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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5867

Senator COLBECK (2:07 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston. Did the coalition commit before the 2001 federal election not to progress any further sale of Telstra until arrangements are in place to ensure services are adequate? Is the minister aware of any evidence that demonstrates that arrangements are now in place to deliver adequate services?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Indeed, in the year 2001—which might seem a long time ago now—we stated:

The government will not proceed with any further sale of Telstra until it is fully satisfied that arrangements are in place to deliver adequate services to all Australians.

In other words, we were very up-front because we had already received a report from Mr Besley which had made, I think, 16 recommendations and we were in the process of implementing those. We made it plain going into that election that we would not proceed unilaterally and that we would not do what the Labor Party had done, for example, in relation to the Commonwealth Bank: say one thing before the election but do something else afterwards.

In August of this year, we announced the establishment of the independent Regional Telecommunications Inquiry to review regional services in respect of telecommunications and to take a fresh look at telecommunications services in the light of the considerable investment and improvements made since we came to office. As I am sure honourable senators are aware, over the past five years we have spent something in excess of $1 billion on regional and rural telecommunications infrastructure; and that makes us world's best practice. As a result, the report found that the government had responded positively and comprehensively to the findings of the 2000 telecommunications service inquiry and that arrangements had been put in place that are addressing community concerns.

The report also stated that the inquiry is confident that arrangements that have been put in place over the past five years, including the TSI response together with commercial developments and the inquiry's further recommendations, will create an environment into the future where regional, rural and remote Australians would be able to benefit fully from advances in telecommunications technology and services. The report does make a number of recommendations— 39 in all—which will require a considered response, and we are in that process. There were a number of submissions that naturally tended to highlight some of the shortcomings that individuals might have experienced in their dealings. But, given the mammoth level of operations on the part of Telstra, it is not surprising that there are always going to be some concerns about the level of service. The overall report makes it very plain that those substantial implementations have led to a very significant level of service, which can now be regarded as adequate.

I think the real question arising out of the whole exercise on the Friday is why Mr Tanner, who is supposedly still the shadow minister, put out a press release saying that he was going to have a press conference at 2 o'clock, but that was unilaterally cancelled and Mr Crean came in over the top. Mr Tanner was not allowed to speak at the press conference and was not allowed to put out his own press release. It is very difficult to understand what is going on here. To describe this as a whitewash, which is the usual knee-jerk response to anything you do not like, does not sit all that well with what the Democrats said, which was essentially that this makes out a case for further government ownership. Of course you would have to spend about another $6 billion if you were to acquire another 10 per cent of Telstra into government hands.

I think the responses have been fairly predictable. Certainly, the Labor Party have once again demonstrated that they have no interest in good policy outcomes and no interest in looking at whether those in regional and rural Australia are being well served by telecommunications. They have never supported any of our Networking the Nation initiatives or the customer service guarantee or the Network Reliability Framework. This report makes it plain that we are very well placed in Australia and we ought to be able to move to the next stage. We will be doing just that, as soon as we have had an opportunity to respond comprehensively to the report.