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Wednesday, 30 June 1915

Mr CHARLTON - How does the charge in England compare with ours ?

Mr THOMAS - I am about to tell the Committee. In England the charge is £5 ground rent, and Id. for each ring, whereas in Australia the charge for ground rent is £4, £3 10s., or £3, according to circumstances, and £d. for each ring. Our revenue from ground rent was £473,704, and from tolls £285,997. We have about 120,000 telephones, so if we -kidded £1 to the ground rent, that would bring the revenue on that account up to £593,704, and with a Id. charge for calls the revenue from that source would be doubled. If we were to charge a ground rent of £5, or £4 10s., or £4, as the case might be, and a penny a call instead of a halfpenny, we might not have the same number of rings. But suppose that the telephone was used exactly as it is used to-day, and the English charge was adopted here, we would have a profit of £109,373 a year instead of the loss which we sustain. It should be remembered that there is a difference in the wages paid to employees in the two countries. I do not think that we pay too much : I do not advocate for a moment that we should pay any less ; but certainly our .wages are considerably higher than are paid in England for exactly the same kind of work. Besides, a plant is obviously cheaper in England than it is here, because most of the plant we use has naturally to be imported. Even if our plant were made in the Commonwealth, the cost of a plant would still be a little cheaper in England than here. Therefore, our plant is more expensive, our wages are higher, and our charges are less than those levied in England. I am not very keen on urging that the PostmasterGeneral should charge more for the service: but I am pointing out that there are those who complain about the Government service and control, and at the same time refer to the loss upon our operations. We simply reply that we are not charging even so much as is charged in other countries where the wages and the cost of the plant are not so high. Whilst I think I was right in bringing in the toll telephone, and doing it in the way in which it was done - and it did not prove to be such a frightfully disastrous thing to the community- as was predicted - there was one thing in which I believe I did make a mistake, and that was in granting the concession that when there were over 2,000 rings the charge should be a third of a penny a call instead of a halfpenny. I confess that were I the Minister now I would not hesitate for a moment in doing away with that concession, and providing that for all rings, irrespective of whether the number was 2,000 or 3,000, the charge per call should be one-halfpenny; because most of the rings over 2,000 are connected with big warehouses and large business firms, and are worth infinitely more than a halfpenny each to the person who rings up. Besides, I believe it would do the public themselves a certain amount of good to make the change, because there are in Australia business men who, I am afraid, have not yet begun to understand the full value of the telephone to them.

Mr Sharpe - Take it away from them for a while.

Mr THOMAS - I admit that if the telephone were taken away for a day or two there would be a great outcry. When I introduced the toll telephone a prominent business man in a large capital had his telephone disconnected, and stated at a public meeting that he had taken that step in order to bring me to my senses ; but three days afterwards he went round to the Deputy Postmaster-General and begged that his telephone might be put back. He went on strike for three days, and that was quite sufficient to convince him that he had made a mistake. There is a number of business men who endeavour to save a little by crowding the rings on some of their lines in order to increase the number on a particular line over the 2,000 calls, so that they can have the calls at a third of a penny each. If the Postmaster-General were to do away with that arrangement, and make a charge of a halfpenny for every ring, there would be no particular interest in crowding a line, and I believe that some business men would put on other telephones, and instead of having two or three they would have four or five, because the added cost to them would be only the ground rent of £4. That is an idea which I give to the Postmaster-

General gratis, and, if he likes to do something in that direction, I shall be pleased. I notice, in conuexion with our telephone system, that the loss in Victoria is £60,384. I did read in a leading metropolitan paper here that in Victoria there was no loss, but that. in Sydney there was a loss. There is a loss even in Melbourne. If the figures are examined, it will be seen that the working expenses of the Melbourne service are met by the revenue, but other expenses have also to be met, such as the interest on the buildings, the interest on the plant, and so on. In Victoria, the annual loss is £60,384, but in New South Wales the loss is £171,000.

Mr Pigott - How much of the loss is incurred in Sydney?

Mr THOMAS - Most of it. It was mentioned in a newspaper some time ago that the Postmaster-General was to receive a report - he is "great" on getting reports - as to why the loss is more in Sydney than in Melbourne. I do not know whether he has received the report yet, but, if it has been received, I think it would be rather interesting to the Committee to know why it is that so much more loss is made" in Sydney than in Melbourne.

Mr Spence - In Sydney there are twenty-nine exchanges and 35,000 subscribers, and the cost of putting up and running is altogether different from the cost here.

Mr THOMAS - It would be very interesting to see the report. Of course it may be that the present charges are too low for the cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney. Clearly, the more telephones there are, the larger will be the loss, because there is a certain loss on each line. The telephone service does not stand in the same position as most businesses. Ordinarily, the more customers a man has, the less becomes the expense of running his business, but that is not the case with telephoning, and, unless an adequate charge is made, the more subscribers there are connected the greater will be the loss on the service. Will the PostmasterGeneral say whether he has received the report I referred to just now?

Mr Spence - Long ago. There are reasons for the disparity, which I will explain by-and-by.

Mr THOMAS - I think it would be very satisfactory if the report were laid on the table, so that we might, see for ourselves why the cost is greater in Syduey than in Melbourne.

Mr Spence - I propose to give that information, and a lot of other information, when we have the new charges.

Mr THOMAS - Very well. I know there are some business men who say that they are prepared to pay anything so long as they are provided with a good service. Their main idea is to get a good service. They declare that in England and other countries a good service is provided, but I venture to say that there is no better service in England than in Australia. In London they have two services; I understand that there is a national service, which used to be in private hands, and. the new service, one which has been started tie novo by the Government. When a subscriber was on a portion of the latter service, it was all right, but immediately he got in contact with the other service, trouble began, just the same as occurs here, where we have the metallic circuit and the old earth return. Immediately we are on the metallic circuit, we are all right, but when we get in touch with the other system, a little trouble begins, but that, I believe, is being obviated rapidly. I venture to say that in England they have no service which is more up to date than our automatic service. I speak with some experience of the automatic service at Brighton. Whilst it does go out of order now and again, especially after a storm, because most of the wires are in the air, generally speaking it is satisfactory. Altogether the service in Australia compares favorably with the service in England, and it is supplied at a cheaper rate here.

Mr Sharpe - How do you account for the service in New South Wales being so much inferior to the service in Victoria'

Mr THOMAS --I do not think that the service is as good there as here. Some years ago the service in Victoria was so frightfully rotten that the Government, when they took it over, did not try to patch it up, but started gradually to build a new exchange, and a very fine exchange they -have to-day. Consequently, although the Melbourne telephone service was for years worse than the Sydney telephone system, it is now better than it. In Melbourne the Department started de novo, but in Sydney it tried to patch up the original exchange, which is too crowded in the accommodation provided at the General Post Office, from which it should have been removed years ago. The telegraph service, like the telephone service,, is not paying. One reason for that is obvious: the charges are too low. I know of no country in which wages are anything like so high as they are in Australia where telegrams can be sent across a continent at the rate of Is. for sixteen words. The telegraph rates of the United States of America and of Canada are much higher than ours.

Mr Carr - One has to pay 2s. for sixteen words to get a telegraph message through in reasonable time

Mr Page - I always have to send " urgent " wires.

Mr THOMAS - My experience is that the ordinary rates are sufficient, though many persons pay urgent rates to get precedence. It may be that we have not enough lines, but our rates are certainly lower than those of any other country. Many persons in this community, and some members of the Committee, contend that private enterprise would perform all these services more cheaply and in a better manner than they are performed by the Government. At one time the Pacific Cable connected with a land lino across Canada which was privately owned, as well as with a privately-owned cable across the Pacific; but the blunders made on the privately -owned land line prevented the cable from being as successful as it should have been, there being ten mistakes on that land line to every mistake on the Government-owned land lines of Australia. The .mistakes on the Canadian privatelyowned land line were so many that at last the Pacific Cable Board succeeded in obtaining control of the line. I hope that the Postmaster-General is doing something to bring about the nationalization of the Atlantic Cable.

Mr Sampson - Why did not the honorable member, when Postmaster-General, try to have that cable made a Stateowned concern !

Mr THOMAS - The honorable member for Wimmera at one time never made a speech, no matter what the subject, without introducing the Atlantic Cable, but when his party was in office, and the fate of his Government depended on his vote, he had nothing to say about it. I hope that he will do what lie can now to bring about the nationalization of the

Atlantic. Cable. Were the cables of the world nationalized, we should have fuller information regarding what is happening to our boys at the front, though I admit that it would be very difficult to bring about the general nationalization of cable lines at the present time. I hope, however, that the Postmaster-General will do all that he can to induce the British Government to consent to the nationalize tion of an Atlantic cable, so that messages may be sent between Australia and England over lines that are entirely Government owned.

Mr Archibald - Does the honorable member think that the British Government will take the matter up while the war is on ?

Mr THOMAS - I think that this is the time to take the matter up, although 1 am unable to deal with the subject at any length just now. In England people are writing as they never did before in advocacy of this proposal. The British Government must now depend entirely upon private cable companies for the sending of messages between Great Britain and America and Australia, but I believe that, were the Postmaster-General to stir himself, something could be done for the nationalization of an Atlantic cable. We have been told that the United States is the home of private enterprise; that it flourishes there and does wonders, There the telegraphs and telephones are entirely in private hands; they are not, as here, under the control of the Government. Yet this is what the PostmasterGeneral of the United States of America says in his report for 1914 -

The Postmaster-General renews the recommendation embodied in his last annual report that Congress seriously consider the question of declaring a Government monopoly over all utilities' for the transmission of intelligence, and that steps be taken as soon as practicable to incorporate into the postal establishment the telegraph and telephone systems of the country.

The recommendation was made in 1913, and emphasized in the report for 1914, in which this statement also occurs -

The firm conviction of the Department is here reiterated that telegraph and telephone service is inevitably monopolistic, and, when operated' under private control, does not render the maximum of public service at the minimum cost to the whole people.

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