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Wednesday, 10 November 1971
Page: 3240

Mr ROBINSON (Cowper) (Assistant Minister assisting the Postmaster-General) - The estimated capital expenditure of the Postmaster-General's Department this year amounts to no less than $424m, which is an increase of $40m on last financial year. In discussing the estimates for this Department a number of observations have already been made by honourable members but I think some reference should be made to the important role of the Department and the services it renders to the community as a whole. This year about $400m will be required for extending telecommunication services alone. Merely to keep pace with departmental requirements this expenditure is absolutely essential. In postal services the capital outlay is much lower. It is of the order of $20m for this year. To carry out its operations the Australian Post Office is required to draw upon the Treasury for no less than $255m in the form of loan assistance.

In discussing the Department's rates and charges and its level of service I think that we have to have regard to these important considerations. The postal service is expected, as far as possible, to match expenditure with earnings. This has been the policy - I am sure that it is still the policy - adopted by both sides of this chamber although it is not always clearly expressed. If postal charges had not been increased we would have faced a loss of $35m. Particular reference was made to this loss in the Bill on the adjustment to charges for postal, telegraph and telephone services. We should remember, of course, that in budgeting for the estimated expenditure the increased cost of labour amounting to $77m is the major item. When we have reference to the level of service, as we had this afternoon, it must be remembered that the labour content in the operation of the Department is terribly critical because without the sustained employment of those people who provide this level of service it would not be practical to give the kind of service that we have today.

A lot has been said in regard to cost comparisons. I want to refer to a very interesting article on comparisons reported in the Melbourne 'Herald' a short time ago. That newspaper had gone to a good deal of trouble to compare costs today with those of 60 years ago. It is of interest to note that the cost of postage is relatively cheaper today than it was 60 years ago. In 1911 the average basic wage was sufficient to post 504 letters. Today's average basic wage is sufficient to post 773 letters. I think that people often lose sight of this fact. The Post Office has the responsibility to provide a service to the public but at the same time it has to deal with the problem of costs and maintaining a relationship with the requirements of public interest.

The honourable member for St George (Mr Morrison) strongly advocated the establishment of a corporation to take over the Postmaster-General's Department. If we look at the consequences of this approach overseas we would be hesitant to give any strong support to this proposal. For example, the United States lost no less than SI, 300m last year. The British postal service, which is now operated by a corporation lost $53m. Canada lost $100m. Those figures indicate the lack of success of an approach along the lines suggested by the honourable member for St George.

Dr Jenkins - The telephone service is run by private enterprise.

Mr ROBINSON - The honourable member has said that the telephone service is run by private enterprise. I presume that he is referring to the position in the United States. If we were to make a comparison of the service given by the Australian Post Office in telecommunications and telephone services we would find that Australia is way ahead of more affluent countries such as the United States of America. This applies particularly to the service given in country areas in Australia. These areas are much better served than comparable ones in the United States. Again, this is merely an instance of the requirement of capital and the need for revenue to make this level of service possible. One would be failing in one's responsibility if it were not to be said that it is recognised that there are some great needs to be met both in the provision of additional services and in the maintenance of existing services. However, as I said a moment ago, this can be done only if the revenue is available. I am sure that this does not suggest that those who administer the Postmaster-General's Department should have a free hand to go ahead and ignore the cost aspect - in other words, that this Parliament should underwrite an open order in respect of costs. The expressions of honourable members indicate that the Parliament would not accept that kind of approach. The facts are that no such approach is made. A responsible attitude exists in this direction.

Concern has been expressed about the problems of maintaining small country post offices. The honourable member for Macarthur (Mr Jeff Bate) spoke with some feeling in this regard. I am sure we all share his concern, but it is also important to have a clear understanding of what happens in small country areas, particularly where a small post office may have provided a service for many years. Ultimately it may be the only business operation left in a small community from which people have dispersed to other centres. The pattern of operation has often been that to get their mail and to have the benefit of the services provided, local residents have to call at that small country post office. If it is in the situation where the business passing through the town and the revenue raised by the post office are so low that it becomes a problem to maintain the post office and the alternative is to provide a local roadside delivery, undoubtedly the local residents are better served if this is done. I am sure that in every instance a full investigation is made. I know that this has occurred in a number of localities in my own electorate. The consequence has been that a better grade of service has resulted from the change from the small post office to a road delivery system.

There is much that one could refer to in other fields, but time does not permit this. I conclude by saying that the responsibility of the Postmaster-General's Department is to provide service first, to see that there is reasoned economy and that the results achieved both in the high level services and in the lower echelon are the best possible for the community that is served.

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