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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19175

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (11:01 AM) —I rise to echo the comments made by the member for Lowe and the member for Throsby, who spoke before him, on this absolutely awful decision by the government to sell Telstra. That is the decision they have made and we are now debating whether it is the right thing to do. The Labor Party is unequivocal in its view that this is the wrong thing to do. This is the wrong thing to do because it is not in the interests of this country, it is not for the public good. It might be in the interests of some private operators, but it is not a good decision for this nation. A decent look at the facts and the circumstances under which this decision has been made by the government would clearly underline that assertion.

I start from the basis of what my constituents in the electorate of Burke think about this sale. I know they have grave concerns about the sale. For those who are not aware, the electorate of Burke covers the western part of Melbourne and also regional and rural areas of Victoria. It covers the communities of Kyneton, Trentham, Romsey, Lancefield, Woodend, Gisborne, Macedon, Sunbury, Bacchus Marsh, Melton, and the western part of Melbourne, including Deer Park, Caroline Springs and Burnside. It is a reasonably good cross-section of the Australian community because it has some suburban dwellers and many rural dwellers. I assure you that in my electorate there are concerns about the sale of Telstra, for all sorts of reasons. In particular, there are concerns in the remote areas that are not in metropolitan Melbourne that, after a sale, the benefits they get from a majority public ownership of Telstra will be adversely affected. I do not think the government have convinced the community that that will not be the case. I surveyed a large proportion of my electorate and the returns showed that, overwhelmingly, my constituents believe this sale of shares to fully privatise Telstra is the wrong decision. They outlined their concerns that, if the sale were to proceed, they did not trust this government to ensure that the conditions the government assert they will put in place will indeed remain, nor were they confident that any government could, in perpetuity, maintain conditions that would protect rural Victoria or indeed rural Australia. As a result of their concerns, I rise with some confidence on behalf of my constituents and uncategorically oppose the full privatisation of Telstra.

I think it is also important to note Labor's position. As I have said, Labor is indeed the only party that has not hesitated in its complete opposition to this sale. I think it is also important to outline, for the parliament and indeed for this country, Labor's proposal. The member for Melbourne, the shadow minister, has indicated that, as part of Labor's unconditional opposition to any further sale of Telstra, Labor has chosen to pursue a four-point reform strategy designed to bring Telstra back to its primary role, and maximise the benefits of telecommunications competition.

The key features of Labor's strategy are: firstly, that Telstra would be required to intensify its focus on its core responsibilities to the Australian community and reduce its emphasis on foreign ventures and media investments; secondly, Telstra would be asked to intensify its focus on the provision of affordable and accessible broadband services available for all Australians—and, as I think most people are now aware, that area is certainly not up to scratch; it is something that has to be attended to—thirdly, the competition regime would be strengthened by requiring a much stricter internal separation of Telstra's wholesale and retail activities, and indeed any Labor minister for communications 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. Again, that is something that this government cannot boast: it has a minister who intrudes time and time again into matters that he should not. He intrudes in the operations of the ABC and the way in which the ABC reports news. That form of intrusion occurs in other areas of the portfolio of the minister for communications and is indeed typical of this government—and it is something that a Labor government would remove. Four-thly, under the Labor plan consumers would be given stronger protection from sharp practices by telecommunications companies and the price control regime will be made fairer.

So the Labor Party has a plan. Labor is unequivocal in its opposition to the full sale of Telstra, and its plan outlines and puts on the table quite clearly the main things that must be done to improve the services of Telstra. Labor stands in sharp contrast to the coalition government, which of course includes the National Party. The National Party, I have to say, has been abysmal on this matter. It has really let down its constituents, its members and supporters, in its surrender to the economic rationalists in the government. In relation to this issue, its members should hang their collective heads in shame. But I will return to the National Party in a moment.

It is also important to note that Labor, as I have indicated, is the only party that has not hesitated at any point in its opposition to the full sale of Telstra. I do note though that the former leader of the Democrats, the Independent Senator Meg Lees, late last year indicated that she believed the sale of Telstra was inevitable; in October she gave a further hint that she would support the government's efforts to sell the rest of Telstra, calling full privatisation inevitable. She talked of having some deal or arrangement where some environmental considerations could be put in place in order to sell Telstra fully. Of course, one would recall in May last year the leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, floating the idea that the Greens could envisage backing the full sale of Telstra in return for government undertakings to end clear-felling and logging of old-growth forests as well as taking further action on preventing salinity. Indeed, the leader of the Greens had to back down after his party rebuked such a proposition. This shows that some of the minor parties and Independents are not always unequivocal in their opposition to the full sale of Telstra, but Labor stands as one, unequivocal and consistent, in its call to oppose this sale.

However, as I have indicated previously, perhaps the most surprising thing in this debate is the National Party's failure to really stand up for its constituents. Its voice has been lacking. It has fallen for the notion that the Estens inquiry has fulfilled the obligations that the Prime Minister ensured would be put in place in order for the sale to proceed. I would imagine that most National Party voters and supporters are wondering who they have to represent them in this parliament—clearly, rural Victoria would have been let down today. If National Party members were to support this Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003, it would mean that they have really turned their backs on their constituents. In effect, it would mean that they have turned their backs on the needs of Australian rural and regional families that rely upon Telstra and upon the cross-subsidy that arises because Telstra still has a majority public ownership; at the moment Telstra can still look after their interests. I do not think the members of the National Party have really satisfied their constituents and I believe they will suffer as a result of that. Black Jack McEwen must be—

Mr Katter —Hear, hear—turning in his grave.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —turning in his grave, as the member for Kennedy indicates, because he would not have let them down. There used to be a joke around that Black Jack was an agrarian socialist. Whether or not that is true, one thing we do know about Black Jack McEwen is that he defended country people and their interests to the hilt; he took up those issues within the coalition when he was in this place and defended those interests. But the National Party has failed entirely in looking after the interests of its constituents in regional and rural Australia.

I suppose we could say that there is one lone voice in the Liberal Party who has somehow managed to make comments and not be entirely stifled by his party, and I refer to the member for Hume. The member for Hume has indicated, over a number of weeks, his opposition to the full sale of Telstra, and that he does so because he does not believe it is in the interests of his constituents to sell the golden goose. He does not believe that one sale will ensure long-term benefits for his constituents. I think he should be applauded for his honesty and for reflecting the interests and priorities of his own constituents. He stands in contrast to the many speakers in the government ranks who have stood up and, mantra-like, uttered the nonsense being advocated by the government that all of a sudden all the concerns that regional Australia have had with the potential sale of Telstra have disappeared. They have not disappeared; they remain.

There would be major potential problems if the sale were to go ahead. This does not seem in any way to concern the Prime Minister, it does not seem to concern the Treasurer and it does not seem to concern the government in general. The people of my electorate are listening to and watching the government's decisions in relation to this matter, and I believe they will not accept this decision as one that is in the interests of this nation. They will not accept that the bill before us, if it were passed through this House and the Senate, would be in the interests of this country.

This government does this nation a disservice in attempting to sell Telstra. It fails to properly understand that Telstra as it currently stands is still able to properly look after those remote and rural communities, including those in my own electorate, and there can be no guarantee given by this government that that would be the case if Telstra were fully sold. So I have no hesitation in opposing this bill and in calling upon the Senate to do the same thing in order to ensure that we have a service that will look after Australians, whether they are in metropolitan Melbourne or regional Australia.