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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18548

Mr LINDSAY (11:41 AM) —In response to the member for Bass: yes, go ahead and vote against the bill. It will underline the continuing irrelevance of the Australian Labor Party and the continuing lack of foresight it has in working in the national interest. The Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 comes to the parliament after the government has faced two elections on the issue of the full privatisation of Telstra. In 1998 and 2001, the issue of full privatisation was fully explored through the election process. What was the result? The government was elected. The member for Bass can say that surveys show that 98 per cent of people are opposed to full privatisation. You can ask all sorts of questions that will produce that result, but the key question is what does the electorate say at an election? The electorate approved the government's policy. Get out of the way and let the government get on with what the electorate wants. The electorate wants to see the full privatisation of Telstra.

I am distressed at the amount of deliberate misinformation that I have heard in this debate already. A moment ago the member for Bass talked about 3,000 job cuts this year. Do you know why that is happening? Because the technology is getting better and more reliable. It works; it never breaks down. You cannot have people sitting there when there is no job to do. The second thing that you avoid telling the parliament and the people of Australia is that Telstra now use contractors to do that installation work. They do not have their own work force, but the people are still employed in the telecommunications industry. You go out there and ask all the phone providers what is happening to jobs growth in the industry. They will tell you that there is a huge growth in jobs in the industry. There are no job cuts in the telecommunications industry; there is growth in the telecommunications industry.

I come to the parliament with a view, and a long-held view at that, that governments should not be in business. The reason is that there is a long history of entities that governments have tried to run as businesses that have failed on efficiency grounds. They have failed on grounds of being more costly in providing goods and services than when the marketplace provides them. I do not think anyone could logically argue a case that a government can run a business better than the market can run a business. On that basis, the government should not run Telstra as a business. Telstra should be run by the private sector—that is what this bill is about. There may be other reasons the opposition could argue that the government should keep Telstra in government ownership, but the fact that it is a business competing against business is not one of them.

What has been the experience overseas? Which telco in the United States does the United States government own and run? The answer is: none. Which telco in Britain does the British government own and operate? The answer is: none. And so it is across most of the world. Governments have gotten out of owning their own telcos, and they have gotten out of owning them for very good reasons. Is Australia going to stay as a backwater and stay in the dinosaur age by continuing to own its telco?

Mr Hardgrave —That's Labor's plan.

Mr LINDSAY —That is correct, Minister. I have been trying to understand Labor's opposition to the sale of the remaining portion of Telstra. I can tell you that Labor's opposition cannot be about jobs, because although Telstra has fallen in employment from about 97,000 jobs down to 37,000 that has been under government ownership and under the policy of the Australian Labor Party. The Australian Labor Party by its actions when it was last in government mandated that Telstra would lose jobs, and a very significant number of jobs. So Labor's opposition cannot be about jobs.

Is Labor's opposition about the loss of services in the bush? Well, Telstra has a licence, as do other carriers. Attached to that licence are legal obligations. If Telstra were to wind back services that are mandated by its licence, it would not have a licence. Does anybody seriously believe that Telstra would wind back its obligations in regional Australia against the requirements under its licence and put its licence in danger? That is a foolish suggestion—that situation simply would not happen. Among the legal obligations are the universal service obligation, the customer service guarantee and the network reliability framework. The coalition has recently announced it will legally require Telstra to permanently maintain the Telstra Country Wide local presence.

Telstra Country Wide's presence has been the greatest thing in regional Australia that we have seen in many years. In River Quays in Palmer Street, South Townsville, Telstra proudly has the biggest Telstra Country Wide sign you could ever see, saying to the people of Townsville: `We're here.' I want to pay tribute to Owen Taylor and his team in Townsville. They are so focused—110 per cent—on customer service that my electorate office no longer gets any complaints about Telstra services. Not a single person has rung up to say, `I couldn't get my phone fixed.' Not a single person has rung up to say they have difficulty in getting a number. Telstra Country Wide is providing a magnificent service to regional Australia and will continue to do so—and it will continue to do so under government licence conditions. Incidentally, I worked with the Telstra Country Wide people in Townsville in relation to mobile phone coverage on Magnetic Island, and they were first-class; they saw the need and did the design. On Friday week I will be with Owen Taylor launching the new complete mobile phone service—both CDMA and GSM—on Magnetic Island, which is a great result.

I ask myself, `Is Labor's opposition to do with good public telecommunications policy?' What is Labor's track record on that? Remember when Labor decided that its policy would be to close the analog mobile phone network, and the disruption that that caused? That is the kind of policy that the Australian Labor Party implements in relation to telecommunications—very bad policy indeed. Did we hear the Leader of the Opposition say quite blatantly today that it is the ALP's plan to split up Telstra anyway? What kind of public policy is that? Labor's opposition cannot be about good public telecommunications policy, because Labor does not have any.

Labor's opposition cannot be about financial benefit to Australia. Those who are listening to this broadcast, and the people of Australia, should know and understand that the ALP opposition have already cost Australians $30 billion by opposing the full sale of Telstra. Just imagine how much we could have done for the people of Australia with another $30 billion—what we could have done in our own electorates; the extra services that could have been provided. The Labor Party have denied the Australian public access to those kinds of dollars.

Labor's opposition cannot be about keeping the telco in government control. Labor's only rationale for keeping Telstra publicly owned is that somehow it gives the government a greater ability to tell Telstra what to do. Wrong, wrong, wrong! It is a complete fallacy. By law, since 1991 Telstra has been required to operate on a purely commercial basis. The government cannot tell Telstra to do anything other than to operate on a purely commercial basis. All the rules and regulations governing Telstra and the wider industry are totally unrelated to who owns Telstra.

So what is this about? It cannot be about all the issues that I have mentioned. The answer is found in Labor's track record of saying no to the government on every major national policy issue. Labor opposed budget savings. Labor opposes reforms to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Do you know what that means? By opposing the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Labor denies to the poorest people in this country access to the latest medicines. That is what Labor has done. It has said to the poorest people in this country, `You're not going to have access to the latest medicines because we're not going to pass the government's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme legislation, but people who are very wealthy and well-off can afford to pay for the latest medicines.' How unfair is that?

Labor has opposed reforms to the disability support pension in a very significant way. Remember its opposition to the unfair dismissal laws, which stopped small business employing many more people. Remember Labor's famous opposition to waterfront reform. We all know now what the result of the government's persistence was on that issue, how efficient the Australian waterfront is now and how that has benefited our farmers and exporters. Labor opposes the government's policy on compulsory union fees. It effectively does that to make people who do not support the Australian Labor Party pay part of their union fee as a contribution towards the Australian Labor Party. Labor opposes secret ballots for protected industrial action.

Labor opposed literacy and numeracy testing, because it was a captive of the unions. Look at what has happened since that testing has been introduced, how the various states and the school system have understood where their deficiencies are and how they might correct them for the sake of our kids. But Labor opposed literacy and numeracy testing. Labor opposes youth wages. It opposes cracking down on welfare cheats. It opposes a two-year waiting period for migrant social security. It opposes government initiatives on national security. It opposes private health incentives. What would happen if private health incentives were withdrawn? The public hospital system would just not cope. The key issue is Labor's total opposition to tax reform. Remember the benefits that tax reform brought to this country when the government persisted in doing what was right in the national interest.

There is a long list of `oppose for opposing's sake'. The hallmark of the Howard government is to tackle the hard issues in the national interest, to stick to and stand by its convictions, to argue its case to the Australian people and to explain why its policies are in the interests of the Australian people. But all that the government faces in doing that—this bill is a typical example—is an opposition that just says no to everything. That is not a responsible opposition. A responsible opposition should argue why it is concerned and what might be done about it, not just say a blanket no. The Howard government understands that not every decision it takes will be universally popular—and there have been some of those in the past 12 months—but if you operate a government on the basis of what the opinion polls are saying, you are not a fair dinkum government. However, the government is committed to tackling the tough issues that will set up Australia's future. Until Labor stops shirking the national interest and playing politics with every issue, it is unfit for government.

Selling the remaining government shareholding in Telstra is in Australia's national interest—it is in the interests of Telstra, its 1.8 million shareholders, the wider telecommunications industry and, most importantly, the Australian people. Selling the government's remaining stake in Telstra will finally pay off the massive debt that was left as a legacy of the last Labor government, and that will keep interest rates low for Australian home buyers and small businesses. The sale will allow Telstra to realise its full potential as Australia's competitor in the global telecommunications market and it will remove the conflict of interest that currently exists where the government is not only the regulator but also the shareholder of the largest telco.

However, the real question to ask on this subject is not `what happens if we do sell Telstra?' but `what happens if we don't sell Telstra?' There is great risk and uncertainty attached to not selling Telstra. While it is easy for the Labor Party to sit on the sidelines and snipe at the Government, it must explain why it needs to keep a conflict of interest and why Telstra, as Australia's largest company in one of the most competitive global markets, should be forced to operate with one hand tied behind its back. Why is it? Labor has to explain why every Australian taxpayer should be forcibly exposed to the volatile share market? I have already indicated that Labor's opposition to selling Telstra has already cost the Australian people $30 billion. It has to explain why Australians should be saddled with the remaining $32 billion of government debt left by Labor and be forced to pay interest on that debt every year at the expense of better services.

The real keys to better telecommunications are competition, which drives new services and lower prices, and regulation, which provides safeguards. Since the Howard government introduced full competition in 1997, the number of phone companies in Australia has increased from three to 89. As we all know, phone calls are now significantly cheaper across all services.

There are, of course, some very significant consumer safeguards for all Australians, and I want to remind the House of those. There is the Trade Practices Act, administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and we have the state and territory fair trading acts. We also have the universal service obligation, the customer service guarantee, the national relay service, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, the national reliability framework and interim services requirements. We also have the untimed local call obligation, price control arrangements for Telstra, priority assistance arrangements, the digital data service obligation, an independent regulator—the Australian Communications Authority—and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is also watching. Each of those safeguards applies regardless of whether the ownership of Telstra remains as it is or whether it is in full public ownership.

There is some concern in the community about foreign ownership. The government has committed that Telstra will continue to remain as an Australian owned and controlled corporation, irrespective of whether the government has a shareholding in it or not. The government has given a commitment not to amend the current statutory limits on foreign ownership of Telstra. Under these arrangements, Telstra is subject to ownership restrictions that limit total foreign ownership in the company to 35 per cent of its listed capital and the maximum holding of any individual foreign entity at five per cent. These limits on foreign ownership are intended to prevent foreigners from exerting undue influence in the operations of the company.

The Telstra Corporation Act also requires that Telstra's head office, base of operations and place of incorporation remain in Australia and that Telstra's chairperson and a majority of its directors are Australian citizens. These provisions continue to apply irrespective of the ownership structure of the company. Government ownership adds nothing to Australian telecommunications other than uncertainty. Before too long, this uncertainty will need to be lifted. (Time expired)