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Thursday, 25 August 1960

Mr SPEAKER - My attention has been directed to articles recently appearing in the press regarding certain services and maintenance works in Parliament House which come within the functions of the Joint House Department. As honorable members know, that department is the joint administrative responsibility of the President and the Speaker. The nature of the articles is such that I feel some facts must be plainly stated. The most recent, which concerns the cost of meals served in the Parliamentary Refreshment Rooms, was written in terms which are misleading and can only give rise to public misunderstanding of the work of the Parliament and its members. Certain figures relating to charges for meals have been used in such a way, including an incomplete comparison with an unnamed hotel in Canberra, that it would appear that members, Parliamentary officers, and other staffs are receiving meals at an improperly low rate. At this point, I should mention that the articles omit any reference to the fact that press representatives in the gallery, and their staffs, also obtain meals in the refreshment rooms at the same prices.

The public facilities for meals in Canberra are limited and are not freely available as in State capitals. They are widely dispersed and, in most cases, a considerable distance from Parliament House. It has long been accepted that the efficient running of the Parliament requires that members and staffs, and the press, should be able quickly and conveniently to obtain meals in the building during meal hours on sitting days. The nature of Parliament is such that sittings are irregular and no true comparison with an hotel or restaurant conducting a regular and steady business throughout the year can be made. That being the case, it must be realized that, to maintain an efficient service during both sessional and recess periods, it is necessary to employ a permanent nucleus of staff, and there are times during sessions when it is necessary to retain casual staff beyond normal requirements - that is, during short sitting breaks. Anything less could lead to administration breakdowns at critical times.

In all the circumstances, there is an added cost peculiar to the sittings of Parliament in Canberra. It would be obviously wrong that the individual, whether he be a member, an officer, or a pressman, should be required to pay for a meal at a rate which would meet all the costs. Successive governments, irrespective of party, have recognized this by subsidizing the cost of wages of staff engaged in the provision of meals. This arrangement does not apply to the bar service, which must stand on its own feet. In the result, the charge for meals covers the cost of food plus overhead, and is at a figure which is considered to be neither disproportionately excessive nor absurdly low.

There is, also, I understand, an erroneous belief that charges for drinks in the refreshment rooms are considerably lower than ordinary retail prices. In real fact, they are the equivalent to retail prices ruling in Canberra hotels, which are, of course, higher than those in the State capitals.

I now turn to an article in the Melbourne "Herald" of 12th August, 1960, to which the gravest exception must be taken. It relates to maintenance works in the building. Figures of expenditure over the last five years are quoted, these being substantially correct, but from that point, the article contains statements which are inaccurate misleading, and untrue.

A question is asked whether proposed expenditure is sufficiently scrutinized, the basis of this being an alleged disclaimer by the Prime Minister of any knowledge why the King's Hall floor was replaced. It would be well known to the writer of the article - and I shall refer to this again later - that the President and' the Speaker are the custodians of Parliament House and responsible for its maintenance. No expenditure is approved unless professional and technical advice from the Department of Works and other competent authorities is obtained and considered.

It is then stated that, a few years ago, a new minor authority was created to care for maintenance in the building, from which has grown increased expenditure. This obviously refers to the Joint House Department, a department which was established for this purpose in 1922, and the functions of which have not since changed to any material extent.

The article purports to give substance to its claims of unscrutinized and increasing expenditure on the part of the supposed new authority by making a series of untruthful statements and inferences. In brief, these were that perfectly serviceable chrome plumbing fittings had been replaced by more modern ones, that division bells and clocks which had been effective for 30 years had been needlessly replaced, that new electrical wiring and speakers for the paging system had been installed in place of equipment the only defect of which was long service, and, by inference, that there was no reason for maintenance work on the roof of the building and on the King's Hall floor.

The facts are quite otherwise. The only major plumbing items which have been renewed during recent years are corroded water pipes, and taps which had become worn out after renewed re-seating of valve faces over some 30 years. After renewal, inspections confirmed the necessity for this work.

In 1956, the Department of Works reported that there was a grave fire risk due to deterioration through age of electrical wiring insulation, that there was a danger to persons due to lack of earthing of fittings put in when the building was constructed, that circuits were breaking down due to ageing and that distribution boards had become overloaded. The department recommended complete rewiring, and also that the division bell and clock system, which had been the subject of repeated breakdowns through age, be replaced, and that this work be carried out over a period of five years. This work obviously had to be done. The paging system was not replaced but merely improved to remove certain unsatisfactory features arising from unsuitable location.

A critical examination of the King's Hall floor by technical experts, including those of the Department of Works and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, showed that this floor had become a potential hazard through wear. Continual patching had become necessary and was proving expensive and ineffective. In view of this, approval was given for its necessary replacement. When the old floor was taken up there was convincing evidence of the necessity for this work.

In regard to the roof, experience over many years had shown that the existing flat bituminous surface was not suitable in the extreme climatic conditions of Canberra and that the necessarily expensive patching was uneconomic. The Department of Works recommended that a new roof, using inexpensive materials, be superimposed. . The proposal and plans were critically examined before any approval for expenditure was authorized. The results following one of the wettest months on record have been eminently satisfactory and have completely justified this expenditure. I might add that this is not the only public building in Canberra which has had to be treated in this way.

It will be realized that a building such as Parliament House, after 30 years' service, reaches a stage when renewal of services becomes unavoidable. I am informed that at no time did the writer of the article approachany member of the Joint House staff forpurposes of verification. Even so, it isdifficultto understand how a pressman whohasbeeninCanberraformanyyears and int associated withthe building duringthisperiod, could writeanarticle of this kind.

I have been somewhat reluctant to take up the time of the House in these matters, but as they are ones which come under the joint jurisdiction of Mr. President and myself, I feel that I have a responsibility to correct a type of misrepresentation with which, unfortunately, we are becoming increasingly familiar but which, whatever its intention, must do damage to the institution of Parliament, to its members, and ultimately to the people whom they represent.

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