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Friday, 19 March 1926

Senator DUNCAN (New South Wales) . - This morning I asked the Minister representing the Prime Minister in the Senate (Senator Pearce) a question relating to cable matters, to which I received a reply which I consider more than unsatisfactory, and which has excited a certain amount of resentment on my part. To me it is most extraordinary to supply to a member of this Parliament such an answer to a question submitted for the purpose of eliciting information either for the benefit of the Senate or in the public interest. The question I asked was -

In view of the fact that the Commonwealth owns one-third share of the Pacific cable, and is responsible for the greatest part of its business, will the Government request the Pacific Cable Board to embody in its annual reports information showing : -

(a)   International and other traffic to and from Australia;

(b)   Receipts by the Board in respect of such traffic;

(c)   Cost of maintenance of stations and staff in Australia.

The reply I received to the first question was -

(a)   These particulars are published in the Postmaster-General's annual report (vide appendix P).

That is not true. I have before me the report of the Postmaster-General for last year, together with the appendix referred to, and the information I have asked for is not embodied in the report. Therefore, the reply to the first portion of my question is most misleading. It is, however, the answer to paragraphs (a) and (b) to which I take particular exception. It reads -

The Government does not consider that any useful purpose would be served in obtaining these details, the compilation of which would involve the Board in considerable work and expense.

The administration of the Pacific Cable Board is not directly the concern of the Commonwealth Government and, no doubt, the Government, has supplied this answer in good faith and at the instigation of the board, because the question would be referred to it for a. reply. It is, therefore, the board that considers that no useful purpose would be served by giving these details. I wish to ask, in all sincerity, not only for my own benefit, but also for the information of other honorable senators, if. an outside body such as the Pacific Cable Board or its officials is to determine whether any question asked in the Senate for the purpose of obtaining information would or would not serve any useful purpose? The Pacific Cable Board is, to an extent, a semi-public body, as the Commonwealth Government has a one-third interest in the enterprise. We do the largest measure of traffic over the cables owned and controlled by the Pacific Cable Board, and yet there seems to be on the part of the board a deliberate attempt to withhold information from this Parliament and from the public. The accounts are kept, the reports couched, and the tables in the report prepared in such a way that, instead of giving the fullest information to this Parliament and those desirous of knowing what the board is doing, they deliberately cover up its operations, and thus prevent honorable senators, members of another place, and the public from knowing what it is doing, and what measure of support is being given by Australia.

Senator Drake-Brockman - If the honorable senator obtained the information, and it were published, would it not be made available to companies, such as the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, which are competing with the board ?

Senator DUNCAN - The board has not given that, as an excuse. It says that no useful purpose would be served by supplying the information.

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN (WESTERN AUSTRALIA) -brockman. - That is what occurs to me.

Senator DUNCAN - I considered that aspect of the matter before I asked the question. I have no desire to be responsible for information being supplied to rival companies in which the Commonwealth has no interest. The particulars which I sought would not give 'to other concerns information which could be used against the board. They have other means of obtaining the information. In fact, the total figures and the business done by the board are given in the report; but the trouble is that the Australian figures are grouped with those of New Zealand, and it is impossible to ascertain exactly what Australia is doing. Seeing that the Commonwealth holds a one-third interest, we should know what business is being done by the board in Australia as compared with New Zealand. It is impossible for us to compare the progress of the work from year to year. We might be doing much more business than the rival company, which is a private concern. The answer to my question states that the particulars, are to be found in the annual report of the Postmaster-General. I say that they are not. The figures published in that report are for the year from 1st April to 31st March, whilst the figures in the report of the Pacific Cable Board are for the year from 1st July to 30th June, so it is impossible to get from the annual report of the Postmaster-Genera] the basis of comparison which I desireto obtain, upon certain phases of the Pacific Cable Board's business. I feel very strongly on this subject, and resent very much the manner in which my questions were answered, as well as the attitude of the board generally. If 1 cannot get the information which I desire in any other way, I shall table a motion asking for the preparation of a return. . Honorable senators will then have an opportunity to see for themselves whether the affairs of the board are being conducted properly. This cloak of secrecy thrown over the whole business of the board arouses suspicion.

Senator Foll - What is in the honorable senator's mind?

Senator DUNCAN - If a semi-public business concern such as the Pacific Cable Board does not clearly state what business is being done by it in Australia, one begins to wonder why. It is absurd to say that the preparation of the figures I have asked for would involve considerable expenditure. I am informed, on very good authority, that the information has to be compiled in order that the total amount of the terminal charges each year may be assessed. I believe that the board has the information, and can supply it readily enough, so if T cannot get in answer to a question, I shall have to take other action.

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