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Thursday, 17 November 1983
Page: 2903

Mr LLOYD(5.43) —The Postal and Telecommunications Amendment Bill 1983 is important legislation for Australia Post and the future of postal services generally in Australia. This legislation also appears to be the Labor Government 's response to the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry into the Monopoly Position of the Australian Postal Commission, otherwise known as the Bradley inquiry after its chairman Mr A. E. Bradley.

The Opposition supports, with some reservations, the major thrust of the legislation to allow Australia Post to develop electronic mail services and to widen the exemptions from the letter delivery monopoly while maintaining that basic monopoly. Therefore the Opposition will not oppose the second reading of the Bill but will oppose and propose several amendments at the Committee stage.

This legislation, as it takes only some of the Bradley recommendations, also raises the question of the Government's intentions for the other Bradley recommendations. I will return to this point later. Unlike the other communications authority, Telecom Australia, where business is increasing at a rate restricted only by the capital investment necessary to take advantage of the new technology, Australia Post, as with the postal services elsewhere in advanced countries, is facing possible stagnation in the future as traditional mail services are replaced by electronic mail, voice and data transmissions, courier services et cetera. The concern of Australia Post to be able to offer modern services and to retain a viable future was evident during the inquiry and has been reiterated in subsequent comments to me by senior Australia Post officials.

The same concern was expressed to me in discussions with the United States Postal Service and Canada Post officials in July of this year. They are more advanced with electronic mail systems than we are. Obviously Australia Post can learn from their experience. However, to balance that comparison I must say that the United States Postal Service has only recently started to break even financially and Canada Post has until 1986 to make a profit. This year the combined deficit, including the second class mail subsidy for Canada Post, is estimated to be $500m. Australia Post has got beyond the problem which Canada Post is still facing. In July the standard letter rate in the United States was 20 cents and in Canada it was 32 cents.

This Bill contains a number of major provisions. They amend the basic letter monopoly, re-establish the Australia Post courier service, allow private agency arrangements, operate an electronic mail service, clarify the by-law power of both Australia Post and Telecom, allow earlier retirement for employees and permit Australian Postal Commission decisions to be made without actually having a meeting. Bradley recommended that Australia Post retain the basic letter monopoly as it was essential for a national postal service. This is also the position in other Western nations. The previous Government and the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) in this Government have confirmed the acceptance of that part of Bradley's recommendations.

The 1975 legislation establishing Australia Post listed six exemptions from the letter monopoly, including articles over 500 grams in weight. Bradley recommended four more exemptions. In this legislation the Government has accepted only one; and has done so in a slightly more restrictive way. Bradley also recommended that there should be incorporated into the Act the definition of a letter to clarify the letter monopoly position of Australia Post. The Government has legislated in relation to conveyancing of letters which are 10 times or more the standard letter rate; a letter need no longer be classified as a letter provided the charge for delivery is 10 times or more the standard letter rate. The Government appears to be defining what is not a letter rather than as Bradley recommended defining what is a letter. I am not complaining about the way the Government has tried to overcome that difficult problem. Bradley recommended a $2 limit and restricted indexing which is less restrictive than the $3 and full indexation proposed in this legislation. By comparison, the United States exemption is five times the standard letter rate. However, in reality $3 is probably the minimum cost for which a letter or article would be carried by a courier service.

At the Committee stage of the debate I will move an amendment to the section of the Act concerning the letter monopoly to allow the additional minor exemptions recommended by Bradley. One of these amendments concerns electronic mail and is linked to our general encouragement for the introduction and development of electronic mail. We will oppose the reintroduction of a courier service and the extension of agency arrangements to the private sector. I acknowledge that Bradley recommended both of these measures to strengthen the commercial performance of Australia Post. But the Committee also recommended that as part of its commercial accountability Australia Post should also pay rates and taxes or equivalent amounts in lieu of rates and taxes. The more detailed reasons for our opposition to this measure will be given when the amendments are moved at the Committee stage.

The Opposition is unhappy with the reduction in the voluntary retirement age, which is part of this legislation, from 60 years to 55 years, but we will not oppose it. I acknowledge that when in government we introduced the lower retirement age to the Public Service. Only recently the Statute Law ( Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (No. 2) provided the same lower retirement age for Telecom Australia employees. However, I must point out that this was only one part of our retirement legislation for the Public Service employees; the other was the CERR Act, that is, the Commonwealth Employees (Retirement and Redeployment) Act which allowed management initiated redeployment and retirement . Thus there was a total or balanced package of employee and management initiated early retirement flexibility. Labor is repealing the CERR Act and consequently removing half or destroying, if one likes, the balance of that legislation. Therefore, on our return to government, this general area of Public Service and statutory authority employment policy will be considered. In the meantime I believe that it is odd that Telecom, Australia Post or other statutory authorities which pride themselves on being commercial, nevertheless implement such uncommercial or non-commercial practices.

The Minister in his 9 August statement, when he detailed the Government's reaction to the Bradley inquiry, also mentioned several other aspects of that inquiry which are not covered by this legislation. I would like the Minister, when replying, to advise the House on the matters he has referred to. He stated:

A revision of the leasing provisions of the Postal Services Act was under way to ensure that Australia Post properties were used or developed to their maximum potential.

The Government does not intend to proceed at present with the financial recommendations of the Bradley Report . . .

However, it has called for a review of the existing legislative provisions concerning Australia Post's financial structure and financial objectives.

The Minister said that his statement generally should allay any fears about the future of Australia Post. His announcement, which I have just quoted, that the Government may proceed, and I am sure that is the equivalent of not to proceed at present, must increase some of the fears of Australia Post. These measures, which I have taken directly from the Bradley recommendations, could include taxes or payments in lieu thereof, separate accounting arrangements, revaluation of assets, a separate superannuation scheme which Australia Post people say is four times as expensive as a commercial superannuation scheme and, as the Minister and I were reminded last night at a communications seminar, ministerial approval for contracts above $500,000. I would have thought that the one which would have caused the most fear and uncertainty was the one concerning taxation.

In addition to the points that the Minister made in his announcement, there are other recommendations of Bradley, some of which are very important, which have not been referred to either in the statement or in the Bill. I would like the Minister to comment on them if he is in a position to do so when replying. These include, first of all, postal insurance. The Committee noted that the present arrangements for postal insurance were inadequate and recommended a new arrangement using a professional insurer. In reply to a question that I put on notice to the Minister on this matter he stated that Australia Post agrees with the point made in the Bradley report and that a better arrangement is needed. So I would like some advice as to what is happening with that problem. Other recommendations mentioned separately by Bradley are that land transactions are to be free of Department of Administrative Services restrictions; exemptions from the Public Works Act and greater use of non-official post offices.

I would also like to draw the attention of the Minister to the telegram problem . Australia Post acts as an agent for Telecom for the telegram service. The volume of telegrams continues to decline and this service continues to lose money. I believe this trend will accelerate as telex, the new forms of electronic mail, more universal telephone availability, et cetera, replace the telegram service's reason for being. Some countries have stopped their telegram service. The Davidson Inquiry into Telecommunications Services in Australia recommended the transfer of the service to Australia Post. I believe that Australia Post is not particularly anxious to take over the telegram service in its present form. However, the introduction and development of electronic mail provide an opportunity, which some countries appear to be testing at present, for an up to date replacement of the telegram service. In other words, I do believe in the near future there is an opportunity to overcome the telegram service problem and replace it with something which is newer and more efficient and which would fit in with the electronic mail services of Australia Post. The Minister's comment on the telegram service would be appreciated.

Another point I want to raise with the Minister concerns mail path performance of letters; that is, the timeliness and reliability of the transmission and delivery of letters by Australia Post. The Minister will be aware of the criticism by Bradley of mail path testing procedures; that is, procedures to establish the timeliness and reliability of mail deliveries. The Minister has also answered several questions from me on this subject, the most recent being about a week ago. I put to the Minister the following questions: When will Australia Post have in place a national standard test procedure? How frequently will it be used? Furthermore, does he consider that procedure to be a satisfactory method to evaluate particularly weekend transfers of mail; that is, articles posted on Friday, Saturday or Sunday? It appears to me that the greatest weakness with our mail delivery system is the problem of no Saturday delivery.

I refer here to the experience of the United States of America. I make the point that public perception of a government monopoly such as Australia Post is important. The comment of justice appearing to be done is appropriate with mail delivery performance testing. The problem of mail delivery, its reliability and the time it takes are the major complaints of the public against Australia Post. I believe the United States experience should be investigated. Firstly, a private organisation which is under contract to the United States postal service continuously audits or checks the mail path performance. In other words, it is just not an in-house operation which is subject to some cynicism in the eyes of the public. Secondly, a technical advisory committee has been set up to discuss and overcome the problems of mail deliveries. Canada has some of the same outside systems to increase the confidence of the public in the testing procedures. There is also a mail users conference in Canada. To conclude, I reiterate that the Opposition is not opposing the second reading of the Bill, but will be moving some amendments at the Committee stage.

Debate (on motion by Mr Hollis) adjourned.