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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6262

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (5:02 PM) —I am not surprised that Senator Conroy fled the chamber as soon as his speech finished because I am sure he did not want to endure the reality of having his fanciful claims smashed aside for their tissue paper thin reasoning. It is a bit of a shame. I do not know whether the story the minister tells about this issue appearing in the first place is correct, but perhaps Senator Conroy has just been stuck in the position of having to be the mouthpiece for Mr Tanner's original miscalculation.

This is an important issue—political point scoring aside—because it does involve Australian consumers in their millions. It is a complex issue. It can be frustrating, I am sure, for the public or the media when you have got some shadow minister coming along waving around a piece of paper and saying that these new controls relay an extra $100 million profit for Telstra. It is not until you actually explore the reasoning and the rationale and calculations behind that that you discover that not only does it not give extra money for Telstra but it actually gives an extra $115-odd million to the consumer. The public just says, `One mob say this; the other mob say that—who can tell?' The Democrats have done the work. We have worked extensively to get the data, some of which is not publicly available. The data about household incomes is not available to Telstra, for a very good reason, because there would be significant privacy implications. That is also why rushing in with a quick position is irresponsible.

Senator Conroy had another swipe at ACOSS, saying that they just supported the GST and they are supporting this—say no more. Of course ACOSS did not support the final GST package, and this is just a cheap slur by the ALP.

Senator Mackay —Neither did you!

Senator BARTLETT —Neither did I— that is quite right. That is why I know that ACOSS also did not support it. So just simply to say that ACOSS supported something when they did not, and then to try to extrapolate and say that you can ignore them now because they supported something when they did not, shows the weakness of Senator Conroy's argument.

Of course it is not just ACOSS; it is a range of other groups. It is Anglicare, it is the Smith Family, it is the Salvation Army, it is Jobs Australia, it is the Council on the Ageing, it is the Federation of Homeless Organisations—and they have worked on this for 18 months in what is a complex area. It is such a mix of different baskets of prices going up and down and different household incomes and different groups and different social frameworks and different household structures that of course it is complex. That is why you listen to the people that did the work.

I am sure that Senator Conroy normally would not dispute the intentions and motivations of organisations like ACOSS and others. The whole group—the Low-Income Measures Assessment Committee—worked for months and months with the sole aim of protecting low-income people. They had therefore already produced an updated, very effective package of $150 million extra assistance for low-income people. It is quite clear that the package as it now stands, which Labor is trying to disallow, and the changes that are coming in, which Labor is trying to stop, will already make most low-income people better off. It will provide them with a choice, if their individual circumstances make it desirable to choose a different package, that will ensure they are not worse off.

But the Democrats did recognise that there could still be a small group of low-income people who might be slightly worse off. In total there is no doubt the majority would have been better off, but we like to ensure that everybody will be better off. With the extra package that the Democrats have now consulted about we are very confident that we have managed to achieve as close as you can get to nobody being worse off with that extra $10 million on top of the existing $150 million package that Telstra is already putting forward. That package would also be drastically impacted upon if this disallowance were to go ahead. So the assistance that is already being provided for low-income people would be lost as well.

What we have here is a motion that would overturn months of work by experts in the welfare sector focused solely at protecting low-income earners. All of that would be thrown out—not only that but there is no alternative model. They are just going to wipe all that clean and say, `Get rid of all that; you go and figure out something else, and we will tell you if we like it.' That is basically what this motion would do.

Senator Lundy —That's the government's responsibility. Since when have the Democrats been responsible for something like that?

Senator BARTLETT —The Democrats are always responsible. That is our job. That is why we do not simply react and form a policy on the basis of whatever Mr Tanner puts in a press release. We will do the work and assess what is important to the Democrats, which is protecting low-income people. We will ignore cheap political stunts and look at the policy outcome that is best for low-income people. Not only is this best for low-income people; it is best for middle-income people and for the consumer. It improves competition in the industry. It is not just Telstra supporting this change because it gives them extra money. Of course, it does not give them extra money; it gives them less money. But groups like Optus support it because it is better for them and the entire telecommunications industry. It improves the choices for consumers. It ensures that the options for consumers increase. The increased opportunity for a drop in call costs over time for high-usage people, who are not all high-income people, clearly means that they will be better off. Because of the other packages that have been put in place, low-usage people also have options. Let us not forget that a large number of low-usage people are very high-income earners. So we have the ALP wanting to assist high-income earners, who use extra phones because of the low-line rentals—the extra fax line or the phone in the holiday shack—and willing to throw aside a whole package of measures that assist low-income people.

What is so absurd about what is being done is that a quick knee-jerk response by the ALP—based on inadequate research, no checking with people who know and no seeking out the data or double-checking whether they know their facts—has stuck them in a spot where they feel the need to continue down a path when I presume they know that what they are doing goes against their supposed rationale. You cannot argue against the rationale of what Senator Conroy said he was doing. The trouble is that what he says he is doing in this motion is not achieved. The opposite is achieved.

What the Democrats are about and what we have always been about is looking at each issue on its merits, getting the information from the people who have the facts, doing the work ourselves before we rush to a decision and then ensuring that the outcome is in the interests of the public. We are not going to make decisions based on a cheap political headline for the day. It might be a nice cheap political headline for the day, but the public has to live with the outcome of the policy decision for years to come.

Senator Mackay —That's why you voted against the GST, Andrew.

Senator BARTLETT —That is why I voted against the GST, and that is why I can say that I am 100 per cent confident we are doing the right thing here. It is not the only reason but it was one of the reasons. That is why we do not go into decisions like this lightly. We did an enormous amount of research, and I pay particular tribute to the staff member who did a large majority of it. We consulted with people widely—people who have the same motivation. It was not just a few spivs—to use Senator Conroy's phraseology—off on the side who are interested in making money from consultancies. We do not employ any of those people. We are talking about people who care about low-income people. We are talking about people who care about consumers. We are talking about people who are trying to develop technology in the Australian communications sector, and enhance the opportunity for rolling out broadband quicker and getting better access to better telecommunications services. All of those people understand the industry but come at it from a perspective of what is in the interest of the consumer, what is in the interest of low-income people and what is in the interests of the development of the technology. Then we make a decision.

The Democrats are not, and have never been, interested in simply supporting one side because that is the politically convenient thing of the day. That is why the role the Democrats play is so crucial. We will do our very best. We sometimes make mistakes, like everybody does, or make misjudgments or use incorrect information, but the role, the purpose and the motivation of the Democrats is to ensure that the people we believe are important are considered, and the policies and objectives that we believe are necessary for Australia are reflected where possible, in the legislation and the decisions that this chamber makes. That is why we have prevented a negative outcome for the consumer, for the majority of low-income people and for the telecommunications industry, which is what this disallowance motion would achieve. On top of that, we have achieved an extra positive outcome for low-income people and for low-income health care card holders—in effect, the working poor, who have now also got extra assistance of $10 million. They are the people, broadly speaking, who are most likely to be worse off from this change. Even that small negative of this change we have addressed.

It is unfortunate if this is the level of understanding of the issues by the Labor Party. If that is going to continue across their responses to all telecommunications issues, then it will be a difficult time in this chamber. There are a lot more broader important issues in relation to telecommunications, information technology and a wide range of other areas that need considered debate. Again, they are complex and significant and they affect a wide range of people and a large number of people and industries.

The bottom line is that the social impact comes first, particularly for those who are less well off but also through access to information and contact with others in the community. That principle is an important one that is being more widely recognised across all policy areas. On top of that is the economics—what it will mean for the industry and future development opportunities for business and competition across the sector, not just for Telstra but for the others.

I find it hard to figure it out sometimes when one minute Telstra is being whacked around the head, as it often deserves to be, for being this huge massive profit-making entity that is supposedly trying to rip the consumer off everywhere and the next minute it is being lauded as a great Australian company that we could not possibly privatise any further. The Democrats certainly remain consistent in our opposition to privatisation.

Senator Lundy —Bend with the wind.

Senator BARTLETT —Perhaps you can find one single public statement by the Democrats which suggests otherwise. You ignore the actual document that all Democrat senators signed saying that we would not sell Telstra in this term of parliament. Perhaps you could actually come up with some evidence. The extent of the substance of the Labor Party's case on this is to make wild allegations. Challenge them to come up with evidence, challenge them to demonstrate it, and all they can do is repeat the fabrications. I find it amazing that Labor Party people can ever come on and say, `We are the ones you can trust on privatisation.' Give us a break! Not only did you sell the Commonwealth Bank but you said you would not and then went straight out after the election and sold it. Then you sold the airports and Qantas. And you want to say, `Trust us on privatisation.' Give it a rest—it is just unbelievable.

The Democrats are the only party to have a consistent record not only of keeping our word but of opposing privatisation. That is what we have done across the board and time after time, including on Telstra. I can guarantee that the Democrats will not sell Telstra in this parliament. Quite frankly, I am getting very sick of having to talk about the issue of selling Telstra, which the Prime Minister keeps bringing up, because it is not going to happen in the Senate in this parliament; so he should stop talking about it.

Senator Lundy —In this parliament?

Senator BARTLETT —Yes, in this parliament. The trouble is that it might happen in the next parliament because you people might win government and you will probably sell it and the Liberals will support you. That is why it might happen in the next parliament.

Senator Mackay —This is the GST party talking.

Senator BARTLETT —And they have the hide to talk about tax. This is the mob that did the deal with the government to give massive tax cuts to high-income earners through the capital gains tax cuts in exchange for a deal—by the great negotiating Labor Party—to treat trusts as companies.. That was the balance. We will let this outrageous inequity go through—huge tax cuts to high-income earners—and in exchange we will ensure that the government fixes the loopholes on taxing trusts as companies! And what happened? Nothing. When the government said, `No, we have changed our mind,' did Simon Crean go out there like a rat up a drainpipe and say, `This is outrageous, you have sold us out, you have sold out the taxpayers, you have sold out the battlers'? He did not say a word, because he did not want to do it either. It is too politically difficult. He is too gutless. It is the same thing we have here: too politically difficult to say, `On second thoughts, our calculations are wrong: we don't really want to do something that is going to hurt low-income people and is going to hurt consumers. We have got to stick with it because it is a good thing to just slap around and do a cheap political stunt with.'

We will hear how they are wrong when my colleague Senator Cherry speaks on this matter. We have cheap, old insults that are not even correct about things that are wrong. Their own record is of the greatest privatising party in Australia's history, of the biggest tax cuts for high-income earners in a deal that was sold out on them down the track which they did not even whimper about, and they come in here and say, `You cannot negotiate. You're hopeless. You've got no backbone. Not only have we stopped a bad thing happening for consumers and low-income earners but we have even got an extra 10 million bucks in the process for the working poor.' Thank you, I will take our ability to actually deliver outcomes for low-income people, for the less well-off and for the general community any day—particularly when it is balanced against a party that comes in here and dares to say, `Trust us on privatisation; trust us on trying to look after low-income people.' Unbelievable! All they can keep coming up with is this pathetic thing about GST. But what do they do? I think I can rightfully ask, as the only person in this chamber at the moment who voted against the GST: did the Labor Party go to the last election and say, `We are going to abolish it'? No.

Senator Lundy —We didn't say that.

Senator BARTLETT —I know you did not say that. You are not going to abolish the GST. You did not even support a motion in here last week to take the GST off books. The Democrats moved a motion to take GST off books, and you voted against it. You are still going around saying, `You supported the GST,' as though that has any relevance to what this is about. You supported the tax cuts which massively helped the big end of town, you did nothing about stopping the government sell-out that would have actually addressed pulling back an extra tax loophole for another part of the big end of town; and then you try to come in here and say, `We are for the battlers.' It is just a joke. You say you are against privatisation when your record is as the biggest privatising party in our country's history. It is just fanciful.

I am for defending the Democrats, who have achieved more than the government has done, and, more importantly, for defending those people in the community who work hard month after month. They are the other people you should be apologising to. It is those groups like the Smith Family. You can have your little cheap shots at ACOSS, if you like—they are big enough; they can cope with hollow rubbish. You should apologise to Anglicare and the homeless organisations—all those voluntary and non-government organisations who put in the work month after month with the people on the ground, the low-income people, looking after their interests. You just want to come along, on the basis of a quick glance at something you do not understand, and say, `Forget all that, you don't know what you're talking about; go back and start again. We do not actually have a better idea, we have not got another idea, about what you should do, but we do not like what you have done. We are not going to try and fix it. We are just going to wipe it out and tell you to go back and do it again.' How insulting can you get? How insulting to the community can you get? They are the real people you are spitting at with this sort of stuff.

You are happy enough if you think it is just a cheap political insult and it does not matter. It does matter: it has an effect. Millions of people are affected by this. Millions of people would be worse off if you were to be successful. Community organisations who have worked month after month with Telstra on behalf of low-income people would be affected. And you all just sit there and laugh and say, `Oh, it doesn't matter, they can go back and start again; they don't know what we're doing.' I know oppositions are meant theoretically to mindlessly oppose but, as we saw and has been acknowledged in Senator Faulkner's very good documentary, the reason the Labor Party have sometimes been effective in the past is when they have not just gone for the cheap stunt and opposed for the sake of it but have come forward with positive, constructive and worthwhile initiatives. There is none of that. They cannot even come up with an alternative. They have no policy of their own. All they can do is knock this one down, hurt the low-income earners and spit in the face of the non-government organisations. It is not good enough. Try again. Come up with some ideas of your own and actually look at the impact of what you are doing.