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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5884


Senator EGGLESTON (3:27 PM) —I would have thought that Senator Alston would be one of the finest communications ministers this country has ever seen. Far from needing to lift his game, he is a benchmark by which communication ministers will be judged from hereon after. Senator Alston has transformed telecommunications in this country. He has brought enormous improvements to telecommunications in small towns through the Networking the Nation scheme. He has brought mobile phone coverage to the great highways of this country. He has improved telecommunications particularly for people living in the most remote and outback parts of Australia with a special contract of $150 million to provide them with satellite, Internet, fax and telecommunications services. Senator Alston is a very great and outstanding communications minister. He is far better than anybody in the Labor Party who has ever held that portfolio. That is why he has held the portfolio for seven years because he is so outstanding, so able and so on top of the issues. This man deserves praise not criticism.

Senator Faulkner has made a few comments about the COT cases, claiming that Senator Alston said that he was asked to ring the Victorian fraud group by Mrs Garms and Mr Schorer. That is not the case. He made it quite clear that he rang on behalf of Senator Boswell and Senator Boswell alone. I will go into this in a minute, but Senator Boswell sought to have clarified the fact that the fraud group would not interfere with matters concerning the Fortitude Valley exchange. That was why Senator Alston rang the fraud group.

Senator Alston was never approached by Mrs Garms and that is on the record. Senator Alston put out a press release to that effect. He has said quite openly and directly that he rang on behalf of Senator Boswell who was very concerned that the matter of the Fortitude Valley exchange be clarified and that the fraud squad investigation would not in any way interfere with Telstra dealing with that issue. That was the core issue in the COT cases as they affected Mrs Garms. As the Senate will know, the COT cases had been before the Senate estimates committees in 1994. The cases involved a small group of business people who thought that their businesses had been adversely affected by poor telephone services. As I am sure many senators know, a fast-track settlement proposal was set up under Austel, and the matter dragged on and on until the Howard government came in. The communications committee at that time set up a working party and brought in the Telecommunications Ombudsman, Mr Wynack, to help get to the bottom of the matter. As many senators will recall, on 11 March 1999 the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee, which I chaired, reported to the Senate, saying that it had concluded on the basis of advice that there was no point in continuing with the working party and it was the committee's view that Telstra should now seek to reach a negotiated settlement with the interested parties.

At that point, the issue of the Fortitude Valley telephone exchange became very important in relation to Mrs Garms' case. The minister told the Senate on 16 March that he had written to Telstra seeking clarification of whether or not the Fortitude Valley exchange had been upgraded. Senator Boswell then contacted Senator Alston expressing concern that the fraud case might interfere with the clarification of the Fortitude Valley issue. Senator Alston then rang the fraud squad to make sure that there would be no problems.

That is all there is to this matter. As I have said, Senator Alston is a great and fine minister who has acted very much in the interests of the COT cases and he has brought great improvements to telecommunications in this country generally. For Senator Faulkner to criticise him in the way he did is unacceptable and quite wrong. (Time expired)