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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15631

Mr TANNER (5:11 PM) —This evening I am going to outline to the House the extraordinary recent track record of the world's worst ever communications minister, Senator Alston—the man who is in charge of major institutions and critical policies and who has managed to mangle everything he has touched. From Telstra to the ABC, from digital to broadband, from the ACA to the ABA: everything he has touched has turned into a disaster. He has left a swathe of disasters in his wake.

Under his administration, Telstra has been a catalogue of complete disasters. The network is crumbling with gas bottles being used all around the network to prop up the air pressure for temporary fixes. The gel that was applied to improve the network has turned into a disaster. There are figures about network reliability that are almost as good as Saddam Hussein-like plebiscite figures. The government has responded to the concerns about communications in regional Australia by having its own inquiry headed by a mate of the Deputy Prime Minister and a member of the National Party, Mr Estens. That was seven months ago, yet the government has failed to respond to the very limited recommendations of that whitewash inquiry.

Mr Anthony —You wanted to break it up!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Causley) —Order! The minister will resist debate.

Mr TANNER —Senator Alston has been to cabinet three times with proposals about those responses, and three times he has been knocked back. Thousands of workers are being sacked by Telstra as the network crumbles. IT capacity is being outsourced to India, so we will see several thousand workers lose their jobs and the IT heart of Australia sent over to India. Capital investment is continuing to decline and, of course, Telstra has lost billions of dollars in Asia. Line rental fees are up. They were $11.65 only three years ago and now they are heading towards $30 per month. According to recent estimates, that is reaping Telstra upwards of $200 million a year in extra revenue, even after you take into account reductions in call costs that are very minor.

We still have inadequate competition. Telstra still totally dominates the market. That is why we are falling behind the rest of the world in broadband. When I first took over this portfolio about 18 months ago, Australia was 13th in the world and not doing very well. We are now 21st in the world under Senator Alston, and yet he refuses to take any action about this and as yet, again, there is no response to the report of the Broadband Advisory Group. While all of this has been happening, the Telstra share price has plummeted. It actually went below $4 not so long ago, in part because of the bumbling incompetence of the minister and the way he dealt with a number of issues in Telstra, including his stunt of calling an inquiry that he then cancelled the day before it was due to commence and announcing major regulatory changes to the competition regime without consulting Telstra.

We have also seen in recent times exposure of some aspects of Telstra's behaviour that really do defy description: plasma TVs worth $15,000 to $20,000 being provided free of charge for months to both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to keep them all cosy and comfortable with Telstra—which they are supposed to be administering—stadiums being named with Telstra's name and brand at a cost of around $70 million over 10 years; huge corporate entertainment bills; and, the most recent outrage, the disclosure that the Telstra CEO, if he is sacked for nonperformance, will benefit to the tune of over $1 million in redundancy payouts—a great reward for failure. To top it all off, T3—the full privatisation of Telstra—which this government has been trumpeting as a key agenda item for this parliament, has been deferred until 2005-06. The end result: a disaster on every front.

Believe it or not, this minister for communications has actually got everything wrong. He has got wrong every single issue that you can name with respect to Telstra policy and telecommunications policy. Is there anything at all going right? The answer is no. This is truly a unique record throughout the world. He is the Wile E. Coyote of communications. He has an inexhaustible supply of Acme dynamite and he is busily, bit by bit, applying it to every aspect of telecommunications policy.

It is a similar story with the ABC. This government and Senator Alston, as the minister, started by slashing funding to the ABC in a full-on brutal assault back in 1996, and subsequent funding increases have essentially been with strings attached for political purposes. They have attempted to stack the ABC board, appointing people like Michael Kroger, a notorious political head kicker and close mate of the Treasurer, and Ron Brunton, an ideological zealot whose credentials for being on the ABC board were described by the minister as `he has actually written some things that the ABC covers in its programs'—some record justifying appointment to the board. Their appointment of Donald McDonald—an appointment that they thought was going to be a means of bringing the ABC to heel—blew up in their face because he turned out to be a man of integrity, a true conservative and a defender of the ABC. They have tried to turn the ABC into a Liberal Party branch meeting.

Now the inadequate funding of the ABC is all coming home to roost. The two digital channels, which were a small but significant part of a very limited digital rollout in Australia, have collapsed because of inadequate funding. We have seen the ABC unable to extend its metropolitan and major provincial city services—like Radio National, Triple J, Classic FM and NewsRadio—to many other regional areas. The latest disaster in this catalogue of disasters is the full-on attack on the ABC that the minister launched last week, with an absolutely ludicrous dossier that would have taken hours and hours of work in his office, going through transcripts on AM seeking to prove the ABC's reporting of the war was pro-Iraq and anti-American—anti-American, mind you, not anti-Australian—when this reporting was very similar in tone and content to the reporting of the war of major reputable news organisations around the world.

The minister sought to establish that the ABC is biased. What he has in fact established is that he is seeking to turn the ABC into a Liberal Party propaganda arm. The minister is spending all his time and all his energy not on a response to the Estens report about regional telecommunications and not on getting Australia back in front—back to its world leadership role—in broadband, where it should be, but on attacking the ABC because he wants to nobble it, cripple it and turn it into a propaganda arm of the Liberal Party. He is the Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf of Australian politics, the `Comical Ali' of communications—ranting nonsensically while everything collapses around him.

On digital TV we have had a datacasting auction that failed, two channels that ended up nowhere, and high-definition television going nowhere—he has had to change the rules on that several times. The minister for communications supported multichannelling, but nothing has happened. He has gone to cabinet a couple of times and sought to get multichannelling for the commercial networks, and that has got nowhere. Now, of course, contrary to his statements, the minister for communications has had to suffer the indignity—which he was warned about on several occasions—of the ABC cancelling its digital multichannels. Only 50,000 to 60,000 digital units have been taken up by consumers around Australia. The digital rollout was proceeding at an absolute snail's pace; now it is in reverse. Now Australia is gloriously heading back to the world of analog. The digital rollout that this minister set in place five years ago is now heading in reverse.

Cross-media ownership—the most outrageous attack on democratic institutions that this minister for communications has been responsible for—has been a catalogue of disaster and difficulty for him. First he could not get his proposal through his own party room—he could not get it through the National Party—and then he was unable to get it on the Notice Paper, so he had to go through a special motion in the chamber just to get the matter on the Notice Paper. And now, of course, he cannot get it through the Senate. He wants to abolish the cross-media ownership laws so that we can have two or three people dominate completely our commercial media and totally dominate public debate and public expression. But he wants to do it in a totally convoluted and shambolic way: a notion of editorial separation where we would have to have editors in various media outlets, with organisational charts, flowcharts and diagrams being scrutinised by some sort of government agency—an absolutely ludicrous proposition which has rightly been condemned by the Press Council as an attack on freedom of speech.

But where is this issue? It was the first issue that was raised after the November 2001 election. It was the first issue that emerged in public debate after that election and it is still in the Senate. I will make a prediction now: when this parliament is dissolved, that matter will still be in the Senate. And he has not even gotten round to the issue of the deregulation of Australia Post. But we can rest assured that he will get around to that. That is on his agenda, and he will muck that up too. It is time that `Digital Dick' was put out to pasture. He has been angling for a diplomatic appointment for years. For the sake of Australian consumers, for the sake of the Australian information economy, for the sake of Australian communications networks and for the sake of Australian democracy I beg the Prime Minister to appoint him High Commissioner of Botswana as soon as possible. (Time expired)