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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5885


Senator LUNDY (3:32 PM) —It may be unacceptable to the other side of the chamber, but we saw all the evidence we needed to see today of a minister who just does not care enough about the future of telecommunications in this country to actually read the detail of the report. I mean, hello: this is a report of an inquiry that the government set up to help them try to justify the further privatisation of Telstra. Do we need any more evidence to see what a patsy this report and Mr Estens played as part of their political agenda? Absolutely not—the minister did not even bother to read it. To me, that is cut and dried. This minister has been found guilty of not caring enough to read the report and this singularly exposes the fact that it was a political tool contrived to create arguments for further privatisation.

The substance does not matter to this government. It does not matter to the coalition that people in the bush still do not get the services that they deserve. They still do not get the services that the minister and Telstra stand up on a regular basis and say that they have got. Let us get to the substance of these issues. What we have seen today is a profound argument why no more of Telstra should ever be sold.

I want also to comment on the minister's response to questions about allegations of his contacting the Victoria Police. It is worthwhile recapping briefly on the way the story originally went to air on the Sunday program. The Dial S for Scandal report states:

Sunday reveals that in 1999, Richard Alston—as Federal Communications Minister—personally telephoned the Major Fraud Group solicitor investigating Telstra over allegations of perjury, conspiracy and attempting to pervert the course of justice. The solicitor—Neil Jepson—received two calls from the Minister but has been forbidden by his superiors to speak to Sunday. Alston himself—under questioning from reporter Graham Davis—at first denies ever having contacted investigating officers. He then says he may well have done but can't recall having made the calls or the details of the conversations.

Then we come to question time today. It has been suggested that Senator Alston has been improperly interfering with the Victoria Police major fraud group inquiry into Telstra so we asked questions today to seek clarification about the minister's subsequent several different explanations as to what prompted those calls and by whom he was prompted. He made the call to Mr Neil Jepson in 1999 and when first confronted, as we have just heard, on the Sunday program, he denied making the contact. When further confronted with the detail of those calls he said he may have done that and he then said he had done it because, I presume, he was concerned to know whether these matters were properly investigated. Then on 3 November, in a press statement following the Sunday program, Senator Alston stated:

... I contacted Mr Jepson in order to satisfy myself that any direct action I might take in regard to Telstra did not compromise any investigation which might be undertaken by the Victoria Police.

On Monday, 4 November, despite the refutations from across the chamber just now, Senator Alston said:

I had been urged on behalf of Mrs Garms to make contact with Mr Jepson.

He repeated this on the 7.30 Report. However, as we now know, Mrs Ann Garms has categorically denied, as have others involved in the COT cases, that they ever made any request of Senator Alston to contact the Victoria Police. This calls into question Senator Alston's repeated claims during that period that he made those calls on behalf of Mrs Garms. Mrs Garms also claimed that, after those calls had been made, the police investigation stalled.

In response to all of this, the fact that Senator Alston has found it necessary to change his story so many times over this period raises serious questions about his credibility on this matter. In response to the allegations against Telstra, Senator Alston has gone to great lengths to refer to the ACA just one narrow aspect of the serious allegations against Telstra. If ever there was a giveaway that something funny was going on, it is the narrow definition of the issues referred to the ACA in this circumstance. It has been, and it remains, Labor's position that the only way to get to the bottom of these most serious allegations, including the fact that Mr Jepson has been forbidden by his superiors to say anything more about the issue, is to have a royal commission. If this minister is as good as Senator Eggleston says he is, he has no choice but to instigate a royal commission and get to the bottom of these most serious allegations into Telstra's conduct.