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Tuesday, 7 April 1998
Page: 2701

Mrs GASH (10:15 PM) —I rise to speak on this very important piece of legislation, which is open, which is honest—(Quorum formed) I will start again seeing as I did not get very far. I rise to speak on this very important piece of legislation, which is open, which is honest and which will guarantee services for the people in my electorate of Gilmore, a regional area of Australia, while still allowing more residents of the Southern Highlands and the Shoalhaven to benefit from buying shares in this venture.

The Prime Minister (Mr Howard) announced, on Sunday, 15 March, one of the most important initiatives of any government. It follows on from our willingness to tackle tax reform—badly needed for businesses and local residents in Gilmore—and adds another chapter to the book on the coalition's first term of office, which has brought the budget from a $10.5 billion deficit to a surplus and has brought the lowest interest rates in decades together with our current low inflation. This was all done in an open, accountable and responsible way to bring Australia back to the reality of spending what it can afford, without using a bankcard that puts all families in debt.

The sale of the first third of Telstra was a resounding success. Ninety-two per cent of Telstra employees took up the option of buying shares in the company they worked for—something obviously overlooked by opposition members who themselves own many shares. The share sale was oversubscribed five times—an indication of the demand for more direct personal share owner ship of the company by ordinary Australians. If such figures are not enough to impress upon members of this House the importance of the sale of the first third, then you need only to look at the share prices. Everyone who bought shares—the company, employees, families, single people and mums and dads of the Gilmore electorate—have all made handsome profits in the space of a few months.

Now the opposition would like to deny more Australians that opportunity, like they denied 50,000 unemployed Australians an opportunity to work in small business when they rejected the government's unfair dismissal exemption laws in the Senate last week. This sort of action can only give the Australian people one message: that the Labor Party and the Democrats do not want Australians in work and they do not want Australians to have the opportunity of partaking in share ownership—an opportunity to not only take advantage of the benefits of share ownership but also help secure the financial future of this country, for that is what the sale of the remaining two-thirds of Telstra will mean for Australians.

This government has already moved the budget into surplus from a $10½ billion deficit. The Australian people understand that you cannot run a business into increasing debt and make it secure for the future, that you cannot continue to borrow just to pay the interest, and they have appreciated the efforts this government has made to make the future more secure for their families. What the Australian people need to be made aware of is that the former government left a national debt of $96 billion for the people of this country to take into their future. That is $96 billion which our children and grandchildren will be paying for the rest of their lives, as will their children and grandchildren in turn. This does not include the $8 billion in interest payments that we pay each and every year and must allocate out of our budget for overseas creditors before we can even look at funding services for our own people. That means that health, education, aged care, roads and all manner of government funded services must take second place to the $96 billion debt left by the previous government.

The insecurity this leaves for the people of Gilmore cannot be underestimated and it is why they resoundingly voted the opposition out at the last election. Like every business person in Australia, they realise that we cannot keep living beyond our means. The residents of Gilmore were forced to sit by and watch as the effects of higher interest rates and a huge national debt increased youth unemployment levels for their children, nieces, nephews and friends above 30 per cent—that is, one in every three young people in Gilmore was without a job before we came to government. They watched as businesses were forced to close down as bank interest rates, up at the 17 and 18 per cent mark, became an unbearable burden for small business, and they watched as families lost their homes to the same interest rate hikes. Such debt is not merely a statistic which parties throw around for political purposes; $96 billion has a real impact on the lives of Australians, on my electorate of Gilmore and throughout the rest of the country and it must be addressed.

We as a government have proposed a major single initiative which will see this debt reduced by 40 per cent immediately. The amount this will save the government and the people of Australia is in the order of $2,800 million a year, every year, forever. This reduction in debt payments is worth more than the government currently receives in dividends from its current stake in Telstra. Therefore, by saving on these interest rate payments, more money can be spent on services for Australians—services like housing, education and health. By keeping Telstra in the hands of the government, the opposition would have us paying out millions of dollars in debt to overseas interests.

Economist Chris Richardson from Access Economics sums it up in a simple statement: `If we pay off government debt, we are saving money forever.' Mr Richardson's sums show that the savings in interest on overseas debt versus the revenue the government lose from the dividends they currently receive by directly owning Telstra is $1.5 billion for this government and for the Australian people every year. This money can then be spent on services for Australia, such as extra health, extra education, extra employment and training services—and that is a major benefit for the residents of Gilmore.

Of greatest concern to the residents of Gilmore is that the rural and regional areas will continue to receive telecommunications services at a cost-effective price. It is an important point, for in many of the outlying villages of the Gilmore electorate the nearest neighbour can be several kilometres away and the phone is the only means of access to help in an emergency.

The other point on this issue is access—not just to telephones but to Internet services for businesses in regional and remote Australia. These telecommunications services are available, but at a premium which penalises local residents. When the world is at your fingertips, as it is for businesses who use the Internet, you can operate from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button. You no longer have to live in a major capital city to be at the forefront of your industry. I would mention that, in Gilmore, we have some of the most innovative computer software programmers and animators in the world who appreciate the lifestyle of living on the south coast or in the Southern Highlands while conducting their businesses on the other side of the world. Yet Internet access is still cheaper through Sydney than through local providers, and this is not acceptable. This is one of the reasons why the government introduced the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, which is funded by the sale of the first one-third of Telstra and which has already provided millions of dollars to assist communities to get equitable access to services.

In Gilmore, local councils are working closely with the University of Wollongong to develop a telecommunications pipeline along the coast, linking businesses with other services and the university to ensure that the south coast comes on line with at least the same, if not better, access as metropolitan areas. We have recently received $110,000 from the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund for the councils and the university to conduct a study into the feasi bility of a broadband pipeline for local users. This is the first stage of a multimillion dollar program which will give local residents greater access to the Internet at a more cost-effective price and will encourage investment and jobs in Gilmore.

The benefits for regional and rural Australia will continue with the sale of the remaining two-thirds of Telstra. Already the government is introducing new legislation to ensure that Telstra and other telecommunications companies comply with appropriate standards of service, with particular reference to the time it takes to install services or repair faults. When a nursing home in Gilmore cannot get a phone line fault repaired for five days and local residents have difficulty getting faults repaired within a week, something must be done; and we are doing it.

Under this legislation, the Australian Telecommunications Authority will have the power to enforce compliance by telecommunications companies such as Telstra with high standards of service, including compensation for business and residents should unnecessary delays impact on them unfairly. Regional Australian businesses, such as those in my electorate of Gilmore, fully support this measure, as they previously had no recourse to action if phone lines were cut and not repaired.

Let's have the facts, as opposed to Labor's scare campaign—which is all they seem to know, as certainly they have no policies. The law already states that all Australians must have access to the standard telephone service and to pay phones within a legally specified time, regardless of where in Australia they live or work. So, whether you live in Bawley Point or Balmain, you have the same rights of access to Telstra services within the same time frame; and this law will stay, regardless of who owns Telstra. The government has no intention of removing this law and reducing services to rural and regional Australia. Claims by the opposition that services are going to be reduced must mean that they are considering getting rid of this legislative guarantee. I ask them: are you? We certainly will not be voting for it.

The next issue which has been raised in this debate is that of untimed local calls. In announcing the decision to offer the remaining two-thirds of Telstra for sale after the next election, the Prime Minister said in March this year that untimed local calls would be guaranteed. Under the Telecommunications Act—which will not be changed at all by this sale—all Australian consumers are already guaranteed untimed local calls. Again, we have no plans to change this legislation and the guarantee it gives to the Australian people. The opposition is simply making up rumours to, once again, scare the Australian people.

The government has already introduced a special scheme which offers 17,000 Australians living in remote areas a rebate of $160 per year on their pastoral call spending. This is extra assistance for remote Australians for whom a local call is hundreds of kilometres away—and it was introduced by this government.

After the sale of the remaining two-thirds of Telstra, Australians in remote and regional areas will continue to receive special assistance with their phone services which recognises the special problems they face, caused by the vast distances between communities in many parts of Australia.

Increased competition will result in lower prices, and the sale of the remaining two-thirds of Telstra is a win for all Australians. The benefits of this cannot be underestimated, and it is a vision for the future which the Prime Minister best illustrated during his recent visit to my electorate of Gilmore last weekend when he stated:

I am a great believer in private share ownership. It is my goal to make Australia the greatest share owning democracy in the world . . . That is an inspiration that many people in middle Australia share.

He also said:

We will guarantee in our legislation that Telstra can never fall into foreign hands.

The law states that no single foreign interest will be allowed to own more than five per cent of Telstra, and no more than 35 per cent of the company will be allowed to be owned by foreign interests. By law, the chairman and the majority of the Telstra board will have to be Australian, and the Telstra headquarters must remain in Australia.

The Prime Minister foreshadowed what he termed a `social bonus' for the people of Australia from the proceeds of the sale, which is a significant amount of money that will be made available for capital expenditure in areas around Australia which need it. My electorate has already felt the enormous benefit of the social bonus of the proceeds from the sale of the first third of Telstra. A quarter of a million dollars has been allocated, under the Natural Heritage Trust, for Gilmore environmental programs. The Natural Heritage Trust is the government's $1.2 billion commitment to the Australian people and the environments in which they live.

Debate interrupted.