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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19202

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Science) (1:00 PM) —I rise to address the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. Although the opposition would have us believe otherwise, it was not so very long ago that the Australian Labor Party laid claim to being the party of privatisation. In government, they would again be the party of privatisation. The performance of their speakers over the last 72 hours has been singularly unconvincing. They have approached this issue in a very opportunist and political way and have sought to dress in philosophy and ideology what is instead a base political attack on the government and the Telstra organisation.

Nobody in this chamber—and, I venture, in the broader Australian community—believes that the Labor Party would do anything other than fully privatise Telstra on coming to government. Look at their track record. Whether it be the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank or a number of other government business enterprises, the Labor Party have always been in a mad rush to privatise. In a number of those instances, the Liberal and National parties supported the Hawke and Keating governments because it was in the interests of consumers, customers and the broader Australian economy that government business enterprises shift to private hands and give Australian shareholders an opportunity to invest in the national infrastructure.

If you ask me, the Labor Party speakers were simply covering their tracks. They can now go to their branch meetings and meetings with union bosses and trail their Hansard extracts and say, with hand on heart, `I opposed the privatisation of Telstra; it was the government that steamrolled us in the final vote in the House of Representatives.' In fact, for most of them their hearts were not in it; otherwise they would have addressed the pressing economic and social issues surrounding the issue of privatisation. Government members fully discharged their responsibilities by looking at the issue in its totality and comprehensively. Speaker after speaker from the Australian Labor Party had a knee-jerk reaction, with inflammatory language which did not do themselves, their party or their cause any good.

What worries me more than anything else is the slander and defamation of Telstra as an organisation. Telstra is made up of a great many dedicated people. Telstra Country Wide has revolutionised communications in country areas. It provides an on-the-spot local response to local issues by local people. The Labor Party will never acknowledge that Telstra has undergone a 180-degree turn from its performances of earlier days. This is the dilemma for the Labor Party: on one hand they bleat in the parliament—and wherever they can gather an audience of more than two—that Telstra is inefficient, unresponsive and negligent in its servicing of country people especially; but on the other hand they say Telstra has to remain the same, as that is in the interests of those same people. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim on the one hand that Telstra does not operate to its full potential and on the other hand resist the very mechanism that will expose Telstra entirely to the requirements of shareholders and the marketplace and allow it to respond, within the licence conditions that the government will impose, to the competition that the government has engendered over the last six years.

Moreover, the Labor Party noticeably avoided responding to firstly the Besley inquiry, of earlier days, and then recently to the Estens inquiry. Both inquiries examined the state of Telstra and the level of its service to country people. Both have made recommendations. In response to the Besley inquiry the government has invested many hundreds of millions of dollars bringing up the level of infrastructure for country people and we are now responding to all 39 recommendations of the Estens inquiry. At the same time, our regulatory regime puts in place requirements for Telstra and other carriers to service country people.

Of course, no-one on this side of the House has contended that Telstra is perfect. But, for the Labor Party, it is black and white: sometimes Telstra is all wrong and all incompetent while on the other hand Telstra is all they want it to be. Government members will never believe that a telecommunications company of whatever size or composition is 100 per cent perfect. But we will continually drive to extract the very best level of service from Telstra and any other carrier.

Given the constraints of time, I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. The Labor Party stands condemned. They did not participate properly in this debate; they simply recited a number of slogans and cliches. One or two of them tried to inject class warfare into the debate. They did not address the issues, whether they be economic, social or regulatory. Consequently, I congratulate and thank my colleagues who have participated in this debate and have properly conveyed a sensible and objective examination of the issue, as is required of us as members of the parliament. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.