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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18552

Mr ANDREN (12:02 PM) —Country Australians know the only reason they have gained improved communications in recent years is due to their effective protests, much of them channelled through my office and more recently through the offices of my fellow Independents. They know how many people are still at the end of lines that cannot deliver anything vaguely resembling adequate Internet speed. They know there are many lines that are still substandard, despite the government's spin on the recent Estens report and despite the rhetoric of future-proofing the bush.

They do not want to give up the right to continue to lobby members of parliament and to ensure that their telecommunications carrier remains publicly controlled and is held to account. They know the other players in the telecommunications market are quite happy to pick the eyes out of the profitable bits of the market and damn the rest. They know a fully privatised Telstra would be obliged to do exactly the same for its private shareholders.

At a time when you would think Telstra would be flat out rectifying some appalling shortcomings in its country infrastructure and network, despite recent improvements in some other areas, there is outdated cabling, poor lines and exchanges and new cabling left lying on fences and across paddocks with no plans to repair the damage. While all this is happening, it is reducing the work force of the very personnel who can do this work. These workers are members of what are called fix and fit teams—and fix and fit is exactly what is needed in the Telstra network. Where the network is regarded as adequate, I am reliably informed that parts of it are literally hanging on by glue. This glue is the Seal the CAN debacle, where a special weatherproofing sealant was used several years ago to patch up broken cabling. The problem is the chemical in the sealant has been eating into the plastic of the original line and has caused major problems, something you would think fix and fit crews were best placed to try and correct. Some of the cabling has, in the words of one informant, been `shot to ribbons'.

While Telstra spent $11 million on corporate entertainment last year and $73 million over the past five years, these fix and fit staff are being retrenched under highly dubious assessment processes. Despite the fact fix and fit staff work up to 60 hours a month overtime, despite the fact leave is regularly cancelled, despite the fact there is not enough staff to service the backlog in work, eight jobs are to go in the Cowra, Bathurst, Orange and Lithgow area.

There is a smell around these retrenchment procedures. People with almost 30 years service are being marked down on skills while people without relevant licences are receiving higher marks. The assessment process by a team leader is not independent, nor is any review of what is called a `two-up'—the next highest in the pecking order. The process seems clearly like a kangaroo court, designed to create a compliant work force that will not complain about deficiencies in the installation, repair and maintenance program.

The evidence used to downgrade employees is highly subjective and in some cases quite erroneous. One worker has been downgraded for failing to properly care for a Telstra vehicle by putting improper fuel in it. A manually marked petrol card receipt shows the petrol was incorrectly written into the leaded as opposed to the correct unleaded section of the docket. The Telstra employee was downgraded and faces retrenchment, despite the fact it is an impossibility to fill any vehicle from the wrong pump at a modern service station.

Not only are Telstra workers being unfairly targeted in this pre-sale slimming exercise; so too the people of rural Australia will be dudded and the network will inevitably deteriorate, not improve—that is under the current regime, not under a privatised arrangement. One Telstra employee told me that any review, any inquiry, any up-to-scratch assessment, is simply a snapshot in time with no guarantee of anything. There has been a $1.5 billion reduction in investment over the past three years and a slashing of staff from 50,000 to 37,000. Line rentals are increasing at a rate of knots, and there is pressure from other telephony companies to pull out of their universal service obligation contribution, despite the fact none of the other players contributes anywhere near enough for cross-subsidising rural services.

Privatisation is quite simply rejected by rural Australians. The only future-proofing they want is proof their telco stays in their control, responsible to them through their parliamentary representatives. They know anything else will leave them disconnected—if not immediately then surely as their prices go up in a privatised environment and their services are not repaired or installed.

If it is obvious to customers and Telstra ground staff that the fix and fit regime is not working effectively now—that it is being cut to bare bones and increasingly outsourced to remote contractors—what will be the scenario after privatisation? Future-proofing, up-to-scratch, community service guarantees and bandwidth strategies are rightly regarded as so much political jargon, even by many of those in my electorate who might currently have adequate services—for example, within the Orange city limits. They know, however, that there are no plans to upgrade the Clifton Grove exchange on the outskirts of the city, where professionals and business owners expect faster Internet connection and dream of broadband. They do not expect to be told that an expensive satellite option is the only answer.

Rural Australians are very angry about the government's determination to privatise Telstra in the face of overwhelming opposition. Last year the three Independents in this House conducted surveys of their electorates, resulting in an overwhelming rejection of further privatisation. My colleague the member for New England has repeated that survey—with something like 6,500 returns, to date—with identical results. About 96 to 98 per cent of my electorate and the member for New England's electorate say an absolute and categorical no to full privatisation. Interestingly, I understand that similar figures are coming from a survey being conducted by the member for Hume.

The PM said yesterday that we have more or less got things up to scratch. He might think it is up to scratch as far as the merchant bankers and brokers are concerned. They stand to make a multimillion dollar killing—$218 million per year, for three years—on any sale. But `up to scratch' is a sick joke in the bush. Let me read part of a submission from 10 constituents from Gilgandra in the Deputy Prime Minister's electorate of Gwydir. They sent it to the Estens inquiry with a copy to me. They said:

Up to scratch—the terminology—shows almost total disrespect for the intelligence of the Australian public. We agree Telstra should not be partially owned by the public 50.1 per cent and privately 49.9 per cent. Telstra must be 100 per cent Australian owned.

To sell government assets, especially Telstra, is bowing to the dictates of powerful commercially organised international controllers at the expense of the Australian public, who not only oppose the sale but from whose purse parliamentarians' salaries are paid.

Let me tell you about Denis Englebert of Neville, south of Bathurst, who wrote to me. He described how his phone went dead and he phoned Telstra from the nearby village the next day. He was told, after a 20-minute wait, the problem was with his equipment in the house and to go home and unplug the phone, leave it for 20 minutes, then plug it back in. It did not work. He drove back to the village, called Telstra, waited another 20 minutes and was told on Friday the problem would be fixed in two days time. On the Saturday, there was still no phone. The family had stayed home all day Friday and no-one turned up, despite Telstra saying the phone had been checked. Apparently, no-one had answered. Anyway, a promise was made that the job would be completed by the following Monday. It was—by a technician who came all the way from Cowra and informed the Engleberts that he had only got the job that day and could not believe the family had been without a phone for 6½ days. So much for fix and fit. Mr Englebert is a pensioner and carer with a disabled wife. Mobile phones do not work in his area, which is not far south of Bathurst. Mr Englebert said in his concluding remarks:

A phone breaks down and Telstra, with all its you-beaut technology, locating equipment and computerised gear, takes 6½ days to put a joiner on a thin piece of cable wire.

Ian Gorman from Canning, a government held electorate in Western Australia, wrote to me because he was so frustrated at the lack of response from his own local members. He tells me that Telstra connected his phone line to the exchange via RIM technology which significantly downgraded the service. He is restricted to very low modem Internet speeds and this hook-up means he cannot connect to ADSL to improve the situation. This is part of Telstra's divide and multiply fix-it. Using pair gains—or, in this case, RIM technology—simply enables more services on the same system. But it does not improve reliability or speed where the Internet is concerned; it diminishes it. If Mr Gorman, in suburban Perth, wants a reliable Internet connection he is asked to subscribe to a satellite option worth $800, which he cannot afford.

Reg Chandler from Canberra is about to move to a small farm near Bathurst, in my electorate. One night recently he was stranded by a car breakdown on the Woodstock-Lyndhurst road not far from Cowra—it is certainly not the end of the earth. He walked for half an hour before he found a mobile connection. He eventually got to his farm just outside Bathurst, where he had to walk to the top of a hill to get mobile coverage. This is the Telstra service so fondly described by National Party members as now up to scratch or almost up to scratch.

The ALP can also bear part of the blame for this by setting the wheels in motion for the switch-off of the analog frequency, which readily covered CDMA black spots like the one Mr Chandler experienced. Black spots continue to exist at Hill End and other places, despite the rollout of CDMA. It is not an adequate and comprehensive replacement for analog by any stretch of the imagination.

Near Orange, on the side of Mt Canobolas, a constituent was told that he is on the end of an old copper line and there are no plans for upgrade. While discussing the issue with the Telstra worker, the technician made a mobile call and it dropped out—12 kilometres from Orange post office. This gentleman also questions why we do not retain the infrastructure in public hands, rent it to other providers on a competitive basis and provide flat rates across the network. The danger from privatisation, as he and many others see it, is the possibility of timed local calls. The outcome would be the same as charging for postage on the basis of the distance a parcel or letter travels.

Let me share with the House the experience of Guy Fitzhardinge of Mandurama, which lies between Blayney and Cowra and is not far south of Orange. He has two unreliable phone lines which drop out during thunderstorms, or about once a month for no apparent reason. This problem has existed for 34 years. He has been asked to plug and unplug his phone—like bashing the side of your TV set to make it work. That is the only suggestion that can be thought of.

Mr Fitzhardinge says the fault has never been at the house, as he has been told it is, but in the line—the old copper cabling that runs to his house. He has to walk about a kilometre to get very patchy mobile coverage just to report this fault when it happens. He is a farmer and a businessman and it impacts on him and on his elderly mother, who lives nearby. Telstra says the cost of servicing those customers—and a couple more on that line—would be half a million dollars.

That begs the question: what fully privatised company would carry out such infrastructure improvements for so little return on capital outlay when financial and not social dividends are the demand of private shareholders? Secondly, how can the government possibly argue that the recently announced $181 million of rural capital upgrade in response to the Estens report will go anywhere near meeting the infrastructure upgrade requirements? One constituent told me the $181 million could well be spent in the central west of New South Wales alone, and I do not disagree—instance that example of the half a million dollars for a couple of kilometres of replacement line in just one tiny pocket of the central west.

Incidentally, the minister's claim that the future-proofing guarantee for Telstra to maintain a local presence is some sort of major policy initiative is treated as a joke by country people. They remember the Telecom local presence, right down to district depots, where the local linesman in Molong knew exactly where the lines were and how to fix them quickly, and the people knew where he lived too. Telstra Country Wide, while welcome, is a pale imitation of the former Telecom country presence, trying as it is to restore the lost Telecom local network knowledge, quite apart from the network itself. Telstra Country Wide is actually less than country people once had in terms of face-to-face service.

This is not, as the minister and the Deputy PM would have it, future-proofing; it is simply catch-up policy. The Fitzhardinge example alone shows that, irrespective of this $181 million, the national network, if privatised now, will be a mix of the information superhighway for a fortunate few, a barely adequate sealed road with Internet speed around 30 for some others, and a potholed gravel road for many more at the end of old copper lines, with laughable Internet speed on lines with constant drop-out and split services using pair gain and other patchwork technologies. In a rural market where true competition cannot work because of the lack of critical consumer mass, it is absolutely imperative that the public, through the government of the day, retains control of the virtual monopoly Telstra enjoys over the Internet business and the network.

I could go on with a litany of complaints and concerns about phone and Internet services from within and far beyond my electorate. My office has been a lightning rod for the concerns of country people all over Australia in the face of a lack of interest from most government members, it seems. I cannot believe the previous speaker's contention that there is a completely happy electorate in North Queensland and there are no complaints. Perhaps they are not coming through to his office. I am fielding complaints on a regular basis and have done for seven years. They have diminished somewhat in recent times through the channelling of them to Telstra Country Wide, which has been set up and deals with them. I have a very good working relationship with Telstra Country Wide and I am entirely sympathetic to its budget frustrations and the challenge it faces. But, when it is said there are no calls coming into offices, it really makes me question where those people are going, because you cannot say those faults do not continue to exist.

The full privatisation of Telstra has been stitched up in the party room since the first raft of Telstra was sold with the support of government members in this place. It was a nebulous comment from Senator Ron Boswell that set the apparent benchmark for the adequacy of Telstra services. It was called `up to scratch'. What the hell did that mean? It was probably something to do with back scratching but absolutely nothing to do with the adequacy of rural and regional, and in many cases urban, phone services. This is not a bill about a sale; it is a bill about a sell-out of the Australian people. It is about an estimated $30 billion injection of revenue but the forgoing of much more than that over the years ahead from the dividends of Telstra—a telco that has the capacity to match any telco in the world. We stand to lose $3.5 billion in public dividends over the first four years after any sale. That is why the market here and overseas is so keen to get hold of it.

As we consider international telcos, let us put to rest the myth that we are the last developed country to hang on to majority public ownership. Let me list, yet again, countries with significant public ownerships and their percentages: Austria, 75 per cent; Belgium, 50 per cent; Czech Republic, 51 per cent; Finland, 53 per cent; France, 61 per cent; Germany, 43 per cent; Greece, 51 per cent; Iceland Telecom, 100 per cent; Japan, 65 per cent; Korea, 58.9 per cent; Luxembourg, 100 per cent; Netherlands, 43.25 per cent; Norway, 79 per cent; Poland, 35 per cent; Sweden, 70.6 per cent; Switzerland, 65½ per cent; and Turkey, 100 per cent. There is a sample of those backward nations of the world who, along with Australia, have not accepted the virtue of the market, and eventually foreign investors, controlling their telecommunications networks.

Our unique geographic character in this country, with 90 per cent of the market occupying just 15 per cent of the continent's landmass, is the most compelling reason why, of all countries, Australia should retain public control of its dominant telecommunications provider. We should absolutely ensure a level playing field for telebusiness consumers in the bush into the future, with the government of the day in absolute control of service delivery. The Prime Minister has told this place that any government cannot bind a future government to any guarantee of future services. He said that in an answer to the member for New England. That says it all.

This legislation is not only about a short-term $30 billion revenue windfall; it is about opening up our economy to the international market. It is a sister bill to the cross-media ownership relaxation bill held up by the Senate. It is about the free trade agenda with its demands from the US for no public ownership of key services. It is an agenda that is totally rejected by my constituents, by over 90 per cent of rural Australians and, I believe, by a majority of urban dwellers.

Australians also reject that a fully privatised Telstra is in the best economic interests of this country. They regard the current ownership arrangements as a true public-private partnership, but they also want proper corporate governance in relation to Telstra. If this government were to cynically line up this bill along with the media bill in a list of rejected legislation to be considered by a joint sitting of parliament after any double dissolution, it would have absolutely no mandate to do so. If, even more cynically, it tried to enable a joint sitting after any normal election, that referendum would be rejected with or without opposition support, because the cynicism of the major parties, with their dwindling support, would quickly become obvious. I would certainly be doing everything in my control to spell out that cynicism. The one referendum the government will not put is one on the sale of Telstra. (Time expired)