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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 75


Senator CONROY (2:01 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Does the minister support the Prime Minister's view that telecommunication service standards in the bush are `up to scratch' or, alternatively, does she support Deputy Prime Minister Anderson's view that we need to get `standards up to a comparable level with what city Australians enjoy'? Can the minister be clear on at least this issue: are telecommunication services in the bush today up to scratch, or are they not up to scratch? Who is right—the Leader of the Liberal Party or the Leader of the National Party?


Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Conroy for the question. I actually have here in the brief a possible question and I think it is just about spot-on. What I want to say about the issue is that the government will pursue its longstanding policy for the full privatisation of Telstra. Telstra's future sale will be contingent on adequate telecommunication service levels in rural and regional Australia and elsewhere, appropriate market conditions and the authority to sell, which we certainly hope the Senate will support.

Unlike the Labor Party, the government has demonstrated a commitment to improving and ensuring telecommunication services across Australia are adequate—in particular to improving services in rural and regional Australia. The government established the regional telecommunications inquiry, the Estens inquiry, back in 2002 to assess the adequacy of telecommunication services in regional Australia. The inquiry made 39 recommendations to improve telecommunication services—all of which the government has accepted. The government has also announced a $181 million package of initiatives to respond to the inquiry. The government is continuing to implement responses to all the Estens recommendations.

Last week I commenced a comprehensive series of rural and regional visits, with stops in Dubbo, Warren and Moree, to listen to local residents about their views on telecommunication services in the bush. I commend these sorts of visits to Senator Conroy. It is very important to go out and see the conditions there. It is important to speak with people living in rural, regional and remote areas to help separate the reality from the rhetoric.

We now have the time and opportunity to get this right. I will continue to travel around Australia, specifically to meet with people in these areas to see what progress has already been made and to talk about any remaining concerns people may have. If people do have concerns about how the Estens recommendations are being rolled out or about how those improvements are being implemented, then of course I will be listening to them. On top of the $181 million response to the Estens inquiry, it is important that the government continues to be engaged with telecommunications consumers to ensure that services are adequate for those living in rural and regional areas and that they are not disadvantaged by reason of where they live.

During these visits I am continuing the roll-out of recommendations made by the Estens inquiry, which include improved mobile and broadband services for rural, regional and remote areas. These initiatives in response to the Estens recommendations are, I am happy to say, making a very real difference to the level of service in regional areas. This roll-out of services will continue across Australia over the coming months and into next year.

I will also be hosting a series of communications forums where interested locals can hear from government representatives, experts from Telstra, the National Farmers Federation and Optus. The government is committed to ensuring that all Australians, regardless of where they live, have adequate services. (Time expired)


Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In light of the minister's recent trip to rural Australia to host community forums about the standard of telecommunication services in the bush, does the minister now agree with Mr Dick Estens that many telecommunication services in the bush remain a shemozzle? If she does not agree that services in the bush are a shemozzle, what is the basis for this disagreement with Mr Estens, who headed up the government's own inquiry?


Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I met with Mr Estens and discussed with him the implementation of his recommendations. He attended some of the meetings and forums that I had in some of the areas that I have mentioned—certainly in Moree. I expect that Mr Estens will be able to provide very constructive comment on the roll-out of the recommendations, to which the government is committed, having accepted all 39 of the recommendations, including the need to future-proof for regional Australia so that there is equity with new and emerging technologies that may come on stream in the future. So, far from these services being a shemozzle, the recommendations that Mr Estens himself recommended are all being rolled out and are ensuring that services are adequate in rural and regional Australia. (Time expired)