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Tuesday, 28 May 2002
Page: 2459

Mr BARTLETT (2:42 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Would the minister inform the House how the federal government is improving telecommunication services in regional Australia? Is the minister aware of any alternative approaches, and what would be the impact if they were implemented?

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Science) —I thank the member for Macquarie for his question. I know how he has worked hard with his constituents in both an urban and semirural setting to improve their telecommunications. As a result, many of his constituents in the valleys of the Blue Mountains are much better off because of the government's reforms and the injection of some $1 billion—that is the allocation overwhelmingly for regional and rural Australia. As a result, there are faster repair and service connection times, and temporary service is available where it takes more than five working days to repair.

Every town in Australia that has a population of more than 500 will have mobile phone coverage for the first time; $52 million has been made available under the health and education networks—under the National Communications Fund—for the first time in history. Every person living in the outer extended zones, covering 80 per cent of Australia, can call their neighbour for the cost of a local call, and the government, of course, has used the highly successful Networking the Nation program, with more than 600 projects to date for mobile phone coverage, Internet access and training. There is a $120 million television fund, and the list goes on and on. All of these reforms—all of this allocation and new funding—were opposed by Labor, and all of these improvements would be lost under Labor.

I am asked about alternative policies. What would Labor do? The member for Melbourne has released formally a paper which shows us exactly what Labor would do, which is very reminiscent of the old proposal of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who through the 1996 election was revealed as wishing to break up Telstra and sell off parts of it to IBM—for those who have a sense of political memory. Now the member for Melbourne is revisiting the same plan— the Keating plan mark 2, if you like.

Essentially his plan is, in a corporate sense, to break up Telstra. It would strip Telstra of its profitability and would rip the heart out of it. Instead of dealing with one company that has a range of services, you would go to several companies. You would go to one for an Internet connection; you would go to one for maintenance or connection; you would go to another for mobile phone apparatus; you would go to another for access to a fixed network. So instead of going to one company, whose strength is that it would cover all services, you would have to go to several. That would decrease Telstra's profitability and increase inconvenience and costs to customers. You would therefore massively reduce the shareholder value in Telstra and two million shareholders in Telstra would lose out. Their shares would decrease in value. You would prevent Telstra from growing and investing in new infrastructure. You would turn the regulatory regime on its head because you would create massive uncertainty for the entire industry and it would result in fundamental duplication of Telstra's resources, therefore increasing the price paid by consumers.

I am very interested for the honourable member to clear up a matter for the House and for the general public because last August he took a personal explanation in the parliament explaining that he had not canvassed any of these issues or potential policy decisions with Macquarie Bank.

Mr Tanner —That is not true. I did not say that. I am going to have to make another personal explanation.

Mr McGAURAN —He says he did not say that. In that case, I will quote from his personal explanation to the parliament on 27 August:

In question time last Thursday the Minister for Finance and Administration stated that the member for Perth and I had secretly visited investment banks to get advice on how to sell off the profitable bits of Telstra. That is a lie. That is a totally untrue statement.

Isn't it is curious that his current proposals are exactly that—exactly the things he denied to the parliament he had canvassed with Macquarie or any other investment bank? All I can say is that if you did not then you should have canvassed those wacky ideas with someone with commercial or business sense because they would have pointed out to you what a disaster they are.