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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 122

Senator O'BRIEN (5:32 PM) —Isn't it wonderful that we are on broadcast! We have got the people who support The Nationals listening to the contribution of a senator who comes here under the banner of The Nationals saying that a debate on telecommunications services in rural and regional Australia is irrelevant. Isn't that a wonderful position for The Nationals to take? I wanted to do some research on Senator McGauran's National Party credentials. I was at first looking under the wrong heading. I thought the McGauran party was the party that he was representing but, no, it is the National Party.

Senator Conroy —It is a wholly owned subsidiary in Victoria. Be careful!

Senator O'BRIEN —Yes, a wholly owned subsidiary it may be. Senator Conroy earlier referred to the McMillan candidate, whose name I have discovered is Bridget McKenzie. Campaigning as The Nationals candidate in the seat of McMillan she said that she would oppose the sale of Telstra. It was a calculated campaign to deceive the voters of McMillan to enable preferences to be delivered to the coalition.

Let us talk about principles. It is a contradiction in terms if you are talking about principles and The Nationals. Senator McGauran comes here representing The Nationals, having been elected on a joint Liberal Party and The Nationals ticket in the state of Victoria. I wanted to see how The Nationals had performed in Victoria to get an idea of what sort of mandate Senator McGauran actually had. We cannot ascertain that. I am not going to be so cruel as to say that the .25 of a per cent vote that he received personally would be reflective of The Nationals' vote in Victoria. An ungenerous person might suggest that that was the level of his support. That is the vote that he actually received, but I am prepared to concede that the best possible reflection of The Nationals' vote in Victoria is that which was received in the House of Representatives. I think that is a reasonable proposition.

I looked it up on the AEC web site because I thought it might be relevant to this debate. It was 3.51 per cent. It was a swing of 0.4 of a per cent. So they are coming back from the absolute depths of despair. Senator McGauran was elected here because he was on a joint coalition ticket. It might be that 3.51 per cent got him elected instead of Family First if he was the beneficiary of many preference deals, but I suggest that it would not have had him elected to the Senate on The Nationals' vote on its own by a long chalk.

We have been castigated by Senator McGauran about daring to raise the issue of Telstra, and in a side argument he suggests that because the Labor Party are actually prepared to say that we believe Medicare Gold is a good policy we are deluding ourselves. We are not going to, as the Prime Minister once did, say that we would never, ever pursue a policy that we believe in and then return to the parliament later and pursue it when we attain government. We are actually going to be honest with the electorate. We are not going to say never, ever Medicare Gold and then return to the policy later on, as the coalition did with the GST. We are being honest with the people and, if that is something that Senator McGauran has a problem with, I suspect he should go back and talk to the 3.5 per cent of electors in Victoria who might support The Nationals to see whether they support that standard. I do not think it is a particularly acceptable one.

I want to thank Senator Conroy for commencing a debate on rural and regional Australia, particularly about services—telecommunications services at that—by discussing the standard, or lack of it, that rural and regional Australians enjoy. I would have thought that these days it would be pretty clear that it is only the Labor Party that will initiate a discussion about regional services in this place. That once great institution, The Nationals, used to be a standard-bearer for its constituency. Its representatives used to put the interests of the party's rural and regional constituency above other considerations. It used to care about the levels of telecommunications and other services beyond the cities. But no more. That is not the standard of The Nationals. The transformation of The Nationals from the voice of regional Australia to a party that could not care less about Australians living outside our major cities is complete—a function of The Nationals' senators, frankly, who live and work at the Paris end of Collins Street rather than in regional Australia. Senator elect Barnaby Joyce is not contemplating the location of his office in Gympie, in St George or in Mount Isa; he is contemplating that his office will be located on the Gold Coast—a million miles from rural and regional Australia.

Senator McGauran —Good National Party country, though.

Senator O'BRIEN —It is a good National Party area, says Senator McGauran. Yes, if you like going to the beach, enjoy the Gold Coast racetrack and like getting out into those fields around Broadbeach. Have you been there recently, Senator McGauran? I cannot see any rural transactions occurring there. This is the new Nationals. We are going to see this beneficiary of an actual reduction in The Nationals' vote in Queensland, because their vote went down this time. They won the seat but their primary vote went down. This is where this representative of rural and regional Australia will set up office to serve that constituency. I thought people were elected to this place to serve their constituency. But Mr Barnaby Joyce is going to serve his constituency around the Gold Coast.

It is often said that the Labor Party representatives in this place are all based in the city. You cannot say that of me. I live outside of the city of Launceston, which is a regional city in the state of Tasmania. I know Senator McGauran has been there. He has been on TV. I recall the shot of him on TV. It was in Hobart, of course. I think it was a shot of the plantation forestry inquiry, but I will not embarrass him by talking about that.

Senator O'BRIEN —Yes, you did love it. You were really enjoying it. I will go back to Telstra. I was trying to enliven the debate because Senator McGauran has given us such great material to work with. Senator Conroy has given me a copy of an article from the Age dated 25 September about Bridget McKenzie. The article says:

Bridget McKenzie is not your usual National Party candidate. She is bright, focused and willing to push the policy boundaries in ways that would make any ALP candidate distinctly envious, even nervous.

Take her views on the sale of Telstra. Without a hint of qualification she says she is totally opposed to any further sale of the telecommunications conglomerate.

Senator Wong —That is a very big cigarette paper.

Senator O'BRIEN —A cigarette paper, yes!

Senator Conroy —Keep going. It gets better.

Senator O'BRIEN —Senator Conroy encourages me. The article goes on to quote Ms McKenzie, who said:

I was talking on the phone to a minister when the line dropped out. When we got reconnected I shouted down the line, `No sale of Telstra!'

He said, `OK, OK, I hear you.

The article continues:

Ms McKenzie laughs when she tells the story, but she goes on to complain that she cannot receive a mobile signal from her kitchen sink and that Telstra broadband services in Gippsland—

somewhere near the McGauran constituency—

are hopeless for small business people and farmers trying to do business. `We need similar access to telecommunications to the city and that is a long way off.'

Ms McKenzie is a break from the pure country traditions of the Nationals.

She is certainly a break from the tradition of The Nationals who find their way in here, because that is not what they are saying. Or did they say that? Did they say that to the electorate? I seem to recall that there have been many comments from The Nationals about the inadequacies of Telstra. We can go back to comments by Senator Boswell, which I will draw on later, who has been a long-term critic of Telstra. We can talk about the sorts of comments that were made by Mr Mark Vaile. A report from AAP on 11 November in its Australian general news section said:

Trade Minister Mark Vaile said it appeared Telstra was slipping back to the days when it was the nation's monopoly phone provider in a signal that there were major concerns within the Nationals about plans to sell-off the rest of the company.

We will come back to that later. As I said, if The Nationals were concerned about rural and regional Australia, they would have brought on this debate, not dismissed it, as Senator McGauran said. They would be standing side by side with Labor opposing the sale of the remainder of Telstra in public ownership, rather than being the puppet of the Liberal Party that they have become. To understand who was the master in this debate we need only look at what the Governor-General's speech in this chamber on Tuesday told us. Although media reports state that the Governor-General was very keen to put his own stamp on the speech, we understand that he was subsequently acquainted with the convention that the speech is composed by the government. We know that means the Liberal Party. So it was that, on the sale of Telstra, the Howard government had this to say through the Governor-General:

The government will pursue its longstanding policy for the full privatisation of Telstra. Its future sale will be contingent on adequate telecommunications service levels and appropriate market conditions.

The disclaimer says that the sale of Telstra is contingent on adequate telecommunications service levels. But, as I pointed out during the address-in-reply debate, dropped from the disclaimer was the phrase heard when the Telstra sale legislation was previously before the parliament—that is, that the sale is contingent on adequate service levels in regional Australia.

It appears that adequate telecommunications service levels defined any way the Liberal Party sees fit is now enough. Regional, rural and remote Australians do not want Telstra sold. For heaven's sake, even rank and file members of the National Party do not want Telstra sold, because once it is sold a company that dances to just one beat—shareholder profit—will not give a damn about services outside the CBDs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Perhaps if the National Party representatives spent more time away from the shops of Collins Street or staking out future electorate offices on the Gold Coast or listening to people in regional Australia who have to live with the fact that they cannot rely on their telecommunications services, we would hear them saying in this debate that they supported Labor's position to keep the remainder of Telstra in public ownership.

It was not that long ago that Senator Boswell stood in this place calling for accountability from Telstra. Back in 1995 Senator Boswell wanted a bit of openness, a bit of transparency and better services for his then constituency. It is no surprise to hear that Senator Boswell was an opposition senator when he called for that kind of accountability. Apparently he has changed his mind. He seems to think that everything is okay with the service levels Telstra are providing regional Australia and it is therefore okay to flog off the remainder of Telstra. That means either he is so far out of touch with regional Australians that he is deluded or he has decided to stay quiet and toe the Liberal Party line. It has to be one or the other. Both options are disappointing because Senator Boswell, just like his party, used to care about services in regional Australia. Former National Party greats like Black Jack McEwen and Doug Anthony would not have considered kowtowing to the Liberals on an issue as important as decent telecommunications services. They just would not have done it.

It is interesting to note that, as National Party senators prepare to sell out the people of regional Australia on Telstra, some of their colleagues in the other place hold views that reflect some semblance of reality. Just eight days ago the Deputy Leader of the National Party, Mark Vaile, admitted that Telstra had dropped the ball on key services to regional centres. Interestingly, he said as much only a day after Senator Coonan and the Leader of the National Party, John Anderson, went to Warren in New South Wales to kick off the government's T3 roadshow. It is not yet clear whether Mr Vaile is truly concerned about Telstra or whether his statement was just a pre-emptive tilt at the leadership made in the knowledge that certain allegations made in the other place last night would soon emerge. We can only hope that Mr Vaile, unlike his colleagues in this place, has the interests of his constituency and his party at heart. If so, he will join the Labor Party in the other place and vote against the Telstra sale.

The National Party made a lot of promises to its dwindling constituency during the election campaign. Many of those promises that party will not keep in this parliament. But the National Party will be expected to keep its promises not to support the sale of Telstra until services in regional, rural and remote Australia are of a decent standard. As I have already noted, the fact that that promise did not make the final version of the Governor-General's speech is not a good sign. Senator Conroy and Senator Lundy have already outlined some deficiencies in Telstra's services in this debate, but obviously the National Party was not listening. There was a time when senators on both sides of this place believed in something. I am not saying that the Liberal Party senators believed in something because, as a former leader of the Labor Party has observed, the Liberal Party has only ever believed in office. But once upon a time the National Party held a reason to exist: it used to believe in a better deal for rural and regional Australians. But now it is only Labor that regional Australians can rely on to stand up for rural and regional services. There is no better example of that than the question of Telstra's future.

There was also a time when the parliament contained a fierce opponent of the sale of Telstra in the member for Dawson. Then she was a humble member from Far North Queensland who put the interests of her constituents first. But since she picked up the title of `Hon.' she has started to do the dishonourable thing—to sell Telstra and sell out the people of her electorate. As senators would be aware, there has been much talk about the amalgamation of the Liberal and National parties in Queensland—a push driven by Senator Brandis and doubtless supported by Senators Heffernan and Minchin, although I think Senator Heffernan is more intent on taking The Nationals seats from them than amalgamating with them. If, as expected, the National Party sells its votes for places at the ministerial table and access to the trappings of power, there will be no need for an amalgamation; it will have already occurred. If, as expected, the National Party colludes with the Liberals to deprive rural and regional Queenslanders of decent telecommunications services, it will cease to be distinguishable from the Liberal Party to Queenslanders and it will pay the electoral price for its capitulation to the Liberals. In fact, looking at the Governor-General's speech, you would have to conclude that the National Party's vote has already been sold to the Liberals or that the National Party no longer plays an effective role in government.

Besides Senator McGauran—who enjoys excellent telecommunications services in that National Party heartland, the centre of Melbourne—the National Party members talk a big game when they are in rural electorates. National Party Senator elect Joyce has made all sorts of statements about his requirements before he will agree to the full sale of Telstra. Senator Boswell, Mrs Kelly and others, over many years and most recently in the election campaign, have made all sorts of promises to their constituencies. But the big game talked out there does not reflect their behaviour when they get together with the Liberals in Canberra. They say one thing before the election and another thing after. Surely, if the National Party were effective players in the Howard government, and if they had any intention of standing up for rural and regional Australia, the Governor-General's speech would have contained a real commitment to telecommunications in regional Australia. Sadly, as I pointed out earlier, there was no such commitment—and there will be none as long as this government remains in office.