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Wednesday, 8 April 1998
Page: 2753

Mr FAHEY (Finance and Administration) (12:03 PM) —I have noted the amendments moved in respect of sections 360 and 363 by the honourable member for Moore (Mr Filing). These amendments amount to a change to what has been entered into by way of a legally binding contract by the former government, particularly with Vodafone. Such a proposal is totally unworkable. It exposes the taxpayers of Australia not only to massive compensation but to ridicule. I just wonder about the simplistic approach—the populist approach—taken by Independents to any debate. They come into this House and put up a proposal that alters legally binding contractual obligations. It gives a clear message to any investor in this country: do so at your peril.

I spent some time this morning with an investor from the electorate of the honourable member for Calare (Mr Andren). I have known the company for some years and have had dialogue with them over many years. The thought occurred to me that if that company, which has put a massive amount of money into the electorate of Calare, is going to be told by this parliament that the parliament may reverse its decisions on contractual obligations at the whim of a populist Independent, that company and no-one else onshore or offshore will ever again put an investment into this country.

Mr Allan Morris —Mr Speaker, on a point of order: I accept that the member for Calare has some modesty about that. That was a very nasty inference which I personally found offensive as a parliamentarian—reflecting on the motives of a person in this House. The minister should withdraw and apologise.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. N.M. Dondas) —There is no apology.

Mr FAHEY —Firstly, I am making the point that when there is a decision by government that decision should have certainty. When legally binding contracts that flow from such a decision are entered into, they cannot be overturned in a way which this amendment proposes to do. The second point I want to make—and it was made very properly by the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Hockey)—is that when it comes to technology and regional Australia, surely those who represent regional Australia would want the best technology. To suggest that we extend on analog in respect of mobile phones well into the next century condemns rural and regional Australia to second-rate technology. The third point is that it is simply not practical to suggest that there is a capacity to extend on at this point when we are well down the track in the changeover to digital. As I have indicated, Vodafone in particular, under the arrangements and contracts that were entered into, have simply embarked upon that technology and they would simply be taken out of business if there is an extension there.

I reaffirm the point made by the honourable member for North Sydney that nothing is more supportive of Telstra's monopoly than these proposed amendments. Telstra have the monopoly in analog. The new carriers have moved into digital. The monopoly would be extended. It seems to me that every argument I have heard from the opposition and from those who oppose this bill on the crossbenches is about trying to ensure that the competition against Telstra is opened up. The regulations required that to happen as at 1 July last year. As each year and each month goes by, that will happen.

Let me give a quick run down of what the Minister for Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts (Senator Alston) said by way of a press release on 5 April on the solution to the problem:

Yes, government acknowledges that there are blank spots when it comes to mobile telephony in rural and regional Australia.

That is being addressed, but is it being addressed quickly enough? That remains to be seen; nevertheless, the government is conscious of the need to ensure that the service is across Australia and that that service continues after the required phasing in of digital occurs as at 1 January 2000.

The package released by my colleague in another place indicated that all areas of regional Australia which currently receive mobile phone coverage will continue to enjoy reasonably equivalent coverage after the year 2000. As for the elements of the package, the ACA will conduct an urgent review of the current regional AMPS service. That will be completed by 30 June 1998. (Time expired)