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Thursday, 30 November 1911

Senator VARDON (South Australia) . - I join with Senator Needham in recognising the work done by the Postal Commission. No Commission of which I have any knowledge has sat so long, made such exhaustive inquiries, or presented so full a report and recommendations as this Commission has done. I should have preferred that the motion submitted by Senator de Largie had not committed us to an absolute indorsement of every recommendation. When the adoption of a report was moved in another place, the words, " in a general sense," were used. It would have been better if those words had been adopted in the motion before us. A number of the recommendations have already been acted upon. Probably we shall all admit that it is impossible to carry out others. Generally speaking, however, the recommendations are sound, and have been submitted with a genuine desire to improve the service. I wish to address myself to one or two matters only. One has reference to those public servants who came over from the State service to the Commonwealth. They were transferred with the full assurance that no officer would lose his rights or his accruing rights. More than that, any one who reads the debates of the Convention, will find that very great stress was laid upon this point. It was recognised that if the public servants did not feel sure that their rights would be conserved under the Commonwealth, they might refuse to vote for Federation, and their influence through- out the Commonwealth mightbe large enough to defeat the carrying of the referendum upon the Commonwealth Bill itself. I do think; that some of those officers! and especially some of the South Australian officers, have been shamefully used in this respect. They have cause for very serious complaint in regard to the treatment which they have received. I notice that their case was put before the Commission in very clear terms, and I am sorry that the conclusion at which that body arrived was not more favorable to them. Their case is thus put upon page 65 of the Postal Commission's report -

The representatives of the Post and Telegraph Association in South Australia stated that -

(1)   Theloss of accrued and accruing rights is the South Australian officers' greatest grievance. . Officers were assured before Federation that the Constitution effectively preserved rights accrued and accruing, but the compact was broken by the Commonwealth authorities in every instance, except in the matter of retiring allowances. Consequently, a very large proportion of the South Australian officers have suffered monetary losses ranging from £5 to£150 per annum, and. loss of status to such an extent that in some cases postmasters with thirty-five and forty years' service are junior to officers who served under them as messengers.

That is a very serious statement for them to be able to make.

South Australian postmasters, postmistresses, and . a number of assistants were deprived of accrued and accruing rights by the abolition of emoluments under the 1904 classification. These emoluments were not gratuities.

That is a pointwhich I wish to emphasize. The emoluments which they received in excess of their salaries were not gratuities. Had they been, these officers would have been placed in a very unsatisfactory position so far as the rest of the service was concerned. More than that it was made abundantly clear by the late Sir Charles Todd that these emoluments were not gratuities, but were regarded as part of the statutory salaries. '

Under the State, the officers in question were remunerated partly by statutory salary., and partly by sundry emoluments, such as Savings Bank salary, rebate on sale of stamps, and free quarters, which were regarded as part of their salaries.

If these emoluments were not regarded as part of their salaries they ought to have been paid into the Consolidated Revenue, and the officers should have been paid the salaries actually due to them.

Individual losses range from £1 4s. to £157perannum, and subsequent promotion has made up the loss in some eases. The total amount involved is about£4,000 per annum, or a total of about . £20,000 up to the time of giving evidence.

So that the amount involved was not a very serious one after all. I would also point out that the existing and accruing rights which should have been preserved to transferred officers, would have been confined to a gradually decreasing number. One of these officers, the late John Bastard, who suffered more than didanybody else, died some years ago. Others. such as Mr. Holder, have retired from the service. These gentlemen would have been gradually passing out of the service, and the particular rights of which I speak would have been limited to them.

(2)   The hard-earned recognition granted to South Australian officers just prior to Federation was minimized by the Commissioner's action in stopping increments duetothem under the South Australian Civil Service Act of 1874, which provides for yearly increments in the various classes. . Shortly, before Federation (about six months) a number of. officers who had been at the maximum of their classes for from five to twenty years were promoted to the next class, entitling them to annual increments of£10 for five years.

I know that that is. a fact, because I was a member of the South Australian Parliament at the time. That State had then been passing through years of depression. Times were bad, and the Government had to say over and over again that they were not able to pay to certain officers increases which were recognised as being actually due to them. It was to prevent these officers from suffering some of this loss that the South Australian Parliament pro moted them to the next class.

On transfer to Commonwealth these increments were paid for three years, but they were stopped when Parliament approved of the 1904classficica- tion, and the right to subsequent increments was repudiated by the Commissioner on the AttorneyGeneral's opinion. They considered that if Parliament had been aware of the conditions this would not have happened.

I am also of that opinion.

Several of the officers received their increments pending the adoption of the classification by Parliament, but were subsequently put back to their classified salaries, being deprived of £10 to £20 per annum thereby.

That was a very serious loss for them to sustain.

(3)   In South Australia there was no age limit for retirement prior to Federation. Since Federation the Civil Service Act of South Australia has been amended, making seventy years the retiring age. The Commonwealth Public Service Act fixes the age at sixty-five. This right should be preserved to South Australian officers, more especially as they have no pension rights. Officers have been retired at sixty-five, thereby losing financially.

Otherwise they might have had an additional five years' service.

These witnesses claimed that the High Court's decision in the test cases concerning State rights was not logical, and that restitution should be made.

Paragraph 264 of the Commission'sreport contains this lame conclusion -

Your Commissioners are unable to recommend the introduction of legislation by the Commonwealth Parliament to overcome the decision of the High Court.

If there was only one way in which justice could be done to' a number of mcn who had faithfully served the State for some years, that way should have been taken, even if it involved the necessity of. introducing legislation for the purpose. It is a very bad thing for any Government to break faith with their servants. Such an act creates dissatisfaction, justas in the South Australian branch of the Post and Telegraph Department it has created very serious discontent. This dissatisfac-, tion has been simmering in theminds of these officers for years, and I think they have very just cause to complain of their failure to receive that consideration which was due to them. They are in a position to say, " We were transferred tothe Commonwealth Service with the full assurance that all our rights would be preserved. Those conditions have not. been complied with, and as a result we are suffering seriously to-day." I should have been glad if the Commission had been able to recommend parliamentary action with a view to abolishing this dissatisfaction, and doing justice to some 200 men. Another very important recommendation made by the Commission relates to the establishment pf a board of management. I am thoroughly in accord with that recommendation, which reads -

Your Commissioners consider that in order to secure sound and economical administration a basic change is essential, and recommend that a board of management, consisting of three directors, namely, a general manager (chairman), a postal director, and a telegraph and telephone director be appointed to control the Department. From a careful consideration of the requirements of the Department, it is deemed advisable to allot the functions and duties of the respective directors as follow : -

(1)   The general manager should be the chairman of the board of management, and should be immediately responsible for finance and general administration.

(2)   The postal director should be responsible for the management and general supervision of the mail services.

(3)   The telegraph and telephone director should be responsible for construction and maintenance.

I do not wish to say a single word in depreciation of the Public Service Commissioner. I believe, from what I have seen and heard of that gentleman, that he is a very capable, conscientious officer, who endeavours to discharge his duties impartially. But the Postal Service is a very large one. It is divided into two branches the postal on the one hand, and thetelegraphic and' telephonic branches on the other. It is almost impossible for one man to thoroughly grasp and efficiently administer the whole of this vast service. I am quite sure that the officers generally would be satisfied if an expert were appointed , to control the Postal Branch of the . service,, and it ought not to be impossible to select from the large number of officers available, a man of high qualifications, and one . who would enjoy the complete confidence of that division of the service. On the. other hand, we might take a man from the Telegraph and Telephone Branches equally high in his own. profession, and possessing in an equal degreethe confidence of the officers of those branches, and we might then put the Public Service Commissioner, or some other man, at their head, and give these officers a voice in the management of this great Department. If I can lay any grievance I. have before a man who understands my trade, and all the conditions surrounding it, I can at least be sure that he will thproughly understand my complaint, will be able to accept any suggestion I make, or give a valid reason why he does not accept it. I believe that the servants of this Department would have a feeling of much greater confidence if they could be sure that in connexion with its management there was a man thoroughly conversant with the whole of the details of their work. They would know that if their grievances were put before him he would be able to understand them, and would probably consider them sympathetically. I mean by that to say that he would desire to do what was right, not only in the interests of the Commonwealth, but also in the interests of the servants of the Department. I am very glad that thePostal Commission have made this recommendation. I believe it to be worthy of consideration and adoption. There is one matter in connexion with this recommendation upon which I am not quite clear. It is suggested that provision should be made for an appeal from any decision of the proposed board of management. I understand that the servants of the Department all desire that even if the proposed board be appointed, they should have a right of appeal from the decisions of the board. I say frankly that I am not quite sure as to what authority could be set up which would satisfy them on appeal, if they were dissatisfied with the decisions of the board. There is another matter which is the cause of dissatisfaction in the service, and it is connected with the practice of examinations for promotion. I dare say that in many cases examinations are very good things.

Senator McGregor - They are very good for those who -pass them.

Senator VARDON - That is so. But there are occasions when they work a good deal of injustice to men who have been long years in the service. There are men who know the practical details of the service from A to Z. But if you set them down at a table and ask them to answer questions in a literary fashion, they may not be able to do so as well as a young fellow who has just come from school or college. I had brought under my notice only a little time ago the case of two men who were line foremen, and desired to apply for a vacancy for a line inspector. These men had served for twenty and twenty-two years respectively as line foremen. They had also, on occasion, done the work of line inspector so satisfactorily as to secure the commendation of their superior officers. Naturally, they thought that the way was open to them to step up from the position of line foremen to that of line inspector. But they were suddenly confronted with the fact that they must pass an examination. I do not wonder that -such men should feel that it is hardly fair that they should be expected to pass an examination when they had the whole of the practical work at their fingers-ends, had satisfactorily carried it out for years, and were capable of taking up the duties of the superior position. I do not think that such men should' he asked to pass an academic examination in which they may fail, while a younger man with scarcely any practical experience may pass and secure a position over their heads. I believe that I am right in saying that there have been cases where, as the result of examinations, younger men have been put over the heads of practical men who have been many yea rj in the service, and when difficulty has arisen, and the man possessing the theoretical knowledge has been unable to do the work, the practical men, over whose head he has been appointed, have had to be called to do it for him. I do not think that that is a state of things which ought 'to exist. Whilst I am not averse to examinations in a general sense, I do think that men who have rendered long years of service, and are capable of doing the work required of them, should not be subjected to examinations of that sort, and to the possibility of losing status by having a junior passed over their heads.

Senator Lynch - The recommendation of the Commission would alter that. They recommend that promotion should depend on merit, and merit alone.

Senator VARDON - I know that that is the recommendation ; but I believe that the Public Service Commissioner, in his report, says that he wants two things to be taken into consideration, namely, seniority and merit.

Senator Henderson - No; the Public Service Commissioner ignores seniority.

Senator VARDON - I may be wrong about that. But, in my opinion, other things being equal, the man with seniority should receive promotion. I do not say that a man should go up in the service simply because he is senior to others. If he is an inefficient man, he ought not to expect to be preferred to a man better qualified for promotion. It is no injustice to an inefficient man to put over his head a man possessing more merit. I think the Government might very well take this matter into consideration, and modify the provision with respect to examination to such an extent as to secure that men who have been long in the service, have acquitted themselves well, and done their work satisfactorily, shall not lose the result of their years of labour simply because they are unable to pass academic tests. There is another matter which was mentioned by Senator Needham, and that is the suggested superannuation fund. I mean by a superannuation fund a fund to which the officers of the service shall be obliged to contribute, and, having done so, shall have the right to claim certain benefits in certain cases.

Senator Chataway - I think that the officers should have a certain voice in the control of the fund.

Senator VARDON - I agree with the honorable senator. We have such a system in operation in South Australia. There is a superannuation fund there, which is under the control of the service itself. The officers have to contribute to the fund according to the salary they receive, and, in certain cases, they get relief from that fund, and. on retiring, receive a superannuation allowance of so much for each year of service. I believe that the establishment of such a fund in connexion with this Department would give satisfaction throughout the service. A man would then know, on entering the service as a young man, that if he served for thirty or forty years, when he reached the age of sixtyfive and would be obliged to retire, although he might be still capable of service, he could fall back upon the fund to which he had contributed, and from which he would have a perfect right to receive a yearly amount to prevent his falling into destitute circumstances, or even having to apply for an old-age pension. There are some other matters, especially connected with buildings, to which I should like to have referred, but, as it is growing so late, I do not wish to keep honorable senators longer. An opportunity may be afforded to discuss one or two matters in connexion with the Postal Commission's report later on, and I shall therefore say no more at the present time. I wish to repeat, however, that I hope something will be done for the South Australian officers to whom I have referred, and that, so far as the control of this service is concerned, serious consideration will be given to the recommendation of the Commission, and some scheme devised which will give general satisfaction.

Debate (on motion by Senator Henderson) adjourned.

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