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Thursday, 26 November 1998
Page: 838

Mr KERR (10:34 AM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Quick, you and I share a common interest in this debate because we come from the state of Tasmania. If the member for Kennedy is correctly articulating the concerns of rural Queensland, he shares with us concerns that flow right across regional Australia. Whilst Queensland is a state which is increasing in population and which may have some parts where unemployment is at a significantly lesser rate than other parts of the Australian community, you and I come from a state where unemployment is stubbornly high—now about 10.8 per cent. Since the rounds of privatisations and government cutbacks, employment in the state has declined and we face the ABS projections for future Tasmanian population as declining to about two-thirds or less of the present population of the state in the next 50 years—an ageing and declining population with a declining base of federal investment to sustain employment.

In that context, it was hardly surprising that, when the proposal for a sale of one-third of Telstra was put forward, Tasmanian Labor members spoke out strongly against that proposal. We saw that not only would it mean a decline in services but that it would mean loss of jobs for our community. We have now seen both those fears realised. There has been a decline in services. There are problems flowing from the loss of cross-subsidies and the restructured administrative arrangements that have occurred with Telstra. Most importantly, there have been reductions in employment in an economy which is struggling to face the future at a time when other federal government agencies have been massively cutting back their support for this state.

The most recent manifestation of cutbacks in employment was the decision made on 26 October this year where Telstra managers announced the closure of the work management centre in Tasmania. That has a particular resonance because the work management centre in Tasmania had been announced as an initiative by Telstra which would give significant benefit to the state. It had been announced with a flourish of publicity as an initiative which showed that the organisation would not simply be focused around mainland distribution points but that there would be specific concern for regional centres and our state of Tasmania. In fact, the work management centre was the first of its kind in Australia; it was a pilot. It has operated very well since its inception and Telstra does not deny that.

They say the decision to close it is part of a corporate planning system and reflects nothing in terms of the efficiency of the Hobart based operation. Indeed, Senator Mackay and I put to Telstra representatives—when they came to Tasmania as a response to the criticisms made by me, her and Tasmania's Premier, Jim Bacon—that internal work management assessments had rated the Hobart agency as being the most efficient in providing those services across the centres which now exist. That was not denied. There was no suggestion that it was denied.

The Hobart work management centre currently allocates all fault reductions for Tasmania's public phones—about 1,000 connections—and some of those phones are in very remote areas of the state. The proposal now is for the work that is done by the work management centre to be done out of Bendigo. Without local knowledge, Bendigo staff will be sending Tasmanian staff to fix radiophones or solar powered phones. Valuable time and money will be lost in sending communications officers all over the state to regions with which they are not geographically familiar without the correct tools or skills to do the job.

A good example of local knowledge was shown on Thursday, 22 October this year, which is a public holiday in the south of Tasmania for Hobart Show Day. There were three communications officers rostered to do the work, but Bendigo was still accepting fault jobs for that day. There were attempts to shut the books off, but there was an inability to get through, and tremendous confusion in terms of being able to satisfy those complaints.

Thirty-five jobs in some parts of Australia might be regarded as expendable but my experience, as a member representing the seat of Denison now for over a decade, is that we are facing a time of quiet despair in Tasmania unless we are able to do better. When federal public authorities withdraw support for good, well managed, successful operations which could be continued in the state of Tasmania in my electorate, then it is a time for anger. It is not a time for passive resignation. This is not the sort of thing that we should accept lightly. Most importantly, that anger is heightened because the decision was made under a cloak of deception.

It is unclear precisely whose deception it was. Either it was Minister Alston's deception or it was Telstra's deception. At the very least, Telstra shares the blame. The organisation, because it is now one-third privatised, has an obligation to maximise the return to its shareholders. That obligation conflicts to some degree with Telstra's obligation to continue and to maintain services in regional Australia. How is that balance to be resolved? When the legislation was proposed for a one-third sale of Telstra, the balance was struck in negotiations in part with Senator Harradine, and Senator Harradine received assurances that there would be no decline of employment in the state of Tasmania as a result of the changed ownership arrangements for Telstra.

Plainly that still rankles with Telstra. They may not like the situation where a federal minister and the parliamentary processes require services to remain in parts of Australia when they believe they could operate more profitably by withdrawing those services, but there was no doubt that there was a clear understanding that there would be a special arrangement because of the economic circumstances of Tasmania and because 35 jobs in Tasmania matter. Thirty-five jobs in Tasmania, in my seat, matter.

What happened? In the run-up to the last federal election, the union got wind that there was going to be some changes. It obviously made representations. On 26 August of last year, they received correspondence from Bob Bull, acting regional general manager for Victoria-Tasmania from Telstra, saying that he had been advised to contact the union with regard to the letter they had written to him around the future of the centre. He said:

We understand that there has been some uncertainty regarding the interpretation of recent actions and comments by management with regard to the operations of both the Hobart and Bendigo sites. I would like to confirm our discussion at a meeting today between us that there is no plan to close the Hobart site.

That is on 26 August: `no plan to close the Hobart site'. A person of goodwill, who is sent a letter of that nature, who later found that on 26 October, immediately after a federal election, that `no plan' had turned into a strategic decision made by management to close that centre and to relocate it to Bendigo, would say that there has been a fundamental breach of good faith. Of course, if it was deceit only at that level, one would have reason to be contemptuous of the way Telstra's management has operated; but there is more. Senator Brian Harradine also wrote to the union in relation to these matters because those concerns had been expressed to him. Senator Harradine wrote to Mr Graeme Sturges of the CEPU on 11 August, saying:

Following our discussion last week on Telstra jobs in Tasmania, I undertook to seek a response from the minister's office on the future of the Work Management Centre in Hobart.

Then he says:

I have been advised late yesterday by Senator Alston's Chief of Staff that Telstra has no plans whatsoever,

no plans whatsoever—

to reduce the existing 19 staff nor to remove the Work Management Centre to Bendigo.

So there we are: Senator Harradine was advised by the minister on 10 August that Telstra had no such plans. But, immediately after the election, what occurred? The closure was announced. `No plans' had become a management reorganisation based on the strategic needs of Telstra to remove a Hobart work based centre and relocate it in Bendigo: the very plan whose existence had been denied in August of that year, both by the management of Telstra to the union and by the minister's office to Senator Harradine, that denial then being conveyed by way of assurance to the union.

We went into the last federal election, a contest that was quite vigorously fought in Tasmania, and where in the upshot we secured all five House of Representative seats and three of the six Senate positions contested. But at that time, before the election and 11 August, no such certainty existed. The federal election was going to be a tight one. Tasmanian seats were very much in the balance, and assurances were being given by the minister's office and by Telstra that there would be no closures—that there would be no staff sacked, no jobs lost and no positions destroyed.

Then, hard on the heels of the election on 3 October, only days later, we discovered the plan that had been denied had actually been hatched and implemented. A complete deceit, not merely by omission but by commission—a breach of assurances given at the highest level from the minister's office to Senator Harradine and a breach of assurances given by Telstra management to the people employed. Why would you believe goddamn anything that you are told about assurances of the future of employment in my state? These are the actions of people who are not afraid to lie. These are the actions of people who are quite happy to deceive in order to secure the support of this parliament for the passage of legislation and then to breach undertakings solemnly given.

We are asked in the debate to accept assurances that a further sell down of Telstra to 49 per cent will not damage regional Australia. We just heard the member for Kennedy expressing his concerns about what will happen to rural Queensland. He is on the coalition side. He knows that the assurances that are handed out are not even worth the paper they are written on. He knows that words that have been used in these debates are spoken with a forked tongue.

This legislation not only authorises a sell down to 49 per cent, it also authorises the complete sale of Telstra where all public obligations and the capacity of the minister to direct the organisation are removed entirely. This has been deceitful. This will not be forgotten. This legislation must be resisted.