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Monday, 21 June 1999
Page: 5764

Senator MARK BISHOP (5:34 PM) —I want to raise a few issues arising out of schedule 2, the matter under discussion before the chamber. In schedule 2 there is an allocation of $1.35 billion to the Natural Heritage Trust. Part 9, clause 43 gives the simplified outline of this part: rural transaction centres—$75 million over five years; extended access to untimed local calls—$150 million over three years; meeting the telecommunications needs of people in isolated island communities in the Antarctic Territory; Internet access for people in rural and regional areas—$36 million over three years; mobile phone coverage along highways—$25 million; and a range of other matters. Later on in schedule 2, divisions 2, 3, 4 and 5 essentially establish the funds and provide authority for allocation of the funds and presumably, in due course, for disbursement of those funds by the relevant agencies of departments that have been given that responsibility.

Yesterday there was a series of press releases: three or four by the minister, one by Senator Ian Campbell, one by the minister for regional affairs, Mr Anderson, joint press releases from three or four government senators from Tasmania and a couple of press releases from joint coalition senators in Queensland. They outlined, from a range of perspectives, the additional $314 million that the government has allocated by way of social bonus in this process. There was a range of descriptions, and the minister's press release is quite comprehensive in the detail of the social bonus. The BITS program gets $158 million; the BARN program, Building Additional Regional Networks, $70 million; Networking the Nation local government fund, $45 million; expanded mobile phone coverage, $3 million—a little sweetie given to South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania for no apparent reason apart from the fact that they did not qualify for other programs, which is a useful precedent; and Trials in Innovative Government Electronic Regional Services—TIGERS—which we will return to.

There will be environmental spending, money for connecting Tasmanian schools and a couple of little beauties down there: an athletics centre in Tasmania is going to have its track upgraded to the value of $600,000, and there will be a couple of other minor allocations of funds in Tasmania. So there is $314 million in addition to the $670-odd million already allocated as part of the social bonus.

I was interested in Senator Margetts's earlier comments when she responded to matters raised by Senator Allison. She hit the nail right on the head when she said that, as far as her party was concerned, no-one seriously quarrels with the proposition that a lot of the programs outlined for funding in the social bonus are worthy programs, and that people in rural and remote areas should have access over time, at sound cost, to the same sorts of programs that we in the cities regard as basic. Indeed, most of the little beauties that have been added down in Tasmania are probably worthwhile programs in their own right.

There is no real reason to be overtly critical of the nature of their programs but probably good reason to be critical of the allocation of funds and why it is so critical to allocate $158 million here and $40 million there to things in Tasmania. I am sure all Tasmanians think it is a wonderful idea, but if the programs do not stand on their own merits, it raises interesting issues of public policy as to why they are being funded. To finish that point, Senator Margetts from the Greens was correct. I think the additional programs outlined in terms of the rural transaction centres, untimed local calls, remote island communities, Internet access for people in rural or regional areas and mobile phone coverage along highways are all worthwhile things. One would have thought that with the ever decreasing cost of technology—the ever decreasing cost of telecommunications around the world and in this country—these relatively modest programs would have been funded by government over time as part of its obligation to the sensible allocation of taxpayers' funds.

Senator Mackay —It's a dividend.

Senator MARK BISHOP —It is indeed the dividend. The government is taking $1.8 billion a year out of Telstra. The opposition does not quarrel with that. Indeed, with the growth in the telecommunications market, the switch and the huge growth in volume of data transference, the huge growth in Internet access, uptake and use both at consumer and business level, it is no surprise that the price of Telstra and other telecommunications shares have risen, continue to rise and will probably rise more so in the next couple of years.

Of the allocation of $1.8 billion—approaching $2 billion—that the government receives in dividends, a modest amount is allocated to a range of modest initiatives. The series of press releases outlined the detail of those yesterday. But I ask the minister: when does the government intend to legislate for that improved package of benefits totalling $314 million? When will we receive the amendments in this chamber, or this parliament, that address the improvements that have been negotiated with Senator Harradine? The current bill reflects government commitments at the last election. They said up-front that there was a social bonus of $671 million. They predicated the implementation of the programs they outlined on the sale of the next 16 per cent, so it is a contingent social bonus, if you like. We say it should have occurred out of normal planning by DCITA and normal allocation of government funds to fairly modest and basic improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure in this country. Nonetheless, the government went down another path. They won the election, and this bill we are discussing now reflects their election commitment. We do not quarrel with that.

In the last two weeks there have been a series of negotiations, presumably between Minister Alston and Senator Harradine. In Senator Harradine's second reading contribution a fortnight or three weeks ago, he indicated a number of markers. He said he was inclined—in fact, he said it more strongly than that—to support the sale of the next 16 per cent. He ruled out the other 51 per cent, and he indicated that either he or someone would move an amendment to delete schedule 3 at the appropriate time. But, in terms of his critical remarks about price—and most things, if not all things, come down to price—Senator Harradine indicated his price was relocation of structural and management functions to Tasmania, and that has been ticked off. He indicated his price was not low paid or low valued or minimum wage jobs in Tasmania but high value jobs in management and administrative fields, and that has been ticked off. He indicated that he wanted Tasmania to receive a significant net additional investment from government—that there were significant economic and structural problems in that state.

He did not say it then but he has said at other times that there is a population decline. Young people leave that state to go to the mainland—to Melbourne and Sydney—to seek careers, homes and families elsewhere because there is perceived to be a lack of opportunity for their careers post the age of 18 when they leave high school in Tasmania. So he indicated that the third thing to be ticked off was allocation of significant funds to universities, research institutions and think tanks in modern new and emerging technologies. Again, the $40 million for the development of Tasmania as an intelligent island has been ticked off.

So all of the markers that Senator Harradine laid down in his second reading comments when the debate closed have been accommodated by the government, and the opposition is not overly critical of that. But what we do want to know is a little more than what is going on by way of press release. The nine or 10 press releases from the joint coalition senators in Queensland, the one from Mr Anderson and a range of others, including one from Parliamentary Secretary Campbell, all rehashed old ground. There was nothing new in those press releases. The press release of consequence was Minister Alston's. Also of consequence, of course, was the joint press release from the coalition senators in Tasmania.

It is interesting to observe the process of negotiations because the social bonus totals in the order of almost $1 billion. Tasmania's population is something less than two per cent of the total of this country—might be a little bit more.

Senator Alston —It is 2.6.

Senator MARK BISHOP —It is 2.6 per cent, I am told by the Minister. The state's gross state product is also less than 2.5 per cent of Australia's GDP, but the total allocation of funds in the social bonus, to 2.6 per cent of the population, is in excess of 15 per cent of the social bonus. That raises a whole range of equity, access, administrative and merit issues.

The opposition does not quarrel with the upgrading of an athletics track in the city of Hobart to make it modern. If the same principle is to be applied, we would probably like to have new hockey fields in Western Australia, where the bulk of the Australian Hockeyroos come from; we would probably like to have new and additional swimming pools in New South Wales; we would probably like to have new archery fields in Victoria; and we would probably like to have new kayak and other facilities in Queensland, because in each of those states, for whatever reason, the local population has developed expertise or excellence in those particular sports.

If the principle is that you can whack out $600,000 by the Commonwealth to upgrade an athletics track—you beaut, we will be into that and we will have a couple of million dollars here for a hockey field and $5 million for a swimming pool there. It seems to be a new approach to public policy. If that is the name of the game, the opposition is not slow; we will give that some thought and come to you with a range of propositions and I am sure you will adopt them in due course.

What we need to come to grips with is: when will we see the amendments to this bill that provide the structure for the allocation of this additional $314 million? It is a lot of money: $158 million for Building IT Strengths, and $40 million to develop Tasmania as an intelligent island. I notice in passing that in a range of the other programs—Building Additional Rural Networks, BARN (don't we love acronyms in this place?) and Networking the Nation Local Government Fund, $45 million—the funds allocated to each of those programs has simply been divided up. The aggregate total has been divided by the six states and a few extra bob thrown in for the two territories.

In terms of all of those other programs, if the allocation is $50 million, they have given $45 million divided by six for each of the states and the other $6 million divided by two for the two territories, the ACT and the Northern Territory. A different approach appears to apply to BARN, Networking the Nation, the expanded mobile phone coverage, Netwatch, the TIGERS program—although that is in Tasmania only—and the additional environmental spending.

When will the amendments come forward? Do you intend that they be part of the discussion that we are currently engaged in? Sched ule 2 is the appropriate place for those additional amendments to be discussed. Are we, therefore, going to be doing it as part of this process? Or do you simply intend to implement the additional $314 million by administrative action once the programs have been established, or will you bring the amendments to this bill for discussion at a later time?