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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17502

Mr TANNER (3:34 PM) —We are here today to mourn the passing of a once great political party—a party which first won seats in the House of Representatives in 1919 and early in its life managed the singular achievement of destroying the prime ministership of Billy Hughes, for which we in the Labor Party are eternally grateful. We are also here to mourn the passing of the party which very cogently pointed out that Bob Menzies had a brilliant military career that was only cut short by the outbreak of war. The National Party has had many great achievements in Australian politics. But, unfortunately, today we have to mark the passing of a once great political party.

Today we have had the formal announcement that the National Party is going to support the full privatisation of Telstra, in direct contradiction to the wishes of its constituents, in direct contradiction to the wishes of its party organisation and in direct contradiction to the wishes of the people it purports to represent—the people of country Australia. I make these observations with some genuine sorrow in my heart because, as some members will know, I have some past connections with the National Party, and I am not ashamed to admit that. In fact, my first political act was to hand out how-to-vote cards for the National Party. I should add that I was 10 years old at the time and I soon learnt from my mistake. My father was in fact the first FEA secretary for Peter Nixon, the former National Party federal minister, and my mother worked as his electorate secretary for seven years.

So try as I might, I cannot help but feel some sentimental nostalgia about the National Party and the glory days of Peter Nixon, Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair, who were renowned for being tough, for being straight—at least most of the time—and for fighting hard in the interests of their constituents for a good deal for people in country Australia. Sometimes the outcomes were not so great for the Australian nation—and I accept that—but at least they had the guts to stand up to the Liberal Party, to stand up for the principles that they fought for on behalf of their constituents, in the good old days of the National Party when it believed in something, and when it was different from the Liberal Party.

The modern-day Nationals are fundamentally different. They are a pale shadow of these giants of the past. It is lucky that these giants of the past are all still alive because, if they were not, they would be rolling in their graves today. Instead of the `tough as old boots' characters that used to run the National Party, we now have a leader in Gucci gumboots—a leader who looks, sounds and acts like a Liberal—we have the third generation of the Anthony family, who is living proof of the benefits of inbreeding, sitting at the table today; and we also have the weirder half of the McGauran family, who joined the National Party five days before he got preselected—and the fact that his father made a very substantial donation at the same time had absolutely nothing to do with it! What we have ended up with is a bedraggled bunch of misfits and no-hopers. That is why they are letting their constituents down. That is why they are abandoning the interests of people in country Australia and capitulating totally on the Telstra sale.

Mr Tuckey —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to the principles laid down by the member for Werriwa, which he suddenly seems to have forgotten. I do not think this is the purpose of the MPI. If it was listed as a personal attack on certain individuals, those words should have been included; otherwise he should get back to the subject.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—I do not see any point of order.

Mr TANNER —Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is wise counsel from the minister—very wise counsel. I am sure that he, being a great friend of the National Party, takes great offence at some of these matters. In any event, the National Party has capitulated on the Telstra sale and wiped out the last remaining fundamental difference between the National Party and the Liberal Party. The one remaining issue on which people in the National Party could go to their constituents and say, `We're still different from the Liberal Party,' has now been eliminated, finally and once and for all. The National Party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party.

The one issue on which there is virtual unanimity in rural Australia is that people in country Australia do not want Telstra privatised. That is the issue that the National Party have chosen to betray them on. No wonder they lost New England. No wonder they lost Farrer. The member for New England is sitting up there. He knows why they lost New England, and he will speak later in this debate. He knows why the National Party lost New England—naturally he does. They also lost Farrer and Murray to the Liberal Party. And when it next comes up, when the member for Mallee retires, they will lose Mallee too. And they will probably lose the seat of Gippsland, even with the current member still contesting the election. This announcement of supporting the Liberal Party on the sale of Telstra is the last death rattle of a once great party.

Country people know about government services and about government infrastructure. It has been a long time since I lived in the country, but I can still remember how we first got electricity. It did not happen because it was a private company delivering it. If the SEC had been a private company, we would still have direct current electricity in East Gippsland, run out of the butter factory on an old generator. Country people understand that governments are needed to deliver and extend infrastructure and to maintain that infrastructure and services. That is why they want Telstra to remain in public ownership, and that is why they will never forgive the National Party for this betrayal.

Country people understand that a privately owned Telstra will be a giant private monopoly that will be too powerful for any government to effectively control. No matter what competition occurs under the government's inadequate competition arrangements in metropolitan Australia, that competition will have a negligible effect on consumer choice, services and delivery in regional Australia. Telstra in private ownership will be a giant private monopoly that will leave town faster than the banks. Telstra, in private ownership, will take no account of the interests of communities in regional Australia. It will focus on the most lucrative markets in the bigger cities—that is where the dollars lie—and it will get out of town and abandon the interests of country Australians, just like the banks did.

Why do people understand this? They understand this because it is already happening. In country Australia right now thousands of Telstra workers are being sacked, the network is held together with bits of string and bandaids and people have temporary cables across their front lawns, across hay bales and across barns—all because Telstra, under John Howard, is already being allowed to act as if it were already privatised.

This government has a litany of disasters on its hands with its handling of Telstra: a crippled network that is barely held together with all sorts of temporary fixes, a work force that has dropped by 20,000 within the space of the last few years—from 57,000 to 37,000—and it is on the verge of outsourcing its entire information technology operations to India. Telstra has 100,000-plus faults waiting for maintenance, waiting to be fixed. It calls these `routine maintenance' so it can pretend they are not faults. Meanwhile, we have serious outages occurring whenever we have heavy rains in places like the Illawarra and parts of Sydney. Telstra's capital investment has dropped in the past three years from $4½ billion a year to $3.2 billion a year, and it has lost billions of dollars in dubious investments in Asia.

As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out in his opening question in question time today, line rental fees for the privilege under this government of having a telephone in your home have gone up in three years from $11.65 per month to $26.50 now per month on the higher plan and will rise to over $30 within the next year or two. It costs $30 a month just for the privilege of having a phone in your own home.

So we have ended up with the worst of all worlds. There is no serious competition—inadequate competition. Telstra is still totally dominant but it is a company that, because of the Howard government's privatisation strategy, does not fulfil its community obligations throughout Australia. On broadband—sup-posedly the focus of the package that the government has announced and which the National Party to its eternal discredit is supporting in return for privatising Telstra—we have achieved the glorious position of 19th in the OECD. We were 13th a year ago and we are now 19th in broadband access because of this government's failed policies on Telstra.

Yesterday the National Party finally buckled, after a whitewash inquiry conducted by a personal friend of the Deputy Prime Minister. He is also a member of the National Party—they had the numbers on the inquiry; two out of three—and he ignored the vast bulk of the submissions that that inquiry received. So what did the National Party receive? What did the National Party get for their treachery on this issue? They got a few fig leaves—a few minor initiatives that Telstra should be doing anyway—totalling about $180 million over four years. That is serious money—I concede that—but looking at the totality of the Telstra budget and the trend in the Telstra budget puts it all into context.

The reduction in Telstra's capital expenditure per annum over the past three years is $1.3 billion. So, in other words, Telstra is spending $1.3 billion less investing in telecommunications networks and infrastructure this year than it did three years ago. It is proposing to spend $45 million a year for four years. This sort of puts it all into some sort of context, doesn't it, that what we are dealing with here is a complete and utter fig leaf. It sounds nice when all those things are rattled out, but ultimately there are no guarantees. We have got some licence conditions that ultimately Telstra will wriggle out of, avoid and find ways around. The Estens response that the government has put forward does little other than force Telstra to do the sorts of things it should be doing anyway as a government-owned organisation responsible for telecommunication services all around Australia.

The government's arguments for selling Telstra are totally facile. One is that it is a conflict of interest: they cannot own and regulate Telstra at the same time. That is also an argument for privatising the ABC and Australia Post, because they do both of those things; they regulate and they own both of them. So let us see them proceed to privatise those things as well. They say that private minority shareholders in Telstra are threatened by government meddling, and yet at the same time they are saying that they can do the same thing by government regulation. They walk one side of the street on the issue but then say, `Don't worry; we'll still achieve the same outcomes by government meddling in other ways.' They say that Telstra is disadvantaged in its ability to compete globally. There at least they have got some evidence, perhaps, because Telstra has lost several billion dollars in its ham-fisted attempts to compete globally recently—so perhaps that is an argument. But I suggest that the end result will be that they will do it more and they will lose more money than they have already lost at the expense of ordinary Australian citizens and consumers, who are funding the cash flow that has been poured down the drain by dubious investment decisions by the Telstra management, accepted and supported by the Howard government.

They say that Telstra is exposed to the vagaries of the share market and the government is exposed to the vagaries of the share market by its ownership. The Treasurer pointed out that under his stewardship over the past few years Telstra has lost $30 billion in value. He seems to think that somehow that is our fault. He stands up here proudly and announces that, under his stewardship and the Howard government's stewardship and Ziggy Switkowski's stewardship, Telstra has lost $30 billion worth of value. I would have thought that it might actually have something to do with the people in charge, but maybe that is a heretical thought. And their great final argument is that we need to sell Telstra to pay off debt. As the shadow Assistant Treasurer has very ably pointed out on many occasions, that is all this government has done: sell assets to pay off debt. That is easy. If you want to get rid of your mortgage, sell your house. That is a very easy way to get rid of your debt. There is the slight problem that you have not got anywhere to live after that, of course. All this government has done is sell assets—and sell them cheaply in many cases—in order to pay off debt.

The government's real position is that telecommunications services are a luxury, that it does not matter whether you have got them or not. As Senator Alston, in a very memorable line in the Senate in September last year, said, `If you can't afford to be on the line, you do not have to have a phone, do you?' That is its real position, that is its real philosophy, and as a result it thinks Telstra should be privately owned. If people, particularly in regional Australia and lower-income earners, cannot afford to pay the price then that is just bad luck.

According to the Treasurer, wanting to retain Telstra in government ownership is socialism. There are an awful lot of socialists out there, then, Treasurer, if that is the case. About 80 per cent of the Australian community on that basis is supporting the socialism that you identify as maintaining government ownership of Telstra. The people of Australia have a clear, simple position on this issue. Telstra, in private ownership, would be a giant private monopoly—too powerful for any government to regulate. It would be out of control, it would not look after the interests of people in regional Australia or lower-income earners. It would abandon those people by chasing the most lucrative markets in the bigger cities. That is what it is already doing; that is what it is being allowed to do and that is where it will head as a private company. (Time expired)