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Tuesday, 13 September 2005
Page: 1

Senator McGAURAN (12:31 PM) —I am speaking in continuation on the five bills that will legislate for the sale of Telstra. Yesterday evening in my address to the parliament I outlined the history that brings us to this rather historic—momentous, no less—event, taking us right back to the original monopoly that Telstra began as and then through to the T1 and T2 sales. I talked about the government’s policy at that time—and the objection of the opposition—and our determination and follow-through and the successes that were brought about by the T1 and T2 sales. That brings us to the T3 sale of Telstra, which we are all addressing this week.

Throughout that history the government showed a clear and open policy, a policy judged by the people. The government successfully followed through, on each occasion, the commitments that we made with regard to T1 and T2, and all the time we were transparent. There was no cover-up, no kidding around and no tricks with either of those sales. We were open, fair and transparent and we have been judged on that. That is our record and that is how we come to this debate.

We have always had three planks which we have worked off. The first is to encourage greater competition. That is the very basis on which we build our argument with regard to the sale of Telstra. We say that competition is aimed at bringing about cheaper prices and greater infrastructure. We can see that the goal of cheaper prices and greater infrastructure—bringing greater services to the people—has indeed been achieved, particularly with regard to the mobile phone sector. The consumer knows well that real prices have dropped by some 20 per cent on fixed lines, and I believe Australia has internationally competitive mobile phone pricing; indeed we are among the greatest users of mobile phones. So we have achieved our goal of bringing about greater competition.

The second plank is to bring about regulation with respect to customer service guarantees and universal service guarantees so that there are tough safeguards to underlie that competitiveness, particularly in rural and regional areas. As the Senate knows, we have toughened up the universal service obligation. We have introduced—and in this legislation we again toughen it up—the customer service guarantee and so on. The third plank is that the government telecommunications policy has targeted areas, especially in rural and regional Australia, where there is a market failure. We accept that in a true open market—laissez-faire, if you like—the rural and regional areas would be disadvantaged, but we have acted to fill that gap and provide, where the market has failed to, the necessary funds. This legislation addresses that particular problem, which has been an ongoing one.

The point is—and I am glad to see that Senator Conroy follows me in this debate—that the National Party and the coalition in our nine years of government have always known where we have stood. There have been preconditions upon T1, T2 and now T3. We have always placed conditions on the sale of Telstra so that market failures will be addressed. We do so now with T3.

Senator Conroy interjecting—

Senator McGAURAN —We did not rush into this. We instigated the Estens inquiry and the Besley inquiry to give us benchmarks which we can work off. We have never been ideologically bogged down about who should own Telstra and who should not. That has never been the debate on this side of the house. It has been about whether the rural and regional areas will be left behind in a fully open and competitive market. That has been the real argument. Senator Conroy, you know that only too well because you happen to agree with us, unlike some of your left-wing colleagues who are bogged down in the ideology of whether Telstra should be sold or not. They want to keep it in government hands. In fact, they pine for the good old days when most things—telecommunications, banks, airlines—were kept 100 per cent in government hands. They were just monopolies acting like monopolies—overpriced and inefficient, not able to meet the modern market demands. The world changed, particularly in telecommunications, during the nineties. That has been our concern on this side of the house. Senator Conroy, when you stand up you ought to confirm that you do not have an ideological bent. You really do not care—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Senator McGauran, you should address your remarks through the chair.

Senator McGAURAN —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I invite Senator Conroy to stand up and make this statement—that he has no ideological bent in regard to whether Telstra ought to be in the hands of government or of the market. That is not what he is here to debate. We know that because he has already confirmed it. Let me pre-empt Senator Conroy, who is all over the shop on this matter, anyway. We know that he just jumps from opportunism to opportunism. He has had many different positions on this. But we have trapped him on one particular comment. I invite Senator Conroy to confirm his comment once more that this is not the ideological bent that the Left of his party is trying to run and that it is an argument not of who should own Telstra but of the services and the guarantees that ought to be built into the marketplace. Senator Conroy said:

It makes no difference to the majority of Australians one way or the other about the ownership structure. What they care about is what’s the best way to get cheaper prices and better services.

To that end, we are at one. What is Senator Conroy talking about? I invite him to address whether his party would maintain the customer service guarantee and all the other safeguards we have in place, or whether he is just going to run the argument of the left wing side of his party, to have the government own a facility that ought to be freed up.