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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19171

Mr MURPHY (10:46 AM) —I begin by congratulating the member for Throsby for her invaluable and lasting contribution to the debate on this very important bill. I was thinking as the member for Throsby was speaking here this morning on this very important bill what the people in Dunedoo must also be thinking of this bill. I was born and bred in Dunedoo—

Mr Snowdon —And it shows!

Mr MURPHY —I am proud to come from Dunedoo. The member for Throsby was talking about how the National Party has sold out its constituents. My father was a very proud supporter of the Country Party. In the days of Black Jack McEwen, they really stood up to the Liberals and they stood up for their constituents. Little wonder that people are deserting the National Party. That is not good for our democracy. Anyone who was listening down in Dapto or in the Illawarra to the contribution by the member for Throsby this morning in the House of Representatives would be very proud of her, because she is a great representative and she made some invaluable points with regard to this very important legislation.

The Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 represents one of the worst attacks on the public interest yet inflicted by the government. It is an attempt to sell a company that is effectively the sole provider of an essential communications service network across Australia. A giant monopoly already owned by all Australians will instead inevitably be owned and controlled by the standard corporate players that will always put their self-interest first and the service needs of Australians last. I have more to say about that later in the debate if I have time.

The National Party and the Liberal Party MPs representing country electorates have absolutely betrayed their constituents. Despite surveys that show over 90 per cent of rural and regional voters know a privatised Telstra will charge more, deliver less and in fact leave town faster than the banks, they are obliged to support a Prime Minister desperate to serve his corporate constituency at any price, whatever the consequences.

Instead of ensuring a fair and competitive market in telecommunications, the Howard government wants to destroy it by guaranteeing private monopoly control—ultimate power for a fully privatised Telstra. Instead of working to ensure a fair or competitive market, the government prefers to protect its mates from the market. This is the worst kind of hypocrisy, and it always benefits the most powerful, be it Mr Honan, Mr Packer or Mr Murdoch. This attempt to sell Telstra is outrageous but no surprise, for the government has form. It always sells rather than governs.

Why sell an essential telecommunications network when we all know in years to come service will evaporate or come at a very high price? Why provide employment services when you can pay someone else to fail and avoid the accountability? Why provide universal health care when you can pretend it is a state government problem? Why provide public higher education when you can go back to the future and return university education as exclusively for the privileged? Why commit to solving Sydney's airport noise problems and long-term transport problems when you can sell out the people of Sydney for $5.6 billion with the sale of Sydney airport? Why commit to a public broadcaster and media diversity when you can attack the ABC and reward the commercial players, like Mr Packer and Mr Murdoch, in the expectation of editorial support with the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002, which is stuck in the Senate at the moment? And that is not to mention the tragic consequences for the future of our democracy and the public interest.

Labor has always opposed any further sale of Telstra and will rightly oppose this bill. I had to suffer the member for Macquarie here last night, railing and ranting that Labor would sell Telstra. We will not sell Telstra. We have maintained a consistent opposition to any further sale of Telstra. We must maintain a majority public owned Telstra and work to ensure an adequate and affordable telecommunications service to all Australians, regardless of where they live—and particularly to the people in Dunedoo; I know they do not get a great service up there. Only a majority publicly owned Telstra can ensure all Australians have equitable access to essential telecommunications services.

Tragically, if the government does sell Telstra, it will be likely to lose billions. Once Telstra is sold, the Commonwealth only gets one lump sum payment, but we lose the Telstra dividends forever. I think most Australians would agree that it is dumb to sell the goose that lays the golden eggs. Australians remember the nonsense the government continually repeated when arguing for this further sale—that is, `We will not sell Telstra until it is fully satisfied that arrangements are in place to deliver adequate services to all Australians, including maintaining the improvements to existing services.' What a bad joke that is! That is very similar to the undertakings they gave my constituents in Lowe, from Drummoyne in the east to Homebush West, about solving Sydney airport's aircraft noise problems, before they sold out and sold it to Macquarie Bank, which was disgusting and betrayed all the promises that they gave to not only the constituents in Lowe and Grayndler but also all the people of Sydney.

Regional Australians know that telecommunications service levels are nowhere near up to scratch when compared to the city. The Estens inquiry was a farce and contradicted the hundreds of overwhelmingly negative submissions it received. Australians know that, if Telstra is sold, services will disappear and costs will increase, just like what happened with the banks. We know that the government are determined to sell Telstra regardless of the standards of regional telecommunications. The people in Dunedoo do not believe the government when they say they will not sell Telstra until the problems have been fixed. They do not believe that, any more than my constituents in the inner west believed that the government would fix aircraft noise before they sold Sydney airport.

I believe that this is less about the money and more about the fact that telecommunications will be another essential service where the government will pretend they are no longer accountable. This is another attempt to abrogate their responsibility and enjoy a one-off windfall. I believe this to be the most important point. Government members in this debate defend this sale by referring to the sale of Qantas or the Commonwealth Bank. That is a stupid argument. They say, `You did it, so we can do it too.' Any debate about privatisation should never be a choice between sell nothing or sell everything. A responsible government must be driven by the public interest and the national interest, not blind ideology. This sale of Telstra is blind ideology, so that, in yet another essential service, the government can abrogate their responsibility and betray those who elected them.

This bill provides for the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts or the Australian Communications Authority to make licence conditions requiring Telstra to maintain a local presence in regional, rural or remote parts of Australia. It also requires regular reviews of regional telecommunications every five years by an expert committee appointed by the minister. You know my thoughts about experts—experts are the people who tell you what you cannot do. It is laughable that they say they will maintain a presence, because that is all there will be—a presence and a not a service.

A hugely privatised Telstra would dictate to the government what the licence conditions should be—we know that. There would be no guarantee of equitable regional service levels in Dunedoo if Telstra is fully privatised. As I said, Telstra would leave town faster than the banks. This is the same kind of nonsense the government are running when they talk about separating newsrooms from their owners after they destroy media diversity with their disgraceful media ownership bill. Nobody will take these or the Telstra service guarantee provisions seriously. Important safeguards to ensure Telstra is accountable to the public will effectively be gone once Telstra is sold. Only those having disputes with Telstra prior to any sale will hold on to these rights.

My constituents in Lowe know that things like discount concession schemes for pensioners will immediately disappear if Telstra is sold. My constituents in Lowe know that a privatised Telstra will put enormous and irresistible pressure—it will be an ineluctable force—on the government to introduce timed local calls. They also know a privately owned Telstra would be a giant private monopoly too powerful for any government to effectively regulate. My constituents in Lowe know that a fully privatised Telstra would use its muscle to end effective competition and spread its monopoly power into other sectors like media and information.

Telstra would exert enormous monopoly influence over Australia's economic, social and political landscape. It would be one of Australia's largest private companies and would potentially become an Australian version of Microsoft in the United States of America. A privatised Telstra would take advantage of the government's media ownership agenda and inevitably own television, radio and newspaper interests. If you are worried about the government's agenda to hand over our democracy to Mr Murdoch and Mr Packer, just imagine if Telstra bought Mr Murdoch and Mr Packer—so much for the public interest and the future of our democracy. But that does not worry the government.

Telstra remains essentially a public monopoly. On simple economic grounds there is no justification for its privatisation. A majority publicly owned Telstra is the only effective means of guaranteeing universal telecommunications access for all Australians, particularly the people in Dunedoo where I came from. Majority public ownership is the only guarantee of ensuring adequate telecommunications access into the future for all Australians, especially those in regional Australia. The future-proofing arrangements for regional telecommunications services in this bill offer no guarantee of reasonable future levels of service for regional Australians. They are a joke and cannot be taken seriously. They are as big a joke as Professor David Flint thinking he can separate a newsroom from its owner. The member for Rankin would understand what I am talking about here—that is, the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002.

Dr Emerson —And what about Baradine?

Mr MURPHY —That is right. I have been talking about Dunedoo—and I have here with me my colleague and good friend the member for Rankin, who is known to me as the member for Baradine. He calls me Dunedoo and I call him Baradine. Baradine is not that far from Dunedoo, and the communications services in Baradine are no better than they are in Dunedoo. I am pleased the member for Rankin has come into the chamber, because he would understand quite clearly what I am saying—and the families where he comes from would understand even better.

Under the Howard government's privatisation drive, Telstra has suffered a deteriorating network crippled by major investment reductions and staff cut-backs; enormous losses on investments in Asia; rapidly escalating line rental fees which are not adequately compensated for by reductions in call prices; inadequate competition because of Telstra's market dominance and control of the fixed line network; poor rollout and take-up of broadband compared with equivalent countries; and an emerging Telstra focus on moving into other sectors such as media and information technology management at the expense of its traditional responsibilities. This is a disgraceful record—without mentioning Telstra's overseas losses, which are in the vicinity of $2 billion. Telstra losing billions of dollars overseas while it cuts its network investments and core staffing levels in Australia is indicative of the flawed priorities of Telstra under the Howard government.

As part of Labor's unconditional opposition to any further sale of Telstra, on this side of politics, we will pursue a reform strategy designed to bring Telstra back to its primary role and maximise the benefits of telecommunications competition. Telstra should be required to intensify its focus on its core responsibilities to the Australian community and reduce its emphasis on foreign ventures and media investments. Telstra should be asked to intensify its focus on the provision of affordable and accessible broadband services across Australia, particularly for the people in Dunedoo and Baradine.

The competition regime would be strengthened by requiring much stricter internal separation of Telstra's wholesale and retail services; and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, would be removed from the process of ACCC scrutiny and regulation of accounting separation within Telstra to ensure the process is genuinely independent and rigorous. That is how it would be under us. We would not have Senator Alston, fortunately; we would have the member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, who has done a great job in this area. Consumers would be given stronger protection from sharp practices by telecommunications companies and the price control regime would be made fairer. Labor believe in public ownership of Telstra because telecommunications services are essential services. Labor want a majority publicly owned Telstra to get back to basics. We want Telstra to be a builder not a speculator. We want Telstra to be a carrier not a broadcaster.