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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2245


Senator KNOWLES —My question is directed to the Minster for Communications and the Arts. The minister would be aware that at last night's hearing of the Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Reference Committee, Labor Senators Carr, Schacht and Wheelwright trotted out the same tired old claims that Telstra actually performs well compared to telecommunications companies in other countries when Australia's low population density and long distances are taken into account. Would you, minister, please enlighten the Senate as to whether Telstra itself has acknowledged that these claims are not true, and that Telstra needs to improve its performance relative to that achieved by other telecommunications companies?


Senator ALSTON —I did hear reports of the performance of the tragic troika. It is very sad that the best that Labor could put together is a union hack, a failed primary school teacher and a party functionary and ministerial hanger-on, someone who has just told us he is going to have to find a real job shortly. What they did last night was trot out an excuse that Telstra itself abandoned some years ago. In other words, for many years those who would defend the public sector monopoly of Telstra used to argue that somehow we were different from the rest of the world because we had a very large country, a very low level of population and therefore there was something special about it. Even Senator Collins trots that line out from time to time in here.

So it is particularly significant, I think, that when Mr Blunt last week made it perfectly clear where the corporation stood in relation to privatisation, he also said what he has said many times before, and that is that our most recent studies show that we are still about 30 per cent off world's best practice as measured by operating expenses per access line. We have to assume that our competitors will be at or near the benchmark level, so we have to attain that level too. How more frequently can you say it and in what plainer terms than that?

The fact is that the company itself acknowledges that this is no longer a basis for defending the indefensible. Indeed, when I went with Mr Blunt to talk to some 1,200 Telstra employees in Sydney a few months ago, Mr Blunt gave them that precise message and they accepted it overwhelmingly. They ac knowledged the need for change. They acknowledged the need for the company to lift its game. I know that people like Senator Faulkner, who treat this place with contempt, particularly on certain occasions when they think it is more important to parade and make sure that their colleagues are not talking behind their backs, are not interested in this because they are captives of the trade union movement. But the fact is that Telstra can do a lot better than it does at present.

Senator Kernot pretends that downsizing is something that one needs to get hysterical about in defending Telstra when, as Senator Vanstone pointed out, between 1990 and 1994, when Telstra downsized to the tune of about 25,000 employees purely by voluntary redundancies and redeployment, there was not a squawk from those who now confect anger on the subject.

Once again, what we have on the Labor side is people not prepared to face up to the real issues. If you want some real entertainment, you ought to go along to some of these business lunches where people like Kim Beazley have to defend the indefensible. I can assure you that he squirms, just as do his other front bench colleagues.

Indeed, I was told the other day of a discussion between a leading Australian businessman and former Senator McMullan, currently with the responsibility for industrial relations. When asked, `Why on earth does the outfit that privatised everything that moves now have an objection to privatising Telstra?', the best he could trot out was, `Well, we do not believe in partial privatisation.' It is pathetic.

I simply urge the likes of Senator Schacht, when they are swanning off around the world during the recess, to take some time out, go over to your socialist colleagues in Cuba and Albania, explain to them why we are out of step, ask them why they have lost the faith, why they have a different view of the world to yours. It might be about time that you faced up to the reality that you are going to be the ones responsible for Telstra having a second-class future. If that is what you want to see, then I can assure you that you are not friends of Telstra. You are simply the people who are going to make yourselves more and more embarrassed during the course of this inquiry, and it is what you deserve. (Time expired)


Senator KNOWLES —I ask a supplementary question. Minister, would you please provide to the Senate as evidence some of the contrasts between the performance of Telstra and similar telecommunication companies that are operating throughout the world under similar circumstances to Telstra in Australia.


Senator ALSTON —The most normal international measure is access lines per employee. Telstra has about 140 compared to US West, which happens to cover 14 states of the US very similar in geographic dispersity. They have about 280 lines per employee. Some of the OECD statistics are just as enlightening. According to the Bureau of Industry Economics in its latest report of March this year, when it came to business fixed charges, Australia ranked 18 out of 28; long distance call charges 16 out of 26; international call charges 14 out of 24; packet switch data networks 18 out of 24; a national basket of prices, 14 out of 23. I think I have already recited this litany on earlier occasions.

The fact is that Telstra needs to lift its game in many respects. You might like to have virtually the highest local call charges in the world, you might like Australia to be about fifth in terms of rental charges, you might like Australia to be, as Frank Blunt says, 30 per cent off the pace in terms of operating costs per employee, but we don't and we won't. (Time expired)