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Thursday, 11 September 1958


Mr WHEELER (Mitchell) .- -I sympathize with the honorable member for Hughes (Mr. L. R. Johnson) who represents an expanding electorate which consequently has telephone difficulties. I am in a similar position, which establishes the fact that members on both sides of the chamber are similarly affected. That, of course, is no consolation to the honorable member for Hughes, and it does not produce the telephones which he desires. Later, I shall submit a proposal which could solve some of the difficulties and, if the honorable member for Hughes is not an ingrained socialist, he may agree with me and assist me to try to persuade the Postmaster-General (Mr. Davidson) to institute a reform in his department.

There is always a difference of opinion as to the actual definition of the PostmasterGeneral's Department - whether it is a public utility or a business undertaking. In expansive moments, the PostmasterGeneral himself and members of his department prefer to describe the department as the largest commercial undertaking in the Commonwealth. If that be so, we should apply business principles to the enterprise. First, the department should pay its own way. The telephone branch subscribes to this maxim and, at the last submission of accounts, it showed a handsome profit. So it should! The postal branch and the telegraph branch showed losses. That is understandable, as they are required to provide services to the community. Sometimes, as in the postal branch, services are provided which could not be justified if the economic aspect was the sole consideration. In my electorate, for instance, there are many mail services provided in the country districts which could not be justified on the score of cost, but the people in the country are just as entitled to mail services as are the people in the city and suburban areas. Accordingly, I support the department's policy of providing these services, even though a loss te sustained. I believe that the administration of the Postmaster-General's Department is uniformly good, but the administrative structure under which the department works is as old-fashioned as your maiden aunt's hat, Mr. PostmasterGeneral.

When the Commonwealth took over the postal, telegraph and telephone services from the States in 1901, there were 10,000 permanent officers in the organization. To-day, there are 84,600 members of the department's staff, as well as 15,125 nonofficial postmasters, mail contractors, and other members - a total of 99,700, or near enough to 100,000 employees. In 1911, the year for which the first annual report was submitted, the department's revenue was £3,900,000. The turn-over for the year 1956-57 was approximately £888,000,000! But the system of management has not altered since 1901. The whole structure is under the ministerial direction of the Postmaster-General, who is responsible to this Parliament. The departmental administration is under the control of the Director-General of Posts and Telegraphs and his deputy directors in the various States. These gentlemen accept a degree of responsibility the value of which is far beyond the recompense they receive. The directors in the various States have been, and are, in my opinion, men of capacity, but I believe they are called upon to undertake a task of unreasonable magnitude. Management would be easier if there were a separation of some functions of the department. I believe that the system that was taken over in 1901 is out-moded and that it is too cumbersome for the demands of the' present time.

The telephone branch is a profit-making concern, but it could do far better if it were a separate entity. It made a profit of £5,250,000 in 1957. The branch is quite capable of standing on its own feet, and it should do so. It should be as free as possible of governmental interference and it should be vested with as much autonomy as possible. The branch could be run on the same lines as government instrumentalities, such as Trans-Australia Airlines, and could be so administered that it would be possible for it to raise its own finance in the same way as State instrumentalities such as water-boards and electricity undertakings. This would relieve the Government of the necessity for providing funds from Consolidated Revenue to the PostmasterGeneral's Department for telephone purposes. If the telephone branch were a separate entity, it would become more efficient and, consequently, more profitable. It would thus offer greater inducements and promotion opportunities for the staff. The Government would then be able to devote its finances to running the public utility side of the Postmaster-General's Department. A part of the funds previously allocated to the telephone branch could be utilized to greater advantage in giving a better service to the public, and at the same time provide better working conditions, pay, and promotion opportunities for the men and women engaged in that section of the PostmasterGeneral's Department.

I say to the Postmaster-General that this is an appropriate time to consider this reform. Australia is progressing rapidly, but his department is just not keeping pace with development. When honorable members complain that telephone services are inadequate, the invariable reply is that the department is doing its best with the funds which are available to it. That is fair enough, but under a scheme whereby the telephone branch was established as a separate entity, as 1 suggest, there would be enough finance available to keep pace with the demand. I submit to the committee that there are very few private enterprise undertakings which have a back-log of orders as a result of restrictions placed on production and output during or subsequent to the last war. But the telephone branch has not caught up with public requirements, and in New South Wales a considerable number of applicants is still on the waiting list for telephones.


Mr Cope - Has the department the equipment?


Mr WHEELER - Yes, it has the equipment, and where it has not it can secure supplies. This matter may not be of serious concern to honorable members representing old-established and built-up electorates. However, to members like myself and the honorable member for Hughes (Mr. L. R. Johnson), who represent expanding areas, the lack of telephones is a serious matter indeed. In the Mitchell electorate, which I represent, I am repeatedly making representations to the department for the provision of telephones. The reply from the department, couched in very polite terms, is invariably that the facility cannot be provided for an indefinite period. I know that reply off by heart, because I receive it so often.

A case which I wish to cite is at Baulkham Hills, within 4 miles of Parramatta and within 19 miles of Sydney. From the point of view of telephone facilities, the anxiously waiting applicants might as well be in central Australia as 19 miles from Sydney, because they just cannot be granted telephone services. A building comprising shops and professional offices has just been completed by a Mr. Ackling who is a valued constituent of mine. The building has been tenanted by people who have confidence in this area and have sufficient of the pioneering spirit to outlay their capital to provide the community with new services. One is a dentist, as you, Mr. Temporary Chairman, are, and I ask how you could have conducted your professional practice without a telephone. Another is a solicitor and another a young lady with experience of hairdressing in London. A fourth offers secretarial services, and there is an estate agent who also requires a telephone.


Mr Cope - Is there any starting-price bookmaker?


Mr WHEELER - No, we are lawabiding citizens. Two other business people have approached me and asked what were the prospects for a telephone. Across the street and down the road are a mercer and a garage proprietor. If I were selling telephone services, I could get twenty applicants from this area in a day. All of these constituents are faced with a long waiting period before getting a telephone service.

These are not isolated instances, as many cases of a like nature are in evidence in my electorate. All of these people have taken a risk with their life savings but, with all the will in the world, the success of their ventures is dependent to a large extent upon their getting telephone services. No normal business these days may be conducted successfully without this facility. In its absence the joint ventures of the man who puts his capital into erecting a building, and the people who put their life savings into businesses, are entirely jeopardized. It is idle to talk in terms of progress and " Australia unlimited ", if normal facilities of communication are not available.

The lack of these facilities is not the fault of the departmental officers. In fact, every courtesy and assistance are given to me by officers both in Sydney and in Parramatta. The main ambition of these officers is to satisfy the applicant, get him off the waiting list, and have him as a satisfied subscriber. The fault is with the system, and the inescapable fact is that telephone development has not kept pace with progress. The early problem after the war was scarcity of equipment and shortage of labour, but these conditions do not exist now. The trouble is lack of finance. I say that this may be overcome if the PostmasterGeneral will investigate the proposal

I have made. Consequently, I ask him to consider engaging the services of outside business consultants who, in association with his own departmental officers, will investigate the business undertakings of his department and make a report to the Parliament on whether the separation of the functions of the department is practicable and may be carried out.







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