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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17516


Mr WINDSOR (4:25 PM) —I think it is very sad that this debate is taking place. The way in which the privatisation of Telstra has been debated so far has been about blame, what the other side would do and what speakers intend to do, but the very real issue of the Australian people is being left out of this. In particular, the people that I would like to speak on behalf of, the people who are really being excluded from the debate through the incompetence of the National Party and the Country Liberals, are people who live in the country. You only have to look at history to see what is going to happen in relation to the sale. There is absolutely no doubt that, if you follow a fully privatised arrangement, those people who are in remote areas, those people who are in the small and medium communities or even some of the larger communities and those people who have distance to contend with in terms of infrastructure provision—this is the underground infrastructure that Telstra provides, the very infrastructure that no-one really wants to look at, because that is where the money problems and the really big problems are—are going to suffer. People who live in the country are going to suffer at those three levels.

You can overcome a lot of those issues in the feedlots, which are essentially our cities now. What this is actually doing, through a very basic resource, is encouraging our country people to get out. We now have telecommunications that are going to be the future of our country children over the next 100 years at least. We have an opportunity, through government involvement, to maintain some degree of equity of service. No-one is talking about equity; the government side is talking about having to spend more and more. No-one denies that we should spend more and more. But it is still not equivalent to equity of availability of services. I have hundreds of letters from people who are still going through the battle, going around to the Ombudsman, going to their various service providers and going back to Telstra, constantly facing these infrastructure problems. The fact is that we are trying to use the infrastructure of last century to drive technology through to the next century, and it is not going to happen. The government recognises that if it is to happen it is going to happen at a cost: $45 million a year, which probably will not even fix the problems in one electorate. This major program that the government has embarked on is an absolute farce, and I believe it is a disgrace.

I am very disappointed in the National Party. There has been a lot of talk about the National Party today. I think a lot of people were expecting the National Party to represent their views—and the Country Liberals, for that matter. I think a lot of times the Country Liberals get off the hook and the poor old Nationals get blamed for everything that ever happens in the country. If that is what the Nationals want to put up with, that is what they have to accept. But they are definitely walking away from country people on this issue for $45 million a year—that is the cost of this. In Telstra at the moment you have a facility that is earning massive dividends. The dividends will outweigh the interest component that is wiped off if this money is used to retire debt. It is an absurd economic argument to start with. It is all about trust, and country people do not trust any government at this level, because history says that country people are always the ones who are disadvantaged. The current government do not trust the Labor Party's views, because Labor have suggested that at some time they might sell Telstra, and they may well be right about that. It gets down to which government can access the money and how many elections that money can actually buy.

I think the Deputy Prime Minister, at a press conference with the minister, Senator Alston, gave the agenda away today. It is a short-term agenda. It is about the short-term future of the current government. It is not a long-term visionary agenda about telecommunications and country people, or where we want this nation to be—a nation with 20 million people and a vast area. The government's economic agenda is telling people within the communities to head for the coast, to head for the major cities, to head for the feedlot, because that is where you will get the economic rationalist advantage. Even the New South Wales National Party, at its recent conference in Forster, sent that message out. It was a conference on the coast. All the messages were to defend the coastal seats and forget about the inland seats. The message was, `The Country Independents and others are taking the inland seats, and those people in the far west are not worth worrying about anyway, so let's defend our coastal realm.'

The real giveaway was when the Deputy Prime Minister said that we will not know the outcome of the sale of Telstra, the outcome of these arrangements and the so-called regulations that they are talking about, for about 15 years. That is a cop-out. That is someone saying that they have no idea what the provisions in the legislation are about—what the regulations, the USO and all these things are about. The Deputy Prime Minister has no idea what that will mean for the very people that he is supposed to be representing. I think it is a disgrace. It does not surprise me, because he has walked away on a lot of issues. Prior to the last election, when there was a threat that someone might stand against him, there was a great promise made to the people in his own electorate—the Namoi people—that $40 million would go to the structural adjustment of a groundwater project. Once the election was over, he walked away—$40 million just vanished.

We have seen this happen with Sydney airport, with Telstra before and with the $2.9 billion that could have been spent on the national highway system—he blamed it on his staff and sacked his staff. We have seen it at a number of levels. We have also seen it with the property rights issue that has gone on since 1995 and with water rights. These things are said when going into an election, but at the end of the election they are forgotten. This is an issue of trust, an issue relating to equity. I admit that we have had improvements. I have had a mobile phone for about six months. In my home, I can use a mobile phone now—and I am only 50 kilometres from one of the biggest regional centres in New South Wales, the city of Tamworth. I can go a short distance from there and not be able to pick anyone up on my mobile phone, and there are vast areas that are affected.

I am going to put my trust for some degree of equity in the Senate. In coalition with my Independent colleagues, I hope to attempt to persuade the senators to do one of the things that they are put in place to do—to defend minority groups. The National Party and the country Liberals have decided to walk away politically from 30 per cent of the population on this issue of a very basic service. This is an issue where they can really set the scene for the next 100 years for their kids and grandkids, but they have decided to walk away for $45 million a year. I will be talking to senators about this matter. This is a way in which the Senate can display not only its reform agenda, its purpose for being there, but the consideration that it should give to minority groups. I will be urging that many people across my electorate and other electorates in country Australia do exactly the same.

There is a lot of talk about what is going on with the Senate, the double dissolution and the power of the Senate. Do not be in the least surprised if at the next election you see a country Senate ticket based on this very issue—if this issue is still there, being driven by this $45 million a year so-called solution—because it is a very good example of the sort of thing that is eating away at country communities. If we constantly believe that competition policy and some aspects of economic rationalist theory are the way to go for Australia, and we are going to start applying them to our very basic services such as telecommunications—the service of our very own future—why aren't we applying them to food? If the National Party are going to apply them to these very basic things—water, electricity and telecommunications—why won't they apply them to food? The answer is: if you apply them to food you can access those things from other parts of the world.

If we allow that to happen it will mean the complete disintegration of food production in regional and rural Australia. There may be some Greens who would agree with that agenda. This is a critical agenda. Country people must stand up on this issue. I am hopeful that some members of the government will stand up on this issue because it is obvious that people were expecting the National Party to defend this issue, and there were promises given that they would. What have they come up with? A $45 million a year agenda. That is absolutely pathetic, given the dividend ratios of Telstra and Telstra Country Wide and, more importantly, the equity issues that I have referred to.