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Monday, 21 June 1999
Page: 5699

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (1:32 PM) —I note with interest that Senator Mackay did not respond to several matters that Senator Harradine put on the record. They were, in particular, that Senator Mackay had not tried to protect jobs in Telstra in Tasmania and that she belongs to an organisation which supported the deregulation of the industry. I take her non-denial as quite significant in that context.

I think the more important issue is that we are here debating the merits or otherwise of further privatisation of Telstra. Senator Mackay knows full well that the reduction in employment levels has been an ongoing issue for many years. In fact, back in the early 1990s Telstra had something like 93,000 employees. Well before 1996—I think it was probably about 1994—they set a target of something like 55,000, and they are on track to meet that. The reason they did it was that by independent assessments they were something like 30 per cent off world's best practice, by any of the conventional measures, whether it was the lines per employee or revenue per employee. Telstra, like anyone else who has been corporatised, as Telstra were by Mr Beazley when he was the minister for communications in 1991, are required to operate as efficiently as possible. Like any other corporation, if they are padded and they have inefficiencies in the system, they have an obligation to shareholders to correct those. To the extent that they are required to meet other legislative obligations such as a universal service requirement or customer service guarantee levels or anything else, they have to have those in mind before they proceed with any reductions.

The fact is, of course, that to ask a question about March 1996 is simply to pick a date of convenience which ignores the reality that reductions in employment in Telstra have been ongoing and precede 1996. In fact, Senator Mackay said that; she said that much of the job reductions occurred before the first tranche. But, of course, you like to say that was in preparation for it. It was not in preparation for it at all, and you well know it. Telstra did not know that we were going to win the 1996 election, presumably. They might have had every reason to think that if you won it you would privatise Telstra, but they did not recognise the extent to which Mr Beazley would welsh on his promise.

The fact remains that this has been a growth industry. The communications sector has been growing at something like three times the rate of GNP. There are other carriers who have come into the marketplace in Tasmania. Optus and Vodafone have both been very active there. Indeed, as Senator Mackay would well know, the recently announced Vodafone call centre in Hobart will provide something in the order of 450 jobs in the not too distant future and I think there is a target of close to 700.

Senator Mackay —Full time, part time or casual?

Senator ALSTON —Again, it is convenient for you to characterise call centres as sweatshops, because that is the union line. They obviously resent the fact that a lot of these people are not particularly inclined to take up union membership. Of course, they are not Robinson Crusoe in that regard. It is happening across the board. The fact is that many more jobs have been created in the wider communications sector, so the mere fact that jobs might flow out of Telstra does not mean anything. It simply means that Telstra has become more efficient. Those people may well be taken up in other sectors of the industry and overall job levels in communications may well be rising. So to take a selective snapshot of Telstra's employment tells you absolutely nothing about whether the citizens of Tasmania are better served as a result of that restructuring.

I think I heard Senator Mackay allege that since 1996 there has been a decline of about 350 jobs. That figure is certainly quite inaccurate. I do not know where she gets it from. It is quite irresponsible to get up and quote a figure without any supporting evidence.

Senator Mackay —Give us the information, then.

Senator ALSTON —I can assure you that it is much less than that. I think it is also valid to point to the fact that job losses in Tasmania have been less, as Senator Harradine rightly said, both in actual and percentage terms, than in other states. Again, what is the conceivable relevance of taking that statistic in isolation other than to run your ideological line or simply to filibuster on this legislation?

In relation to the matter of a separate Tasmanian C and C service region, I did receive a letter from Dr Switkowski, Chief Executive Officer of Telstra, dated 24 May. He pointed out to me that Telstra was prepared to give certain commitments. These initiatives were premised on there being a further dilution of government ownership in Telstra and the successful passage of the necessary legislation by 30 June. He did say:

I can also confirm that Telstra will set up a separate Tasmanian C and C service region on par with the other states and separated from the current Vic-Tas region, and as a result a new position of Regional General Manager, reporting to the Managing Director of C and C Service, will be created. There will be five additional staff needed to provide support to the new structure, and these positions will be located in Hobart along with the RGM.