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Wednesday, 25 August 1999
Page: 9045

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Is the minister aware that in June this year when the minister for communications announced the current Telstra pricing caps would `operate until 30 June 2001' he made this promise:

There will be no change to arrangements for Telstra's directory assistance.

In light of this promise, how can the minister justify the decision yesterday to allow Telstra to charge business customers for directory assistance calls? Given the expected record profit due to be announced by Telstra tomorrow, isn't this decision a serious betrayal of small business owners and operators in Australia? Will the government now rule out any application of a charge on directory assistance calls from residential customers?

Mr McGAURAN (Arts and the Centenary of Federation) —I will try to work my way through those five or six questions. Picking up the last question relating to whether we will rule out further changes, it is fascinating that even the opposition's spokesman in today's Financial Review in a story by Paul Cleary is reported as follows:

But the Opposition spokesman for communications, Mr Stephen Smith, said the move represented "the thin edge of the wedge", which Labor would not have countenanced "in this term of office". He said Labor had made a commitment at the last election not to apply 013 charges, but he declined to say if this commitment would be retained in future.

Fancy asking us. As he well knows, no-one gives open-ended commitments, including the opposition spokesman himself.

Mr Stephen Smith —You did; you did! It's precisely what you did.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Perth will exercise more restraint or I will deal with him.

Mr McGAURAN —For the information of the House or those who do not know, and I suspect they are more on the other side, this proposal does not impose a charge on residential users. Any proposal to do so would be a fundamentally different proposition and we would take a very different view. The big point is that business can and should contribute to the cost of a business service. Telstra should not have to bear the cost of businesses using the service as a business tool and making hundreds of calls a day. After all, 80 per cent of 013 calls are made by nine per cent of phones.

The impact on low level users will be minimal. This is a new charge on mobile phones and on business phones. There are exemptions and appropriate safeguards, as you would rightly expect. Apart from those fixed line residential phones, no charges will apply to directory assistance for a charity, not-for-profit organisations or from payphones. Disabled users will continue to have free access to the directory assistance disability hotline. Telstra have made a number of commitments in return for this new cost. They will answer 70 per cent of calls within 10 seconds. They will provide an Internet starter kit to assist small business to go online and access directory assistance services. Telstra have also undertaken to remove the advertisements from the directory assistance service, a move welcomed by consumer representatives.

The simple question is: why should businesses, and farmers for that matter, subsidise the chronic users of the free service? Six out of 10 small business lines made no calls to directory assistance over a two-month period. Of those who did use directory assistance, 64 per cent made less than three calls per month. Some 68 per cent of farmers are residential users with fixed lines and 60 per cent of farmers made no calls to directory assistance in May of this year. The majority of farming businesses who use directory assistance will pay around 80c per month. This is an eminently sensible and equitable measure with all of the proper safeguards built in.