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Thursday, 16 October 2003
Page: 21657

Mr TANNER (3:15 PM) —As we move towards the end of yet another fun sitting week, we look across at the benches of the National Party and see their faces turning glum. They are becoming sadder by the minute, as they realise they will soon have to crawl back yet again with their tails between their legs to their electorates and the people they are supposed to represent, to hide in their offices to try to minimise the degree of exposure they will have to people in country Australia—the people they are supposed to be representing in this parliament—because they do not want to have to explain to them why they support selling Telstra. Yet again they will crawl away from this place, where they have already voted to sell Telstra, and do everything they possibly can to avoid being held to account for it in country Australia.

Mr Speaker, hasn't it been a fun couple of months for the National Party? They almost got a new leader—not quite, but almost. They have a new communications minister, and isn't he a beaut! He is sitting right here in front of me. And they have a new name. So they have had a really good couple of months. I am fascinated by this new name—I am genuinely fascinated by it. Some highly paid consultant has come to the National Party and given them this flash of inspiration. This would have to be the mother of all makeovers. They are changing their name from the National Party to the Nationals. Possibly the Australian Labor Party could change its name to Labor. Wouldn't that be an extraordinary revelation for the people who vote for us? There are thousands of wizened old farmers out there, west of Coonabarabran, with their feet on the barbed wire fence, chewing away, saying, `Did you know the National Party has just changed its name. Our party, the party that represented us for many years, has just changed its name.' And boy, are they excited about it!

I am trying to work out why they have done this; I have a few theories as to why they might have. Possibly they are going to have two separate legal entities; they are all going to be members of two separate parties. Up here, where they vote for the sale of Telstra, they are going to be members of the National Party; but back home, where they say they are opposed to the sale of Telstra, they are going to be members of the Nationals. Of course that is what they have already done. The federal conference of the Nationals said that they oppose the sale of Telstra until services in the bush are up to scratch; but the members of the National Party who were here voted in this very House only a few weeks ago in favour of the sale of Telstra.

Possibly it is a cunning plan to get members such as the member for New England and the member for Kennedy back in the fold. I can see that the member for New England is tempted. Possibly there is a cunning plan on the part of the National Party that, if they change their name to the Nationals and tell people they are actually opposing the National Party, they will get genuine country representatives like the member for New England back in the fold.

There is a third possibility though, and that is that the National Party are trying to make out that they have merged with One Nation and therefore will pick up all their votes. Think about it: One Nation plus one National Party. Put them together and you get two sorts of nationals, and you end up with the Nationals. One plus one equals two. That is the sort of mathematical precision that really appeals to people in the National Party—scientific politics that pick up all those votes that they have lost over the last few years to One Nation.

It is stretching things a bit, I admit, to say that the change of name is to welcome the new Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, who is sitting opposite me. I must confess that I am missing Dick Alston already. Digital Dick is dead, and I am missing him already. I apologise for not mentioning Peter and Lindy; I might get to them a bit later on. But I am missing digital Dick already; he is dead and we have a new incumbent. But, no sooner had we discovered that Dick was no longer the minister, it all started to come out. We found he had a family trust that actually had shares in Telstra—something like $70,000 worth. They are very big on family trusts on that side. They cannot understand why their public responsibilities should get in the way of managing their share portfolios in the most prudent and appropriate way. We have heard Senator Alston's defence: it was his mum. The Warney defence: it was his mum that did it.

The only thing that puzzles me about Senator Alston's mum being his excuse here is why didn't he think of this earlier. Why didn't he realise that his mum was a very convenient scapegoat for one or two other things? We remember the plasma TV scandal. Technically speaking—and the minister has put forward some highly technical legal defences on this matter of the family trust—he could have said that his mother owned the plasma TV. She lent it to him; it is his mum's. According to my rough calculation, I think the minister's mum had about a one-millionth interest in that plasma TV. That is roughly about the shareholding in Telstra—about a one millionth interest. He could have technically claimed that it was his mum's TV, and the fact that he had it for months watching the football was really nobody's business.

Mr Kerr —It was good enough for Shane Warne.

Mr TANNER —He was watching Shane Warne as well. But now, as I have pointed out, we have a new minister. Didn't he have a great start the other day and didn't he follow it up brilliantly today? He has been out buying his akubra and getting the Drizabone bush gear out, ready to go out there and convince country people that Telstra ought to be sold. They have a new strategy: they are going to bore them to death. We have Daryl and John—Hall and Oates. They are going to bore country people to death; they are going to send them to sleep and slip through the Telstra sale while they are still asleep.

I am afraid that it is not going to work. That kind of strategy is pretty smart, but I do not think it will work, because country people know what privatising Telstra actually means. Country people know that a privatised Telstra will be a giant, private monopoly that will be too powerful for any government to effectively regulate and will leave town faster than the banks. There have been many surveys to show what country Australia thinks about the government's proposal to sell Telstra. The member for New England has done a survey, and he got a response of over 95 per cent saying `Don't sell Telstra'; the member for Calare had a similar response. But they are not the only ones doing surveys.

Mr Brendan O'Connor —What about Alby?

Mr TANNER —As the member for Burke points out, the member for Hume did a survey and he discovered that the vast bulk of his constituents—his country constituents—opposed the sale. The member for Dawson did a survey and she discovered that her constituents, to the tune of 86 per cent, oppose a sale. But they are not the only ones doing surveys. The member for McEwen—Hyacinth Bucket, as we know her and love her—has recently put out a telecommunications survey, and it has the following questions: what telecommunications services do you most rely on in your home or in your business? How would you rate these services, from 1 to 10? Which of these services most needs improvement? How important is access to high-speed Internet—and so on. There is one big question missing: do you want to sell Telstra? I have not been able to find it. I am not quite sure why the member for McEwen has forgotten to put that on her survey. It could have slipped off at the printer's. That is an excuse that I am familiar with.

Mr McMullan —Her mum took it off.

Mr TANNER —That is another good possibility. These surveys have provoked the National Party into action. They went en masse to the Prime Minister to complain about the fact that the member for Hume was doing surveys and criticising the National Party for supporting the sale of Telstra. This is monumental hypocrisy. The Nationals are out in their electorates saying, `We are opposed to selling Telstra. We want to make sure we get decent regional services.' At the same time they are going to the Prime Minister and formally complaining about the member for Hume for criticising them for supporting the sale. Almost every day we have new revelations about the fraud that this government is seeking to impose upon Australia and upon country Australia with respect to the privatisation of Telstra.

A couple of weeks ago, the chairman of their own inquiry, Dick Estens, admitted that services in regional Australia are not up to scratch. At their own conference the Deputy Prime Minister—the Leader of the Nationals or the National Party or whatever they are called—admitted that services are not up to scratch and effectively said, `Black is white. We are not going to support the sale of Telstra until services are up to scratch'—after having already supported the sale by voting for it in this very House. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Telstra, Ziggy Switkowski, was awarded a new contract which enables him to earn up to $7 million a year based on incentives. But what are those incentives connected to? Are they connected to regional services? Are they connected to the standard of Internet delivery in the bush? Are they connected to mobile phone coverage? No, they are not. They are connected to the share price, cash flow, financial incentives—nothing to do with services in regional Australia.

Last week it was revealed that the figures The Nationals claim as the basis for their argument that country services are up to scratch are completely phoney. I described them some months ago as Saddam Hussein referendum figures, and I did not know how right I was. They were completely phoney; they were based on a dubious averaging of monthly figures to claim that, generally, about one per cent to two per cent of phones throughout Australia each year have a fault—when, in fact, the real figure is in the vicinity of 10 per cent, 15 per cent, 20 per cent or more. Telstra even admits that it is probably around 10 per cent or more.

It was similarly exposed, through the same Senate inquiry process, that the Nationals' claims of future proofing Telstra and its network, and guaranteeing a standard of regional services into the future, are complete nonsense. There is absolutely nothing—not one clause, not one word in this legislation—which provides any guarantee whatsoever for people in country Australia with respect to future regional services. All it does is set up a framework which empowers a future minister to set requirements—but does not guarantee that any such requirements will be imposed—and a five-yearly review, appointed by the minister, where the government is under no obligation other than to table the outcome of the review. It was admitted in this inquiry that it is highly conceivable that a requirement such as that there is one Telstra shop in Gundagai and one technician in Kalgoorlie could be sufficient to satisfy a nominal requirement about Telstra's regional services.

We have discovered that Telstra are still installing pair gain systems, which inhibit dial-up Internet speeds—even though they claimed that they worked. We have discovered that Mr Estens has admitted that his recommended 19.2 kilobits per second data speed is inadequate, and we have discovered, only over the last 24 hours, that the way the government are proposing to implement this is a complete fraud. Rather than universal provision, which is what they said they were going to do, they are supposedly going to provide it `on demand', provided Telstra are not prevented from delivering it by circumstances beyond their control. That is code for, `When we get around to it, we might give it to a few people.' So even this totally inadequate and very basic level of Internet service is still going to be denied to many country people.

Now, of course, we have got Telstra's BigPond email service in complete chaos, with speeds roughly the speed of carrier pigeon—with not quite the reliability—and all of this in a context where the government says that regional telecommunications services are up to scratch, everything is fine, everything is going well, Telstra is fine to be privatised.

The National Party might change their name, they might pretend, out in the bush, that they are opposed to the sale of Telstra, and do something different here; they might claim to be the representative of country people; but nothing is going to save them from the wrath of people in their electorates on this issue. The National Party might be made up of people who are a bit silly, but the people who vote for them are not, and they are going to see absolutely, right up square, what this party are about. They are betraying their origins, they are betraying the people who have loyally voted for them for many years, they are betraying those constituents, those activists, those hardworking people who have handed out how-to-vote cards—and I was one of them many years ago, when I was 10, as people may remember. They are betraying all those people, because they have not got the guts to stand up to the Liberal Party and say, `Don't sell Telstra, because it is of fundamental importance to people in country Australia.'

People in country Australia know the reality of telecommunications services in Australia. They know the network is crumbling. They know that staff have been cut back dramatically by Telstra and that services are deteriorating. They have got huge problems with Internet drop-outs, email blackouts and mobile phone coverage, and the fact that these things are not reflected in the official statistics has now exposed the statistics as a lie. We have phoney statistics from the ACA, based on dubious methodology, that ultimately mean nothing.

People in country Australia know that prices and line rental fees are going up. Telstra is still effectively a monopoly in most parts of Australia, subject to inadequate competition. Broadband rollout has virtually stalled in many parts of Australia, and we are still nationally way behind the vast bulk of equivalent countries. People in rural Australia know what selling Telstra means: it will be a giant private monopoly, it will be too powerful for any government to effectively regulate, it will focus on the most lucrative markets in the bigger cities and it will leave town faster than the banks. That is what will happen. That is what people in country Australia know and that is why the National Party should be honourable. They should stick to representing their constituents; they should stick to their traditional position on these issues. It does not matter what they are called—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Swan has been warned already today.

Mr TANNER —The National Party, the National Country Party, The Nationals or One Nation, if they want to merge with them—they have an obligation to country people and they should deliver on that obligation. (Time expired)