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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 104

Senator CONROY (4:09 PM) —I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that:

(i) the Government has failed to ensure that telecommunications service standards are up to scratch in rural and regional Australia,

(ii) the chief of the Government's telecommunications inquiry, Mr Dick Estens, has said that telecommunications services in the bush remain a `shemozzle', and

(iii) selling Telstra will cost the budget $255 million over the next 4 years; and

(b) calls on the Government to keep Telstra in majority public ownership to ensure reliable telecommunications services for all Australians.

During the election campaign neither the Liberal Party nor the National Party wanted to talk about the full privatisation of Telstra. It was the policy they dared not name. You will find no reference to it in any of their policy documents released during the campaign, nor was it mentioned in the major policy speeches of either the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister. Labor repeatedly challenged The Nationals' members to debates on Telstra but none had the courage to take up the offer and explain to their constituents where they stood on the sale.

I see Senator McGauran is on the list to speak on this debate and I welcome his participation. Senator McGauran well knows that in a seat that he has a great deal of interest in down in Gippsland—that is, McMillan—the National Party went as far as preselecting a candidate who stated publicly that they would not sell Telstra under any circumstances. Isn't that right, Senator McGauran? It was a desperate bid to try to help Russell Broadbent get elected by preselecting somebody that went out there and campaigned against the sale of Telstra, and it was with the full knowledge and support of both Senator McGauran and Minister McGauran in the other place. That is right. I can see the blushing from here. If it were not a red chamber you would be standing out like a beacon, Senator McGauran. You may well nod and look shamefully at the floor as Senator Eggleston looks towards you to find out whether this is true or not. You may well look and laugh.

Labor repeatedly challenged the National Party to this debate. Yesterday, what did we have? Yesterday we had the spectacle of Senator Boswell coming into this chamber and claiming a mandate on Telstra. They did not want to mention it during the campaign. They misled voters during the campaign. But now they want to claim they have got a mandate. As we consider the fate of Telstra in this 41st Parliament, it is important to consider what the Nationals were telling their constituents before the election. The Queensland Nationals President, Mr Bolger, is on the record as having stated:

Our policy is Telstra should not be sold.

That is pretty straightforward. The president of the Queensland National Party said:

Our policy is Telstra should not be sold. We are against any sale ... unless the community tells us ... otherwise.

Last July the Queensland Nationals held their annual conference in Cairns. Were you there perhaps, Senator McGauran? No. At that conference the then Nationals Senate candidate, Barnaby Joyce, stated:

It is absolutely too early to be talking about selling all of Telstra. Telstra is a national icon, and if you launch yourself as a political party into destroying national icons then you will come unstuck with the electorate.

That is now Senator elect Barnaby Joyce. Of course, that is what he said before he asked the people of Queensland to vote for him. Today in the Canberra Times he is reported as saying that he will be supporting the government on all bills and motions in the Senate. It looks like `Rollover Ron Boswell' is about to be joined by `Backdown Barnaby'. The Queensland Nationals have served up another senator who talks tough before an election but who will not take on the Liberals and stand up for the interests of his constituents after the poll. That is right; say one thing before the election to garner a few votes but, when it comes to the crunch in here where you have got to stand up and be counted, you go missing.

Senator O'Brien —Invertebrates.

Senator CONROY —That is very true, Senator O'Brien. The Nationals did not campaign on the sale of Telstra because they know that services are nowhere near up to scratch. They also know that once Telstra is privatised there is no mechanism to ensure that service standards will be maintained.

Dick Estens, the chair of the government's own regional telecommunications inquiry, is on the record as saying that many services in the bush remain `a shemozzle'. This is four years after the government sold 49 per cent of Telstra. This is after four years worth of community service obligations and an investigation which the government needed to try and cover where they are going. This investigation has shown that many services in the bush remain `a shemozzle'. Even though I have only been opposition spokesman for this portfolio area for a short time I have already received many letters from people in rural areas highlighting problems such as long delays in getting faults rectified and poor Internet services. One family in East Gippsland—a family who you would normally claim to represent, Senator McGauran—stated that they have been trying to obtain a permanent residential phone connection since the beginning of October. The latest advice they have received from Telstra is that the connection may be delayed until January. This level of service is completely unacceptable. Perhaps if they said you were their son, they might be able to get a phone connection.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Order! Senator Conroy, please address your comments through the chair.

Senator CONROY —I accept your admonishment, Mr Acting Deputy President. Since the election, we have heard a lot of tough talk from The Nationals. They have advanced a number of different propositions on Telstra in an attempt to wriggle their way out of the bind that they have got themselves into. The trouble is that all of these propositions have been immediately dismissed out of hand by the minister at the table today and other government ministers. Plans to spend up to $5 billion of the proceeds of the Telstra sale on pork-barrelling in Queensland have been ruled out by Senator Minchin and the Treasurer, who have likened the proposals to selling the family silver. A proposal to structurally separate Telstra so that the government retained ownership of the rural network has been referred to The Nationals' think tank, the Page Research Centre. Before the ink was dry on the reference, this proposition was killed off by Senator Coonan. Yesterday she said it was inconsistent with government policy. So do not bother trying to dress it up. Do not bother trying to make up all of these excuses about how you can now justify selling Telstra because we know what is going on here: the Liberals will not allow The Nationals to represent their constituents and The Nationals will just roll over as that pack of invertebrates that we know they are—as they demonstrate week in and week out in this chamber.

The Deputy Prime Minister has flagged siphoning off a portion of the cost of phone calls to pay for upgrading rural services as part of plans to future-proof rural telecommunications services. But it seems that Senator Minchin has also ruled this out, stating that future governments will have to decide the extent to which they subsidise rural services. Will Senator McGauran and The Nationals fight for these propositions? If Senator Boswell's comments are any guide, it seems the battle is already over. Yesterday he told the Senate that there was not a cigarette paper between the Liberals and The Nationals on Telstra. The Liberals seem to have mopped up all resistance from the National Party within weeks of the election. It is pathetic. Within weeks The Nationals are waving the white flag and saying, `We'll vote for whatever you tell us to vote for. Please stop beating us up.' All it has taken is a few weeks and a beating up from Senator Coonan, for goodness sake. Today's headline in the Australian Financial Review says it all: `Nat senators to toe line on Telstra'. We are going to make sure that article gets wide circulation in Gippsland and Benalla, Senator McGauran.

The Nationals are right to be sensitive about the sale of Telstra. They know it is not a policy that is supported by rural Australians and that after 1 July there will be nowhere for them to hide. If The Nationals want to glimpse what the future holds if they sell Telstra, they only have to look at what happened to the Democrats, who sold out their voters on the GST. That is exactly what The Nationals are staring at: a slide into oblivion as their voters desert them. More and more seats will fall to the independents. More and more seats will be up for contest. The Liberal Party will eat them from behind because rural voters will know that there is no point in voting for a national party. They will say, `If we want a Liberal, we may as well elect a Liberal.' That is the message that they are giving The Nationals' members. The Deputy Prime Minister said, `If we lose any more seats, I'll resign.' What happened? Barnaby Joyce crawls across the line in Queensland and barely wins his seat to reclaim it from One Nation. The Liberals zoomed away, winning three seats in their own right. The Nationals barely got across the line in Queensland off the back of a shonky promise to the Fishing Party that they would review fishing rights in the Great Barrier Reef, which was immediately dismissed by the Liberal Party after the election when it came to light that this shonky little preference deal was done. It did not matter. It was a case of saying one thing before the election and doing something else after because `those Liberal Party people just will not let us'. We saw The Nationals lose Larry Anthony, a minister in the previous government. We saw them lose another seat. As every election goes by, they lose another seat. The sooner you get the message, the sooner you might start winning some seats.

It is extremely disappointing that the government has decided to pursue its ideological obsession with selling Telstra when there are so many other telecommunications issues that need to be addressed. Just last week the annual report of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman was released. The report shows that consumer complaints about poor services increased by eight per cent to a record 59,850 last year. Complaints about landline faults increased by 21 per cent. Complaints about mobile phone connections increased by 80 per cent. Complaints about Internet connections increased by 158 per cent.

In the face of falling standards, one might think that the government would immediately ask the Australian Communications Authority to review the flawed system of self-regulatory codes. This process is so poor that the consumer groups have refused to take part in the code development process. Instead, the government have decided to get straight to work on flogging off Telstra. This is the government's response to the litany of complaints about falling services—`We'll just get on with flogging off Telstra'. This policy will do nothing to improve standards and will, in all likelihood, worsen them as a fully privatised Telstra will not make the necessary investment in infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.

We have heard a lot from the minister about the customer service guarantee and the protection it is supposed to provide consumers. The CSG requires telecommunication companies to fix faults within specified time frames or compensate customers. For some time Labor has been raising concerns that the CSG is being rorted by the practice of issuing mass service disruption notices. These notices absolve carriers from responsibility to meet the CSG. In August the Senate Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee recommended that the government tighten the CSG. There are many government senators, including National Party senators, on that committee and they said we have got to tighten the CSG. The committee called on the government to ensure that mass service disruption notices cannot be used by carriers to avoid their obligations to properly maintain their networks and provide an acceptable standard of community service.

Too often Telstra has been using bad weather as an excuse for its failure to fix faults within specified time frames. We have had a drought. We have been in drought conditions, as Senator Heffernan regularly explains to me. We have had a drought across the country for years. But in all this rain and bad weather Telstra is out there. We get a drop of rain and Telstra is out there with a mass disruption notice. This has to stop. It is not to be used as an excuse for failure to fix faults within the time frames. Telstra has issued over 100 of these notices so far this year, including at least 20 in the last month. In August the minister—the very minister sitting over on the other side of the chamber—dismissed these concerns, telling the Senate that she was unaware of any evidence suggesting that Telstra was using outage notices inappropriately. Yet earlier this month the Deputy Prime Minister identified the need to tighten the capacity that telecommunications carriers had `to obtain exemptions from their community obligation timetable in the face of claimed problems with weather'.

After the election the Deputy Prime Minister suddenly discovers that that policy has failed. It is just amazing that the minister dismissed the very thing that the Deputy Prime Minister now says Telstra and others are getting away with. This is a minister that dismissed this in August, yet in November the Deputy Prime Minister says this is a major cause of problems in regional and rural areas. I just wish they would have a chat some time. I just wish that the Deputy Prime Minister, over the cabinet table, perhaps over a bickie and a cup of coffee before cabinet starts, would say, `Oh, by the way, Senator Coonan, have you noticed how many of these notices Telstra is issuing? Do you think it's a bit of a problem?' But, no, Senator Coonan just blithely dismisses it because it is all about the need to sell Telstra.

Senator Coonan —You are such a fool, Stephen. When are you going to get out of Melbourne and go into the bush?

Senator CONROY —Senator Coonan, the only time you get out of Sydney is to go to your holiday home on the coast, and we have talked about that a lot previously.

Senator CONROY —Exactly! She has travelled once to the bush and suddenly she is an expert! Senator Heffernan, please take her out again.

Senator Coonan —I come from the bush.

Senator CONROY —Take her back to where she came from. If the minister is serious about the CSG, she must act to tighten the ability of carriers to use bad weather to escape their obligations. Even before Telstra has been sold, consumers are being hurt because of the flawed regulatory framework imposed by the government in an attempt to boost Telstra's share price.

Senator Coonan —You need to go out and have a look; you really do.

Senator CONROY —I have read all about your trip. I have read how people decided to take half a day off to come to the meeting just to make sure you knew how bad the services were. I have read all about it.

Senator Coonan —It was a hugely productive trip.

Senator CONROY —It was very productive. She actually met a few people who lived in rural Australia and suddenly discovered that the service levels were terrible. It actually took her going into the country and being told. I have got people deluging my office telling me how bad things are. This government has presided over a so-called price control regime that has allowed Telstra's standard line rental charges to skyrocket. As Senator Moore noted in question time today, line rental charges have risen from $11.65 per month in January 2000 to between $26.95 and $29.95 per month today.

Senator Eggleston —Prices are down 20 per cent.

Senator Coonan —Yes, prices are down 20 per cent.

Senator CONROY —This is about line rental. In their recent review of the regime, the ACCC recommended that Telstra be subject to an additional form of price control on line rentals. This is about the government's trumped-up policy. The ACCC have come out and said, `Oh, dear, we're going to have to put some more controls on line rentals,' because the government have released Telstra from them. They have allowed them to price gouge on line rentals. They have allowed them to profiteer. They have allowed them to make hundreds of millions of dollars. To fatten up Telstra to make it more attractive to allow it to be sold is what it is about, and that is what every Australian should understand. Will the government have the courage to take up this recommendation from the ACCC in the face of claims by market analysts that it could adversely impact on the sale price? `Oh, dear, we'd better not do that. We might upset the sale price. Don't worry about what it's doing to ordinary Australians out there. Don't worry about how much they are paying per month. We can't afford to upset the markets because we are trying to flog Telstra.' Will the government's interest as a vendor take priority over the need identified by the ACCC to protect consumers from Telstra's market power? This will be a big test for the minister and the government. Will they just keep fattening it up? Will they just keep gouging the de facto monopoly of Telstra? Will they allow it to charge as much as it wants just so they can fatten it up and just so they can get more money for it and not give a damn about how that is impacting on the majority of Australians through these increases in line rentals?