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Wednesday, 29 October 2003
Page: 17088

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (11:08 AM) —I normally try not to be distracted by Senate contributors who are just plain wrong, but Senator Harris's monologue baits me. Pauline Hanson's last remaining representative in the Australian parliament exhibits the most bizarre collection of weird conspiracy theories now applied to Telstra. Senator Harris appears, as I am sure most senators would agree, to have one speech, and he just fills in the gaps with the appropriate topic of the debate—in this case, it is Telstra. So I suggest, Senator Harris, that you look for a new speechwriter.

I speak today to support the passage of the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 and, for the record, I declare that I am a Telstra shareholder. There has been an enormous debate, much of it dishonest, vexatious and politically opportunistic, about the further sale of Telstra, but I believe that selling the remainder of Telstra is the right thing for the government to do, the right thing for communities in regional and metropolitan Australia, good public policy and good for Australia. Telecommunications, in which Telstra still is the major player, is no longer a natural monopoly. Natural monopolies need to be protected by governments for obvious public benefits. When we came to office there were fewer than five telecommunications carriers; there are now more than 80, most of them operating in regional Australia. The marketplace is driven now by competition, which brings its own disciplines of service, and by a very concerned and informed government commitment to regulation.

When I was a child we had a party line, and when it broke down it took the old PMG probably three weeks to fix it. Those who argue that public ownership means that there is full service, good service or proper service are completely dishonest. It never meant that; it never will. One of the greatest shibboleths about public ownership is that it provides good service. It did not, it does not and it never will. I recall a story by my late uncle who lived in the western part of New South Wales. He had a party line that ran about 20 kilometres down the river. He got the PMG out to fix it. They attached the party line to the electric fence and, when he was trying to ring a person, this man refused to answer the phone. Finally he got on to him and said, `Why aren't you answering the phone?' This man said, `No bloody way. Every time I pick up the phone I get an electric shock.' So service was something that the old PMG, for all its goodwill, was not able to provide, and that was fully owned by the government.

Telstra employees themselves on the technical and service levels acknowledge that the workplace arrangements in the past were a joke. They have improved markedly over the past few years, but they have improved through the pressure of competition and our government imposing and insisting on high standards of service. The most important issue with regard to Telstra is not about ownership. It is about regulation, which is required by our government. At the moment, Telstra is regulated to within an inch of its life. Under a coalition government it will continue to be regulated to within an inch of its life, regardless of ownership. I do not think there is a telco in the world that has such a strict and high level of service regulation imposed on it. Services will have to continue at an appropriate standard in rural and regional areas because the coalition government will ensure that it happens. Further technological advances will also continue to be rolled out by Telstra in rural and regional areas, again because the coalition government will ensure that it happens.

Because of the coalition's undertaking, which is the beefed up universal service obligation and the customer service guarantee, Telstra cannot abandon services in rural and regional Australia. If it did, it would lose its licence to operate. Future-proofing regulations will ensure that guarantees are put in place for years to come and will make sure that Telstra Country Wide, something of which Telstra can be justifiably proud, is retained and that there will be regular independent reviews of telecommunications standards, with an obligation on the government of the day to respond.

Nobody can reasonably argue that telecommunications have not been improved vastly since the coalition came to government in 1996. Mobile phone coverage has increased greatly, Internet access has improved, with more and more rural residents going online, call costs have been decreased for rural communities and a decreasing number of faults are now being repaired faster than ever. A report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission which was tabled in the parliament this year found that, in general, phone call costs dropped by 21 per cent between 1997-98 and 2001-02. Specifically, fixed phone to mobile call costs have fallen on average by 21 per cent, mobile calls have decreased by 23 per cent, long-distance calls have dropped by 28 per cent and local call costs have fallen by 35 per cent. These figures have come since competition was introduced to the telecommunications market by the coalition in 1997, indicating that it is competition, not government ownership, that drives improvements in telecommunications prices for consumers.

In my region of New England and north-western New South Wales, there have been tremendous improvements to telecommunications infrastructure and services, particularly since the creation of Telstra Country Wide. The Networking the Nation program was established in 1997 after the coalition came to government, and it has provided $250 million in improvements to telecommunications. These improvements have included the establishment of rural transaction centres, bringing Internet access, access to Medicare Easyclaim facilities and greater contact with larger centres for smaller and remote communities in New South Wales.

The Networking the Nation program has also allowed a massive roll-out of mobile telephone towers across the regions of Australia. Australia's National Highway, which includes the New England Highway, has almost continuous mobile coverage between Albury and Brisbane. An additional 28 new CDMA towers have been constructed throughout New England and the north-west of New South Wales in the past 18 months because of a doubling in mobile phone use in the past year. An extra 11 towers are also on the drawing board for the next 12 months. Internet access has improved greatly. More and more people are connecting to the Internet at the cost of a local call. Telstra Country Wide has ensured that ADSL and broadband capabilities are rolled out right across the region, with more to be done. Telstra has now set up the ADSL demand register, where those customers interested in accessing ADSL are able to register their interest. When there is sufficient interest from each local exchange not currently providing ADSL, those exchanges will be confirmed as priority areas to have ADSL installed. This is one example of how Telstra Country Wide is continuing to expand and roll out telecommunications services to rural and remote Australia.

The New England area has also benefited from the funding of a number of smaller projects throughout the region through the Networking the Nation program. The Northern Inland Online project, which was set up so that communities would have access to local call Internet access, was awarded $726,000 through the Networking the Nation program. Another $200,000 was granted to establish Internet public access points in communities across the region. The coalition government has also made a commitment to provide $5.5 million to connect a number of major health and tertiary education facilities by broadband, allowing access to a greater range of specialist medical and teaching services through videoconferencing. All these things are very important to people who live in regional areas. They are not initiatives that were provided by previous Labor governments, nor would they be. But they are provided by a company that is intensely regulated by this federal coalition government.

These initiatives will bring great benefits to the communities of northern New South Wales. They have been mirrored right across Australia and have been funded through the proceeds of Telstra 1 and Telstra 2, as have the changes like the local call rates for people who live in extended pastoral zones. The introduction of the CDMA network, subsidies for satellite phone handsets and a whole range of things have been provided by a government committed to providing good services to people who live in regional areas—the list goes on—not to mention the big picture items like the Natural Heritage Trust funding and the benefits of lower interest rates as government debt has been reduced.

Earlier this year, the coalition government announced its response to the Estens Regional Telecommunications Inquiry. There were 39 recommendations of this inquiry, all of which the government has accepted. An initial investment will be made of $181 million to address these recommendations to ensure all Australians have access to adequate telecommunications services and to enhance existing services. More than $140 million will be spent on developing a national broadband strategy with the aim of providing affordable broadband services to regional Australia. The satellite handset subsidy will be extended with an additional $4 million and another $10 million over four years provided for information technology training and support services. A special task force has been set up chaired by The Nationals' member for Hinkler, Paul Neville.

Senator McGauran —A good man.

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —As Senator McGauran said, a good man. He is somebody with probably more telecommunications knowledge than almost anybody else in the parliament. He will monitor the implementations of the Estens recommendations and report back to the government periodically. The coalition government has also set up future-proofing provisions, which ensure that people in rural and regional areas continue to share equitably in the benefits of advances in technology. Under this future-proofing measure, the government will impose a licence condition on Telstra where the telco will be required to maintain a local and regional presence.

There will also be a further review of regional telecommunications services and, whilst The Nationals remain a part of a coalition government, rural and regional telecommunications access will be a priority for us—everybody on this side. If you look at the telecommunications changes since 1996, I do not think that there is any way people can say our services have not improved, our access has not improved and our costs have not been reduced. Let us not be fooled: Labor would sell Telstra at the first opportunity. They have done so with the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, but they did not provide any future guarantees for our country communities. The Nationals in government, however, have ensured that such guarantees are in place. Selling off the remainder of Telstra will also allow the coalition government to pay off additional debt left by Labor, which will help keep interest rates low for all Australians—home buyers, small business, farmers and the rest of the community. The government also sees the need to sell Telstra to remove the conflict of interest that currently exists with the government as the regulatory authority and the remaining 90-odd telecommunications companies regulated by a part owner of the major player.

There is nothing more important to rural and regional Australia than up-to-date, reliable and affordable telecommunications. The Nationals are committed to providing this. It is about the only thing on which we agree with our political opponents. They may agree with affordable and up-to-date telecommunications, but they did absolutely nothing about it when they were in government—absolutely nothing. Why? Because they did not come from regional Australia. I have never heard such a collection of fabricated and staid speeches that came out of central casting as we have heard from our Labor opponents over the last couple of days. One person has written the speeches. I have never heard speeches with less heart in them. Why? Because their confidential polling tells them this is a dead-ender. They can argue it, but their hearts are not in it.

I would like to point out that it has been The Nationals' policy all along, and continues to be, that we will not approve any further sale of Telstra until telecommunications standards in rural and regional Australia are up to scratch. This has not changed. I would like to quote the minister's second reading speech where he said:

While the Government is moving to establish the legislation immediately, it has undertaken not to proceed with any further sale of Telstra until it is fully satisfied that arrangements are in place to deliver adequate telecommunications services to all Australians, including maintaining the improvements to existing services.

In fact, at the federal conference of The Nationals early this month, the party reaffirmed its position that there would be no further sell-off of Telstra until these conditions were met. The Nationals will also continue to fight for a fair whack of the proceeds of any sale of Telstra to be spent on improving infrastructure in rural and regional Australia.

What we have already done is respond to both the Besley and Estens inquiries with the biggest telecommunication packages in Australian history, from which rural and regional areas will benefit. We will wait to see the benefits flow and then decide when the remainder of Telstra should be sold. The Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 will put the government in the position to sell at a time when the Estens requirements have been met and the price is judged to be proper for our government, which remains determined to reduce debt that we inherited from the profligate people on the other side.

We have heard a lot of Labor senators speak against this legislation but, as I said, I have never heard a progression of speakers who had less heart in the task that they were asked to argue. The electorate knew in the 1996 election, the 1998 election and the 2001 election what our plans for Telstra are. They are to improve services and to provide better service and coverage. That can never be provided and never has been provided by government ownership in the past.