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Wednesday, 27 May 1998
Page: 3171

Senator LUNDY (11:32 AM) —As my colleague Senator George Campbell has outlined, the Labor Party will be opposing the National Transmission Network Sale Bill 1997 and the associated consequential amendments bill.

There is a very good reason for us opposing these bills, because these measures seek to sell off what is an essential and crucial part of Australia's telecommunications and communications infrastructure; infrastructure that provides metropolitan and regional Australia alike with their broadcasting services. These bills seek to sell off the assets of the National Transmission Agency, assets which are currently owned by all Australians and managed for the good of all Australians.

The National Transmission Agency can be held up as an impressive organisation and is in fact one of the world's largest broadcasting facilities. The assets of the NTA include 1,197 transmitters used to broadcasting the ABC and SBS radio and television services right around the Australian continent. Perhaps that gives us an insight as to why this government is selling the network. With what they are doing to the ABC and SBS, perhaps there will not be anything of substance to broadcast soon.

The relationship between the cutbacks to our national broadcasters and to this sale of the National Transmission Agency cannot be ignored. This relationship represents a commitment by this government to an ideological agenda of deconstructing the communications services provided through taxpayers' funds for the benefit of all Australians.

The NTA facilities also accommodate 503 transmitters belonging to licensed broadcasters and more than 1,000 radio communications transmitters. Why is it that Australia has such an impressive and large broadcasting infrastructure network? It is because, unlike this current government, some former administrations had the foresight, commitment and understanding as to why it was so critical for such a vast country as ours to have a well-defined, efficient and extensive physical infrastructure.

A network that is managed by government to ensure that broadcasting services are available to all Australians is what we require. We know, because of what has happened with Telstra and the reduction in services that can be largely attributed to a change in Telstra's priorities as a public organisation—now a partially private organisation—that there is a relationship between that commitment to services to all Australians and ownership. We also know that the intent, will and philosophies of the government of the day also determine the quality through the level of the funding afforded to those services.

Out of all of NTA's assets there is one component that is absolutely invaluable and cannot be quantified, and that is the people who work there. In this government's rationalist quantifying of government assets and the sort of dollar it hopes to reap from its sale, it cannot quantify the corporate knowledge and experience of the workers, many of whom have spent their whole professional lives working for this organisation. There are people within the NTA that have seen it grow, develop and provide a remarkable service that they are very proud of as employees of the NTA and the Australian Public Service. They are also very proud of the actual technical capacities that they have been able to achieve.

It is because of the dedication and commitment of the people who work there that we have seen the NTA go from strength to strength, with improved and more efficient services as well as clocking up some singularly identifiable and impressive achievements. It is particularly because of the NTA's excellent performance over recent years that there can be no argument and no justification for the government to be bringing the bills before this place. There is no argument or justification from the government as to any inefficiencies. There is no argument from this government as to why it can justify the sale of the NTA in any form.

Evidence of this lack of justification, I believe, can be found in the government's refusal to release its scoping study. That scoping study would canvass and seek to quantify the economics behind the structure of the NTA and the services it provides, the cost to government and the returns to government in the form of service. How is this parliament to decide whether the government is proceeding down the most appropriate route in maximising the return to the Australian taxpayers and seeking to protect the public interest without this information being available? Does the government expect us to do it on trust?

I believe this government has lost the trust of the Australian people with its short-sighted measures. These short-sighted measures over the last two years and a bit have meant that Australians cannot trust what this government has to say. When that lack of trust is highlighted by a refusal to provide basic informa tion to allow proper parliamentary consideration of these issues, it reinforces the view.

The opposition has concerns with many areas connected to these bills. I would like to go through some of those specific areas. Although the bill guarantees access to the NTA facilities for the ABC and SBS for the next five years, there is very little information as to what will happen after those five years. In the midst of a time of great change, of great technological progress, and indeed political consideration of the management of that technological progress, particularly with respect to digitisation, what sort of fiasco is the government trying to establish here? Imagine the difficulty that the national broadcasters are going to be in when they seek to negotiate with a company, or perhaps a series of companies, of corporate entities, which will have a clear monopoly over transmission facilities and the transmission networks.

Here is one of the first fundamental contradictions of this whole process. Here we have a government whose rhetoric waxes long and rather lame on issues of competition, of achieving efficiencies, through that means. Yet this proposal is a transfer of what could be construed as a public monopoly to a private monopoly. In the eyes of competition policy, the latter is the far worse result in terms of consumers and certainly in terms of the public interest.

I am quite bewildered as to how some senators on the other side of this chamber who purport to represent regional Australia are supporting these bills, considering that they contain no guarantees regarding the maintenance of services in rural and regional areas. We see speculation currently in the context of the Telstra privatisation debate that the only way this government can protect services for regional areas is not through a process of asset sales, of deregulation, of competition in the private sector, but through re-regulation to force those corporate entities to provide a prescribed minimum service in areas that don't `turn a quid'. And let's face it—because we are such a big country, because we are so vast, some areas of this country in the telecommunications context will never turn a quid. In this fact lies the very foundation of arguments supporting the retention of public ownership, not only of our telecommunications service provider Telstra, but also of authorities like the National Transmission Authority.

While some members of government have made certain claims that the contract with the purchaser of the network would look after these matters, this guarantee should appear in the bill if this parliament is to have any faith that the government and the new owner will meet these obligations of looking after those in the bush. Over the last two years, time and time again it has been the Australian Labor Party highlighting the concerns of regional Australia. The cuts to the ABC and the sale of Telstra, which I have already mentioned, and the cutting of Radio National are all examples of the diminution of services in the communications area to regional Australia.

Here is another bill that does nothing to protect or support, let alone enhance, those critical services. I ask: where are those supposed to be the voices of rural Australia speaking up when this government is making decisions that will hit people hardest out there in rural and regional Australia? We do not hear them in debate because we are dealing with the Liberals' ideological agenda. The National Party representatives in this place are not to be seen when it comes to slashing, funding, cutting and selling off our telecommunications infrastructure.

There is nothing in this bill that guarantees that the current policy objectives of the National Transmission Agency will be maintained. While the bill does contain some limited community service obligations, these are far more constrained than those which are currently in existence. How ironic it is that when the government is deciding to sell off Australia's broadcasting infrastructure it actually reduces the community obligations on those who will control the transmission network.

With respect to the ABC and SBS, the minister claims they will draw up a compact with the two broadcasters which will seek to spell out what the coverage and quality expectations will be for those who own the national transmission network. Well, how is that for a gesture? The same minister continues to cut the funding of our national broadcaster with each consecutive budget and, with respect to technological progression, an issue which is fundamentally linked to the services that the National Transmission Authority provide, they have restricted the capability of the ABC through lack of sufficient funding for their digitisation strategy.

The government claims that in return for this compact it will be covering the costs of the transmission contracts for the next five years. Let us see, does that relate to the timetable for the digitisation strategy? It comes close, it is a big longer. How does it relate to the out years funding commitment by this government to the ABC? All these things must be reviewed alongside each other. Five years does not afford the protection to the national broadcaster that is required to make what is fundamentally an irreversible decision to sell the authority. I think it is also a reasonable thing to say that I can assume that undertaking is about as good as Minister Alston's undertaking a couple of years back to actually guarantee ABC funding.

It is very difficult for anyone to claim that the NTA is an inefficient organisation. To what degree the government will lean on this, I expect we shall hear. The NTA over the last few years dramatically expanded its network, resulting in the substantial expansion of radio and television services to regional Australia. In fact, the expansion of the network since 1992 has facilitated an extra 1.3 million Australians having access to national radio and television services. ABC services alone have been extended to a further 468,000 Australians over the last six years, with 453,000 Australians also now having access to SBS television.

This growth, this improved access to these services, has got to be attributed in some way to the dedication of the team at the NTA and the former Labor government's vision and commitment to expanding the network. This vision and dedication is lacking from this government and I am yet to hear how this vision will emerge in the private sector. This government stands up here and says that a corporate entity which purchases the NTA will arrive with such a vision, with such a commitment to expanding the opportunities of all Australians to access such services, with an underlying philosophy of equity of that access.

I want the government to tell me how it will do that, because experience shows us that the only way governments can enforce a commitment to those issues by corporate entities is through a re-regulation, through a strident compliance regime that in turn starts to eat into any perceived deficiencies that they hope to attain through the sale in the first place. And with a compliance regime must come penalties, there must come a disincentive if that corporate entity does not conform with the desired requirements of the government.

Here is the second greatest contradiction: the government is floating these concepts up against the rhetoric that we hear from it about free market enterprise, about how the private sector always does it better than the public sector, but it starts to ring very hollow and is exposed as not being an argument of substance when it comes to the selling off of public infrastructure in this way.

Like many senators on the other side of the chamber, I too am a keen listener of Triple J and one of the greatest achievements of the National Transmission Authority was its expansion of the network that has facilitated the broadcast of Triple J to thousands upon thousands of young Australians. Triple J has been revolutionised as a result of regional broadcasting and has not only acted as a wonderful new service to young people in rural and regional Australia but has brought metropolitan young people and rural people together. It has provided a unique unifying factor amongst the youth of this country. Where is the vision going to emerge from this government and what are their solutions to address these concepts? Triple J's series of `Unearthed' concerts have been great examples once again about how we bring rural and regional Australia together with metropolitan Australia, sharing their culture, sharing their voice.

These are the tangible examples of what I am talking about when I talk about equity and access and how our communications and telecommunications infrastructure are so critical to all Australians. It is not just about switching the TV on or the radio on and being able to get a service, it is about the quality of service that provides. That point takes me back to an earlier point in that you cannot address these issues unless you look at the big picture, the funding issues relating to the national broadcasters that use the NTA. It is all linked and it all points to how critical the retention of public ownership of these services is because that allows philosophies of parties like the Labor Party to shine through and allows these services and the opportunities that they subsequently provide to continue to be a feature on the Australian political landscape. In conclusion, I would once again like to recognise the dedicated work of all the employees of the NTA over the years. They are a group of people who have much to be proud of.