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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18538


Mr HAASE (11:04 AM) —I rise in the House today to support the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003, a bill which will affect many of my constituents in the Kalgoorlie electorate. There will be some people who will remain opposed to the further sale of Telstra, no matter what advantages may be gained from that sale. Some will be opposed to it simply because it means making a tough decision; others will be opposed because it means change, and people hate change. I hate change, but when I realise it is for the common good it is time to consider what those changes really mean for the people of real Australia.

The environment in which my constituents survive in the Kalgoorlie electorate, about a third of the Australian continent, is isolated, challenging and often inhospitable, even more so for those who do not know it. Communications and other services are vital to one's existence in such conditions, and I understand my constituents' reluctance to jump in headfirst at the proposed further sale of Telstra. Many of them used to have well-established banking services in town and vividly remember when there was a Commonwealth Bank just up the road. Then Labor, against its promise to the contrary, sold the Commonwealth Bank, and all those services in the bush disappeared almost overnight. The banks moved out because regional Australia was not considered big enough business. With that sour taste lingering in their mouths, they may well believe, understandably, that telecommunications services in the bush will disappear just as dramatically with the sale of Telstra.

What is the difference between Labor's sale of the Commonwealth Bank and the Howard government's bill for the full privatisation of Telstra? The answer is future-proofing. When Labor sold the Commonwealth Bank, it made no provision to protect banking in the bush. Regional Australians were left out in the cold and the result was devastating for rural communities that lost not only jobs but banking facilities and services, often the core of a township's viability. With Telstra, the Howard government have made sure there are safeguards to protect those living in the bush. We have legislated for the future-proofing of telecommunications across rural and remote Australia. These are the safeguards that the federal government have set up, regardless of who owns Telstra.

Changes in Telstra's ownership status will not affect the government's ability to protect the interests of my constituents in the bush. Ownership does not determine the level of service. My government legislates for services to be delivered in the bush, whether they own shares in Telstra or not. There is no relationship between the ownership of Telstra and the creation of services in the bush. The further sale of Telstra is a well-considered and researched decision backed up by future-proofing policies set in legislative concrete. The Howard government will not proceed with the further sale of Telstra until it is fully satisfied that arrangements are established which will deliver adequate telecommunications services to all Australians, including ongoing improvements to and maintenance of existing services.

Across all the 33 shires in the seat of Kalgoorlie, the major issues of dissent in regional telecommunications centre on mobile phone telephony costs, availability and services. While those in the cities sit back with their whiz-bang gadgetry available in all manner of mobile phones these days, the agreed position of real Australians in my electorate is the need for affordable, reliable mobile communications. Let us remember it was this government, not Telstra, which introduced a rebate scheme—$1,000 or half the price of the handset—enabling really remote people to have access to mobile phone telephony via satellite.

Under its Networking the Nation program, the Commonwealth used funds from the part-sale of Telstra for a $3 million Western Australian Satellite Mobile Phone Scheme, designed to partially subsidise satellite mobile phone handsets. The program will directly benefit those living in remote regions of my electorate, where terrestrial services are not feasible. In addition to substantial handset subsidies on offer, those people can now access iridium satellite technology at competitive prices. For $88 a month and 43c for 30 seconds, my constituents can make phone calls around the world. It was at the insistence of the Commonwealth government that this service was provided; it had nothing to do with the ownership of Telstra. Now, thanks to that rebate scheme, truly remote station people with a `sat phone', if they get into strife, have an emergency service equal to the best in the world. This is quite apart from the convenience of day-to-day mobile telephony.

For people in my electorate who may be concerned about the safeguarding of future services in regional areas, I can respond to them by saying that we have set in place protective minimum standards and industry obligations, and they are laid down by law. I have correspondence from the shires of Murchison, Upper Gascoyne and Exmouth that detail concerns over current delays in connecting fixed-line services, repairing faults, and the provision of services. With future-proofing, we can address those concerns.

My government has already initiated the customer service guarantee, the CSG, which requires that all telephone companies meet specified time frames in the provision of services. If they do not, they are required by law to financially compensate their customers. The CSG is fixed by legislation and applies to all telephone companies in Australia, regardless of their ownership. The universal service obligation, the USO, guarantees all Australians, whether living in the city or in the bush, access to basic telephone services. The USO is also fixed by legislation and Telstra must fulfil its obligations regardless of ownership.

The network reliability framework, the NRF, was established by my government to monitor the reliability of telephone services provided by Telstra. The NRF is fixed in place by regulations and Telstra's obligations apply, regardless of ownership. This is a vital provision for those living in the bush, where reliability of telecommunications over great distances is of paramount importance. Those concerned about the ongoing provision of the priority assistance service should be aware that it is a condition of Telstra's telecommunications carrier licence; the government requires Telstra to provide a special priority assistance service to people with life-threatening medical conditions. Telstra must fulfil these obligations regardless of ownership.

And the future-proofing continues. As part of its response to the Regional Telecommunications Inquiry, or Estens inquiry, the Commonwealth government will legislate to require at law that current and future governments conduct regular, independent reviews into the adequacy of communications services in the bush. There will be an obligation for governments to respond to any recommendations made in the review, and this process applies regardless of the ownership of Telstra. Such a future-proofing provision ensures that regional services in the bush will not be just forgotten and pushed to one side after Telstra is fully privatised. Quite the opposite. Such legislation is a safeguard for the ongoing improvement of regional telecommunications in Australia.

For the same reason, the Howard government will impose a licence condition on Telstra, requiring it to maintain an ongoing local presence in regional, rural and remote Australia. This licence condition will ensure that the benefits of Telstra Country Wide are locked in place into the future. Telstra will be obligated to maintain this local presence regardless of any future change in the ownership of Telstra.

It is a fact that regional telecommunications services in Australia have improved since the Howard government introduced a number of initiatives to foster enhancements and competition in the industry. Under the Extended Zones Program, the Commonwealth government has already committed $150 million from the proceeds of the second partial sale of Telstra to improve services to the 38,000 Australians who had never had access to untimed local telephone calls or Internet connections at the untimed local call rate.

On the subject of mobile telephony, a particular concern for my constituents is the extension of CDMA mobile phone coverage across sections of regional highways in the electorate. The Commonwealth government has committed $19 million to improve CDMA coverage to segments of 34 regional highways by June 2004. This includes extended coverage of 73 kilometres along Western Australia's Highway 1, north of Geraldton, near Monkey Mia, and a further 45 kilometres south-west of Port Hedland. As of last New Year's Eve, with improved services directed by the federal government, I could use my CDMA phone all the way from Perth to Kalgoorlie uninterrupted—that is some 600 kilometres. What we need are more services like that.

We need to further extend CDMA mobile coverage across the vast Kalgoorlie electorate. Projects like Wireless North aim to provide continuous mobile phone services from Geraldton to Port Hedland, with additional coverage to Broome. The Great Northern Highway, from Wubin to Port Hedland, is currently lacking in continuous mobile phone coverage, and there is no mobile communication service east of Norseman, despite the traffic rates on the Eyre Highway. These are expensive projects. They will well serve anyone living in or travelling through these areas, but they are expensive. Regardless of who owns Telstra, Telstra will provide services where there is seen to be a commercial viability. The only reason services go where such provision is not commercially viable is because the government—my government—drives them there through legislation. As a result of the Howard government's introduction of full competition in 1997, there are now 89 separate, licensed phone companies in Australia, 40 per cent of which offer services in regional Australia.

The partial sale of Telstra has already allowed infrastructure systems to be improved. The sale of the remaining 50.1 per cent component will allow the federal government to further develop infrastructure across Australia and make a further push to extend mobile telecommunications services into the bush. As Australians, we pride ourselves on our technological ability and advancement. Here we have an opportunity to take the next step, to really set about improving communications in rural and remote areas by developing infrastructure—infrastructure built by the generation of funds from the further sale of Telstra. The part sale of Telstra has had proven benefit for the communications industry in the past; this further sale can go a long way to completing the necessary groundwork for a truly competitive and effective service for regional Australians. But, first, we need to get the monkey off Telstra's back.

Under current arrangements, Telstra has the odds stacked against it in the global telecommunications market. Unlike its competitors, Telstra is unable to issue shares for capital-raising purposes and is unable to compete in the open market for international finance. The Telstra bill 2003 is part of a package that delivers on the government's election commitments to ensure that Australia's telecommunications system combines the best elements of competition and service. The Commonwealth government is committed to improving the delivery of advanced communications services across Australia. For this, the role of a competitive, innovative private sector will be paramount. A fully privatised Telstra will become a truly competitive player in the telecommunications arena internationally. Even here, Telstra has been future-proofed. For those concerned about Telstra being swallowed by an international conglomerate, the government's policy on foreign ownership of Telstra remains unchanged: Telstra will continue to remain an Australian owned and operated corporation. The maximum foreign ownership will remain at 35 per cent. The maximum individual foreign ownership will remain at five per cent.

Government ownership certainly does not help with across-the-board competitiveness. It was not so many decades ago that all the bush had to offer was peddle radio. Back then, we had a wholly government owned PMG. When there was no competition in the Australian telecommunications market, PMG employed specialised gangs, including ladder holders and billy boilers, with government jobs for life. As a result, their workers were held second only to Main Roads workers as the most lazy and inefficient in the nation. We have come a long way since then. Under an independent Telstra, we will not have the cosiness and camouflage of a government owned corporation that allows cost-shifting and investment decisions to be made in a non-transparent environment. Instead, transparency will be the order of the day, and hardworking backbenchers who know their electorate will identify where services are lacking and, through doing their job well, ensure those services are improved and maintained at an acceptable level.

The Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 resolves the current conflict of interest created by the government's majority stakehold in Telstra. The necessity to gain passage of this legislation is not for the immediate but for the eventual. We need to allow time for Telstra share prices to improve; time for the market to realise the strength and value of an unfettered Telstra. Only then will the further sale of Telstra return an acceptable level of capital. We have to wait, because for too long the share price of Telstra has been affected by the burden of government ownership. This legislation provides an opportunity, in time, for Australians to further invest in Telstra and allows government to focus on regulating the telecommunications industry. The Telstra bill supports maintenance of service quality and protection of consumer rights, regardless of Telstra's ownership. The government's legislation on future-proofing Telstra ensures that people in regional areas continue to share equitably in the benefits of advances in technologies.

`Future-proofing' is not just a throwaway phrase of Canberra-speak; it is a specific term of reference in the Estens inquiry and is a key to the safeguarding of services for regional Australians. Equitable, affordable access to broadband services is the next critical step in the future-proofing of Australian telecommunications. More than just an information highway, broadband will revolutionise communications, research and business options. Broadband services are high-speed data services, allowing users instant access to the Internet and other data sources 24 hours a day at speeds at least 10 times faster than a typical dial-up modem.

Broadband also facilitates the use of complex web sites such as those used by farmers when monitoring real-time market prices and allows businesses to increase efficiency, reduce costs and overcome distance. Esperance is an area keen to take advantage of high-speed data download and, with the latest packaging of BigPond ISDN, businesses within 15 kilometres of exchanges in the south-east and other parts of the electorate will be able to process data at 128 kilobytes per second. Broadband is a key piece of infrastructure for the 21st century, in the same way that roads and railways were the foundations of industry for earlier generations.

The Howard government's commitment to the national broadband strategy is another step in the future-proofing of regional Australia's communications needs. We have the means to ensure telecommunications companies commit to improving services in a nationally and internationally competitive market. We can legislate for better communications services in the bush. We can fund the development of essential infrastructure and ensure that this infrastructure is protected by legislation. We can ensure that ongoing services and upgrades in the bush are protected by legislation. We can future-proof Telstra. And we can do all of this, regardless of who owns Telstra.

Services in regional and remote areas are dictated by concerned government, which is lobbied by concerned backbenchers who must present and highlight the concerns of constituents. Those living in my electorate of Kalgoorlie have specific telecommunications concerns and priorities. These are reasonable concerns based on business requirements, safety factors and the very human need to defeat isolation, overcome separation and be able to communicate with each other. To this end, they want extended mobile phone coverage; they want fast, reliable Internet services; they want a guarantee they will not be disadvantaged because of distance; and they want an assurance that infrastructure, services and competitive pricing will not only continue into the future but be enhanced in keeping with technological developments in less remote parts of the nation.

In short, people in the bush just want a fair go. They want to know they will not miss out on the new technologies introduced into metropolitan environments. There will always be a disparity between the city and the bush when it comes to landline services, but there is no reason why the bush should not get the very best telecommunications Australia has to offer. It is up to me to ensure that my government delivers them and, as a member elected by the Prime Minister to his Telstra task force, I am in a good position to do so. I commend the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 to the House.