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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19197

Ms JACKSON (12:32 PM) —I, too, rise to oppose the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. As the member for Capricornia has pointed out, telecommunications services are essential services, and it is one of the duties of responsible governments to ensure that all Australians have equal access to such services. Whether it be access to the traditional telephone service or to a newer technology such as broadband, all Australians need these services in order to fully participate in our society. This government has chosen to ignore this duty. By introducing this bill it seeks to finish the job that it started when it first came to power by making Telstra a fully privatised company. Labor, in contrast, understands the duty to provide access to telecommunications services for all. Labor is opposed to the privatisation of Telstra. I understand that at least one member from the other side of the House accepts that the government has this responsibility. It seems to me that only one member on the other side of the House is listening to the concerns of his constituents and the concerns of the overwhelming majority of Australians. I hope the member for Hume continues to speak out against the sale of Telstra in his party room and that he demonstrates to his colleagues what it means to listen to the community by voting against this legislation. Abstaining in this vote is the same as voting for the full privatisation of Telstra. I hope the member for Riverina recognises this too. We shall see.

As we all know, serious gaps exist in the provision of telecommunication services in regional areas. However, as many people living in outer metropolitan areas around Australia can attest, serious gaps also exist in the level of service and access currently available to them. Many constituents in my outer-metropolitan electorate of Hasluck in Western Australia have expressed serious concern about the reduced levels of service and attention to service faults. One example of this followed storms in the Perth metropolitan area earlier this year. Several residents from the Eudoria Retirement Village in Gosnells contacted me expressing their concern about their loss of telephone services following storm damage. Many of those who had lost their connection due to that storm had to wait several weeks before the service was restored. For many of the elderly residents of Eudoria Retirement Village, the telephone is their primary link with the rest of the community, particularly in emergency situations. It is essential for them to stay in touch with loved ones, for recreation purposes and for health and safety reasons. To be without this essential service for so long is a disgrace. Their concern was understandable. For those whose quality of life depends on the reliable provision of this essential service such a wait is unacceptable.

There are many reasons why, all across Australia, we are still experiencing these poor levels of service. It has nothing to do with the high standard of work and commitment to service that is shown by Telstra employees; it is all about Telstra's declining commitment to capital investment and staffing levels. In the past four years the number of employees at Telstra has dropped significantly: from over 50,000 in 1999-2000 to just over 37,500 in 2002-03, with the greatest level of reductions taking place in the infrastructure division, responsible for maintaining the network throughout Australia. Add to this the drop in capital investment from $4.2 billion to $3.2 billion over the same time frame and you have a recipe for disaster. Along comes a storm and Telstra's severe lack of resources is exposed even more. What makes this even harder for the Australian public to swallow is that over the same period the price of having a telephone in your home has skyrocketed from $11.65 a month to between $23.50 and $26.50 a month before a call is even made. That has almost doubled in less than three years. What is this—pay more get less? No wonder Australians are dissatisfied.

It is an issue to perhaps take up with the Chief Executive Officer of Telstra, who, we find, as well as overseeing this slashing of thousands of jobs, loss of billions of dollars overseas and a significant drop in the Telstra share price, is entitled to receive a bonus in excess of $1 million if and when he is dismissed. I imagine most Australian workers would like a contract of employment on their productivity like that.

Talk to Jack deGroot of Southern River, a local resident who recently raised concerns about Telstra's service. Mr deGroot runs a business receiving and placing orders by fax from his home and relies on a telephone line. The cable connecting his telephone line to the network was recently damaged by nearby excavations. Despite his repeated calls to Telstra to address the problem, it took several days to fix. In the meantime Mr deGroot lost vital business. The only advice provided by Telstra was for him to use his mobile phone—hardly an acceptable level of service.

Sadly, recent quarterly Australian Communications Authority figures confirmed the bad news. The figures show that Telstra's level of urban fault repairs within customer service guarantee time frames fell to 85 per cent in the March quarter. Whilst members from the other side of the House continue to tell the Australian public that the privatisation of Telstra is in their interest and that services will improve, the community is yet to see any benefits.

These problems are not confined to my electorate, as revealed by a Telstra survey recently conducted by my parliamentary colleague from Western Australia the member for Canning. The member for Canning's electorate is similar in many ways to that of Hasluck, taking in a mix of both outer metropolitan and regional areas. As he admitted in the House last week, the survey responses have revealed a number of problems that exist in the level of service provision by Telstra to his constituents.

I would like to give the House another example of how Telstra is currently failing my constituents in Hasluck. Another common concern raised about Telstra is the lack of ADSL broadband access to many commercial and residential areas. Martin from Huntingdale, for example, is one of many who have contacted me about this issue. He works in the IT industry and is keen to work from home, particularly as he is a father with a young family. However, he lives in a broadband black hole—a situation which, despite Martin's inquiries, Telstra claims it is unable to address. Is this an isolated case? Unfortunately, I think not. This situation is encountered by many throughout the electorate of Hasluck who, despite suggestions to indicate otherwise by the minister for communications, are being left behind in the technology stakes.

Broadband is a critical area of new technology for Australia and the Australian community. Telstra, aided and abetted by the Howard government, is creating a community in which there are the broadband haves and have-nots. Access to broadband technology for communities and businesses in outer metropolitan areas such as Hasluck is vitally important for their social and economic development; however, small business operators in my electorate who depend on the Internet to operate their businesses are still unable to access broadband technology.

In March this year I put a series of questions to the minister about this very issue. The vague and evasive response I received clearly demonstrates the lack of commitment this government has to providing telecommunications services equitably to all Australians. The minister openly admitted that ADSL technology would never reach 100 per cent of the community in my electorate of Hasluck. He went on to say that those who are unable to access ADSL can access alternatives such as satellite, a much more expensive technology, or ISDN, an older, inferior technology. Put simply, Telstra and this government are openly admitting that many people in my electorate of Hasluck will be left behind in the technology stakes—and they are not going to do anything about it. So much for their so-called policy of future proofing. People living in outer metropolitan areas are now clearly experiencing the Telstra cost-cutting pinch. Telstra has lost its way under this government, its maj-ority owner, and is failing to deliver on its core role.

A Labor government will bring Telstra back to its primary focus to ensure the delivery of high-quality telecommunications services to all Australians. The Leader of the Opposition rightly described this debate when he said:

[This] is one of the most important debates that will be had in this parliament this year. It is not just a debate about whether to sell a national icon; it is a debate about what sort of country we want to be: one in which our institutions benefit all of us or benefit just the lucky few. It is a debate about whether we believe that the money that Australians have put into Telstra over generations was an investment in the nation's future and should continue to be invested in its future, or whether it was just a cost to the budget. It is a debate about whether every Australian, no matter where they live or how much they earn, should have access to a phone, a fax and the Internet. It is a debate about whether the government is prepared to listen to the Australian people or to arrogantly ignore them.

I grew up in the bush. Anyone who has spent time in rural or isolated areas knows and understands the importance of government infrastructure and services. A strong and vital public sector is essential to foster a fair and just society. The public provision of services such as schools, hospitals, telecommunications, transport and utilities was—and still is—the building block of our tradition in Australia of a fair go for all. These services are paid for by our taxes and are essential to our prosperity as a nation.

There is little or no proof of sustained community benefit that supports the privatisation of government enterprises like Telstra or other government services. Indeed, increasingly the evidence suggests that privatisation and deregulation lead to a decline in the standard of living for the majority through higher charges for essential services and less access for those on lower incomes to those same services. That is why I am opposed to the further sale of Telstra. Telstra is a valuable community asset and should be retained in majority public ownership. During the 2001 election campaign, I made a commitment to the electors of Hasluck that I would oppose the sale of Telstra. Today I honour that commitment.