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Thursday, 26 September 1974
Page: 1461

Senator LAWRIE (QUEENSLAND) -In his speech the Postmaster-General (Senator Bishop) referred to the Vernon Commission which was set up a few months ago to report on the whole activities of the Postmaster-General's Department. One of the recommendations of the Commission was that the 2 sections of the Post Office be divided into 2 statutory corporations. Beyond the appointment of a chairman, or whatever the temporary office is called, nothing appears to have been done. We are very interested in how the financial side will be divided, because the mail section has been run at a loss, or has not made very much profit, for a considerable number of years and the telephone, telegram and telegraph section has made a considerable profit. In view of the profit made by the telecommunications section, as it is called, we are wondering whether when the 2 sections are run separately that section will reduce its charges or whether there will be greater expansion and development through increased capital expenditure, thus making that section an even better business proposition than it is today.

The Vernon Commission recommended that the increases in postal and other charges be made gradually. These 2 Bills provide, as has been mentioned, a 43 per cent increase in the basic postal rate, to 10c for a stamp. In the Post Office the sale of postage stamps is probably the greatest single unit of turnover. Although the 10c- a shilling in the old currency- might be a good round figure, it will certainly have a lot of publicity value, because each time a person licks a stamp and puts it on a letter he will realise who is charging him. He will blame the Government. No matter who is in government, people blame the government for an increase in postal charges and each time they post a letter they will blame the Government for the cost. This round figure of 10c is easier to calculate and work out than the 9c which the Senate was asked to approve in the last Bill. It is a far cry from the days of Sir Rowland Hill who about 130 years ago introduced the penny post. The service then was a much better service than the service which we have today. I wish to comment on the mail section.

Senator Poyser - What about the female section?

Senator LAWRIE (QUEENSLAND) - The honourable senator will have a chance to speak later on. Today our mail service is worse than it was at the time of Federation. I am not referring to the telephone and telecommunications section. This situation exists despite the introduction of air mail services which are supposed to mean faster delivery of mail. I have received complaints from people in many places that it is a worse and a slower service. The charges have gone up, and they are still going up. I believe that the rates for parcels and newspapers have become far too expensive. One of the worst features in recent months, mostly during this year, is the decision, not made by the Government or the Postmaster-General but by the unions, to close all the official post offices on Saturday mornings. No action has been taken to alter that situation, and apparently it is here to stay. This has had a considerable detrimental effect on the public. Apparently no mail sorting into post office boxes takes place anywhere in Australia on Saturday mornings. The small nonofficial post offices, for the most part, do not give out mail on Saturday mornings, although the mail has been sorted and put in pigeon-holes in many cases.

Most of the set-up of the Post Office, which has developed over many years, has provided that mail from the big cities and bigger centres of population be delivered at the weekend so that people can read it or answer their correspondence or read the newspapers. The publication of weekly newspapers is designed so that they may be delivered some time on Friday. We now see the spectacle of that mail- letters, correspondence, weekly newspapers- not being available to the people to whom they are addressed until early in the next week. For people with a weekly service this means a full week's delay. It is the people outside the big cities and the big centres of population who suffer most because when they get their weekly newspapers the news is quite stale. In many cases the answers to their correspondence, which they could post by return mail, are delayed for anything up to a week.

I believe that the Post Office should make more use of road transport for the cartage and delivery of our mail. We have found in recent weeks and months that for various reasons- the shortage of fuel lately and the lack of patronage- the train services which usually carry the mail have been severely curtailed in many parts of Australia. This means that a town or village in a country area or even a bigger centre which had a mail service by train which ran daily, bi-weekly, tri-weekly or whatever it might be, is sometimes down to a weekly train service. The Post Office has done nothing about delivering this mail by an alternative means of transport. I know that road transport does take mail to some areas, and it is a much improved service. Private enterprise has shown that it can make deliveries of morning newspapers- even roadside deliveries- up to 100 miles, or something like that, by breakfast time. But a train which is going in the same direction and leaving at approximately the same time and taking mail, plods along all day and when it reaches its terminal point in the late afternoon it is probably too late to sort and deliver the mail. Therefore, there is another 24-hour delay. If an existing system carries newspapers, surely tenders could be called and contracts entered into for the provision of a mail service in conjunction with that system. I know that I will be told that the Australian railways have a contract to carry mail, but this is subject to alteration from time to time. Not too much detail is spelled out, but I believe that the contract provides that a lump sum is paid to the railways of each State.

Another matter that has upset a lot of people in recent times is the charge for re-addressing letters. I wonder who thought of that? Since there has been a mail service one has been able to go to a post office and fill in a form stating that one is changing one's address, either temporarily or permanently, and one's letters are re-addressed. There is surely not much work attached to that. Now if one wants to do that and one is going away for longer than a month, one must fill in another form. I understand that the charge is $3 a month. If one has gone to the seaside or on holiday or is changing one's address temporarily for any reason that charge must be paid for letters to be re-addressed. If one does not have much correspondence during that month, some of the letters will be expensive.

I wish to refer to the downgrading of many official post offices to the non-official classification. I want to be fair about this matter. I have seen figures for some official post offices which I do not believe anybody could justify maintaining as such in view of the revenue they receive and the cost of running them. However, I do not think that situation applies generally. So there should not be a blanket decision to downgrade official post offices, as has happened. A post office, especially in country towns, is such an important institution and centre that some compromise should be worked out.

I refer now to the telephone and telecommunications section of the Postmaster-General's Department. I understand that under a Government decision the Overseas Telecommunications Commission is to be included in a corporation which I think is to be called the Telecommunications Corporation. I only hope that if that is the case, and I may be wrong, it will not mean a blackout on overseas cable services during the weekends such as there is at present on our telegram service. I refer to local telegrams sent and received in Australia. In the PostmasterGeneral's Department of old, they used to have an advertisement which stated that sending a telegram was a good way to communicate and a reply-paid telegram was a courteous way of getting a quick reply. This service seems to have disappeared from the map now, because in effect the telegram service in Australia is dead from mid-afternoon on Friday until Monday morning. If a telegram is not dispatched by mid-afternoon on Friday it is not delivered until Monday morning. It could be delivered to a telephone number.

Not so long ago telegraph offices in most of the big centres stayed open at weekends. Someone wishing to send a telegram could go to a little pigeon-hole at the telephone exchange and lodge it there. That service has gone. I believe that if for any reason someone wants to lodge a telegram at the weekend it has to be telephoned to a capital city office. He certainly does not pay the full trunk line rate for the call, but he has to pay a reduced trunk line call rate. Is it any wonder that telegram business in the Post Office has fallen off? In spite of this there is to be an increase in the rates for telegrams. In fact, I think that for a small telegram there is not much change left out of $ 1 under the new rates.

Another thing about which I have always spoken is the restricted hours telephone exchanges. I regret to say that there are still a large number of telephone exchanges operating on restricted hours. The small automatic exchanges are not being installed fast enough. I have referred many times to the disability suffered by residents who are unfortunate enough to be connected to one of these exchanges. Many of the palliatives offered to these people, such as leaving a local number connected to the trunk line at weekends and at night time, are not much help. I have pointed out before the great disadvantage that this is for people living a little out of town or away from the exchange.

More funds should be allocated to speed up the installation of the small automatic exchanges and more use should be made of what I understand are called remote controlled manual exchanges. When these were first tried they appeared to have many disabilities, but now most of the bugs seem to have been overcome. They appear to be working well and people on long lines are able to make use of a satisfactory continuous service. They did not have this before and they did not look like getting it for quite a considerable time. I believe that more use could be made of the radio telephone service. A chap not far from where I live has been battling for a long time to get a telephone. He has not been able to get one for various reasons, and this situation has gone on for several years. In desperation he got two radio licences and he has his own private radio set-up from his house in a big city to the station property to which he could not get the telephone extended.

In speaking to these Bills I also want to refer to the increased rates for trunk line telephone calls. According to the Postmaster-General's second reading speech, there is to be a general increase of from 3 per cent to 5 per cent in the rates for trunk calls. I want to mention particularly the savage increase of 26 per cent in the charge for calls over a distance of more than 645 kilometres, or about 400 miles. This is defeating the object towards which we thought we were working at one time, of achieving standardisation for all trunk calls throughout Australia. This increase for calls over a greater distance than 400 miles will have a particularly savage effect on people in Queensland. In Queensland we have 400,000 people living more than 400 miles from Brisbane, our capital city. No other State approaches that measure of decentralisation. Consequently, apart from having to pay the increases on interstate calls or anything else to which the increases apply, those 400,000 people- no doubt many of them have telephones- will have to pay a 26 per cent increase for trunk line calls to Brisbane or other places beyond a distance of 400 miles. This would not apply in the other States. The only other State with a great number of people more than 400 miles from its capital city is New South Wales.

The increase in telephone rentals, particularly those connected with smaller and more isolated exchanges, is the next thing I want to mention. The principle that has applied for a long while is that the rental on a telephone exchange was related to the number of people who could be called at the local telephone call rate. What is proposed now? All rentals are being standardised. Consider the case of a small exchange with maybe 10 or 20 subscribers who can make local telephone calls only to people in their own small group. Some such areas may have one or two other villages close by, but not too many. Practically every telephone call that those people make is a trunk line call. To compensate for that situation in the past they have been charged a reduced rental for their telephone. That situation is going by the board now and apparently those people are to be put in the same category as people in a capital city who have access to many thousands of other subscribers at the local call rate and who have very huie cause to make any trunk line calls. I believe that this is a very unjust situation.

The new country lines policy has upset many people. As all honourable senators know, the Liberal-Country Party Government had agreed to build and maintain lines up to IS miles long. This Government has reduced the distance to 5 miles. It is demanding an exorbitant fee from prospective telephone users to meet the cost of constructing these lines. I have had people coming to me with bills for $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 or perhaps $5,000, and asking me whether they should pay them and wait two, three or more years before getting a telephone. I have advised them not to. As a result they do not get a telephone. There are other people in the area who will not get one either because the backlog of new services in rural areas is becoming even greater. I do not know what to tell people. I have checked up on the backlog and I know of people who have been waiting years. I have checked with departmental officials in these areas and they cannot tell me with any certainty in which year these people are likely to get their telephone or when there is any prospect of their getting the telephone. Unfortunately the PostmasterGeneral's Department is getting further behind in many of these areas. For many people the telephone is their only means of communication, but they just cannot get anywhere.

The comment of the Minister in his second reading speech that the Senate had made it necessary, by its alleged delay of the passage of this measure when it was brought before us a few weeks back, for higher charges to be levied, is grossly unfair and unjust. This is a Budget measure and should not have been brought into this Senate in advance of the Budget because we had no idea at that time what the Budget would contain. May I say on behalf of my Party that the Opposition will allow these increased charges to go through as part of the Budget although it does not agree with a lot of them and will not make any promises as to what might happen in the future. I contrast this action with that taken a few years ago when the present Government was in opposition and the Australian Labor Party members of that day walked out of this Senate rather than stand up and be counted when a similar measure was brought in by the then government. We will not do anything like that and we will let this measure go through, but we will protest about it and criticise it.

I hope that with the additional money the Post Office will have, particularly in the telephone section and possibly in the mail section, greater efforts will be made to improve services in the mail section and to catch up on the backlog in the installation of telephones so that we will not have a lot of disgruntled people around the countryside who live practically in sight of a telephone exchange but cannot get a telephone. This is pretty hard to live with and it is hard to justify and defend in any way. I have told people that I cannot do any more for them. The Post Office unfortunately is getting further behind with the installation of telephones in those areas. We can only hope that something will alter in the not too distant future. The Opposition will allow these measures to go through but that is as far as it will go-

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