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Tuesday, 28 June 1949

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON (Barker) . - It is marvellous how this Government can make great changes of front on very vital issues. The bill before the House is designed to increase postal, telegraph and telephone charges, although we are not yet half way through the year. At Christmas, last year, the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Holloway) saw fit to issue a pamphlet with the title, " Ten Years of War and Peace" in big black type, followed by this description of its contents -

A New Year statement issued by the Minister for Labour and National Service (Honorable E. J. Holloway, M.H.E.), headed by the Australian coat of arms and the inscription " Commonwealth of Australia ".

The honorable gentleman must have been away from his crystal ball for some time, or completely out of touch with his colleague the Postmaster-General (Senator Cameron), because he saw fit to say something about what overseas people think of our postal and telegraph services. I am astonished at that, because I have always understood that the fashion of this Government is to care not one hoot for what overseas people think about anything in Australia. At any rate, it is most interesting to learn that now and again Ministers of the present Government pay some attention to what overseas people think of our local conditions and services. I shall quote a whole passage from this New Year statement, because it is very relevant to the subject before -us. Indeed, I am astonished that the Minister for Information (Mr. Calwell) did not see fit to give his colleague, the Minister for Labour and National Service, an advertisement by quoting it him.=elf. The document states in pair* -

Visitors from overseas countries cannot understand how we Australians have made such rapid reconstruction since the war. They see on every hand, in spite of the obvious shortage of labour, signs of unheard of prosperity not for a few but for all tha people. 1582 Post and Telegraph [REPRESENTATIVES.]Rates Bill1949.

When they examine out production figures they are astounded both in connexion with Government enterprise 'and private industry. For example, they find that our postal, telegraph, and telephone services are among the cheapest and most rapidly developing in the world.

P.M.G.'s Department - Increase in Business.

The following figures give some idea of what has been done in spite of labour and material shortages: -

In 1939 there were 43,000 employees.

In 1948 there were 69,000 employees.

Mr Edmonds - And they are doing a good job.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - The document continues -

In 1938 there were 630,000 telephones in use in Australia.

In 1948 there were 965,000 telephones in use.

In 1938 there were 1,000,000 wireless licences.

In 1948 this had grown to 1,800,000 licences.

In 1938 the year's profit was £3,500,000.

In 1947 this had reached £5,103,000.

Yet, according to the Minister for Information, who represents the PostmasterGeneral in this chamber, the postal, telegraph and telephone services will show a loss of about £6,000,000 in the coming year. That is a fair achievement. The document continues -

The Postmaster-General's Department intends to continue this programme of development until every home is equipped with telephonic and wireless services. The desire, the will and the money are here. It only needs the labour and the hearty co-operation and physical effort of all those engaged in this national work to reach this goal.

That there are tens of thousands of claims for such services still unmet is a sure sign of the increased spending power of our people en masse due to regular unbroken incomes, but money alone cannot give us the living standards we desire. In addition to the facilities mentioned, we must have a healthy home for every family with all the laboursaving devices to relieve the housewife, and in every home, to safeguard the health of ourselves and our children, there must he a modern refrigerator.

We have a most modern refrigerator supplied by the miners' federation, a strike of whose members began yesterday. That is a patent that will not bring much in the way of royalties. I have quoted from the New Year statement of the Minister for Labour and National Service merely as a sort of " pipeopener" to show how completely Ministers can either turn somersaults on government policy and achievements, or, alternatively, take it upon themselves to talk about departments administered by their colleagues without consulting the Ministers in charge of those departments.

I shall turn now to the speech by the Minister for Information. I have no doubt that he had not read his speech before he presented it to the House, but nineteen pages of typescript were handed to all honorable members, and we all are, no doubt, deeply indebted to the honorable gentleman for committing has views to paper in such an easily read way. The thing that stands out in the speech is that the Minister went to great pains, which must have taxed his ingenuity almost to the breaking point, to show that, notwithstanding the increases of rates and charges that we are now considering, the people of Australia ought to consider themselves lucky indeed that they have such a moderate, modest, and careful Government.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - Implicit in the speech is the idea that, if it had not been for the kind of government that. Australia now has, the rates and charges might have been infinitely greater. The opening paragraph of the Minister's speech is worth quoting. He said -

This bill deals with the amendment of the Posts and Telegraphs Act to adjust certain postal and telegraphic charges in order to give an equitable return for the services provided under present costs and conditions.

That is worthy of the honorable gentleman. Letus examine the income of the Postal Department during the last few years. In 1939-40, according to the department's reports, there were 75,000 private mail boxes in use. This year the number has risen to 93,000. The commission on money orders has yielded £390,000 as against £290,000 previously, an increase of 30 per cent. Revenue from the telegraph branch has doubled in nine years, whilst revenue from the telephone branch has increased from £8,500,000 to £15.000,000. and that from postage from £6,650,000to £13,000,000. During the same period, revenue from radio licencefees has increased from £549,000 to £820,000, and that from miscellaneous items from £440,000 to £748,000. I cannot understand how a business, the revenue of which has increased so much in the last few years, should now find itself in financial difficulties. According to the Minister's speech, the Postal Department showed a surplus of £6,674,000 for the year 1944-45, as against a surplus of £3,625,000 for the year 1938-39. That happens to he the financial year during which, for five hectic months, I was more or less insecurely installed as PostmasterGeneral. I take no credit for the fact that there was a surplus in that year. The Postal Department is a going concern, and the Postmaster-General is the luckiest man in Cabinet, and can do all his work in two hours a day. From a record profit in 1944-45, the PostmasterGeneral expects a deficit of £3,500,000 for the current financial year, and the esti- mated loss would be over £6,000,000 during 1949-50 if existing rates were maintained. Surely it is the act of a financial genius to turn a surplus of £6,674,000 into a deficit of over £6,000,000 in the short space of five years. Such an achievement is beyond anything to which private enterprise ever aspired.

I cannot understand the Minister's figures about staff. There is one reference to a total of 69,000 employees in the Postal Department, but that does not tally with the figures (published by the Public Service Board. In 1938-39, the total number of employees was 35,066, whilst on the 30th June, 1948, according to the Public Service Board, the total number of employees was 60,304, an increase of 70 per cent. The Minister has admitted that the department does not now render the same efficient service as it did previously. Much leeway has to be made up in the installation of telephones, for instance. The cost of running the department has increased, and certain reasons have been given. On that point, the Minister said -

Since the beginning of 1947, the increase in direct labour costs immediately attributable to the cost of living rises and the upward movement of wages, coupled with the 40-hour week, have advanced the department's annual wages bill by more than £7,000,000, apart altogether from the wages of new staff. The 40-hour week itself is not the major - cause of the increase in labour expenditure, since it represents only 15 per cent, of the extra wages bill.

I pause there to call attention to a salient fact. I understood that the introduction of the 40-hour week meant that each employee would do about 11 per cent, less work than before, but, according to the statement of the Minister, the increased cost due to the 40-hour week is about 15 per cent. Thus, it appears that if output be reduced by 11 per cent., the cost is increased by 15 per cent. But that is not all. According to the statements of the Minister, the increased cost due to the introduction of the 40-hour week is £1,050,000, apart from the cost of new staff ; yet the Postmaster-General, speaking in Hobart on the 29th April of this year, made the following statement, as reported in the Mercury of the following day: -

The introduction of the 40-hour week had increased labour coats by £750,000 annually. When the shorter working week began on January 1, 1948. it was estimated that the department would need an additional 2,350 employees. However, it has not been possible to obtain the increased staff and an increase in overtime has been unavoidable.

Thus, the Postmaster-General puts the figure at £750,000, whereas his representative in this chamber states that the cost is £1,050,000, apart from the cost of extra staff. As a matter of fact, the department has not been able to get the additional 2,350 employees required to inaugurate the 40-hour week in the full bloom of its usefulness, and many employees have had to work overtime. It is interesting to note that, whilst the working week has been officially reduced, many employees have actually worked more hours than before. I always understood that the policy of the Government was to get rid of overtime, although it has come to my knowledge that many of the employees actually look for overtime work. That brings me to a consideration of the New Year message of the Minister for Labour and National Service who, in one paragraph, encourages people to work overtime. He shows in a table that -the person on a normal income of £12 a week, who earns £4 a week overtime, has to pay only an extra 16s. 6d. a week in tax, or about 20 per cent, of the extra earnings.

Under the new scale of charges, registration fees are to be practically doubled, as is the fee for special delivery. "We are told in the most ingenuous way that the new postage rates on newspapers still represent a valuable concession to the proprietors of newspapers. I always understood that the concession rates on newspapers were designed to benefit the newspaper readers. Although the postage rate is paid in the first instance by the proprietors, it ultimately becomes a charge which is met by the subscriber. The rate for short-distance telegrams up to a distance of 15 miles has been increased by 66§ per cent.; that is, from 9d. to ls. 3d. Eoi* distances over 15 miles, the rate has been increased by 50 per cent. In 1939, when I was PostmasterGeneral, one of the things I induced Cabinet to agree to was the abolition of the border rate on telegrams. Those who had the right to advise me said that it would result in a loss of revenue, but I did not believe them. The special rate was abolished, not during my term of office, but during that of my successor, Mr. Victor Thorby, and the figures proved that my forecast was right. One of the most interesting features of the new proposals are the provisions relating to press telegrams. On that subject, the Minister said -

The rates for press telegrams concerning parliamentary, executive, departmental and other Commonwealth proceedings will not be disturbed, but the charges for other press telegrams will be raised by 60 per cent.

What does he mean when he refers to Commonwealth proceedings? Does he include statements by the leaders of the Liberal party and the Australian Country party, or does the term cover only statements that emanate from the Government, or from government departments? Do comments by party leaders outside the Parliament on government or departmental decisions come within the definition which would entitle them to the benefit of the reduced rates? If not, it is clear that it is proposed to place a premium on Government statements or, if one likes to be nasty, on Government propaganda. Some people would not suggest that the Minister for Information would indulge in propaganda in any circumstances, but we might suspect some of his colleagues. The Minister for Information is silent. Perhaps he did not examine this possibility. But the matter is of great importance to newspaper proprietors, and to the people who read newspapers. I should like to know whether all political parties are to be placed on an equal footing, or whether the Government and government departments are to be given preferential treatment to the disadvantage of Opposition parties. Charges for lettergrams are to be increased by 20 per cent. The Minister takes great credit to the Government for not having increased telephone charges very greatly in country areas. The charge for telephones which are connected to small rural exchanges is to be increased by 5s. yearly. Increases of 15s. in Hobart, 22s. 6d. in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and 25s. in Sydney and Melbourne are also to be made. 'Ibo unit fee for local calls is to be raised by id. in the country and id. in the metropolitan areas. There are all too many instances of lack of appreciation of the vital difference between being connected to a big metropolitan exchange, which serves tens of thousands of subscribers all of whom may be contacted for the local call fee, and being on a country exchange serving from half a dozen to 100 subscribers. The telephone subscriber connected to a metropolitan exchange has a great advantage over the country subscriber because he is able to contact any one of many thousands of subscribers for the local call fee From the viewpoint of the country subscriber there is not a great deal of warrant for praise in the proposed realinement of charges. Telephone charges are a burning subject in country areas. The only way in which these inequalities can be adjusted is by proceeding with the installation of automatic exchanges: in country centres as rapidly as possible. I am connected to an automatic exchange and I appreciate the convenience of a service which is available for 24 hours of the day for seven days of the week. The Minister has said that 51 automatic exchanges have been established in metropolitan areas and rural districts and that seventeen automatic exchanges are being installed at the moment. I should very much like to know how many of the 51 automatic exchanges already established and how many of the seventeen which are now being installed are country exchanges. A continuous telephone service is a matter of vital interest to country subscribers. Such a service is needed in summer as a means of warning people of the outbreak or likely outbreak of fire. The sooner the whole country is linked up by a continuous telephene service, the better will the position be. The Minister does not propose to increase the call charge of 2d. for the use of public telephones. I am fortunate in that I very rarely use a public telephone. Those who are obliged to use public telephones complain that very often, especially in the evenings, people stay in the call box for an inordinate time. At present, users of public telephones may talk until the last trump if they wish to do so, and the Government may have to consider some means by which it can limit the length of time occupied for the standard call fee. If a person likes to carry on a conversation with another subscriber for a couple of hours with his own private telephone he prevents only incoming calls from being made ; but the user of a public telephone who talks for a very long time prevents others from using a public facility. The rights of the public should be considered. Dealing with trunk line calls the Minister said -

In most overseas countries only two rate periods are in operation, and in adjusting its tariff schedule to provide for two periods, instead of three as at present, the Australian Postal Department will follow international practise.

I am not in the least impressed by that statement. As far as I can understand the Universal Postal Union regulations do not deal with internal trunkcalls. That is a matter entirely for our own arrangement. In some countries the telephones services are not government owned. There are no government-owned services in the United States of America and, as far as I am aware, in Canada. I do not think that any particular good will result from conforming to what other countries do in respect of internal trunk-calls. This action is in contrast with the usual policy of the present Government of taking credit for doing things differently from other countries. I suppose it was rather hard put to find a suitable argument with which to back up a measure of this kind. The Minister also said -

The elimination of the night rate will spread traffic more evenly, reduce the volume of latenight calls and thus assist in providing staff during peak periods at a time when it is not possible to secure an adequate supply of suitable girls.

The last statement tells quite a story, but I cannot go into it profitably just now. The Minister also said -

The combined additional revenue which it is expected will he received from the revised postal, telephone and telegraph charges is in the order of £5,500,000 yearly, this representing a net increase of about 16 per cent, in the tola] earnings of the Post Office. "We have been told by Ministers and by honorable members opposite again and again that the increases that have been made in the prices of commodities and services have resulted from the foolish decision of the people when they were asked at the referendum on rents and prices to clothe the Commonwealth with permanent powers to control prices. This lesson should be written out a hundred times by the Government. Nothing but the Government's" own actions has prevented it from controlling prices in the Postal Department. In the Minister's speech there is tacit admission that the proposed increases in the costs of the services rendered by the Postal Department result from the Government's own policy. If the Government cannot control the affairs of one of its departments, how in the name of fortune could we expect it to control prices if power to do so were given to it ? No alteration of the Constitution is required to enable the Postal Department to control the charges for its services. The people and the States have no control over them whatsoever. Sole control of these matters is exercised by the Government itself and it has been of such a nature that the Government has been forced to bring before the Parliament a measure which proposes to increase some existing charges by as much as 66$ per cent, and to impose an average overall increase of 16 per cent.

Although the Minister has said that there will be no increase of letter rates the surcharge of £d. which was imposed as a war measure is now to be merged into the general postage rate. The most that the Government can say is that it has taken off the surcharge of id. and has added id. to the charge. From the viewpoint of the person who pays, it does not matter whether the impost be called a charge or a surcharge. Another interesting sidelight is that the Postal Department transmits nearly 4,000,000 meteorological telegrams yearly. The people of South Australia, generally, and those in New South Wales who suffered from the recent floods would have been just as well off, or better off, without the weather forecasts which are made on the information contained in such telegrams. Our meteorological officers seem to have developed an awful habit of incorrectly forecasting weather conditions. The Government stands condemned out of the Minister's own mouth. The Postal Department has failed to maintain efficient services; it has heavily increased its staff; and the Government proposes to make heavy increases in postal, telephone and telegraph charges because of its own foolish policy and because it has not been able to do very much about controlling costs. There is only one proposal in this measure with which I agree. I agree wholeheartedly with the proposal to inaugurate a system under which the Postal Department will not in future be bound down by budgetary provisions year by year. In the past, it has not been able to obtain money for its requirements until the budget had been passed and any moneys that remained unexpended at the close of the financial year had to revert to the Treasury. That system has operated, not because of weaknesses on the part of governments, but because the Constitution provides that all moneys unexpended at the close of the financial year shall be paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund. At present no moneys can be expended hy government departments until appropriate votes have been agreed to by this Parliament. That is the law. But recently we had a frank admission by the Treasurer (Mr. Chifley) that the Government had authorized the expenditure of certain moneys without first having obtained the approval of the Parliament. In doing so, it showed a contempt for the Parliament which is unique in the history of British parliamentary institutions. I commend the Government for having decided to inaugurate a system under which the Postal Department will know for two, three of more years in advance that each year regular amounts of money will be provided for expenditure on developmental works. Such a practice is not new in the history of the Postal Department. During the regime of the Bruce-Page Government approximately £56,000,000 was made available for the purpose of a long-term programme for the extension of telephone services. That programme enabled the postal authorities to plan ahead, knowing what their resources would be from year to year.

I oppose this bill. I do not think it is warranted and I believe that it constitutes irrefutable evidence of the effect of the failure of this Government to exercise proper control over the Postal Department. I can instance one or two respects in which the Postmaster-General has failed lamentably to carry out his task. Consider, for a moment, the arrangements made for letter deliveries in country areas. There are many little towns in my electorate in which letter deliveries have been arranged only within certain limits of the boundaries of the towns. Those who live beyond the specified limit have to collect their own mail. Those who live outside the town area get no delivery service at all, but they still have to pay for it. Nobody can suggest that the Government is warranted in increasing the staff of the Postal Department by 70 per cent, to cope wtih the additional business now transacted. A great deal of the real work of the Postal Department is done in country towns by persons who are not regular members of the staff. Like the major in The Pirates of Penzance there is hardly anything on earth with which they are not supposed to be acquainted. They have got to sell duty stamps and wage tax stamps, pay out social service benefits, cash postal notes and do a hundred and one other things. They are collectors of taxes. They are almost be-alls and endalls. They are the general factotums for the Commonwealth in their own little areas. They do a remarkably good job.

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