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Thursday, 4 April 1968

Mr DEVINE (East Sydney) - I move:

That the Amendment to Regulation 127 of the Telephone Regulations as contained in Statutory Rules 1967, No. 157, made under the Post and Telegraph Act 1901-1966, be disallowed.

Mr Bryant - Hear, hear!

Mr DEVINE - Although the honourable member for Wills is for the moment on the other side of the chamber, instead of being on this side, where he belongs, it is nice to hear a voice from that side supporting my motion. I dare to hope that honourable members on the other side will support the motion when a vote is taken. The regulation increases by 2c the cost of a telephone call made from the red telephones that we see in increasing numbers throughout the community. The cost of a call will be increased from 5c to 7c. This is an increase of 40% and we should object to it. No doubt this substantial increase follows the Government's decision, which was announced in the Budget, to increase the cost of local calls made on private telephones from three for 10c to 4c each. The Government says it has now brought in this regulation so that the people who rent the red telephones will have an opportunity to increase their revenue and so be able to pay the rental of the telephones. I cannot understand why the Government should allow the charge to be increased so substantially. For many years the rate for local calls was three for 10c. On this basis, the people who rented the red telephones had a margin of12/3c on each call. Because of the Government's amendment of the regulations these firms will now be allowed a margin of 22/3c. I feel that this increase is unwarranted and that we as a Parliament should disallow the regulations.

According to information issued by the Department on 23rd November last, red telephones are installed by three firms - Elliott-Automation (Pty) Ltd, Victa Telecommunication Co. Pty Ltd and Horrocks Roxburgh Pty Ltd. The Department allows these three firms to install the machines and connect them to the Government lines using the Government exchange. As a result the number of red telephones is growing. Personally I am opposed to their installation in this way. I think this is the only time since I have been a member of the Parliament that I have seen the Government throw open its doors and allow in the reds. It costs the taxpayer today approximately $1,146 for the installation of a telephone in his home. This is the approximate cost. It may be cheaper in some areas and more in others. This figure is made up of the cost of laying the cables and the cost of the machinery that is installed in the exchanges. The money for this is found by the taxpayers. According to the figures which were given in the last Financial and Statistical Bulletin issued by the PostmasterGeneral's Department, we find that last year plant and equipment cost the Department approximately $205m. That is the cost to the taxpayer. If honourable members look back over the years they will find the total cost runs into a very substantial sum of money.

The firms that install the red phones have been allowed to use our facilities free of charge. No charge is made by the Postmaster-General's Department. I resent the fact that we, as taxpayers, should have to put up with this. If these people want to use our utilities they should pay for them.

Why has the Government allowed this position to continue since 1963? In 1963 approximately 500 of these machines were installed. This number has been allowed to grow and it continues to grow. As a result of the Government's policy the number will increase in the future. At present there are about 8,750 red telephones in operation in Australia. To give honourable members an indication of the cost to the subscriber of these telephones, the subscriber is called upon to pay approximately $24 a quarter or $96 a year, and there is a charge of $40 by the Postmaster-General's Department for the rent of the line. In the first year of operation, of course, the subscriber has to pay another $30 as the installation fee. So, honourable members can see that a considerable outlay is made by the subscriber to which the company contributes nothing. The burden is thrown on the subscriber.

The Postmaster-General (Mr Hulme) may say that this has been done to assist the small shopkeeper. This is probably so. But the small shopkeeper is being exploited because of this Government's policy. These telephones should have been supplied by the Department itself. I believe that if it undertook to supply and install the phones it could do so at substantially cheaper rates. The Department can supply the phones for $20 a year. I cannot understand why the Government has allowed these people to come into this field which, we all know, is the best revenue earner of the Department. I cannot understand why these firms are allowed to come in and connect the phones to the Department's exchanges. They should have been debarred in the first place. The Postmaster-General may say that he has allowed them in because it saves the Postmaster-General's Department money. He may say that these firms are saving his Department money because it does not have to do any maintenance on the phones, but how many honourable members can honestly say that they have had many breakdowns in their telephone service? I say that 999 times out of 1,000 the breakdowns occur at the exchanges. So, I believe that the maintenance requirements of the red telephones are practically nil. Yet, we hear the cry from the Minister that his Department does not have to worry about the maintenance of these phones.

The number of these phones has increased and there are now about 8,750 of them. If we multiply $96, which is the annual rent, by 8,750 this works out at about $840,000. That is what these companies are getting out of this field. The PostmasterGeneral's Department does not receive one penny from that section. The Department is being paid for the calls and for the use of the line by the subscriber. But it is not getting anything from the people who own the red telephones. I resent the fact that these firms are using the facilities of the Postmaster-General's Department free of cost. There are about 4,000 red telephones in New South wales, 1,600 in Victoria, 367 in Western Australia, 117 in Tasmania, 336 in South Australia and 1,195 in Queensland. The majority of the telephones operate from the manual exchanges and are in the metropolitan areas where the majority of the population is to be found. Quite often the telephones operate in opposition to public telephones. They are in stores and sometimes on the footpaths for people to use. Sometimes there will be a public telephone on the corner and one or two red telephones 20 yards away. Yet the Government has allowed these people to come into this field. I believe that it should never have happened.

The Government has said that the telephones save money because the Department does not have to pay for their purchase. I do not know the cost of the machines because this is very hard to find out, but the Postmaster-General has stated in answer to questions that have been asked by members of the Opposition, that one type of telephone is imported from Japan and the other from the United Kingdom. The modern ordinary telephone that we see on the desks in the Parliament or in offices costs the Postmaster-General's Department about $18. I do not know the cost of installation of the coin box telephones, but it would not be a great deal because it is not a very large piece of equipment, if we add another S30 or $40 for the box honourable members can estimate the initial outlay. It has been practically nil. The installation of red telephones has been allowed since 1963, and the companies that install them have been able to use many times over the rental that they receive from the subscribers in premises where they are installed. Those funds have been reinvested in the supply of more of these telephones. The initial outlay to the interests concerned was practically nil, but over the years they have been allowed to increase the number of these telephones and, as a result, now have a secure foothold in a field which should have been retained for a government instrumentality and from which they should have been excluded.

The attitude of the Postmaster-General's Department may be that the installation of red telephones has assisted it because it has not the money to install its own equipment. I think everybody knows that as a result of this Government's policy, the Department has been called on to pay interest on its capital over many years. Last financial year, its total interest bill was $73,408,018. This is not chicken feed or peanuts. It is good, honest money that the Department has been required by this Government to pay to the Treasury in interest. In the first place, the money that is allocated to the Department is contributed by the taxpayers. They pay it to the Treasury, which then allocates it to the Department. We on this side of the Parliament believe that the Department ought to be giving a service to all sections of the community. The Government, however, requires it to pay this large interest bill each year instead of providing a better service. The Department's interest bill is growing and will continue to grow. I am sure that if the revenue received by private enterprise from red telephones over the years had been received by the Department and ploughed back into its operations, everybody throughout Australia, including members of the Australian Country Party, would have been satisfied with our telephone services. The Government cannot excuse itself by saying that it has not the money. It has the money, but it is using the Postmaster-General's Department merely as another agency for raising taxes - as another medium for obtaining money for this Government to spend. I do not think that we should accept the Government's latest decision to increase the charge for a call from a red telephone.

The Postmaster-General's Department will provide a coin operated telephone for a subscriber who requires it, at a cost of $20 a year, but it does not provide this kind of service to the extent to which it should be allowed to provide it. This is because the Government keeps a firm rein on the Department and does not allow it to spend enough money. As a result, private interests have come into the field and installed these red telephones. We know that these interests operate in competition with the public telephone instrumentality. Yet the Government cries: 'They are providing a service to the community'. It is a service, but it is very limited, because these red telephones are available for use only while the business premises in which they are installed are open to the public. When a shop closes at the end of the business day, the telephone service provided by the red telephone is closed, too.

Mr Arthur - Those telephones are always in order.

Mr DEVINE - That may be so, but that does not matter if they are not available when the public wants to use them. Admittedly, they are policed, because they are installed mostly in clubs, shops and other premises where persons are present to keep an eye on them. The fact that they are policed is all the more reason why the Department should be installing them and deriving the revenue from them instead of its being allowed to go to private interests. I suggest that the honourable member for Barton (Mr Arthur) probably agrees with me that the Government ought to be providing this service and that it is bad policy for it not to do so. We all know that the Postmaster-General (Mr Hulme) is a great exponent of the virtues of private enterprise and that, if he were allowed, he would hand over to it as much of the revenue raising machinery of government as possible. But we ought to be protecting the PostmasterGeneral's Department, because the taxpayers of Australia need the services that it provides. The Department provides multicoin public telephones, because it has to provide for trunk line calls, and nowadays for subscriber trunk dialling. This is a facility for the public. On a departmental public telephone, one can ring the information number and obtain whatever information he requires. If one is using a red telephone, however, one has to put his coin in the slot and pay the fee if he wants to make an information or other service call. Furthermore, if one wants to make a trunk call from a red telephone, one has to ask the subscriber on whose premises it is installed to bring out his special key and manipulate it in the apparatus. The service available at a normal public telephone, however, is available 24 hours a day. I know that many larrikins go about damaging public telephones. None of us condones this, for one never knows when a public telephone will be needed in an emergency. It is a sorry state of affairs that there is so much vandalism in respect of public telephones throughout Australia these days.

The multi-coin sets installed by the PostmasterGeneral's Department in public call boxes cost about $160 each. The total cost, including that of the cabinet in which the set is housed, is something more than this. This equipment is different from the red telephone equipment. The Department maintains all public telephones and meets the installation cost of approximately $1,766 each. In return, it receives the revenue from call fees. It is estimated that at present the average revenue earned annually by each public telephone is $440, give or take a little. Some earn more; some earn less. This is the Department's reckoning of the average earnings. There are now 15,542 public telephones in metropolitan areas throughout Australia and in country areas 13,161, of which 7,302 are automatic installations. This gives a total throughout Australia of 28,703 public telephones, 22,844 of which are automatic and 5,859 of which are manual. The annual revenue earned by these telephones is substantial, and all of it should go to the Government instead of part of it going to private interests.

We ought to oppose the principle of private enterprise being allowed to operate in what should be a field of government enterprise. Private operators have subcontracted the installation of telephones in factory premises and other places throughout the country. At no time has the Parliament been told that private companies would be allowed to come into the field normally occupied by the Department and undertake actual installations. Members of the Parliament have seen certain installations springing up all over the country, and, as a result, have asked the Minister questions about them. However, he has refused to divulge whether the private operators concerned pay any charge at all. I have it on good authority that they pay nothing. The Minister will tell us no more than that there is an agreement. I do not know who is getting the payola out of it. I do not know whether it is going to McEwen House or to Liberal Party headquarters, but somebody must be getting it. I resent the fact that private interests are allowed to make use of departmental exchanges and lines without paying anything to the Department. However, the Minister refuses to give us any information about this. Unless he gives us some facts and figures, we shall continue to raise this issue.

In answer to a question the Minister stated that under the agreement the companies that operate these telephones can charge a rental of up to $120. I do not know whether these companies will increase the present rentals and charge the lessees up to $120. If the lessees have to pay this additional amount on top of the $40 which they have to pay to the PostmasterGeneral's Department then quite a substantial amount could be involved. On the other hand we have also to be concerned as to whether this will be a lead-in for the Government. If the public accepts the increased charge for calls on red telephones we will find that the same position will apply in the future for public telephones and also to the ordinary private subscriber. This is another angle from which we should be examining the proposed increase. I would like to know whether the Minister is looking ahead to something in the future.

Whilst there are many Government supporters who, because of the policy of the Government, will probably vote against my motion, I think they should give consideration to some of the matters that I have raised. I sincerely hope that the Minister will reply to some of the allegations that I have made. He has refused to answer them previously when questions have been put to him. The Government has been reluctant to give information on these matters. It will give general information, but not specific details, to the Parliament.

The Minister should inform the Parliament exactly what is happening in this field. We should not be misled. Over the past few months we have found that a lot of information has been withheld from this Parliament. There are many questions that should be answered. The Minister should inform the House of the reasons why the Government is allowing these charges to be increased and whether increases are warranted. He should also inform us whether there has been an inquiry into the finances of the firms concerned. After all, they are the ones who will benefit from the increased charges. A lot of people are probably getting to the stage where they feel that it does not pay them to have these telephones installed in their businesses. I think the Minister should make available the information that I have asked for so that we as a Parliament can decide whether the proposed increase from 5c to 7c a call on red telephones is justified.

The Minister is now at the table. He may wish to answer some of these allegations. I sincerely hope that he will. I do not think there is any justification for an increase of 40%. The Minister should inform us why his Department is allowing these companies that are authorised to lease telephones to have so much margin over expenditure now when they were previously operating with profit on a much smaller margin. I repeat, he should inform the House of the reasons why his Department has allowed these companies to make this extra revenue.

I sincerely hope that many supporters of the Government will give my remarks a great deal of thought, because I am sure there will be resentment amongst sections of the community which will be really hostile to the actions of this Government.

Mr Crean - I formally second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

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