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Thursday, 1 March 1973
Page: 189

Mr KING (Wimmera) - I want to raise a matter that has concerned me greatly in the last 24 hours or so. I refer firstly to the short address given in this chamber last night by my colleague the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Corbett). He raised a very important subject that I know has been worrying him and many of my colleagues on this side of the House, namely, the upgrading of telephone services and the establishment of automatic telephone exchanges. He pointed out the great problems associated with these things and mentioned the importance of retaining first class telephone services. He referred also to the family unit, isolation and a few other things. I think he went on to comment that the way business is moving today even primary producers could be classified as business men because of their activities. What concerned me was the reply by the Postmaster-General (Mr Lionel Bowen). It hit me with nothing short of amazement and great concern.

Mr Cohen - You are in for a lot of shocks.

Mr KING - I might add, for the benefit of the honourable member for Robertson, that it is of great concern to those people who understand the situation. I do not want to appear to be personal because I believe that the Postmaster-General is making a sincere effort to get on top of his portfolio. I appreciate that he has held it for only a short time. I have a lot of respect for his ability, and no doubt we can expect better things from him in the not too distant future. I suggest, however, that he lift his sights a little and broaden his view on the problems in areas outside the capita] cities. He will have to do this shortly, otherwise I do not think he will be able to match some of his great predecessors.

I pay a great tribute to some of those predecessors such as Sir Alan Hulme, Sir Charles Davidson and, if honourable members like to think back far enough, Donald Cameron who was a member of the last Labor Government. These men and others have made great contributions. I hope that in a short time we will be able to say the same thing about the present Postmaster-General. However, from what he said last night I am not so sure whether I will be able to follow that point through. This matter concerns not only me but also many of my colleagues on this side of the House, as well as many Australians outside this place. I was very confused indeed by what the Postmaster-General had to say. I do not want to spend a lot of time reiterating what he said and I do not want to take anything he said out of context, but I do think that I should quote some of the things he said. The Postmaster-General said:

He would appreciate that I have inherited a situation of financial disaster after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party influence in the Australian Post Office. I am now facing a loss of$23m in postal operations, and apparently 1 am obliged to increase telephone charges by some 20 per cent next year.

I am not too sure what the Postmaster-General meant by that. One minute he was talking about postal operations and the next minute about increasing telephone charges. He went on to say:

All it means is that existing subscribers in many areas have been fleeced-

He used the word 'fleeced' - to try to bolster up a very limited capital outlay to satisfy needs.

I do not think that that is altogether a compliment either to the original PostmasterGeneral or to his Department. Later on, as a result of an interjection by the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) - it all happened inside about 30 seconds - the 20 per cent increase mentioned by the PostmasterGeneral jumped to 25 per cent. I am not too sure what it all means. An examination of tables 9 and 10 of the 1971 report of the Post Office will reveal that in 1971 the Post Office showed a loss of some $2m in its operations but that in the previous year it showed a profit of $2m; in other words, the 2 amounts balanced out. Of course, that is excluding interest repayments, capital expenditure and that sort of expenditure, which totalled $324m. Some of the honourable members now on the Government side of the chamber were critical of the Post Office, when they were in Opposition, for making what they considered to be unnecessary profits. Their criticisms may have been valid if it were not . for the figures I have given, which show, firstly, a balancing out of profits and losses and, secondly, a large expenditure on interest on capital equipment. The PostmasterGeneral went on to say that he is now facing a loss of $23m on the postal side. I want him to explain what he means by that statement.

As I have pointed out, he mentioned an obligation to increase telephone charges by 20 per cent next year. Is he serious about that? I would like to know. I am certain that lots of people outside of this chamber also would like to know. The Postmaster-General was also very critical of some of the smaller country exchanges. He referred to some of those in the electorate of the honourable member for Maranoa. I do not want to quote everything he said on this subject, but I do want to quote a portion of it. I do not think I will be taking his remarks out of context. The Postmaster-General said:

Is it any wonder that Queensland is in a mess when the previous government tried to operate a policy of obtaining funds for new installations out of the contributions of existing subscribers.

I want to know what that means and what it has to do with Queensland. The Post Office is not being run by Queensland. The fact that the honourable member for Maranoa comes from Queensland has no bearing on the matter. The Postmaster-General went on to make a few other remarks about the policy of the previous Government. He said:

It made no contribution of special funds because of the human element involved.

What does he mean by that? I do not know what he means. I am sure that there are not too many people in this chamber who know what that is supposed to mean. The Post Office's operations hinge largely on the capital invested by the government of the day. If past governments had not made a special contribution towards capital expenditure why is it that there is an interest bill of something like $123m a year? Those are the sorts of things that are worrying lots of people.

The Postmaster-General also mentioned something about insufficient funds or no funds being made available to complement the 15-mile radius programme that was introduced by the former Postmaster-General. He also said that there could be a delay in the connection of telephones and that some of them might not be connected until 1990, which would be 20 years after the introduction of this policy. It is not my understanding that that was the goal of the then PostmasterGeneral, although I appreciate that he could not commit himself to any specific period. The understanding was always that it would take approximately 10 years to complete. If it is not completed in 10 years, we will certainly be looking very strongly to the present PostmasterGeneral or his successor. If the present Government is not prepared to allocate funds, it could be 1990 before the work is completed.

Is it fair to say that the present policy on this question is 'no hurry, no priority'? If that is the case with this Government, it is certainly not my policy and it is certainly not the policy of my colleagues on this side of the House. I issue a little warning to the Postmaster-General. If he is not prepared to give sympathetic consideration in this area, I am sure that he will get a lot of pressure from this corner of the House. However, having said that, I hope the Minister can assure us that he will not reduce the allocation or that he will continue to increase it commensurately with increases in costs. I suggest that shortly we will need to deal with effects of a 35-hour week. If the Minister is prepared to continue on these lines I am sure he will receive a lot of consideration from this corner of the House.

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