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Wednesday, 30 June 1915

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Do you know that in Victoria there is a line constructed at £6 per mile, irrespective of wires, spindles, and insulators?

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - That may be, and it is all right when the line is 'miles from other lines. If, however, there is a parallel line, there is induction, and this may lead to mistakes in conversations, and so forth, resulting in loss.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - But that objection does not apply in sparsely-populated spaces, where there is no chance of a second line.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - I know the line of which the honorable member speaks.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - You once called it a " jerry-built" line, but it is not.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - At any rate, I cannot understand how there can be any but a "jerry-built" line for £6 a mile»-

We have heard a great deal about homemade insulators, and I am of opinion that these insulators might be easily manufactured here. As the Postmaster-General knows, very high insulation is not required for telephone work, though, of course, it is for telegraph work, owing to the leakage. If, for instance, one is working a duplex or quad-duplex line, the balance might be interfered with; but in telephone work, over a long distance, there is no necessity for very high insulation, provided you can get the ringing signal through. I am now, of course, speaking of country lines. In the city, where a lot of important business is transacted, over even a short distance, the line must be carefully constructed. I may here refer to a service that I myself installed in Tasmania, over a distance of 7 miles, on which much business was done on race days and other occasions of importance. In that 7 miles we had thirteen telephones working successfully, with all the rings coming out most distinctly; and the reason was that the bell coils were wound to a very high resistance. This experience shows what services may be provided in any Dart of Australia, particularly where the climate is dry. If a line is properly constructed, there will not be that induction which is now so bitterly complained of. The telephone operators are not always to blame for the failure to raise a subscriber. The other day, when I was in an office, a gentleman was rung up but paid no attention for several minutes, and the probability is that the unfortunate girl at the switchboard was blamed by the person who made the call.

Mr Sharpe - What does the honorable member suggest as an improvement?

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - I have already said that what is required is careful engineering careful construction of the line. Repeatedly I see four or five men going round pushing a hand-truck; but surely it would be possible for the PostmasterGeneral to provide - an ordinary car to meet the circumstances.

Mr SPENCE - The honorable member forgets that we are getting motor lorries.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - I am glad to hear that, as it never pays to treat men like bullocks. Then, again, some saving might be made by buying wire and other necessaries in the cheapest market; and young men, of whom we have plenty, who are willing to go to the bench, ought to know that the way is open for them to go to the ' ' top of the tree. ' '

Mr Yates - Is that not possible at the present time?

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - Apparently, it has not been so in the past. There seems to have been a halo cast around the head of gentlemen from the Old World. In the early days there was a great rush of operators from the Old Country, but they could not hold their own with our operators here. I am delighted to hear, however, that the Postmaster-General has turned certain slow-working lines into fast lines, and is able to put on expert operators - where the great saving comes in. What we require are men to send and receive forty words a minute; and this may be done with advantage if we have good operators on duplex or quadduplex lines. This means a great increase of business; and, no doubt, proves it is a great mistake to put slow operators on duplex lines. I may give here the concrete case of a man - who, I may say, has not approached me, and who, I hope, will not be involved - and, as an operator myself, I can appreciate the position. There is a line working to Hobart via Flinders by cable, and in one day there may be two or three distinct climates to be contended with, making it very difficult indeed to adjust a long line of this character. The line is a duplex one, and should have six fourth class officers to work it. At the present time, however, there are only four fourth class officers and one fifth class officer. This man works this line day after day for, I am informed, six and a half hours, but he is taken off during the slack time, between 12 and 1 o'clock, for twenty to thirty minutes, and is put on another line as a fifth class man. It is said that because he is not continuously employed on the cable service he must not be rated in the fourth class, and hence he is paid £210 instead of £235. This is regarded as a great saving. It is always necessary, however, to have expert operators; and it is no simple thing to fill the position. All these men read by sound, there being no tapes; and the most important press and other messages go through. For hour after hour these men take telegraphic communications at the rate of forty words per minute without a mistake, most of them writing the messages on a typewriter. Surely these men should not be irritated by little " pin-pricks." These pin-pricks are not administered by the manager of the branch, nor by the Deputy Postmaster-General, but by a gentleman from outside. Whether that gentleman is or is not an operator, I have yet to learn ; but I understand that he claims to be making a saving of something under £50 by the arrangements that I have indicated.

Mr Riley - Who is this outsider?

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - I understand the Public Service Inspector - the deputy of the Public Service Commissioner. I emphasize the fact that it never pays to put a slow man on a fast-working line. These men, I may say, are not only capable of taking messages, but capable of balancing a quad-line or a duplex line, and doing other important work. Further, when a fault is discovered they can, if it be a simple one, right it in a very short time. Doubtless this is work of a highly technical nature.

Mr Mahony - The Public Service Commissioner does not understand it.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - Quite true; otherwise he would not take the risk of putting a slow man on the line I speak of. The remarks I have made may apply to other lines that are much longer. I am told that through lines of 1,000 miles are being worked in Australia, and anybody who knows the system will realize what that means in careful adjustment in order to get the messages accurately. There may be rain in one section, dry weather in the middle, and rain again at the other end - conditions which all tend to the upsetting of the adjustment of the line - and under such circumstances, if there be not a competent man in charge, the whole thing may be upset. I do not wonder at there being delays, because everything depends on having the telegraphic system outside in first-class order. It is just as essential to have good linesmen and inspectors as it is to have good operators ; the man who can keep his line in good order is doing much to facilitate the sure and early conveyance of messages. Examinations for linemen are held repeatedly, and men are asked to pay fees in connexion with them, but that is the last they hear of the matter. I have in my possession a letter from a married man who some time ago passed one of these examinations and applied for work, but cannot get it, although, as he says single men have since been put on. I have asked this man for permission to use his name in the matter, but, as he pointed out that the mention of his name might penalize him, I cannot make use of it. I hope that the Postmaster-General will take the advice of his expert officers in preference to that of a gentleman who classes operators as clerks. He may be doing his work very well, but, as he has to deal with all officers throughout the Public Service, he cannot have that detailed expert knowledge that the experts of the Department possess.

Mr Riley - What is the- good of repeating these matters to the PostmasterGeneral if he has no power to act?

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - I hope that the Postmaster-General will exercise what power he has. .1 think that he has some say in the matter. If it can be shown that certain important work is not being carried out effectively owing to the incompetence of the men engaged, he has a perfect right to take action.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - We always hold the Postmaster-General responsible.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - We do. I intend to keep on bringing forward these matters until there is some redress. I think it will be admitted that with over twenty years' technical service I should know a little of what I am talking about. I wish now to speak about the females who work in our telephone exchanges. Honorable members should realize the experience of a telephone operator sitting hour after hour with a receiver on her head and listening to all sort of requests; for instance, " Will you kindly put me on to So-and-so, I cannot find the number?" and, with shutters falling down all round, and somebody saying, " I am the honorable member for So-and-so " - first letting her know who he .is in order to get her to fear him - "put me on to So-and-so; I cannot find the number."

Sir John FORREST - We should have the automatic system.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - Under the automatic system the subscriber will have to find the number himself, and will understand the trouble to which these operators are now put. There is no greater nervous strain than that on the telephone operator sitting hour after hour switching on and off, and so on ; and the women who do this work should receive the same pay as men. They are capable of doing the work, and they do it most effectively; they are more gentle in their language than male operators - I have never heard a woman operator use an unkind word - and their voices are more even and more effective, especially where they have the contralto pitch. They are entitled to a higher maximum pay, and I hope that the PostmasterGeneral will see his way clear to giving it to them.

Mr SHARPE - What about th© other wages in the Department ? Are they high enough ?

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - I do not say that they are high enough, but the conditions are considerably better, and wages are better than when I was in the service. My men had to sleep in a railway truck and cook their meals over a nailcan pierced with holes. A cook is now provided for so many men. Nice tents are supplied. Very often dining tents are supplied. The men have an ideal time compared with the old days, when I was ashamed to ask men to go out and do work at 5s. .6d. or 6s. a day, which the Government insisted on paying them, while giving them no camp allowance. There is now a camp allowance of 3s. a day in addition to about 8s. or 9s. a day minimum wage. I have not heard the men complain very bitterly about their present conditions and wages. No doubt the Postmaster-General has a very uphill fight. Owing to business having fallen off during the war conditions may be somewhat easier; but there was a great demand for telephonic connexion, which exercised the energies of the engineering and mechanical branch to their utmost capacity. It was difficult to get telephones and suitable instruments in order to give the good service that was required. If it is intended to charge interest on capital cost, the Sydney charges will always be higher than the Melbourne. Owing to the rock through which the conduits have to be tunnelled the work in Sydney will naturally be more costly, and the overhead charge will always be high.

Mr Spence - Sydney is also more subject to storms.

Mr LAIRD SMITH (DENISON, TASMANIA) - In all tropical and semi-tropical portions of Australia lightning storms are frequent, and the lightning, being a very high potential, runs down the lines and burns everything. To secure an effective lightning arrester is very difficult. However, every day the service is improving, and becoming more effective; but, at the same time, where we have these great storms, we must maintain a big staff, capable of attending to the maximum number of faults. That is why telephone maintenance is very costly in places where we have to contend with the elements.

The CHAIRMAN - Order ! The honorable member's time has expired.

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