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Tuesday, 7 April 1998
Page: 2688

Mr HOCKEY (9:04 PM) —When I first walked into this chamber, it was perhaps one of the proudest moments of my life. It was an opportunity for me to represent the 135,000 people who live in my electorate and, in my view, to make a difference. I must also say that it is difficult being a member of parliament. Today of all days is a reminder of the fact that, whenever allegations are made by anyone on either side of the House about the conduct and activities of anyone who seeks to serve their community, it reflects on all of us. It is very difficult to still be committed to serve the people you are seeking to represent in the best possible way when their trust and faith in you is constantly challenged, not just by protagonists in the media but also by some of your own.

As an individual, I seek to reassure myself of why I am here, through a commitment to good policy, to the right policies. That means sometimes policies are not popular. I as an individual and all of us in this chamber should never be afraid to promote policies that are singularly in the best interests of the nation but which may not be in the best political or superficial interests of a political party.

I have no doubt that privatisation is still something that all populations around the world are not particularly comfortable with. I also have no doubt that governments in the 21st century will need to realign their focus. We as governments, as leaders, seeking to make a better community, seeking to improve the quality of life of those whose lives need improvement, through better provision of services, through the provision of a safety net—that has to be the focus of our activities.

Tonight in the John Stuart Mill Society dinner, Senator John Tierney gave a speech about the forgotten people. He did not talk about what we as Liberals and most of the community know as Menzies' forgotten people; he talked about people with disabilities who had been and are forgotten in our broader community. He talked about people who are in gaol, who can never quite get out of that awful spiralling effect, the never-ending cycle of going into and out of gaol. He talked about those people who are the least advantaged in our community.

I agree with the member for Blaxland (Mr Hatton) that this is singly the most important bill to come before this House. But there is one fundamental reason why we are doing it, and that is that this is in the best interests of the people whom we are here representing. We are doing so because no government in Australia should be involved in commercial activities when those activities could be carried out by the private sector.

Mr Lee —Like Australia Post.

Mr HOCKEY —I congratulate the former minister for communications the member for Dobell (Mr Lee), who is here and was one of many Labor ministers for communications, because he and his colleagues created an environment in which we get competition in telecommunications. I take my hat off to you for the commitment you made over a number of years to break down the monopoly of the old PMG, or Telstra, in order to create competition in telecommunications. Because we have competition in telecommunications, people now are getting the benefits of it.

The amendments to the Telecommunications Act that were introduced last year by the current Minister for Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts, Senator Alston, were the most profound step forward in generating competition in telecommunications. I take my hat off to the minister, considering what the net result of that has been. (Quorum formed) It has been through competition that we have delivered cheaper phone calls. It has been through the introduction of competition that we have delivered better mobile phone services. It is through competition that we have delivered better access for people in rural and remote Australia. It is through competition that we are delivering to every household significant benefits. The infrastructure that people are getting in their homes today is as important to them as the paved road or the railway was to every household at the end of the 19th century.

There have been some side benefits associated with privatisation. It is not a new phenomenon. It is not an exclusive phenomenon for the Australian marketplace, because privatisation, particularly of telecommunications companies, has been around for some years. Governments have always argued on a philosophical basis whether you should nationalise major industries or whether you should privatise them.

But the most important point about privatisation is: what do you do with the proceeds? If you adopt the approach of the Australian Labor Party, you will sell assets in order to fund your yearly promises. You will sell assets like the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and Australian Airlines. You will sell those assets to pay for today's debts. You are not selling those assets to pay for yesterday's debts; you are simply making the interest payments on existing debt.

With this bill, we are taking the most significant step forward ever taken by any Australian government to reduce the nation's debt. We have $100 billion of debt. With this bill, we are reducing the nation's debt by 40 per cent—$40 billion. It is not as though the Commonwealth government does not have any more assets. The Commonwealth government, like all governments, is asset rich. In fact, from back in the early seventies when we used to tax and spend around 20 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product every year, we now tax and spend around 27 per cent—and it got up to 28 per cent under the Labor Party. We are trying to bring it down a bit. But every day we are creating assets. The nation's capital, the real capital of the Commonwealth government, the real asset of the Commonwealth government is the social capital that we create—what we pass on to the next generation.

There are two obvious ways that you can create wealth. One is through the generation of labour, and the second is by investing in the generation of labour. It is not some passe comment from the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) when he says that he wants to create a nation of great share ownership. It is fact; it is real. It is more significant than the words of a former Prime Minister, Menzies, when he said that he wanted to have nation of home owners. In the case of share ownership you are investing in other people's labour. You are investing in the creation of wealth. That is what share ownership is about.

Over the last few years—and I will give credit to the Labor Party where it is deserved—through privatisation in Australia, some of it out of distress created by state governments getting involved in banking, but in the opportune moments through putting into a competitive private environment assets like the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and so on, you have created and we have created a nation of great share ownership. The Commonwealth Bank has over 370,000 shareholders, GIO Australia has over 100,000 shareholders, and Qantas has 105,000 shareholders. Through competition in banking that developed over the eighties and the early nineties we now have demutualisation, with the National Mutual having over 400,000 shareholders. You have the AMP coming on board, which will have the single most profound effect, apart from Telstra, on the Australian Stock Exchange and share ownership levels in Australia.

The AMP privatisation reaches deep into the public and says, `Here are your shares. For the first time you will have an opportunity to own shares. We are not asking you to put money for it. We are giving you the opportunity to invest in shares.' That is what the AMP demutualisation does. It is going to create hundreds of thousands of first-time shareholders. But the single most profound act of this government has been to create 600,000 first-time shareholders in the first tranche of Telstra—600,000 people who invested their savings, some of them part of their life savings.

Mr Causley —Workers.

Mr HOCKEY —Workers; low income Australians as well. All Australians had an opportunity to invest, and 600,000 invested for the very first time. Some 1.8 million Australians have invested in Telstra. That is a profound act. When you look at the age profile of some of the people investing, it is the 35- to 44-year-old age bracket that has become the single biggest demographic age bracket of investors in Australia. They are the people who are going to live longer than the generation before them. They are the people who will have to provide for their retirement more significantly than the generation before them. They have taken the bold step of investing in their future. Importantly, the nation's young people are starting to invest as well. That is a source of particular pride to me, because they are saying, `I want to invest in the labour of other Australians. I really want to take a punt. I want to make a contribution.' That is particularly important.

I do have some concerns about the bill. I will be perfectly frank. I have a concern about the fact that the chairman has to be an Australian citizen, given that the chief executive is not. I have a problem with the fact that the majority of the board have to be Australian citizens. I also have a problem with the restriction on foreign ownership at 35 per cent. Why? Because what you are doing is creating an unreal environment in share ownership. You are creating an unreal value on the shares. The value of every share on the Australian Stock Exchange should be regulated, constrained, enhanced by the value of the asset, the productivity of the asset and the growth in the asset's value. It should not be constrained by legislation, especially legislation that may govern from the grave.

That is not a politically popular statement, obviously, and I understand politics, I would think. But the truth is that it is ruling from the grave. However, it takes a government of courage and political parties of courage—I come back to my earliest point—to support policy that may or may not be popular. It is imperative that this House and this parliament support this bill. It gives certainty to 1.8 million shareholders. It gives certainty to the telecommunications industry, which, the member for Blaxland said a little earlier, will be the growth industry into the 21st century. Telstra is in the game; Telstra is a player. The government cannot be both the referee and a player in the game. We cannot be both the poacher and the gamekeeper. You cannot be both because, if you are, you are creating an unfair playing field. It is not a level playing field.

The regulation of telecommunications is the responsibility of the minister for communications in the Commonwealth government, as prescribed under section 51 of the constitution. It will ever be thus. But you cannot be pulling the levers of share ownership on the one hand and be pulling the levers as a regulator on the other and expect that you can act as both at the one time. That is the single most significant reason why this bill must be passed. You are disenfranchising the competitors of Telstra if you are going to be a shareholder on the one hand and a regulator on the other.

How do you know that the decisions made as a regulator are not going to profit you as a shareholder? How do you know that? As a Commonwealth, we must protect, through regulation, the people that need protection. That is the most fundamental reason we are here. But we cannot be a shareholder in the same asset.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said words to the effect that our obligation to create a better world is served not by creating greater wealth for those who are wealthy but by helping those that are poor. That is the role of govern ment. We are here to help those that need a helping hand, to give opportunity to those that want to take opportunity. We are not here to make a profit.

Owning Telstra helps us to make a profit at the expense of our nation. It is best that we reallocate our resources to those that are in need and ensure that, with this bill, generations of Australians ahead are given opportunities that generations in the past never had. That will come about through share ownership and through a commitment to a better Australia. (Time expired)