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Thursday, 20 May 1915

Mr SPENCE (Darling) (PostmasterGeneral) .- Some honorable members appear to think that it is quite a trifling matter for a responsible Minister to - fling, around public money at the request of anybody and everybody. Hitherto, the complaint against the. Postal Department has been that it is not run upon business lines. Yet the moment we attempt to conduct it on business lines quite a number of honorable members denounce our action.

Mr J H Catts - There does not appear to be much business capacity in the Department. " Mr. SPENCE.- I do not know whether the honorable member is in a position to make that statement. I do not think that he is, and I doubt if anybody else is. The honorable member for Maranoa was very unfair in his remarks, because he assumed that as I declined - in reply to questions without notice - to commit the Department to granting relief to mail contractors, I was not sympathetic towards the proposal. He is entirely mistaken if he thinks that this motion was necessary to impress upon my mind the gravity of the position.

Mr Page - We will see. Let us take a vote on it.

Mr SPENCE - What would have been the use of holding out hopes that relief would be granted until the matter had been dealt with in such a way that some proposal in that direction could be submitted? Some honorable members have sufficient knowledge to enable them to realize that this is not an easy problem. For example, there are 5,020 mail contracts in existence in the Commonwealth. These cover all sorts of distances, ' and the mails are carried on foot from railway stations to post-offices, on bicycles-

Mr Webster - Those carriers are not short of fodder.

Mr SPENCE - Will the honorable member be quiet? The honorable member for Corangamite spoke of certain persons having to carry huge loads, and I am pointing out that some mails have to be carried on bicycles, others in sulkies, others on horseback, and still others on motor cars. Each of these cases must be dealt with upon its merits. A large number. of our mail contracts commenced to operate on the 1st January last, whilst others were let in October, November, and December, 1914. In other words, they were let during the drought period, when the price of fodder was high, although it was not so high as it is now. These contractors are certainly not in the same position as are contractors who have been fulfilling their contracts for two or three years, and who tendered for those contracts when the price of fodder was low - when it stood at £3 or £4 per ton. Exactly the position occupied by contractors in the latter category cannot be ascertained offhand. From some of the States the Department has not received from mail contractors as many applications for relief as it has received from others. In New South Wales, out of 2,083 mail contractors, we have received only forty-two applications for relief.

Mr Chanter - They are asking for relief through their representatives in this Chamber.

Mr SPENCE - But it is interesting to observe that only that number of applications has reached the Department.

Mr Webster - Including applications through their members?

Mr SPENCE - Yes. Out of 1,134 contractors in Victoria, 151 have applied for relief. From South Australia there have been thirty-six similar applications. I am aware that a larger number was represented by a deputation which waited on the Deputy Postmaster-General of South Australia. There are 365 mail contractors in that State.

Mr Richard Foster - And 270 sent letters in support of the deputation.

Mr SPENCE - Prior to that deputation, only thirty-six mail contractors in South Australia had applied for relief. Until quite recently, no application had been received from mail contractors in Queensland. We now have two, one of these being from Messrs. Cobb and Company. Twenty-eight applications have been received from Western Australia, and thirteen from Tasmania.

Mr Webster - The total is not large. It should not take long to deal with them.

Mr SPENCE - All the States have been visited by bigger and longer droughts than the present one; but I have not been able to find a record of any such action by the Department as we are now asked to take in respect of these contractors.

Mr Carr - The war accentuates the effects of the drought.

Mr Richard Foster - In South Australia the price of chaff has never before been over £8 per ton.

Mr SPENCE - I wish to give honorable members the facts. An attack has been made upon me, and I am justified in putting up some defence. It may be that I gave what might be calleda cold business reply to this request when it was first put to me; but, at the same time, I was not idle. I, and my colleagues in the Cabinet, had something in mind; but surely we should not be expected to make any statement on the subject until we had actually decided what course to adopt !

Mr Webster - Then, why did not the honorable member say that the matter was under consideration ?

Mr SPENCE - I have said so. The honorable member for Maranoa seems to think that a Minister can run a Department without obtaining any information for his guidance.

Mr Page - I want the PostmasterGeneral to do something of his own volition, instead of having the Secretary of his Department constantly at his elbow telling him what to do.

Mr SPENCE - If the honorable member will allow me to proceed, I should like to say that there is no record of the Department having ever taken such an action as we are now invited to take.

Mr McGrath - Our party came into existence because other Governments would do nothing.

Mr SPENCE - I do not know whether honorable members are trying to " gag " me, but I am not going to allow them to do anything of the kind. I have been attacked for having failed, personally, to take an action which, in my opinion, no Minister should be permitted personally to take. I cannot find one instance where a mail contract has been rearranged, and an increased subsidy given because of drought conditions, although, in some of the States, more severe droughts than the present one have been experienced.

Mr Richard Foster - Not at all.

Mr SPENCE - The difference between the present position and that in relation to previous droughts is that supplies of fodder are now short, and prices are higher than ever before. I have already said, in reply to a question, that I am not individually prepared to take the action which honorable members desire; but I am not sorry that the whole matter has been discussed this afternoon. The debate has been useful, and will afford me some backing in taking action. It would be wrong, however, for a Minister to make a big departure of this kind without seeking for any information for his guidance. I have not yet obtained all the details for which I have asked. In the case of certain applicants, arrangements were made with which they were very well satisfied. A great deal of misapprehension seems to exist as to what was done in those cases. Honorable members have spoken about it as "an alleged remedy." We have never claimed that the arrangement was a remedy for the trouble ; but, in certain cases, where a tri-weekly railway service was substituted for a daily one, with the result that a corresponding alteration had to be made in the mail services running from those points, a concession was made to the contractors. It was only a small tiling, but it ought not to be sneered at. The concession has been made in those cases, as well as in others where the service was reduced owing to special circumstances. There are now 5,020 mail contracts in existence, comprising 2,083 in New South Wales, 1,134 in Victoria, 823 in Queensland, 365 in South Australia, 354 in Western Australia, and 261 in Tasmania. Of this total of 5,020, 846 commenced only last January, so that they were actually entered into during the drought period. They stand in a different position from a number of others; but it is interesting to note that, of eighteen contractors in New South Wales whose contracts commenced at the beginning of the present year, seven have applied- for relief. One must have particular's of these detailed cases in order to arrive at a basic system for dealing with the whole question. It is not an easy matter to deal with 5,020 individual cases.

Mr Webster - But 5,020 contractors are not applying for relief.

Mr SPENCE - The honorable member knows very well that we cannot restrict any action we may take to those who have made application for special consideration. We cannot differentiate. The fact that many of these contractors have not applied for any relief serves to typify their character. No one has more sympathy than I have with these men. No one has a greater admiration than I have for the useful work carried out by mail contractors, especially in the out-back country. The men who carry our mails year after year are reliable and steady, and do a great deal of excellent and valuable work. They are, so to speak, an absolutely essential institution in the districts which they serve. The conveyance of mails is only a small part of the service rendered by them. Many of them carry passengers, and those who have travelled with them as I have done know what a splendid body of men they are, and how deserving they are of consideration. They are used to fighting life's battle in a resolute way, and I am not surprised, therefore, that there nave not been more applications for relief. They know, too, that in similar circumstances nothing has hitherto been done for them by the Department. But tje point which I wish to emphasize is that we must deal with all of them on the same footing, whether they do or do not apply for consideration. I am not prepared to say offhand whether even the smaller number - the 846 whose contracts only came into operation last January - should be shut out from any relief. Everything will depend upon the basis that we adopt. I have asked the accountant to give me all the information he can obtain as to the financial side of this question. I have read the official report of the deputation which waited on the Acting Deputy Post master-General of South Australia to urge that special consideration should be given to mail contractors in the present situation, and I have also received a report from the Acting Deputy PostmasterGeneral. In some cases a request has been made for an increase of 150 per cent, in the mail subsidy. In South Australia we have a comparatively small number of mail contractors, yet a 50 per cent, increase in the subsidy to mail contractors there would mean an additional expenditure of £1,280 per month. We have been asked to grant an increase of 150 per cent, on their subsidy until the end of the year, but, having regard to the recent rains, fodder, ought to be cheaper by October next. The honorable member for Maranoa has quoted a letter from a company which in its time has paid good dividends. That company has stated its expenditure and the subsidy that it receives for the carriage of mails; but the honorable member argues that we should pay the whole of this expenditure, leaving it to enjoy all the profits derived from the carriage of passengers.

Mr Page - No. In the statement I read, information was given on that point.

Mr Richard Foster - In their schedule of expenses and revenue, every item appears.

Mr SPENCE - I have not seen that statement.

Mr Page - The Minister has had it in his office. His admission satisfies me that he must be under his officials.

Mr SPENCE - Listening to the letter as read by the honorable member, I gathered that the expenditure and subsidy were given-

Mr Page - I quoted from a copy of a letter sent to the Minister himself.

Mr SPENCE - It was not a copy. I understood the letter was a statement of their case. I admit we get a lot of our mails carried cheaply, but the cost is increasing steadily. As a general rule, the contractors are satisfied, because they get revenue from other sources, such as passenger traffic and parcels. I do not wish to be unfair, and I want to say that if the requests appear to have been turned down, it has only been because of the absence of some basis to guide the Department.

Mr McGrath - What are you going to do?

Mr Fisher - Give the Minister a chance.

Mr SPENCE - I will tell the honorable member what we propose to do. There is a good deal in the complaints made on behalf of the mail contractors, but they are not the only people that are suffering; and, on the business side of the question, we have to remember that they tendered for the work - in some cases undercutting others - and if relief is given now there will have to be an understanding that, whatever may be done in this case, it must not be regarded as a precedent. We could not carry on business in that way at all. The honorable member for Barrier suggested that we should carry our own mails. It is easy to say that, but what would be the effect of that policy ?

Mr Webster - The suggestion, coming from an ex-Postmaster-General, is, I think, important.

Mr SPENCE - If the suggestion were adopted, and the Department carried its own mails, it would be taking away from a large number of people some portion of their livelihood, and 1 do not think that would be wise. If we entered into that line of business, we would have to run a carrying business as well, apart from the Post Office, and I am not in favour of that. I do not think that we can get away from the present system of contracting; but in Queensland this year, tenders were invited for a certain work, and, as nobody tendered, the Department had to make arrangements in some other way to get the work done. I think, however, that if we carried our own mails it would prove very costly, and, as I have shown, would probably do a great deal of harm to many people who are at present engaged in that work. I have been trying to arrive at a solution of the present difficulty, but I cannot say just yet what the basis will be. The Government have considered the question of giving assistance to those mail contractors who, in disastrous circumstances, have been carrying on at a loss; and it is proposed to appropriate a sum of money, at an early date, to meet the situation.

Mr Richard Foster - When ?

Mr SPENCE - As soon as it is possible, and as soon as we get some idea how much would be a fair thing. Just at the moment I cannot say. Owing to the varying conditions throughout the Commonwealth, it is hard to arrive at a basis; and, so far, I do not know exactly what the proposal involves, but I can assure the House that the relief will be as liberal as possible, and given as early as possible. I did hope that I would have been able to make a definite statement to the House this week, but there has been some difficulty in getting detailed information to enable the accountants to arrive at a fair basis.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Will the compensation cover contracts which have been running for some time?

Mr SPENCE - That is a matter of detail which I cannot go into just now. It will all depend on how far back we are prepared to go.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - In some cases, threequarters of the contract time has expired.

Mr SPENCE - I think the announcement I have made will be sufficient for the time being, and that it will enhance the credit available for those who are struggling to carry on their contracts under difficult circumstances. Every one must admire the way these men have stuck to their work.

Mr Webster - Will the Minister ask the New South Wales Government to assist in the matter of cheaper fodder ?

Mr SPENCE - We will do all wecan to help these people to carry on their contracts.

Mr Page - What about that obnoxious clause in the contract?

Mr SPENCE - I agree that that clause should not be included. I was not aware that it was there, and it will have to come out of the conditions in the next contracts. I am not complaining that the honorable member for Ballarat brought forward this matter, because it has shown that honorable members on both sides of the House are unanimous as to the necessity of doing something to help these people.

Mr Hannan - Has the Minister arranged that contractors who tendered this year, while fodder was at a high price, should make some return to the Department if there should be a great reduction in the price of fodder?

Mr SPENCE - No; the Department will not ask that.

Mr Hannan - I do not think you would get it, either.

Mr SPENCE - If we have reasonably good seasons, these contracts will be all in favour of the contractors, but we are not asking for a rebate.

Mr Fisher - It was a question of relief for horses.

Mr SPENCE - It was generally recognised by the Department that there were exceptional circumstances which justified the step taken. I want the House to be assured that, while I have not been able to give a favorable reply to requests made, I have not been unsympathetic. I felt it was better to delay any announcement until I had at my disposal some of the detailed information that I required.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

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