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Wednesday, 26 June 2002
Page: 4452

Mr TANNER (3:45 PM) —Pretty soon a really big party will be thrown for the Treasurer by the bond dealers and the stockbrokers of Europe, because he proposes not only to sell Telstra but to use the proceeds to invest in stocks, shares and bonds of foreign countries. A few other parties will come along to join in the celebration. Australian bond dealers will thank the Treasurer for ratting on his promise to reduce the Commonwealth debt to zero and instead establishing a fund based on the proceeds of the sale of Telstra which will be invested in foreign shares and bonds.

The American currency dealers who took him for $5 billion will probably come along and be a part of the entertainment. The salaries of Telstra's management—who stand to gain enormously from the privatisation of Telstra—will inevitably go up. Their ventures overseas will be assisted. Their dreams of expanding their monopoly power from telecommunications into the media sector as a private company will all be realised. The investment banks and the lawyers will pick up a cool $650 million merely for selling shares in a company that already has a substantial private shareholding. These people will come along to praise the Treasurer for his wisdom, for his vision and for his capacity to ensure what they see as great public policy outcomes.

The difficulty is that there will be a number of key players who will not be invited and who, if they were, would not be too keen to be there. Consumers of telecommunications services will be the first group of people who will not be invited to the government's party, and they would not be keen to be there if they were invited. People in regional Australia, who suffer second-class services and inadequate telecommunications services that are getting worse rather than better, will not be invited nor will the Telstra shareholders, who would like to get some decent dividends and who regard Telstra as a utility that is designed to deliver reasonable returns to its shareholders rather than some sort of dot com that is out there sailing the oceans of shareholders in order to reap some sort of glory for the people who are managing it.

Telstra workers, who have been sacked in their thousands by Telstra and are being pushed out the door still from areas like NDC, will not get a guernsey at this party. Telstra's competitors will not get a chance to participate in all of the joy. It will be a pretty big party—it will be a wild affair, and there will be some pretty good things happening there—but the main item on the menu for the lawyers, the investment bankers and the bond dealers will be Telstra itself, sponsored by the ever generous, ever forgiving taxpayer under the Howard government.

We have serious problems to deal with in telecommunications in this country. The government has only one solution for those problems: to sell the rest of Telstra. The competition regime is failing. Telstra is totally dominant in all markets across our telecommunications sector. Instead of seeking to do something about this, the government is allowing Telstra to be totally unaccountable and to entrench its dominance not only in telecommunications but also in media through its position in Foxtel and through its ambitions to buy a major commercial television network.

Since the federal election, consumers have been slugged time after time by Telstra: mobile phone charges have been jacked up, text messaging charges have been jacked up by 13 per cent, Internet fees have gone up and Internet fees for schools have been jacked up enormously. The Easymail service that Telstra used to provide for low-income people has been scrapped completely. The White Pages have been restructured so that people in small business who operate from home and want to have a listing for their residence and for their small business have to pay an extra $126 for it.

We have seen no substantial improvement in services in regional Australia, contrary to the mythology that is promoted through gimmicks and consultants and all of the other exercises associated with the government's Networking the Nation program. We still have enormous problems with the network. Telstra is reducing its investment in the core network and as a result, with long-term problems, that network is crumbling. That is why Labor, in concert with the Democrats, moved in the Senate yesterday for a full inquiry into the state of Telstra's network. That is why Senator Alston tried to sabotage that inquiry. Senator Alston tried to push it off the rails because he is worried about what that inquiry will find. He is concerned that that inquiry will uncover the real truth about the state of telecommunications not only in the bush but also in metropolitan Australia—that Telstra is underinvesting in its networks while it is investing billions in other parts of the world, hankering after investing in Channel 9 and pursuing its ambitions in Foxtel.

The management of Telstra, who think they are running the world's biggest dot com, and who are allowed to be totally unaccountable by the Howard government, lost $1 billion in their Asian ventures. Half a billion of that is taxpayers' money, because they are half publicly owned—half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money and nobody has been held to account! Nobody has paid the price for that loss, for that venture, with taxpayers' money being gambled on risky Asian investments.

Telstra is allowed by this government to be totally unaccountable. It treats its customers with disdain. It is building a media and foreign empire on the back of taxpayers' money because the Howard government allows it to operate as if it is a private company. It is able to do whatever it likes, even though it is 51 per cent government owned.

Members will be aware of Telstra's style and how they deal with customers, creditors, consumers and shareholders. I had a bit of an experience with this a few weeks ago. I chose to criticise evidence that Telstra gave to the Senate, and they threatened to sue me—a government body seeking to sue the shadow minister responsible for that area of public policy because I had the temerity to criticise the evidence that they gave to the Senate! That is how Telstra deals with people. That is their approach. It is the behaviour of the bully, of the powerful dominant monopoly that this government is allowing to be out of control.

The Howard government's only solution to these problems is to sell the rest of Telstra. All that would do is make the problems worse. This morning Senator Alston let the cat out of the bag—he obviously had not been talking to his National Party colleagues for a couple of days—and said they would do it within months, not years. All of the sham, all of the bluster from the National Party about looking after the interests of people in regional Australia, is exposed as meaningless—just a sham to try and ensure that some people out there somewhere continue to vote for them. Privatising Telstra will create a gigantic private monopoly that will not only be able to totally entrench its dominance of telecommunications but also extend that dominance into media—particularly if the government is able to get its cross-media ownership laws repealed—by buying a major TV station, maybe throwing in the Fairfax newspapers for good measure and maybe buying a whole raft of radio stations. Telstra is a huge organisation with enough money to do these things and barely bat an eyelid and to use the cash flow that is generated from its monopoly in order to achieve these objectives.

If Telstra is privatised, services in the bush will get worse, not better. It will be precisely like the banks. If Telstra is privately owned, it will chase the most lucrative markets and it will leave people in regional Australia as second-class citizens to languish with the crumbs off the table, exactly as the banks have done. Telstra will be too powerful to regulate if it is privately owned. All of the gimcracks and baubles of the Networking the Nation scheme will count for nothing because, once Telstra is privately owned, it will decide that it does not want to do these things anymore—that it is not really that interested in providing some of these things for people who are not that profitable—and no government will have the power to ensure that these commitments continue to be enforced.

Labor's approach to these issues is to deal with them on their merits and to develop solutions to the problems. We are interested in getting better service for consumers, a better deal for regional Australia, genuine competition and efficient regulation, not the shambles—the complex, burdensome, costly regime—that we now have. We do not want misuse of monopoly power. We want all Australians to be guaranteed access to what is an essential service: telecommunications. Rather than participate in this debate in a genuine and constructive way, the minister's only contribution is to play little political games, to try cheap stunts and to try and take shots merely because Labor have the strength and the courage to canvass alternatives—to look at options, including some that are controversial, like structural separation—in order to ensure that we can have a genuine public policy debate about these issues.

The government's approach to the question of structural separation is interesting. Members would have heard the government refer to the fact that I have canvassed this, along with a number of options, as a possibility, as something that needs to be considered. Senator Alston has described this as `lunacy' and `the nuclear option'. What he has forgotten to tell people is that his own government is signed up to a commitment to examine the structural separation option, courtesy of its participation in the National Competition Principles Agreement. He has an obligation under the National Competition Principles Agreement, which he and the government have signed up to. That is precisely what the Labor Party is doing: looking at the issue. The National Competition Council keeps reminding him of it. Every year, the National Competition Council bobs up and says, `When you privatised Telstra in accordance with the provision in the National Competition Principles Agreement, you acquired an obligation to examine the possibility of structural separation, because it may be necessary to make telecommunications more competitive.' The minister ignores the fact that he is under an obligation—in accordance with an agreement that he and his government have signed up to—to do precisely what the Labor Party is doing: to look at the issue.

The dirty little secret that is underneath this issue came out in Senate estimates hearings a couple of weeks ago, and that is: who will get the money? Where is the money going? We have been told by the Treasurer all along that the money will pay off debt. In fact, it will not. Treasury officials indicated—and there is stuff in the budget that demonstrates this—that because they want to keep the bond market going, because they want to ensure that there is still an amount of Commonwealth government debt to sustain that, they will have an investment fund. But they will not invest in infrastructure—as suggested by the member for Batman, very sensibly—and they will not invest in Australian industry. Perhaps Peter Costello might regard that as a little bit socialist. What they will do is invest in foreign government bonds and shares. So, in other words, we will be selling Telstra to buy Microsoft; selling Telstra to buy IBM. I gather there are a few Enron shares going cheap—they might want to buy some of them—or possibly they might want to retrospectively fix some of the problems that we have had with HIH and One.Tel. Perhaps they could buy those shares off the shelf and reverse some of the corporate collapses that have occurred under their stewardship.

Perhaps we should not be unduly harsh on the Treasurer. He has had a bit of experience with this overseas stuff. Perhaps the loss of $5 billion of taxpayers' money, gambling on the US currency market in New York, was a dry run just to get his hand in, to get a bit of experience with dealing with these big sums of money, gambling on foreign markets. Maybe he has learnt his lesson; maybe he now understands that this is not the right way to go. We will watch with interest to see what he does. Once again, we are seeing the real Peter Costello in all this. The mask slips off occasionally and, in this instance, it slipped off again.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Melbourne will remember standing order 80.

Mr TANNER —We are seeing the real Treasurer—the mask is slipping off again. He is a hardline, right-wing ideologue who believes in selling Telstra because he is opposed to government ownership of anything. That is why he wants to sell Telstra: he is opposed to government doing and owning anything. If you look through his history, you will see the same pattern. Always underneath the image is the substance, which is a hardline, right-wing ideologue who is opposed to government involvement in anything. In the 1970s, he was in Young Labor; in the 1980s, suddenly he was in the H.R. Nicholls Society—an extraordinary conversion. Later on, he left the Baptist Church and went into the warmer, softer, cuddlier territory of the Anglican Church. In the 1990s, he was in the parliament, in the Liberal Party. He became the leader of the right wing of the Liberal Party and, more recently—

Mr Adams —Next he'll join the Masons.

Mr TANNER —I do not think he is in the Masons yet, but give him a chance, Member for Lyons—there is still time. More recently, he has become the leader of the moderates—the leader of the Liberal wets: Peter Costello. He marched for reconciliation; he supported the republic—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Standing order 80 requires members to be called by their seats.

Mr TANNER —He does not like Pauline Hanson. But, of course, his mate Mr Kroger is out there as a board member of the ABC trying to bring down the ABC because it supports these things. So the things that Peter Costello is supposedly signed up to as the moderate—reconciliation, republicanism, multiculturalism—are the reasons why Peter Costello, his mate Michael Kroger and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Richard Alston, are trying to nobble the ABC. So, once again, the real Peter Costello and the real Howard government are coming out here. They are on about selling Telstra because they do not believe the government should be responsible for delivering essential services to Australian citizens. Labor do. We will continue to oppose the sale of Telstra. We will continue to explore appropriate reform alternatives and develop an appropriate strategy that will deliver better services for consumers, better prices and decent services for people in regional Australia. (Time expired)

Mr McGAURAN —It was very instructive listening to and watching the honourable member for Melbourne bring forward this MPI for he could not hold the attention, let alone the interest, of his colleagues on the back bench. It was not until he engaged in the politics of hate—the personal denigration of the Treasurer in a very personal way, even touching on the Treasurer's religious convictions—that anybody on the opposition side sat up and took notice. Prior to that, they were wandering around and talking amongst themselves. We on this side struggled to even hear the member for Melbourne at the dispatch box because of the cacophony of background noise by his colleagues talking amongst themselves.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Reid!

Mr McGAURAN —That is how interested they are.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Reid is highly disorderly.

Mr McGAURAN —That is how interested they are, because they know this is an entirely phoney and entirely concocted MPI. It is of such importance to the opposition that they ask one question in question time, and probably two or three questions on telecommunications and Telstra over this entire parliamentary session. That is how serious they are. How seriously are we meant to take them when they can ask the Leader of the House several questions—out of their 10 allocated in question time—but not ask questions on Telstra issues. What a joke! Why are the opposition taking up the time of the parliament with something they do not believe themselves? We on this side do take telecommunications policy seriously; we have one. We have many relating to the various and diverse components of the telecommunications sector. The opposition have none except to pour out their hatred of Telstra.

It was extraordinary to listen to the member for Melbourne—and I am certain the Hansard will travel far and wide at different levels within Telstra and beyond Telstra. He accused Telstra of being totally unaccountable. Tell that to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. Tell that to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission. He accused them of dominance in pay TV and of treating their customers with disdain. It is now personal with the member for Melbourne; his own feelings and hatred of the management of Telstra and the entity of Telstra are now clouding his judgment. He abused the management of Telstra when he accused them of gambling with taxpayers' money. He slandered them. Then he accused them, with a glass jaw, of pressuring him. What complete and utter nonsense. What the member for Melbourne did was issue a press release on 28 May entitled `Telstra deceives the Senate.' That is sure to get Telstra's attention.

Mr Tanner —They did.

Mr McGAURAN —You accused them of the heinous crime of deceiving the Senate. He interjects: `Yes, they did.' He said this:

Telstra has been caught red-handed deceiving the Senate—

and this is the important quote as far as I can see that takes it outside of the normal political argy-bargy—

... Telstra's Finance and Administration Director ...

an individual—

misled the Senate and the Australian public by giving inaccurate evidence.

You have slandered an individual and compromised his career prospects.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The word `you' is contrary to standing order 80.

Mr McGAURAN —The member for Melbourne has made very serious accusations indeed. To my knowledge Telstra never threatened to sue Mr Tanner, as he well knows; rather, they informed the member for Melbourne of the legal advice they had obtained. Like any responsible corporation, when a senior member of the opposition accuses it of misleading deception then of course it investigates and establishes the truth of the issue. But when they found that the member had completely misrepresented the individual concerned they referred it to their lawyers. In fairness and out of loyalty to their employee, they simply wanted Mr Tanner to know that Mr Tanner was completely wrong. But no, Mr Tanner has instead redoubled his efforts to slander the management of Telstra.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I dare say you are referring to the member for Melbourne.

Mr McGAURAN —The member for Melbourne has tried to make a political issue out of the fact and win a bit of sympathy. All he has done is draw everyone's attention to the particulars of the issue. Any reasonable, fair-minded person, unburdened by the mad ideology of the member for Melbourne on this issue, would come down on the side of the Telstra official and the Telstra management support of that official.

The member for Melbourne went on and said things that were just extraordinary. I wrote them down as much as I could. For instance, he accused Telstra of having a powerful, dominant monopoly—a powerful, dominant monopoly! Since we came to government, we have issued some 90 carrier licences. There have been a number of new and innovative services brought onto the market. We have seen prices drop for businesses and consumers and the quality of service correspondingly increase. We have set a regulatory framework which has fostered and nurtured competition—90 new carrier licences, and Telstra is alleged to have a monopoly! Again, tell that to Professor Fels and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. It is another unwanted, unjustifiable, unsupported accusation against Telstra. He also makes the accusation there has been no improvement to services in rural Australia. Nobody with any sense of balance or objectivity would reach that conclusion. There is no doubt at all that services in rural Australia have been upgraded very substantially by Telstra, particularly with the establishment of Country Wide.

What a slur on good, hardworking Telstra people throughout the nation! In my Country Wide, which covers a large part of south-eastern Victoria, there are brilliant people. They respond to issues brought directly to their attention or raised through my office, they get in the car and go to the furthest reaches of Gippsland, they provide a personal service and they are extraordinarily supportive. As a result, the people of Gippsland in my area—and, from talking to my regional and rural colleagues, it is a very representative view—regard Telstra as having made extraordinary efforts to increase the standard. The efforts of Telstra itself have been supported by massive appropriations from the government. Over $1 billion has been invested by way of specific schemes to increase the infrastructure of rural Victoria—and rural Australia, not just rural Victoria—

Mr Tanner —Not just Victoria?

Mr McGAURAN —Not just Tasmania and rural Victoria. That is always going to be the case. The issue is not the ownership of Telstra; it is the regulatory regime, the level of competition and the level of rural services. A government is always going to have to provide appropriations to bridge the gap between rural and urban telecommunications. It does not matter if Telstra is 100 per cent owned by shareholders or half owned by government in that regard, because the government will always have to allocate specific appropriations to improve the infrastructure of rural Australia. So, in that regard, the ownership of Telstra is a furphy. Again, I stress that the member for Melbourne is running a political campaign, now fuelled not just by his left-wing ideology but also by his hurt personal feelings regarding Telstra. Today he has personalised the attack onto the management of Telstra. You have made unsubstantiated, demonstrably false accusations against Telstra. You have completely misrepresented—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER — The word `you' is slipping in again, Minister.

Mr McGAURAN —The member for Melbourne has completely misrepresented the track record of Telstra and its place in the telecommunications industry. The member for Melbourne is not bringing anything constructive to this debate. I suspect that the MPI today, coming on the back of an absence of questions in question time, is really just a smokescreen for the trouble that he is now got himself into because, in his Telstra discussion paper, he wants to break up Telstra.

The convoluted logic of the member for Melbourne is very hard to grasp; there is no consistency. On the one hand, he gives every impression to his colleagues of maintaining Telstra as the old PMG, the old Telecom—and didn't they provide a great service! Wasn't that Telecom just fabulous! I wish we could go back to the days of Telecom—100 per cent government owned, completely union dominated and hopelessly overstaffed. Yes, give me the good old days! He wants to go back to Telecom when he is with his colleagues—Senator Sue Mackay has certainly given him a very hard time over this, we hear in the corridors—but when he is with Macquarie and his banker friends he develops this paper about breaking up Telstra and separating its functions. What that would do to the profitability and capability of Telstra is anybody's guess, except that it would wreck it, and wreck its levels of service and its finances.

It is quite laughable, as the head honcho of the CEPU, Col Cooper, made abundantly clear when he told the media that Mr Tanner is an `intellectual giant'. I think he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he said that but perhaps he was trying to soften the blow—a bit like the way a lawyer in court says `with great respect'. According to Mr Cooper, Mr Tanner is:

... an intellectual giant who doesn't understand the issue. He's been conned by Macquarie Bank.

I am afraid Mr Cooper's comments mirror the views of a great many of his colleagues, and today's MPI is trying to assuage their criticisms of him.

Mr Tanner —Aren't I in the pockets of the unions?

Mr McGAURAN —Yes, he is in the pockets of the union on the one hand, and he is in the pocket of the merchant bankers on the other. He is all over the place. He does not know what he wants for Telstra. All we know is that he will consistently abuse, criticise and denigrate Telstra. He has a personal hatred of Telstra. The honourable member fails to take into account the level of service provided by Telstra in country areas, the new funding put in by the government and the reforms undertaken by Telstra itself. This is an opposition without a clue.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Bruce, I think, has already been warned today.

Mr McGAURAN —On a major policy issue, the shadow minister is all over the shop. He has no policy. He cannot support the government's injection of funding for rural infrastructure, he cannot accept Telstra's reforms and the setting up of Telstra Country Wide; all he can do then is establish a Senate inquiry, which will be dominated by the Labor Party and the Democrats. As Senator Alston has said, it is a kangaroo court. I think it is more than that: I think it is a payback. It is a payback to Telstra. It is purely a poor man's version of the Spanish Inquisition. Having slandered the management and having shown himself to be overly thin-skinned, the honourable member now takes refuge in a Senate inquiry. It will bog down for months. You have made up your mind. Everything we needed to know that we did not already previously know about your approach to policy for Telstra and the telecommunications sector has been revealed in this 15-minute contribution to the MPI. We now know that the whole point of the Senate inquiry is to serve your political agenda. You have no openness—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Minister, you were doing well, but you are slipping back into using `you'.

Mr McGAURAN —The honourable member has no objectivity, the honourable member is not interested in policy solutions; the honourable member is interested only in a Senate inquiry as a substitute for a confused and scant policy position of his own, one which his colleagues in the Australian Labor Party have not endorsed but have rejected—

Mr Sidebottom —Really? Have you read it? Of course you haven't.

Mr McGAURAN —They have not rejected it yet? Good! So there are others in the opposition who believe that Telstra should be broken up and scattered to the four winds. Thank you! I am glad that the member for Melbourne revealed to us, by way of interjection, that his loopy proposal is still active, there is still chance for him to get it through his loopy colleagues. It is very helpful to know that the member for Melbourne has not given up, so we must give him marks for perseverance. Even in the face of logic, total opposition and ridicule, the member for Melbourne will persist—I wonder for how long.

Did we get some questions in question time as a lead-up to the MPI? No. Instead, the honourable member was reduced to misquoting and misrepresenting Senator Alston in his one question on this issue today and his only question for several weeks. He may have deliberately intended to misrepresent Senator Alston. As the transcript shows, Senator Alston did not make the assertion the honourable member accuses him of. Quite frankly, we have the clear, unambiguous position that Telstra should be sold but only after services in rural and regional Australia are adequate. Three times we have taken our policy to the Australian people and three times we have won. Labor are slow learners.