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Wednesday, 4 June 1902

Mr MAHON (Coolgardie) - I do not propose to discuss the administration of the Post-office in regard to any of the States except Western Australia, because I recognise that it is necessary, in the face of the great change in management, to make allowances for many delays and disappointments. At the same time I think the Government should have taken- steps before now to investigate the condition of affairs in the Post and Telegraph department of Western Australia. They must have heard that that service does not give satisfaction to the outside public, whilst producing grave discontent to the officials themselves. ' I could understand a department being conducted in such a way as to satisfy either the public or the officials. But when a department pleases neither the public nor the unfortunate officials it is primafacie evidence that something is very wrong with the head of it. 1 do not think that Ministers can be ignorant of the fact that the head of the department in Western Australia - if my information is correct - has been practically insubordinate to his own Minister and has actually refused to carry out his instructions. For example, his Minister instructed him not to transfer officers to out - stations without the approval of the head office in Melbourne, and yet he continues to transfer officials.

Sir Philip Fysh - Was not that rectified by the Postmaster-General 1

Mr MAHON - I believe that one case was rectified, but another has not yet been remedied. I know of a young man who, after spending about five years at Coolgardie, and enduring all the hardships of the early days there, has been transferred to a God-forsaken place like Eucla, where he never sees a soul from year's end to year's end. He can obtain no satisfaction. The Government should have instituted an investigation into the affairs of this department in Western Australia, such as I urged them to undertake months ago. I am satisfied that if justice were done,' the man at the head of the Postal department in Perth would have been suspended long since. I feel sure that if Ministers were not overburdened with work that result would have followed before now. This is no new matter. The officer at the head of the department in Perth is. accustomed to rule with all the authority of a despot. He will not consider the convenience of the public, nor the services and sufferings of the unfortunate employes. When I mentioned a few nights since that the condition of the department was so bad that it had resulted in a strike of telegraph operators at Coolgardie, the Treasurer suggested that that must have been a long time ago. But although that strike took place as far back as 1S95, the dissatisfaction of the employes to-day is almost as serious as it was then, and the same aggravated reasons exist for it. When that strike was being settled this gentleman gave a solemn undertaking to the employes who took part in it that none of them would suffer if they returned to work. His manner of keeping that promise was to scatter the unfortunate operators over the whole of Western Australia. One was sent up to the north-west coast, and others to outlying stations in remote places, the result being that every one of them suffered for the part which they took in the strike. To show the autocratic nature of this gentleman, and the way in which he has been accustomed to rule the department, I will read extracts from the report of a Royal commission composed of five .Members of Parliament which sat in 1S97. I shall read some recommendations of that commission, which took most voluminous evidence. Despite the fact that those recommendations were made and supported by a considerable majority in the State Parliament, a great many of the reforms urged in the report were never adopted until the Western Australian representatives came to this House. Some of them have since been carried out as the result of questions which I put to the Minister. The Royal, commission to which I refer gave all the witnesses to understand that they were at liberty to communicate with the Chairman without in any way prejudicing their position in the service. But what happened? Only two men who were adverse to the policy and methods of the department gave evidence before that commission, and one of them was almost immediately dismissed upon a trumped-up charge ; whilst the other, who held a very good position in the Perth office, was shortly afterwards transferred to » Coolgardie. Up till that time the latter had received the highest increases of any man in the department, but since then he has received the lowest increments, simply because he gave evidence in opposition to the system which is carried on by the Perth Deputy Postmaster-General. I would further point out that during the administration of this gentleman the department lost by one embezzler in Coolgardie nearly £8,000. What is to be thought of a department which is managed in such a way that a junior employe can continue embezzling money year after year until he has succeeded in getting away with nearly £8,000 before the department discovers his defalcations.

Sir Philip Fysh - - How is the auditing done there?

Mr MAHON - I should prefer the honorable gentleman to ask the postal officials that question. I believe that there was some system of auditing the accounts, but it is evident that it must have been a very loose one. Although the Deputy Postmaster-General at Perth had had experience of the Bertoli ffrauds in Coolgardie, yet owing to the fact that he would not supply proper safe accommodation in the head office at Perth the paymaster there actually lost nearly £1 ,000. He went out to lunch, leaving the money in his office. While he was absent, some person who knew his habits, and had provided himself with a key, slipped in and extracted £932. I have said that the condition of this department is bad. I propose now to read the testimony of an officer of the department who knew a good deal about its inside working. Writing to me some time ago, of the period from 1S95 upwards, he says -

To say that the administration in those days was bad, .is putting it mildly. There was no check on telegraphic receipts, so that a dishonest postmaster could pocket whatever he liked. In 18!l7, Bertoli, an officer at Coolgardie, on a small salary, embezzled £8,000 of the departments cash. The fraud was discovered by chance and not "by an examination. Bertoli's extravagant expenditure was the talk of Coolgardie, out it never occurred to his superiors to inquire where the money came from. Had the eastern system of accounts prevailed, his peculations would have been discovered almost instantly. The rottenness of his alleged system was made known to Mr. Sholl by an officer named Stewart, who had been in the department in New South Wales. At the very time that Bertoli was stealing the funds, Stewart warned Sholl against allowing large sums to stand to the credit of the postmaster at Coolgardie and other gold-fields towns, where embezzlements also occurred. Though Stewart had a failing, he was an able man. His advice was continually sought by Sholl in preference to that of the inspectors. The disorganization of the department impelled him to the use of strong language, and Mr. Sholl, who received his reports direct, actually withheld them from the record room, and consequently from the Minister. One instance of the system then prevailing is worthy of mention. Up to the end of 15!)7, if a person, say, at Perth, applied for a money order at Kalgoorlie for 5s., the cash would be enclosed with the departmental advice list and sent on to Kalgoorlie. Thus thousands of pounds sterling were always floating about, and as the population was also floating, a great deal of the cash must have missed its rightful owners.

That is an instance of the methods pursued. I promised the committee to read some of the recommendations made by the Royal commission to which I have referred.

Sir George Turner - Most of those recommendations have been carried out by the present Postmaster-General.

Mr MAHON - Some of them have been, adopted, but not all. But even if they had been carried out in their entirety I have a right to call attention to the fact that the Commonwealth is paying a man in a high position whom we regard as incompetent, or something worse. He is the man responsible for the maladministration of the post, and he may repeat it in the future. First of all, the commission point out a most serious thing, namely, that robbery f from the Postoffice was frequently condoned. Paragraph 4S of the report in question states -

Crimes committed against a great public department like the Post and Telegraph department are serious, and offenders should be prosecuted according to the law. This has been the exception rather than the rule in regard to misdemeanours committed in the past by Post-office officials ; most of the offences having been condoned on the offenders or their friends making good any deficiencies which may. have occurred, the only punishment meted out in the majority of cases being dismissal from the service.

The Government should consider whether they cau safely leave the administration of a great department of State in the hands of a gentleman accustomed to the compounding of felonies. We find also from the report of the commission that he surrounds himself with officers who are either incompetent or have very little to do. At the time of which I am speaking the Deputy Postmaster-General kept a chief clerk, whose work was done by another officer. On this point the Royal commission reported -

The chief clerk stated, in evidence, he was not fully employed, as the Postmaster-General had taken the work out of his hands, and did not utilize his services to the extent he might. He also Slid that on his return to duty, after twelve months' leave of absence, he found a number of officers doing the work he was performing prior to going on his holiday. The evidence shows that the chief clerk has now duties allotted to him that can easily be carried out by a" subordinate officer.

Yet the chief clerk continued to draw his high salary for some time afterwards. One might expect that the advice of a Royal commission would have been taken to heart by the Deputy Postmaster-G eneral. At any

Rite, it should have induced him to take proper precautions for the conservation of public moneys. The Royal commission, speaking of the embezzlements, reported -

Our investigations show tha tat the time referred to there was really no proper system of inspection in the department, neither was there a proper system of checking the accounts of the district officers.

Hence the embezzlements. The administration was faulty, and offered temptations to the officers at every point. As to the robbery of £922 from the Telegraph branch in December, 1897, the Commissioners state -

We cannot help thinking that if ordinary precautions had been employed the moment the robbery was reported, and every employe pub through a strict inquiry, the mystery might have been solved, or some clue obtained which could have been successfully followed up.

But nothing was done; there was the usual "masterly inactivity." I believe that the State Government subsequently compelled the unfortunate officer, from whose room the money was taken, to make a refund. In the following paragraph, the Royal commission referred co a very important matter -

The salaries paid in the post and Telegraph department are, as a general rule, on too low a scale to insure the proper class of officers being retained, and this is particularly noticeable in the case of subordinate officials engaged in work of a responsible character. It appears to us also that too much attention is paid to length of service, as compared with an officer's ability, and the character of the work he is engaged in. In other words, there is nob a proper system of classification of duties as well as of officials. The anomalies in salaries paid for services rendered are often striking.

It is doubtful whether there has been any improvement in the salaries, except, of course, that some officers have obtained small yearly increments. The higher officials are well looked after, both in regard to salary and allowances. The Royal commission, in their report, dwelt on the necessity of transferring officers who for a long time have been stationed in unhealthy or tropical latitudes. On this the report is -

Officers who have been stationed in tropical or out-of-the-way places, where the conditions of living have a tendency to injuriously affect the health, should have the privilege, after a certain period of service, of being transferred to stations further south. This is a matter that should receive prompt attention.

But it has not received "prompt "attention. I have already given an illustration of how much attention was paid to this recommendation in the case of a young fellow who, stationed at Coolgardie for several years, had undergone all the hardships of goldfields life. He. was transferred, not to Perth or Fremantle, or to some other habitable place, but to Eucla, where, perhaps for a whole year, he may not see a strange face. Another example of extraordinarymanagement is given in the fact that although there is an excellent Government Printingoffice in Perth, the Deputy PostmasterGeneral had all the postage stamps and postcards printed in England. The Royal commission drew attention to this matter -

Postage stamps and post-cards are printed in England at a cost, of about £2,000 a year. The dies and plates are the property of this Government. The other Australian colonies print their own stamps and' post-cards, and the accountant gave evidence that if this colony would follow suit there would be a considerable saving in this respect.

There was also the recommendation of the Royal commission that private letter-boxes should be provided at the General Postoffice accessible to holders at any hour of the day or night. The Treasurer is in error if he thinks that all the recommendations of the Royal commission have been carried out. This is one that has not yet been adopted.

Sir George Turner - I only followed what the honorable member said, namely, that a large number of the recommendations had been carried out on his bringingthem before the Postmaster-General.

Mr MAHON - In regard to the inland parcels post, the speedier payment of money orders, and a few little things of that kind, the recommendations have been adopted. Under the old system, if a person desired to telegraph £5 from Broken Hill to Kalgoorlie, the message went toSydney, thence to Perth, and later on toits destination-; so that a message from the payer to the payee arrived from 24 to- 48 hours before the money became available. The Treasurer ought to understand that there is great complaint about the system of accounts in the post-office of Western Australia. I do not profess to understand the matter fully, but I believe there is a great deal of duplication of work in the money order branch. In the eastern States I understand the same form is used for an Inter-State as for a foreign money order ; but in Western Australia there are about half-a-dozen different forms for State, foreign, and Inter-State orders. An officer in this department lias to balance his accounts twice a day, once about 2 o'clock before the banks close, and a second time at the close of the day. The administration of the Western Australian Telegraph department was the scandal of the civilized world in the olden times, by which I mean the boom times, when there was considerable speculation on the Stock Exchange. Even at the present moment there are great delays, in illustration of which I may read an amusing newspaper extract -

A case heard in the Menzies local court, last week, hinged partly upon the times at which certain telegrams were despatched and received. This led to various experiences with the telegraph office being related. The plaintiff in the case related that a telegram for him had been despatched from Henries at 10.55 a.m. on a certain day, and that it took five horns to reach Kookynie.

That is, the telegram was about five hours in going 34 miles. "Oh." said the police magistrate, "that was quick work. When I was at Mulwarrie the other day, I sent a wire to Menzies, and it was received the next day, two and a half hours after I had arrived."

Mr. Hill: I sent a wire from Mulwarrie to advise my return to Menzies, and I beat it easily on the road.

This did not occur in 1895 or 1896, but in the present year.

Mr. Maxwell; I can relate a similar experience. I sent. a wire to Perth the other day to say that I would be down, and after I reached Perth the wire was delivered to me at my office. This recalls an incident in 1896, whan an hotelkeeper at Albany sent some billiard cues to a friend in Norseman. They were despatched to Esperance by the 4-knot per horn: steamer, then by horse team to Norseman. A telegram was sent from Albany ou the day the steamer left, advising the despatch of the cues. The message arrived at Norseman the day after the goods. In the same year a resident of Albany was in Adelaide, and he sent a telegram to his wife advising his return by the first boat. When he reached home the message had not arrived. About a mouth afterwards the man died. Judge the surprise of the wife when she got the telegram five months afterwards, stating that her husband was returning by the first boat.

In conclusion, I say that the time has come when both in the interests of the public and for the welfare of the public servants, it is imperatively necessary that this department in Western Australia should be reorganized.

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