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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18572

Mr EDWARDS (1:25 PM) —The previous speaker in this debate on the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003, the member for Maranoa, has shown us that Telstra is not the only thing in Australia that is for sale by this government. We just heard the National Party selling its soul, selling out the people of Australia—not only the people in the bush but people all over Australia—selling out its integrity and selling out all Australians who rely on this essential service. Telstra is an essential service, yet we see the National Party—that pale echo of what was once a great party, now just a political rump that sells out on every occasion to the Liberal Party—selling out on Telstra today.

Listening to the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, and our ALP spokesperson, Lindsay Tanner, speak on this issue, I was pleased to hear them both reiterate the ALP's strong opposition to the further sale of Telstra. We oppose this for a good reason: the sale of Telstra is bad for Australia, it is bad for the bush and it is bad for the budget. Not only is the sale bad but the whole process which the government are trying to set up is flawed. I say this because the government have not set in this legislation a timetable for the sale but would leave the timing up to the minister. What they would have this parliament do is pass the legislation and then have the minister gamble on the best time to sell the remaining equity—an equity which already belongs to all Australians.

I say to members opposite, particularly members like the member for Maranoa: if Telstra is so good, why sell it? The government claim that they will not sell the remaining equity until they are `satisfied that arrangements are in place to deliver adequate services to all Australians, including maintaining the improvements to existing services'. That is what they say, but we know that they are prepared to gamble on the future price—and they are asking the people of Australia to trust them on the basis that they will not sell until the price is right. That is a big gamble, because we know that in Australia we have a government and a Prime Minister whose word cannot be trusted.

Just as the government are prepared to sell Telstra for a quick buck to meet their political ends, so too are they prepared to lie to the people of Australia. Trusting this government and this Prime Minister is indeed a gamble—a big gamble. In racing parlance, trusting this government would be like trying to recoup all of your losses by betting all of your hard-earned money, in the last race of the day, on the biggest roughie when it has drawn wide on a wet track. The odds are too great and the government and this Prime Minister have form and a proven track record of deceit, lies and deception.

We know that Telstra's service levels are not up to scratch—and that is true not just in the bush. In my electorate of Cowan, which is situated in Perth's northern suburbs, we have poor services. Indeed the shadow minister, Lindsay Tanner, visited Wanneroo earlier this year and spoke to the City of Wanneroo's Economic Development Unit, who are rightly concerned about poor broadbanding in the area. Lindsay listened to their complaints as to how that impacts on economic growth in the area and the flow-on problems which are created for one of the fastest growing local authorities in Australia. This is an area desperate for economic growth and for the jobs and services that go with that growth.

Indeed, the Mayor of the City of Wanneroo, Jon Kelly, was recently quoted as saying, `How can Telstra claim it has improved services to the bush when it can't even properly service the fastest growing city in Australia?' That is true. How can members opposite possibly come into this place and make that claim day in, day out? They are either very badly informed, not in touch with their electorates or just simply having a lend of themselves, because they are certainly not having a lend of us. We do not believe them.

Telstra has a long way to go. Instead of selling off this asset, the government would be better served to demand a return to proper management of the corporation. Instead of gambling and losing hundreds of millions of dollars in dodgy overseas investments, Telstra should be investing in capital expenditure, which has fallen from a peak of $4,705 million in 1999-2000 to an estimated $3,250 million in 2002-03. We now know that during these same years staff have been shed at a rate of some 4,500 full-time employees per year. So I say to members of the coalition: how can services possibly have improved during this time and how can they possibly have kept pace with the technological and capital growth which has been experienced in other areas of Australia?

This government should be insisting on improved investment in Telstra to ensure services keep pace with growth, rather than simply selling the remaining equity solely for the purposes of bankrolling and pork-barrelling exercises as it lies and buys its way to the next election. This government should also be insisting on proper consumer protection of those who use Telstra's services. If consumer protection is bad now—and I believe it is—just imagine what it would be like under a fully privatised Telstra.

For most of us on this side of the House hardly a week goes by that our constituents do not bring to our attention some problem relating to Telstra. I recently took up the case of a family in my constituency who was having a blue with Telstra over a bill. I wrote to Telstra on their behalf, sending with my letter sections of their telephone accounts for the months of April and May. These people also complained directly to Telstra. In my letter to Telstra I said:

As you will see, an amount of $3200 is owed for calls on a 1902 number to World Psychics. These calls were made by—

the couple's—

15 year old daughter who has been under psychiatric counselling and on anti-depressant medication. The calls were not authorised by her parents.

I went on to say that this family:

... have expressed their extreme concern that Telstra has no capacity to identify such a vastly different telephone usage pattern, similar to that used by banks with credit card usage, particularly when an amount of $645 was generated during the course of one day and $862 was generated in less than 6 hours on another day. They are concerned that the only advice received from Telstra was that they should have “opted out” of a service they did not know existed, did not request and did not authorise.

I am extremely concerned at the position—

this family—

now find themselves in. The family will be put under extreme financial pressure in order to pay this large account.

I asked for some consideration, some understanding, to be given to this family by Telstra. I will not quote all of Telstra's letter in response, but these are some of the things that they had to say:

Customers have a responsibility to monitor accounts and make sure the costs are affordable. However Telstra is not obliged to monitor the usage of a Service, if there is unusual usage the Customer remains liable for all uses of the service.

Further, they say:

The customer is liable to Telstra for all Charges in relation to a Service whether or not the Customer authorised the particular use of that Service by another person.

They conclude by saying:

I appreciate that you may not be satisfied with the outcome of this matter. However, I wish to advise that the charges of $2207.00 are legitimate and payable to avoid further credit management action.

So much for the corporate responsibility of one of the biggest corporations in Australia. I feel very sorry for this family. They are some of the battlers that we on this side of the House deal with. If Telstra is doing this sort of thing now, just imagine what it will be like if it is fully privatised, fully sold, where there is a lack of accountability and a lack of proper consumer protection. If it is bad now, it will be a damn sight worse fully privatised.

Labor is the only political party in this nation that is opposed to the further sale of Telstra. But preventing that sale is not all that we want. We have a number of other things that we want of Telstra. The Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, spoke about some of those things this morning when he made his very fine speech here on this issue today. There are four things which I am going to reiterate that the ALP wants. Telstra will be required to intensify its focus on its core responsibilities to the Australian community and reduce its emphasis on foreign ventures and media investments. That is for good reason, because we are all now aware of the massive losses that Telstra has suffered as a result of its poor investments overseas. The second thing that Telstra will be asked to do is to intensify its focus on the provision of affordable and accessible broadband services available for all Australians. I mentioned earlier the problems that are being experienced in Wanneroo in the northern suburbs of Perth. It is not the only area that is experiencing these problems.

The third point is that the competition regime will be strengthened by requiring much stricter internal separation of Telstra's wholesale and retail activities, and the minister for communications will be removed from the process of the ACCC's scrutiny and regulation of accounting separation within Telstra to ensure the process is genuinely independent and rigorous. The fourth point is that consumers will be given stronger protection from sharp practices by telecommunications companies and the price control regime will be made fairer.

We do not just stand opposed to the sale of Telstra—although we are firmly committed to prevent that happening—but we also want to see Telstra lift its game. We want to see better investment in Telstra. We want to see Telstra providing better services, accessible by all Australians, because indeed the services that Telstra provide are essential. We stand opposed to the sale of Telstra and we stand opposed to this legislation. It is bad legislation and, as I said earlier, the sale of Telstra is bad for Australia, bad for the bush and bad for the budget. We oppose this legislation.