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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4056


Senator ALLISON(7.32 p.m.) —I rise to speak about the report from the Economic Legislation Committee's inquiry into public equity in Telstra Corporation and to say that this report certainly does not contain any surprises. The committee found that the government should really sell the first third of Telstra and not just pretend to do so. Senator Harradine agreed to the sale of the first third of Telstra on the condition that the government would hold an inquiry into revenue raising by redeemable preference shares. The idea was that we take Telstra down to the pawnshop, we pretend to sell it now, we raise the money and then, when we have some spare cash, we buy it back.

Telstra found some spare cash quite recently—around $3 billion, as I understand it—and it handed the money over to the government, as it does periodically. Of course, this is one of the advantages of having such a lucrative organisation in public ownership.

The government kept its word. It did hold that pretend inquiry, and it came up with a result that was a surprise to nobody—except perhaps Senator Harradine. The majority report of the Economics Legislation Committee inquiry into public equity in Telstra Corporation recommended that the first third sale of Telstra would be by the issuing of ordinary voting shares. Senator Harradine, Senator Colston and all of the senators on the government benches, who did not have a mandate, voted to sell Telstra. And they did this even though a clear majority of Australians were vehemently opposed to the sale.

The Australian Democrats did not participate in the committee because it was very obvious to us from the start that the government had absolutely no intention of supporting the implementation of redeemable preference shares for the Telstra sale. It set up the committee to help Senator Harradine save face for selling one of Australia's most prized assets. Senator Murray said at the time that our participating in this cynical political manoeuvre would have been a waste of our time, just as certainly as it was a waste of public money. We also pointed out that the referral of this farcical inquiry to a Senate committee after the vote had been taken had the potential to bring the Senate committee system into disrepute, and that is indeed a serious matter.

Senator Sherry said on behalf of the opposition:

At no stage during this inquiry have the government shown any intention or desire to seriously consider Senator Harradine's proposal . . .

I draw Senator Harradine's attention to the fact that the government appointed the float managers well before the committee reported, suggesting that they were not taking his suggestion very seriously either.

Of course, if Senator Harradine really considered that the only appropriate way of selling Telstra was to sell it by redeemable preference shares, then he ought to have waited until the committee reported before he voted on the sale. We all know that. It is obvious from Senator Harradine's minority report that he wanted to suggest to us that he might have made a mistake—and what a back-pedal. He says telecommunications in Australia is a natural monopoly and, to quote him:

I suspect that regulated competition of a natural monopoly will ultimately collapse under the logic of efficiencies of amalgamation and co-operation . . .

and—

Left to itself the market would rationalise and we would end up with one private monopoly.

Then Senator Harradine, who sold out what already belonged to all Australians, ridiculously goes on to theorise how we might buy back Telstra if we ever wanted to. Well, Senator Harradine, if you really believe what you said in your minority report, the only way in which you could have voted in relation to the Telstra bill was no.