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Wednesday, 4 June 1902

Mr WATSON (Bland) - One part of the speech of the Minister, in introducing these Estimates, ought to be borne in mind as bearing on the general financial aspect of the postal administration. Metropolitan newspaper proprietors are making demands, which are outrageous in their effrontery, for the carriage of their commodities through the post at less than nominal rates. One reason put forward by these gentlemen for granting them consideration which is not asked for by others, is that the Post-office is. doing so well that the country can afford to make a loss in connexion with the carriage of newspapers. I dare say honorable members will more fully appreciate the figures which have been quoted when they appear in print to-morrow; but judging from what the Minister said, there seems to be a likelihood of a large loss in the department after allowing for interest on the cost of resumption.

Sir Philip Fysh - Yes.

Mr WATSON - That emphasizes the necessity of, to a greater extent, putting the department on a commercial basis, consistently always with giving proper services to the interior districts, where mail communication is about the only luxury the people -at present possess. There is another matter which demands the serious attention of the Government. In the suggested loan Estimates there are considerable items of expenditure nearly fill connected with electrical work, the amount being between £600,000 and £700,000. I dare say that of that sum, over half-a-million is connected with work which involves highly technical knowledge for its properaccomplishment. Of the chief electricians outside New South Wales I know nothing, and I have no word of criticism to offer regarding their qualifications. I am not even in a position to offer an opinion as to the qualification of Mr. Nelson, the Chief Electrician of New South Wales ; but a report has been laid before the House by the Treasurer.

Sir George Turner - That is only an extract ; copies of. the full report will be laid before honorable members.

Mr WATSON - That I understand is a report signed by the Chief Electricians of the States, including Mr. Nelson, of New South Wales. That report contains the greatest condemnation of the work of Mr. Nelson and those associated with him that it is possible to have in a public document. Those responsible for it state that a switchboard, which cost between £20,000 and £30,000 eighteen months ago, is now out of date, and must be replaced by another which will cost £30,000.

Sir George Turner - Was not the mistake occasioned by the fact that the contractor was ordered to provide a board for a certain amount, and the Government would not provide any more money ?

Mr WATSON - I do not remember the circumstances, but, on the face of it, the matter calls for very close inquiry by the Government. It looks as though the department was responsible for at least an error of judgment, involving the country in an absolute loss within two years of between £20,000 and £30,000. The public interests of Australia in connexion with telephones and telegraphs and other electrical undertakings are so enormous that we want men who have graduated elsewhere than in Australia to advise us in regard to our expenditure. In my opinion we should obtain an expert from America or England to inspect our existing electrical appliances. It is evident that the various State officials have not the opportunity to keep themselves up to date in regard to the development of electrical engineering. No other science is progressing with such leaps and bounds, and it is expecting too much from men whose time is taken up with the routine of their everyday work to ask them to keep abreast of, and in touch with, such development. Therefore, I think" that I am justified, in view of the loss to the country, and the inconvenience caused 'to the thousands of subscribers in larger centres in asking the Government to engage some foreign expert at a large fee to advise them in regard to these undertakings. Only a little while ago, when the Sydney Municipal Council proposed to lay down an electric lighting plant, they brought out Major Cardew, and paid him £1,000 for his advice on the subject, and I think that the money was well spent. In my opinion, it is unwise for us to hand over to officials who may be worthy men, but who are not, and who cannot be expected to be, up to date, such vast sums of money as are contained in these Estimates and in the loan Estimates. I trust that the Government will have an inquiry made into the circumtances under which the Sydney fiasco occurred, and will place the responsibility upon the proper shoulders. If, as appears likely on the face of it, the officers are responsible, they should no longer be retained in their positions, though if the blunder was a Ministerial one we cannot unfortunately punish the offender. At any rate, the departmental officers ought to have advised that the accommodation which the switch-board provides would not be sufficient. Although it has been in position for only about eighteen months, it cannot take more than 200 additional subscribers. But the departmental officers knew that the telephone system had been rapidly increasing in Sydney for years past, hundreds joining every year, and they should have advised against the erection of a switch-board which would be inadequate within a very short time. In my opinion the telephone system should be extended throughout the country to a much greater degree than is now the case. In New South Wales, despite bad management and the mistakes which have been made, the telephones are paying handsomely.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But the department are interfering with the telephone system in some cases for the sake of the telegraphs. That should not be.

Mr WATSON - I am afraid that that is so in some cases, but if we can add to the convenience of the people, we should be prepared to wipe off the money already expended upon telegraphs.

Sir George Turner - I do not see why the department should attempt to prevent the construction of telephones, if they will get as much revenue from them as from telegraphs.

Mr WATSON - The Government should encourage the use of telephones by increasing telephonic communication, and erecting more trunk lines.

Sir George Turner - It all means very heavy expense.

Mr WATSON - Yes, but the expense is justifiable if a fair return is obtained. The present permanent head of the Post-office has in a most foolish manner pointed to what he terms the extravagant expenditure in New South Wales, ignoring the fact that the New South Wales postal revenue more than justifies that expenditure. Where the revenue is small, only a small expenditure is, perhaps, justifiable ; but where, by largely increasing the expenditure you can correspondingly increase your revenue, an increase of expenditure is justifiable. Unfortunately, some people will not recognise that. I believe that with an up-to-date telephone system and better management the rates charged to subscribers would be considerably reduced, and that a good profit would still be left to the department. It seems to me that the telephones would pay if business houses in New South Wales were charged less than £9 per annum, and private householders less than £5 per annum.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There would be an ' increase of revenue if 'a reduction were made.

Mr WATSON - I think that there would be an increase in the net return. I have noted with a good deal of interest the fact that nearly all important country towns in New South Wales are now having telephone exchanges installed, notwithstanding the high rates charged to subscribers. I hope to see the time when, not only will every town have its exchange, but residents living at considerable distances round about - perhaps twenty miles 0U - will be able to avail themselves of the conveniences of telephonic communication. Unfortunately the methods of the department are so conservative that little encouragement is given to the people to avail themselves of these facilities. To my mind, it is a pity that the portfolio of Postmaster-General is not held by a Minister who is a member of this House. A large semi-commercial concern like the Postal department should be represented in the House whose members represent, separate constituencies, because it is localities that are chiefly interested in these matters, and we should have an opportunity of speaking directly to the Minister responsible for the control of the department. In the additional Estimates circulated by the Treasurer, I find that £550 has been set down to provide for alterations to the post-office at Young, in New South Wales. I wish to assure the Treasurer that that sum is altogether inadequate for the purpose. Some two years ago the postal authorities in New South Wales agreed that it was necessary, in order to allow the business of the office to be properly conducted, to make certain alterations, and the Government Architect reported that those alterations could not be made for less than £S00. Since then there has been no material change in the price of materials or the cost of labour, and therefore the reduction in the amount set down must mean a reduction in the proposed additional accommodation. I would impress upon the Treasurer, and upon the Minister representing the PostmasterGeneral, that what we ask for is not a tower, or some ornamental addition, but increased accommodation, which is absolutely required. I trust that before the work is begun, inquiries will be made which will insure that no mistakes will occur which will, compel the re-opening of the matter within a year or two. In conclusion, I wish to say that the amount expended by the Postal department is so large that the most careful administration is required at the hands of both the Minister and his permanent advisers, and for that reason I emphasize the suggestion which I have already made, that expert advice should be obtained in regard to the highly technical services connected with telephonic and telegraphic communication.

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