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Tuesday, 15 August 2006
Page: 23


Senator CONROY (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:17 PM) —My question is to Senator Minchin, the Minister for Finance and Administration. Is the minister aware of comments by his colleague the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts last weekend warning small investors to be wary of buying into Telstra? Is the minister further aware of Senator Coonan’s claims that the recent downward spiral is the main reason why the government should sell Telstra? She said:

We don’t think this is the best way to invest taxpayers’ money. The volatility of the share price is proof of that.

Didn’t the minister for communications also admit that it may get to the point at which the government would have to sack the Telstra board? Given Senator Coonan’s comments that Telstra is not the best way to invest taxpayers’ money and that the government may have to sack the Telstra board, can the minister now explain why he thinks Telstra will be a good buy for Australian small investors?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —I would simply come back to the point that the government should not own any shares in Telstra. That has been our profound policy position since 1996. We have won four elections on the basis of a clear policy commitment that we should not own any shares in Telstra. It is absurd that the major telecommunications company of this country should have a majority government ownership. It is a massive, idiotic and irreconcilable conflict of interest for the government to be the regulator of telecommunications in this county and yet be the half-owner of this major corporation. Senator Coonan, like me and every other member of the coalition, wants to exit this company. We believe that the government should sell these shares. We have been working for some time, against the Labor Party—and contrary to the Labor Party’s interests, apparently—to endeavour to be in a position where we can free this company and its shareholders from this yoke that government ownership represents.

The only role that the government has in relation to Telstra is indeed voting on board members at annual general meetings and to fill casual vacancies. The government has every confidence in this board and its management. They are taking this company through a critical transition to ensure that it is able to meet the telecommunications needs of this country in a way that ensures it is profitable and able to deliver a return to its shareholders. It will be able to do that in a much more effective manner if it is free of the government’s 50 per cent shareholding.


Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given that the minister for communications does not think that Telstra is a good investment and that the government may have to sack the Telstra board, how does the minister think that he can possibly convince small investors—many of whom were burnt in T2—to buy shares in T3? Haven’t 1.6 million shareholders already seen the value of their shares collapse by over 50 per cent on your watch? Will the minister also take this opportunity to instruct Senator Coonan to stop undermining his job of trying to generate some confidence in a retail offering of Telstra? Why are you letting her out in public?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —I take this opportunity to commend Senator Coonan on the outstanding job she is doing in regulating telecommunications in this country and ensuring that Australians have world-class standards of telecommunications, which the Labor Party never delivered to Australians. The standard of telecommunications in this country is so far superior now to that which prevailed under the Labor Party that it is not funny. Senator Coonan can take much of the credit.

As to shareholders, all government ministers would say that, while we want this to be the greatest share-owning democracy in the world and we are doing a lot to bring that about, all those investors who wish to invest in the share market in any kind of stock must operate on a caveat emptor basis—buyer beware. The share market has risks and shareholders should be conscious of those risks when they invest in the share market.