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Thursday, 2 May 1996
Page: 270

Mr ZAMMIT —My question is directed to the Prime Minister. I ask the Prime Minister: can he explain to the House the benefits to the Australian community of the sale of one-third of Telstra? What is the Prime Minister's reaction to reports that some people are still not prepared to accept the verdict of the Australian electorate, which clearly supported such a move?

Mr HOWARD —As everybody knows, one of the major policy planks of the coalition at the last election was its commitment to sell one-third—and I repeat one-third—of Telstra during its first term of office. We made no bones about the fact that we would use $1 billion out of the proceeds of the sale of one-third of Telstra to pay into a natural heritage trust of Australia which was going to be used exclusively to defray the costs of additional environmental programs that are absolutely essential to Australia's environmental future.

So, we have a very clear crystallisation of difference in the Australian community. We are in favour of the partial privatisation of Telstra for good and proper reasons in the interests of the Australian consumer. Telstra is now, on fair measures, up to 50 per cent less efficient than its overseas competitors, and those who oppose any privatisation of Telstra are therefore opposed to making our telecommunications system more competitive and more effective in terms of its overseas competition.

For example, Telecom New Zealand's total factored productivity has doubled that of Telstra in the period between 1988 and 1994. I ask again: why are people ideologically opposed to a plan that is likely to remove that disability? Consumers all over the world are deriving large benefits by way of lower prices and better access to new telecommunications services through a combination of competition and the injection of private sector capital into their telecommunications companies. I have to ask again: why do so many people on the other side have such a blind ideological objection?

If the objection of those opposite was based upon a broad commitment to public ownership I could understand it. I could understand you being opposed to the privatisation of Telstra if you were still opposed to the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank. I could understand that. At least there would be some semblance of decency and consistency in your policy. But you know, as well as everybody on this side of the House knows, that there is no logic in your position and there is no logic at all in an attitude that is going to—if you persist with it and if others in the Senate—

Mr Crean —On a point of order: I draw your attention, Mr Speaker, to standing order 82 under which no member may anticipate discussion of a subject appearing on the Notice Paper . Given that on the Notice Paper today we do have the sale of Telstra, I ask if this question is in order.

Mr SPEAKER —Whilst the matter is on the Notice Paper , the bill itself has not yet been brought into the parliament. The question is in order.

Mr HOWARD —I think it is worth noting the fact that one of the elements of the government's Telstra policy is that we are going to give a preferential direct stake to the employees of Telstra in the float which will be associated with the sale of one-third of our interest in Telstra. So, those who oppose the one-third privatisation of Telstra are opposing the preferential treatment that we are going to offer to the tens of thousands of Telstra employees.

Another question I would ask of those opposite: why are they opposed to using $7 billion out of the $8 billion proceeds from the sale of one-third of Telstra to retire some of the accumulated debt for which they were so demonstrably responsible over the last 13 years? Can I say to the parliament, and can I say to the Australian people through the parliament, that we will be hearing quite a lot about this issue over the next few months. Our position is very simple. Our position is very straightforward.

We made very plain to the Australian people what we were going to do. Before the 1993 election the former member for Blaxland put his hand on his heart and said, `I will never sell the Commonwealth Bank.' I said before the last election that the only difference between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party on Telstra was that I was honest enough to say to the Australian public that if we won the election we would sell one-third of it. The Labor Party, given its track record on the Commonwealth Bank, was pretending that it would not do the same.

The fact is that we have credibility on this issue. We told the Australian people that we would do it. You opposed it. You criticised it. You lost the argument. The Australian people said no. If you vote against this legislation, the Labor Party will go down in history—along with the Australian Democrats—as the people in the Australian parliament who blocked the most imaginative, long-term capital investment in the improvement of Australia's environment that we have seen over the last 50 years.

Let there be no argument. This is going to be a test of who really cares about long-term commitment to the Australian environment. If you want something done about soil degradation, who do you look to? The Liberal and National parties. If you want something done about salinity you look to the Liberal and National parties. If you want something done about our coastline you look to the Liberal and National parties. lf you vote against this legislation you will go down as the anti-environmental dinosaurs of the Australian political scene.