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Tuesday, 28 June 1949


Mr BURKE (Perth) .- The bill before the House is designed to amend the Post and Telegraph Rates Act 1902-1941. It provides for a fairly general increase of postal charges. Those increases are necessary because of the increased costs of the Postmaster-General's Department and the need for the department to expand the services that it provides.

The honorable member for Barker (Mr. Archie Cameron) was not unduly critical of the Postmaster-General's Department as an institution, and indeed he paid a well-deserved tribute to it, but he appears to be critical of the proposed increases of charges. I took a note of one or two of his major criticisms. One concerned the rather heavy increase of staff that has taken place in recent years. Honorable members generally are constantly clamoring for increased postal services in city and country areas. An increase of services entails an increase of staff. Therefore, the general consensus of opinion appears to be that the increases of staff are justified. That appears to me to answer one of the major criticisms that have been made by the honorable gentleman.

Another of his criticisms related to the increase of the charges for services rendered by the Postmaster-General's Department in comparison with the general increase of prices that has occurred, and which is generally regarded as being due to the reversion to the

States of the responsibility for prices control. What the honorable gentleman has failed to mention is that the general increase of prices which has occurred in recent years has been responsible for a heavy increase of the costs of the Postal Department. That is only common sense, and it is well-known to the public and to the House. It is pointless to discuss at the moment whether prices generally would have risen more or less than they have in fact risen had the responsibility for prices control remained with the Commonwealth, but it is true to say that the sharp increases of the prices of major lines of goods that has occurred in recent years has been one of the most potent factors in causing a deficiency in the accounts of the Postal Department and the increases of charges that are now 'proposed. Therefore, I believe that the honorable gentleman cannot substantiate the criticism that he has made in that regard. It is no answer to say that the Government can control the charges for services rendered by the Postal Department. If the department is to be run as a business enterprise, ito charges must reflect its increased costs caused by an increase of the prices of goods of all kinds, not only in Australia but also overseas.

The honorable gentleman has said that letter deliveries in many areas are not warranted or wanted and ought to be discontinued. I believe that he is unique in that respect in this Parliament. I have never heard of a similar claim being made by any honorable member of this House. I have heard representations made for letter deliveries to be increased, because the delivery of letters is a service that is desired by the people and one which is their right. It cannot be denied that there is a great disparity between city and country areas, but I have yet to learn that any honorable member who represents a constituency in one of the more thickly populated areas of Australia has complained of an excess of letter deliveries. The complaints are usually the reverse of that.

The honorable member for Barker has criticized the comparison of postal rates in Australia and other countries that has been made by the Minister. What the Minister has said is that postal charges in this country are lower than those in other countries. The populations of the countries to which he has referred are larger and of a greater density than the population of this country. The more dense a population, the less should be the cost per unit of postal services. Therefore, it must reflect great credit upon the Australian Postal Department if, despite the larger over-all size and greater density of the populations of other countries, it can provide postal services here at charges lower than those in such other countries.

In considering the measure that is at present before the House, we must examine the nature of the postal organization in this country. It is a business organization. It is expected to provide services and to make charges that are sufficient to cover the cost of its operations and perhaps to return a profit to the Treasury. The question whether it should make a profit on all its services or an overall profit is one that can be argued'. For my part, I believe that the profit should be earned largely in the metropolitan areas and that some of that profit should be used to offset losses incurred by providing services in country districts. That is the general approach of the PostmasterGeneral's Department to the matter. The department, as a business organization, must necessarily operate at a profit, and it is surprising to hear honorable gentlemen opposite criticize that principle. I do not always subscribe to their view that every organization established by the Government should operate at a profit, because that is not always a good test of efficiency or of the value of the services that are rendered, but I believe that an organization such as the Postal Department should impose charges that will at least cover its current operation costs. It is surprising to hear honorable gentlemen opposite, who pin their faith, in season and out of season, to profit as the criterion of a successful enterprise, berating the Government for proposing to increase the charges for postal services in order to ensure that the Postal Department shall make a profit or, at least, that it shall not incur a loss. That is what they do on every occasion when they attack this decision of the Government. The Postal Department provides a special service for special individuals or organizations in this country, and those individuals and organizations ought to bear the cost of the provision of the special service. It does not matter whether the department makes a profit at the expense of city dwellers and gives concessions to country dwellers as long as, in the overall picture, a loss is not incurred that is passed on to citizens who are not users of the special service that is provided by the department. Honorable gentlemen opposite should support a measure which provides for the covering of the operating costs of the department, provided that the increased charges do not result .in the earning of an exorbitant profit which could be handed to the Treasury.

In. his second-reading speech, the Minister has pointed out that during the war years maintenance work was necessarily deferred. That means that in the current rear and succeeding years a lag in maintenance must be overtaken. "With general prices increasing still further as time goes on, the operating costs of the department must be greater than they were. Those two factors render it necessary for the department to take one of three courses. The first is that the expansion of postal services that is desired should not be (proceeded with, or perhaps that some existing facilities should' he discontinued. The second course is that a heavy additional charge should be placed upon Consolidated Revenue, to be borne not only by the persons who use the services provided by the department, but also by the general community. The third course is that the charges for specially selected services provided by the Department should be increased by a reasonable degree. The third course is the one that has been chosen by the Government, and 1 do not think that the decision can be assailed. It has been claimed' that during recent years large profits have been made by the Postmaster-General's Department. Those profits have been earned in large measure by the surcharge upon postal fees. That was never intended to be a charge for facilities provided. It was a special war-time tax designed to produce war-time revenue and probably also to withdraw money from circulation in a community the purchasing power of which was in excess of the value of the goods and services that were available. It is proposed to make that surcharge a permanent charge, and that is not unreasonable. The increase of postal charges that is proposed will certainly not be out of step with the current increases of the costs of all other goods and services. The wages and salaries of the army of employees of the Postal Department are of paramount importance. The test that is applied by most (people in the community to governmental and private organizations is whether a profit accrues from their operations. Not only is that test used' in discussing organizations generally, but it is also a very strong argument in cases before the arbitration tribunals. If, at the hearing of a claim for increased wages or better amenities, the Postmaster-General's Department pointed out that it was incurring a heavy loss by the provision of its services, that would undoubtedly be an argument against an increase of wages or the provision of better amenities for the members of the staff of the department generally. It has been recognized in this Parliament and throughout the country for many years that the employees in all branches of the Postmaster-General's Department render loyal and efficient service, but that their wages do not compare favorably with the remuneration of employees in other branches of government activity and in private employment generally. Therefore, it is only fair and reasonable that the public who use those special facilities should pay some of the additional cost of the services that are granted to them in order that reasonable salaries may be paid to and proper amenities provided for the employees of the department.

I now desire to refer briefly to conditions of employment in the PostmasterGeneral's Department. A short time ago, I accompanied the secretary of a postal employees' union on a visit to a number of centres in Western Australia, and I found that conditions in the post offices were crude in many cases and quite inadequate in all cases. An attempt should be made at an early date to improve the conditions of linemen and other employees of the department. It is true that the provision of such facilities would compete with, the requirements of other branches of industry, both government and private, which must provide facilities, and also with the requirements for hospitals and homes for the community, but the need for providing changing rooms and various amenities for the employees of the PostmasterGeneral's Department is no less vital in the interests of the efficient working of that industry and the health of the employees than is the provision of buildings and services for the community generally. That statement is applicable not only to post offices outside the metropolitan area of Perth but also to the General Post Office in Perth itself. That building, which was erected some years ago, does not provide sufficient facilities for the increasing staff. The situation is further complicated by the fact that other government departments use sections of the General Post Office building, and, consequently, proper accommodation for the staff and amenities is not available. The attention of the Postmaster-General has been directed to this matter, and I trust that the Minister who represents him in this chamber will bring to his notice again the situation in the General Post Office, Perth, and in other parts of the metropolitan area and more distant centres.

The Minister's second-reading speech was comprehensive, and I shall not discuss it at length. However, I desire to refer to the proposal to increase telephone subscribers' rentals. The increase is not great, and will not have a severe affect on the community as a whole. It will be resented less than an increase of income tax would be for the purpose of meeting the deficits incurred by the PostmasterGeneral's Department. The Minister has also pointed out that it has been the policy of the Government to provide postal and telecommunication facilities in country districts at the lowest possible rates, and that public necessity and convenience rather than the financial aspects have been the determining factors. In the course of his lengthy speech, the Minister dealt with many details of the Postal Department. He pointed out that, in recent years, the department's earnings considerably exceeded its ex- penses, but that in the present financial year, it will incur a fairly substantial loss and that, unless rates for various service are increased, it will incur heavy losses in succeeding years. The Government cannot allow that position to continue and the Minister has clearly shown that only two remedial measures can be considered. The first is to make an increased payment to the PostmasterGeneral's Department from Consolidated Revenue, and the second is to increase the revenue derived from the activities of the department. The Government has decided that the second course is preferable to the first, and I support that view.

Another important factor in the present administration of the department is the opportunity that has been given to it for forward planning. It is quite clear that such a vast organization cannot plan its development satisfactorily from year to year. The Government is to be commended for having formulated a programme for a number of years in order that the PostmasterGeneral and his staff may plan for an expanding service to meet the needs of the residents of the cities and the country districts generally. The honorable member for Barker might have been correct when he stated that the practice of forward planning for , the PostmasterGeneral's Department was introduced by a previous government. If that were so, it is regrettable that that practice was discontinued. However, it is not less laudable that the present Government has reintroduced the practice, if it formerly existed, or commenced that practice, rf it is a new departure in the procedure of the department. The Postal Department had a vast job to do in war-time, and it discharged its responsibilities magnificently. It still has a big job to do in the peace-time era. Because of the work that it performed during the war, the quality of the service that is given to-day is not so high as we had come to expect from the department. When I make that statement, I do not suggest that the service which the Postmaster-General's Department is now rendering is unsatisfactory. Over the years we have learned to expect a very high standard of service, and today, because that standard falls somewhat below the normally high standard, many of us are inclined to be critical. The explanation is to be found in the heavy load that the Postal Department bore during the war. The difficulties of the department have been accentuated by the problem of obtaining equipment from overseas. Telephones and other facilities cannot now be provided at the rate at which we desire them. In addition, the major demand for telephone services is a new one. The telephone is no longer a luxury, but a modern necessity. Because the country is to-day in a more prosperous condition than it was at any other period of its history, more people desire to have the benefits of this ordinary amenity, as it has become. That is why the telephone branch cannot keep pace with the increasing demands for instruments.


Mr Anthony - To-night people would prefer to have coal.


Mr BURKE - That is another story, ft is a sad story.


Mr ACTING DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order 1 Coal is not mentioned in this bill, and has no relation to the PostmasterGeneral's Department.


Mr BURKE - That is so. As the result of increasing charges for various services, the Postmaster-General and his officers will be able to plan forward with the knowledge that the earnings of the department will cover the expenses. The department will be able to provide, in the future, the high standard of service that we expect from it. I believe that the community in general will accept the proposals for increasing the charges as the best solution of the problem. The deficit that the department is incurring on its activities should be met by increasing the rates payable by those who use the services. The many thousands of people who do not receive those specialized services should not be called upon to share the cost of them. I support the bill, believing that it is necessary and desirable, and that the people of Australia approve of it.







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