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Thursday, 26 September 1974
Page: 1469

Senator BISHOP (South AustraliaPostmasterGeneral) - in reply- I am rather pushed for time because of the number of Bills that we have to consider this afternoon, but I will do what I can in the time allotted to me to deal with all the matters that have been raised. I thank the Senate for its indication that there will be no opposition to the Bills. Perhaps I should first refer quickly to what Senator Hall has said. In a way I think he ought to know the circumstances. First, he charges me with agreeing to proceed with construction of the tower on Black Mountain. He has been in this place long enough to know that before I became the PostmasterGeneral the Government had tested the proposition to build the tower. In various ways the proposition was subjected to tests. Not just the previous Postmaster-General, but also the Cabinet and the Government decided to go ahead with the project. So it is no good Senator Hall belatedly saying that I personally am responsible for the decision to proceed with the construction of the tower. Since I have been the PostmasterGeneral I have seen all those groups who obviously have seen Senator Hall. But I will state the story which has been repeated by the Government.

A number of Ministers have been involved. The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr Les Johnson), the previous Postmaster-General and various other Ministers had tests conducted and heard arguments about the tower. It is doubtful whether any government building project has been so subjected to public argument as has the Black Mountain project. The project was tested at public hearings of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, at legal proceedings and by an examination of an environmental impact study. There has been full argument amongst all the interested Ministers. I have not mentioned some of them. In addition, of course, as we all know, the legal proceedings were made possible only by the AttorneyGeneral (Senator Murphy) granting his fiat. The Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court found no environmental objection to the proposal to build the tower on Black Mountain. Currently there is a case involving this matter before the High Court.

As regards the operations of the tower, the facts are that the technical information was tested in various ways by committees of the Government and by departments and at those other hearings to which I have referred. In the opinion of the people who looked at the question, technically such a tower was necessary. Senator Hall should know that unless there is some further legal obstruction, the construction of the tower will proceed.

The strange thing about this debate is that all honourable senators opposite who have taken part in it generally have argued that they did not do anything wrong in stopping the proposed increased postal charges on the previous occasion. Of course, the facts are that they frustrated the Bills which came before the Senate on the last occasion, and the Government has had very little option other than to increase the postal tariffs which previously were before the Parliament to the rates which the Senate is presently considering. All that has happened is that we have had another debate about postal charges. Previously honourable senators opposite deferred the proposed increased postal charges and now they accept them. Those honourable senators opposite, particularly Senator Jessop and Senator Townley, who have spoken in the debate have said that there ought to be economies in the Post Office. I remind them that in the last four of its years in office the previous Government increased postal charges. It increased them in 1967, in 1968, in 1970 and in 1971. Honourable senators opposite have complained about interest charges. They have canvassed the argument which has been put on payment for services. But they supported the Government that applied the principle that the Post Office should pay interest.

Nobody has mentioned what the Liberal governments in the States have done only in the last couple of days. Have a look at the Victorian State Budget under which liquor licence and tobacco licence fees have been increased; motor vehicle licence fees have been increased from $2 to $6; insurance charges are to go up; fares are to go up; and stamp duty is to go up. In New South Wales the same thing is occurring. What options are available to the Post Office? I admit that this has been argued from different sides in the past, but the options are very few. If we did as the Opposition suggests, we would have to subsidise the operations of the Post Office and the telecommunication services, or say that in future the services will not be as good as they have been or that they should be reduced.

Mention has been made of the necessity for economies in the Post Office. It seems to me that the Vernon report has been discounted. That report contains some of the most satisfactory recommendations that have ever been put to any government. It is a most valuable report. We will be discussing that report later when we come to the general formation of the new corporations. In the report the highest regard and commendation is paid to the work of the Australian Post Office. The recommendations and conclusions in that report state that the Post Office offers a comprehensive range of postal and telecommunication services. The report says that the services are adequate. It commends the telecommunication services. It commends the general policies of the Post Office, including its industrial policies. It does make some criticism of the mail services in New South Wales. But generally the report gives the administration a fairly clean sheet. I think it is unfair to suggest that economies can be achieved. Without being personal, let me say that Senator Jessop and Senator Townley are used to operating businesses. I think Senator Townley may still operate one. If anybody said to them 'You should subsidise this with your own savings', they would reject that point of view.

Senator Lawriespoke about the disabilities which are faced by country people. He referred to the attitude that this Government is taking in respect of tariffs. This is not new. The previous Government which he supported also did this. We know that services are not as good in some country areas as they are in the city areas. This morning I answered a question on the cost of connecting subscribers to telephone exchanges. It costs the Post Office about $1,600 to make a connection in the city. In the settled country areas it costs nearly $4,000. In the outer rural areas it costs $9,000. If there is no increase in tariffs, then services have to be cut down. Senator Lawrie made a different point. He said that services should be increased. He said that there ought to be improvements and that new technologies ought to be introduced. But we cannot just do that. The estimates which we had well before the Vernon Commission started to make its examination showed that for every $ 1 spent in country areas the Post Office recovered only about 49c. Because the 2 different revenues are taken together, often the Post Office is able to come out with a small profit. In accepting the view which it has accepted and which was put by previous governments, the Government was influenced largely by the opinions of the Vernon Commission. I think that is the real substance of the whole issue.

I think that the comments of Senator Townley and Senator Jessop were largely political and should not be taken as ones which they, as members of a responsible body, would put forward if they were in government. It has been argued that the Vernon Commission proposed an increase of about 15 per cent in postal charges. At the time that Commission made that estimate it was not aware of the financial developments which have taken place in the community. In fact, on the last occasion on which we proposed to increase these charges we said that there was a gap amounting to $30m- which was correct- and at about that time we had to meet an increased wages bill and superannuation commitments. The Government, like every other organisation in business, is faced with these sorts of escalations. Each year the Post Office, as is the case with other instrumentalities which come before the Senate, has to re-examine its tariffs to see whether within the framework of its general operations it can or cannot avoid applying increases. I suggest to the Senate that having accepted the tariffs at the present time we have accepted that there must be increases. The Opposition is saying that we must examine this in the future. I think that with some luck, if not at the time of the next Budget then at the time of the one after that, we will have the 2 corporations set up. If those corporations operate along the lines recommended by the Vernon Commission they will apply the same sort of approach to this matter as the Government is applying at present.

I think that substantially those are the main arguments that ought to be put on this matter. In relation to some of the constructive comments that have been made, I undertake to have them examined to ascertain whether I can add anything. In view of the time which has been allotted for the passage of Bills today, I have been asked to make my contribution short. I conclude my remarks by thanking those honourable senators who took part in the debate. Some of my own colleagues did not take part in it simply because they wanted to save time in order to facilitate the business of the Senate today.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time, and passed through its remaining stages without amendment or debate.

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