to know what the Government's policy is regarding the installation of telephones. I invite his attention to the allocation of the proposed vote under new capital works and services where he will see that the vote this year for technical services is £26,450,000 compared with £24,800,000 last year and- the vote for new buildings this year is £3,800,000 as against £3,400,000 last year. When the honorable member waved a piece of paper and said nothing was included in the works lists for Grayndler this year and therefore implied that he would sot get this year any of the services he is looking for, he was seriously mistaken, because that list applies only ' to new buildings which are not likely Co have any bearing on the provision, of telephone of other services for at least two years. The item with which he should" concern himself is the engineering vote for this year, which, as I have pointed out, stands at £26,450,000 - or practically £2,000,000 more than was voted last year. It is that money which, will be used to pay for extra equipment for existing exchanges and equipment for- new exchanges, as well as all the cable, telephones and technical equipment that will be installed this year in order to implement the Government's policy of the greatest possible extension of telecommunication services.

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