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Tuesday, 6 June 1989
Page: 3388

Senator ALSTON(10.21) —I move:

(6) Page 9, after subclause 29 (3), add the following new subclauses:

``(4) Without prejudice to any other provision of this Part, subsection (1) does not apply where the Minister, by written instrument, declares that for a specified period, and for the reasons stated in the instrument, Australia Post is unable to perform the services reserved in subsection (1) in accordance with the requirements in subsection 27 (4).

``(5) A declaration under subsection (4) is a disallowable instrument for the purposes of section 46a of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.''.

This amendment is to provide for an exception to Australia Post's reserved services contained in clause 29. What is significant about this amendment is that it offers the perfect opportunity for the Government to demonstrate its bona fides in the wake of the report from the Prices Surveillance Authority (PSA) released yesterday which recommended that there should be a two-month delay on a postal charges increase. The principal reason given for that recommendation by the Prices Surveillance Authority was that it was not satisfied that the Government had made progress in that area, and that Australian consumers could not be expected to bear a 2c increase when performance results were so poor. Professor Fels, who is the newly appointed and very well-respected Chairman of the PSA, is reported as saying:

. . . poor industrial relations caused Australia Post's recent poor showing in Victoria.

The report states:

. . . he recommended internal consultation and greater use of the Industrial Relations Commission to head off damaging disputes.

`This delay is intended as a warning that further price discipline would be required in future if necessary', he said.

Despite an average yearly increase of five per cent in postal volume, insufficient modernisation of postal facilities in Melbourne had placed extra pressure on workers, leading to tensions. This, in turn, had led to disputes, Professor Fels said.

A spokesman for the Australian Postal and Telecommunications Union blamed the poor delivery, as always, on understaffing, which, he said, had caused a drop in morale. The usual Pavlovian response is that the way out of the crisis is to increase the numbers in the work force and, presumably, the members of that particular union.

It is significant that at this very time a report has been released indicating that unionisation levels have fallen to record lows, and that only about 42 per cent of the Australian work force now belong to trade unions. The reason for that is clear: workers in general no longer accept the proposition that trade unions are acting in the best interests of their members; they are simply acting in their own interests. While that remains the case, people will be very reluctant to join trade unions.

It is very significant that the Prices Surveillance Authority has addressed the issue in the stark manner in which it has. It was fully aware of the financial implications of a two-month delay, which will mean revenue forgone by Australia Post of about $7m to $8m. Nonetheless, the PSA sees it as being a very necessary move in order to enforce some discipline on the industrial relations practices of Australia Post.

Against that background it is worth recalling what happened in the United Kingdom last year when there was a series of postal strikes which ultimately led to the Government invoking the essential services legislation that was available to it, and commissioning Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd, an Australian company, to carry out deliveries of letters to various welfare recipients. That was done at a time of crisis, to ensure the continued flow of mail deliveries. That is precisely what this amendment has in mind. Where necessary, and where Australia Post is unable to perform those reserved services, the Minister should declare the reserved service inoperative.

This is a litmus test of the Government's seriousness on the issue. If the Government wants to respond properly to the Prices Surveillance Authority's clear warning and give a signal to the Australian community that it regards the justification for monopoly practices as being where the beneficiary of the monopoly practice is acting in the public interest, it will take the view that, where industrial disputation or other activities make it impossible for those services to be carried out, it will let private contractors come into the business. That has happened overseas. There is no reason at all why that cannot happen here.

Essential services legislation applies in a variety of areas. It should apply in this instance. Our amendment would allow that to happen. Otherwise we will find not only that Australia Post is protected in certain areas but also that the definition of `letter' is expanded so that Australia Post's monopoly coverage is increased. It now has the capacity, as a result of the Australian Democrats doing their usual trick of siding with the Government on every issue in sight with an absolute blind determination to ignore the logic and merits of the argument--

Senator Collins —When did they start doing that? I haven't noticed.

Senator ALSTON —Perhaps Senator Collins was not here last night, so I will tell him what happened. This is a classic example of the way in which the Democrats have approached this legislation. Last night the Democrats were invited to consider an amendment to Telecom's community service obligations as they apply particularly in the Northern Territory. Concern has been expressed by the Northern Territory Government that changing the definition to merely `accessible' instead of `available where it is practicable to do so' would impose a lesser obligation on Telecom to provide services, especially to remote Aboriginal communities. That representation was made to the Democrats and to us. Senator Powell last night said that this was the one amendment-bear in mind there are about 80 amendments to this package of Bills-that she thought might have some merit. She reserved her position until the Minister had spoken.

Senator Evans then made what could only be described as an attempt to obfuscate the issue. At no stage did he address his mind to the distinction between `accessible' and `available'. My colleague Senator Reid made it clear that the Minister's response was inadequate. Senator Evans then sought further instructions and had his attention addressed to the subjective element in the previous wording which allowed Telecom to decide whether, in its opinion, it was practicable to deliver a service. The Opposition withdrew that. It then became an objective test: Telecom had to make those services available where it was practicable to do so. The Democrats then voted with the Government to defeat the amendment and therefore to impose a lesser community service obligation on Telecom. That is precisely the acid test. It is a classic example of how the Democrats have a blind commitment to the preservation of monopoly service at all cost, irrespective of the trade-offs and whether there is a genuine need for competition in the area.

I regard it as a disgrace. As we will see during the morning, the Democrats will pay heavily for that sort of blinkered ideology. It is a little short of a tragedy that we cannot have a sensible debate and address issues on their merits because we have in the Parliament one group that, on occasions, is able to decide the fate of legislation and which is not prepared to consider these things with an open mind. It is not even prepared to argue the case, against a background of the actions of, presumably, Senator Cook and all of his ministerial colleagues who are now busy trying to kick Senator Childs to death on the issue of privatisation of the airlines.

It is clear that there comes a time when one has to be prepared to think through the logic of the argument and not simply maintain a fixed and blinkered ideological position. It is little short of a national tragedy that about the only outfit in the Parliament which is not prepared to do that is the Australian Democrats. If they are fair dinkum they will also take the point of view that I have put forward in this amendment: this is the opportunity to send a signal to the work force, to those unions which are not particularly interested in the national welfare, that if for no good reason Australia Post is not able to maintain delivery of an essential service, the Government may have a remedy.

I recall the former and not lamented Minister for Telecommunications and Aviation Support, Mr Punch, talking about the moral right to post a letter. It is clearly an essential service. If for any reason postal services are interrupted for any significant period-I do not pretend that a day or two is significant-the Government, via the Minister, should be able to direct that the services Australians take for granted should continue to operate by allowing private contractors to be brought in. That is not an ideological position. It is simply ensuring that services to consumers are not interrupted. In other words, it is putting the national interest ahead of an ideological position.

If the Democrats have any comprehension of what is involved and what the experience overseas has been when there has been such a disruption to an essential service, they will recognise the merits of the argument. I have little doubt that they will not even pay lip service to the merits of this argument. They will simply go on doing what they have done to date, that is, to oppose blindly every amendment we have put forward in this area, pretending that somehow our agenda is all about privatisation and that therefore excuses them from looking at the merit of the argument, from looking at what is contained in the amendments, from looking at what is in the national interest. There is not one word about privatisation in any of these amendments or in our policy. If they bothered to find out what we are about, they would discover that we are interested in more competition, that, where there is a reserved service and a monopoly provided, there is a trade-off. We cannot have both an absence of competition and a monopoly service which allows us to impose higher prices irrespective.

There is no regulator equivalent to Austel. Australia Post is very much making an ambit claim in this legislation to expand its territory enormously, to get into a range of competitive areas while at the same time holding on to its monopoly. If that is to be abused by the unions and others on perhaps rare occasions there should be at least an opportunity for the Government to say, `Well, you do that at your peril because we put the consumer interest first and we are prepared to invite private contractors to take up the slack'. That is the litmus test. If honourable senators are serious about wanting to preserve a monopoly in the interests of the consumers rather than in the interests of blind ideological commitment, they will support this amendment.