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Wednesday, 30 June 1915

Mr THOMAS (Barrier) .- I desire to thank honorable members for permitting me to continue ray remarks at this stage in order that I may finish the quotations which I had begun earlier in the debate. It is with great pleasure that I read the extracts from the American report, because America is looked upon as the great home of private enterprise, and there is a good deal of talk in Australia about handing our telephone and telegraph systems over to the control of business managers. In America they have had experience of business managers, because there the systems are controlled by private enterprise, and the result is a recommendation from the PostmasterGeneral that these systems be taken away from private control and handed over to the State. Continuing the report from , which I quoted earlier, the PostmasterGeneral of the United States of America says -

It is an interesting fact that, whereas policies of government have been advocated, and some adopted, the constitutionality of which have been seriously questioned, the principle of Government ownership and control of the telegraph and telephone finds its greatest strength in the Constitution. This opinion lias been shared by practically all PostmastersGeneral of the United States, who have held that the welfare and happiness of the nation depend upon the fullest utilization of these agencies by the people, which can only bo accomplished through Government ownership.

It is therefore recommended that early action be taken by Congress looking to the accomplishment of this end.

It is also recommended that the telegraph and telephone facilities of Alaska, Porto Rico, and the Hawaiian Islands be at once taken over and operated by the Post-office Department. This recommendation is based on an exhaustive investigation which disclosed that the conditions in these Territories are generally such as to favour the change. A large part of the property involved is already Government owned and" operated in Alaska by the War Department, and in Porto Rico by the Insular Government. The services are so detached geographically as to preclude complicated relationships with neighbouring systems, and are yet sufficient in extent to afford valuable experimental demonstration for the Postal Service looking to the administration eventually of a complete national service. This action will have the effect of strengthening the National Government in its outlying Territories, and is especially recommended because of the expediency of taking over the private ownerships before elaborate and costly extensions and duplications of service have been built up.

The Secretary of War has suggested the transfer of the control of cable and telegraph service in Alaska to the Post-office Department. Anticipating favorable action by Congress, an item of $300,000 has been inserted in the Department's Estimates for the ensuing fiscal year, to cover the expense involved in operating this and the insular services during the first year after their acquisition, and a tentative draft of a Bill for effecting the transfer of ownership and authority is included in the report on page 64. not think that Government ownership is perfect, but apparently it compares very favorably with private enterprise. We have heard a great deal of complaint about the mismanagement of the Postal Department, and in this connexion it is interesting to read the reports of the Royal Commission on Postal Services. We know that that Commission was not hurried in its investigations - I think the inquiry lasted two years - and a great deal of useful and valuable work was done. . The officials in the service were asked io bring their complaints before the Commission, and I do not think they hesitated to do so. When the time comes that there are no complaints from those in the service, the millennium will indeed have arrived. Some of the complaints made must have been justified, because the grievances have since 'been rectified. The Commission was appointed to deal, not only with officials, but also with tho public. Evidence was received in Victoria from the Chamber of Commerce, the representative of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and certain shipwrights formerly employed by the Department. What were the complaints of the public against the Department as disclosed by those witnesses? -

1.   There is an absence of business methods in the Department.

That is a general statement.

2.   Errors occur in the sorting and delivery of letters which display carelessness and lack of discipline.

That condition of affairs is not what it should be, but, having regard to the millions of letters that are sorted and delivered, we may well marvel that more errors do not occur.

3.   There are instances of non-delivery and delay in delivery of telegrams.

I can quite understand that.

4.   The Melbourne telephone service is most unsatisfactory.

5.   The Department employs untrained fitters at less than standard rates.

6.   Pole-dressing is executed by nontradesmen.

Those represent the whole of the grievances of the general public of Victoria against the working of the Department in this State. In South Australia the complaints were -

1.   More business-like management and decentralization are necessary.

I believe that the Postmaster-General has endeavoured to decentralize some of the work.

2.   Postage rates and stamps are not uniform. Penny postage and a Commonwealth stamp should be introduced.

We effected that change as soon as the nuances would permit.

3.   Delays occur in delivery of telegrams.

4.   Receipts for telegrams should be introduced.

5.   In telegrams a lower rate should be charged for words in excess of first sixteen.

6.   Department should not retain private telegrams of advice in connexion with telegraphic money orders. Department should advise payee.

7.   Telephone service, Port Adelaide, is most unsatisfactory.

8.   Telephone service between Adelaide and Port Adelaide is very bad.

9.   Gawler Post-office accommodation is inadequate.

10.   The office arrangements at Kapunda are defective.

11.   Post-offices at Mount Gambier and Kapunda are undermanned.

12.   Delays have occurred in furnishing private letter boxes at Kapunda.

13.   A telephone trunk line is required between Kapunda and Adelaide.

14.   Telephone trunk line charges are too high.

15.   Charges for extension of country telephone subscribers' lines are excessive.

These are some of the complaints that were brought before the Postal Commission by the general public - not by the officers; their complaints, I admit, were numerous. The Telephone Department was said to be unsatisfactory. I can quite understand that. But the Postal Branch of the Department was reported upon differently, and to me it was marvellous that the general public had so very little to complain of when the opportunity was given them to bring their complaints before a Commission. I do not say that there are no complaints, and I am ready to admit that probably the country has more to complain of than the city, for I believe that there is a difficulty in supplying the country with the necessary postal services. I am prepared also to say that in most places there is an absence of business method in the Department, and I can quite understand that business men would not apply the same system to their own businesses as is sometimes applied in the Post Office. Whilst I claim that, in the main, Government control is better than private enterprise, I am prepared to admit that in some ways private enterprise is better. One instance of this rather impressed me while I was connected with the Post Office. I asked Mr. Peacock, who is, I understand, a business systematizer, and a very able business man, to go through the Central Administration and see where he could suggest improvement.

Mr SHARPE - On the line of the present inquiry by Mr. Anderson?

Mr THOMAS - I think it was. After he had finished, it was my intention to send him to the General Post Office, but before that time arrived I went to the Department of External Affairs, and my successor, Mr. Frazer, did not think the inquiry I had suggested was necessary. But a fundamental difference was pointed out to me by Mr. Peacock as between Government control and private control, and Mr. Peacock said he did not know how we were going to get over it. In a private business concern, 'if a person in charge of a department with four or five clerks under him can point out to his superior, or to the owner of the business, that under a new system the department could be worked with, say, four instead of five clerks, the business man would look into the proposition, and, if satisfied, would either dismiss the fifth clerk, or appoint him to some other department, whilst the man responsible for the suggestion would probably receive an increase of wages because the department was being worked more cheaply than before. In a Government Department, however, the position is quite different. If a person in charge of a Government Department with four clerks under him can increase the work so as to get five clerks instead of four, then his salary goes up, because he has five men under him instead of four. I am prepared to admit that there is a fundamental difference between the two systems, and I should be glad if something could be done in our Public Service to see that men are paid, not as a result of the number of letters that are written, but because they can reduce the necessity for writing so many. At the time I was Postmaster-General we had a conference of Deputy Postmasters-General in Tasmania.

Mr SHARPE - Do you not think that one should be held every year ?

Mr THOMAS - I think it would be a very good institution. It was my idea, and if I had remained at the Post Office, the conferences would have been continued. However, just before that Tasmanian conference was held, I received a letter from the late Sir Henniker Heaton sending me copies of sixty-five recommendations that he had submitted to the Postmaster-General in England, thinking that if they were adopted they would improve the English postal service. .Some of these suggestions could not possibly have been introduced here, because they had to deal with telegraphic and telephonic rates between England and the Continent; but a number were applicable to Australia, and I was glad to discover that all but one had been already adopted. I rather favoured this' one suggestion ; but in discussing the matter with the Deputy Postmasters-General, I saw that I was wrong, and did not press it, because they convinced me that it would not be quite satisfactory. The incident, however, does not speak badly for our Postal Department. I do not think the Department is perfect. There is probably a great lack of initiation, and very few new ideas seem to come forward.

Mr SHARPE - Are they not discouraged by the Department?

Mr THOMAS - That is a point I wish to- come to. Are they discouraged or not? The men say they are. The officers say they are not. If they are not discouraged, then it does not say much for a Department employing so many thousand men that they do not suggest some possible improvements. One would almost be inclined to believe that the encouragement desired is lacking. I am bound 'to admit that on one occasion I had a rather peculiar experience, which perhaps reflected slightly on two officers of whom I thought very highly, and which, perhaps, rather tended to support, to some extent, what the men say. One of the men had an improvement, which he brought to me and asked if I would look into it. I said, " If you send it through in the ordinary way, it shall be inquired into." He said, " I am afraid

I shall never hear anything more about it if I dot" I told him I would guarantee that he would hear of it again. I suggested that he should send it along, adding that if after two or three months he did not hear anything he should let me know. Nothing was heard of the matter, and when 1 inquired why, I was told by Sir Robert Scott, who was a very valuable officer in the Department, that he had received it, that it had been turned down in the Sydney Post Office; but that he had sent it on to Melbourne, in order to make sure that it received fair consideration. He promised to make inquiries. Subsequently the matter came before me officially, and I discovered that it had been turned down all along the line. I remarked that it seemed very strange; and when I was explaining to Sir Robert Scott what it was, he said that suggestion had been adopted in Brisbane for a number of years, and that it had been introduced there by Sir Robert himself. Yet it was turned down in the Sydney and Melbourne offices, and turned down by Mr. Bright, who came from Brisbane, who probably had not time to look into the matter himself, and merely signed approval of the action of his inspector. I know that there are a large number of ideas which come forward in respect to the Post Office that are absolutely of no use. Some of them resemble the grain of wheat that is hidden in bushels of chaff. You search all day for the wheat, and when you have found it, it is discovered to be not worth the search. But it is, nevertheless, rather a pity that we do not hear of more inventions coming from our own Department. If it be the fact that the officers do not give proper consideration to new ideas, all I can say is that it is a very unfortunate thing.

Mr Sharpe - Are you willing to see more power vested with the Deputy PostmastersGeneral, and the Central Office practically abolished ?

Mr THOMAS - No, I am not. There has been a good deal of talk about giving more power to the Deputy PostmastersGeneral, and I am in favour of vesting them with a good deal of power. But I think they have already got all the power that they have asked for. At the Conference in Tasmania I asked the Deputy Postmasters-General what power they wanted. They told me, and practically I gave them all they asked for. I should like to know, also, what the honorable member means by the Central Administration ? I do not know what is in the honorable member's mind; but no man would be happier in this House than the PostmasterGeneral if all the work were left to his Deputies, so that no honorable member could bother him. But what member of Parliament is anxious to hand over more power to the Deputy Postmasters-General, and leave the position such that we should not have the right to come to the PostmasterGeneral with suggestion or request ?

Mr Riley - He would not be PostmasterGeneral at all then.

Mr THOMAS - Well, he might draw the salary. There must be a central authority, if only to interpret the Act of Parliament. Sometimes it is possible to read an Act of Parliament in one or two ways. I recall the occasion when I was piloting through the Bill establishing the penny post here. In answer to a very urgent and able request from the honorable member for Darling, who is now Postmaster-General, I conceded a point about " books published and printed in Australia."

Mr Spence - I led you astray there.

Mr THOMAS - This is now in the Act, and nearly every Deputy PostmasterGeneral reads the reference in a different way, so that it is necessary to have one authority to decide between conflicting readings of a section. Mr. Groom. - It is like the definition of newspaper.

Mr THOMAS - Exactly. I am in favour of giving the Deputy PostmastersGeneral great responsibilities; but I think they have already got as much power as it is desirable to give them. I am inclined to think that the difficulty is that we do not back up our Deputy Postmasters-General as we should. A Deputy Postmaster-General who knows that he is likely to have his suggestions turned down is not calculated to act with the same amount of vim that he would possibly show were the situation otherwise.

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