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Wednesday, 8 April 1998
Page: 2752


Mr LEE (11:58 AM) —On behalf of the opposition, I would like to outline our position on the amendments moved by the member for Moore (Mr Filing) and argued very eloquently by the member for Chifley (Mr Price), the member for Calare (Mr Andren), the member for McPherson (Mr Bradford) and the member for Moore. It might be helpful if we all take ourselves back to 1992, when this decision was made. It was a decision made by the then Minister for Communications and Transport, Bob Collins, and it was on the advice of Austel after Austel had conducted an inquiry into what is a very complicated issue.

The Austel report in 1992 made the very obvious point that we could not just rely on the existing analog mobile telephone system because Telstra owned the whole spectrum and ran the entire mobile network and that one of the advantages in moving towards digital was that you had new spectrum you could sell off to a number of new entrants and that was the way we got competition in mobile telephony: by having Optus, Vodafone and Telstra able to have their own spectrum and able to compete with each other on mobile telephone rates. The result of that has been big reductions in the cost of mobile handsets and some reductions in the price of mobile calls, and that has benefited consumers. We are also told, and it is accurate, that there would be encryption and therefore greater privacy for telephone calls if we moved to digital.

Another thing we were told is that we would get clearer calls. I think that was the one claim that was made way back in 1992 that has not been fulfilled by the technology. I am sure that the people in the gallery and in the parliament here this morning would know that it is often very difficult to get clear signals with the digital system. There are large parts of rural and regional Australia where you cannot get any signal at all and the member for Calare has highlighted some of those today.

One of the concerns that we in the opposition have about the member for Moore's attempt to put a lance through the boil of this debate is that his amendment might have the parliament exposing the public, through the government, to a very large compensation bill. The opposition would want to have a great deal more confidence about what the consequences would be before we would be prepared to support the member for Moore's amendment.

The point I would make to the Minister for Finance and Administration (Mr Fahey), who is at the table, is that no doubt there is a problem out there that needs to be addressed. That is why members are raising this issue in the parliament every day. My colleague the member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon) has, I know, spoken about this within the Labor Party, based on his concerns about what is going to happen when AMPS shuts down. Some of us have to remember that, if this current problem is the result of an agreement between the federal government, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, then surely another agreement between the federal government, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone can undo any financial exposure. I would have thought that it is open to the government to say to Frank Blount, Mr Anderson and the boss of Vodafone that we need this issue resolved. Telstra can enter into some commercial negotiations with Optus and Vodafone about what payment it might make to them to persuade them to allow the analog system to continue. There is a possible solution out there if we can try to think creatively and do it in a way that does not expose the taxpayer to large sums of money.

I would like to ask the Minister for Finance and Administration a question; he might take it on notice if he cannot answer it today: if all of the analog system is shut down can we be assured that the current GSM digital system is able to cope with all of the customers? I have heard some speculation that, if all of the analog customers move to digital, the system would be swamped in some parts of the country. If the minister is not able to answer that on the spot today, I would be more than happy if he could agree to provide me with an answer in writing. The parliament, in debating this issue, should have some reassurance that, if we are not going to accept the member for Moore's amendment, the digital system will be able to cope with the massive needs that will be placed on it in the year 2000, especially in places like Sydney. With the Olympics, international visitors with digital phones will expect them to work in this country.