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Thursday, 28 May 1998
Page: 3318

Senator SCHACHT (10:21 AM) —by leave—Senator O'Chee, I know the government has a tight schedule and I am not going to speak for long. I want to point out that the chairman of the committee's remarks have been tabled. They are on behalf of the majority report. The government members of the committee have made a minority report. The Labor members have made a minority report and the Democrats themselves have made—

Senator Harradine —We haven't got a copy.

Senator SCHACHT —I think it is being circulated. I want to make a few remarks. I will not delay the Senate because there will be plenty of opportunity when the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 1998 is debated. Firstly, I want to place on record the opposition's appreciation of the ERCA committee secretariat: to Roxane Le Guen, the secretary, and all her staff. The cooperation they provided to the opposition members in helping to prepare our minority report was excellent. In view of the very short time that the government gave for this very important piece of legislation to be considered by the committee, we really do respect and appreciate the way that the staff of the secretariat worked so hard to ensure that the report could be tabled today.

We also point out that at the time the legislation went to the committee we accepted that it go to a legislative committee, and the Senate accepted our terms of reference. We pointed out that the time available for a report on this matter would be too short. In the end, the government itself had to seek an extension of a further two weeks to enable the report to be dealt with. Now we have the report tabled. I also thank my parliamentary colleagues Senator Kate Lundy, a member of the committee, and Senator Kim Carr, a participating member, for their cooperation and support for myself as deputy chair in the preparation of the minority report.

The issues in this report are very significant for the Australian people. The Prime Minister (Mr Howard) has made this issue a major one for the election. We believe it is a stunt to put the legislation in before the election and then say, `If we win the election we will proclaim it and put it into action after the election', after the Prime Minister claims he has a mandate from the people. We would point out, as we do in the report, that every public opinion poll published since the Prime Minister's announcement has approximately at least a two to one majority of Australians opposed to the further privatisation of Telstra. In one survey even a majority of the over one million Australians who bought Telstra shares do not support the further privatisation of Telstra. I believe that the Prime Minister has not in any way thought through the consequences not only politically for himself but for Australia by proposing the full privatisation of Telstra.

The other thing that became clear in the hearing is that the decision of the Prime Minister to fully privatise Telstra was taken in a capricious manner by himself without consultation with his cabinet. When we asked the Department of Communications and the Arts when the cabinet submission was lodged and how long it took to prepare the proposal for the full privatisation, the officials at the table said, `That is cabinet-in-confidence.' We believe that what happened was that there was no submission to cabinet from the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, on behalf of himself or his department proposing full privatisation. We understand. He was ambushed, like everybody else, when the Prime Minister made a capricious decision to overcome a difficulty with Senator Parer at the time of the national conference of the Liberal Party held in Brisbane earlier this year.

It is extraordinary that a Prime Minister and a government would make a decision to create the biggest privatisation in Australia's history, something maybe worth $40 billion more, and there was no cabinet submission that we can ascertain, there was no cabinet discussion—

Senator Ian Macdonald —How would you know?

Senator SCHACHT —When we asked the question at the hearing, Senator Macdonald, we did not ask for the content of the cabinet submission. We know that is cabinet-in-confidence, and we accept. But they could have taken the opportunity to explain that there was actually a reasonable process. We find it extraordinary.

We also find it extraordinary that the Prime Minister apparently did this with either no or very little consultation, even informally, with his own minister. For the Australian people to have this proposition put before them to embark on the biggest privatisation in Australia's history is an extraordinary reflection on the processes, or the lack of process, of this government. That is why they consistently make policy mistakes.

I will come back to the second reading speech when this report is tabled. I believe that the short time we had available to consider the evidence and the submissions and the short time the public had to put in submissions was all deliberately done by the government to close down debate. When you read all the submissions, you find that not one from the private sector, who ideologically have no real objection to privatisation, was enthusiastically in there arguing in favour of privatisation. In fact, many were doing the opposite. We had companies, the competitors to Telstra, saying, `For goodness sake, get the competition rules straight.' If you privatise Telstra, the only thing worse for them than a public owned monopoly is a privately owned monopoly. Telstra for the foreseeable future will provide well over 80 per cent, and in some areas of Australia 100 per cent, of the telecommunications needs of the Australian people.

Again, I thank the secretariat. I thank my own staff and the staff of Senator Carr and Senator Lundy for helping the three of us prepare this minority report, which we believe will be the focus of the debate. We certainly want to make sure that the public of Australia are fully aware of the extraordinary consequences of privatising a most successful publicly owned asset in Australia. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.