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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19178

Mr KATTER (11:16 AM) —I rise to speak on the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. I stood in the hot sun every single election—both Senate elections and council elections before my father was in parliament—for 41 years handing out how-to-vote cards for the Country Party, later the National Party, and I was very proud of the people who were in that party. I have a big picture of Black Jack McEwen and a picture of Bjelke-Petersen on a wall in my office, and I glow with pride for what those men and that party achieved for us.

At a meeting in Longreach of the central council—the overarching body of the National Party in Queensland—there was a ding-dong, bloody head-on battle between the pro-Telstra-sale people and the anti-Telstra-sale people. After some three hours of battle, the vote was taken and I would say the vote would have been about 85 against to 15 in favour. The 15 consisted of, to their shame, in my opinion, federal members of parliament, their families and their friends who had come all the way out to Longreach, presumably to fight this battle on behalf of the federal government in Canberra—not on behalf of the people they represented.

Today in Queensland there is a man, Rowell Walton, until then a National Party state vice-president, forming the New Country Party. I rang him up and asked him, `Why are you making this move?' He said, `I went along to Longreach. We fought hard, and every single person in this party, with the exception of federal members of parliament, was opposed to the sale of Telstra. The state members were passionately opposed to it. Within a few weeks, the National Party senator for Queensland was out there telling us about all the wonderful benefits that we would get from the sale, dangling lollipops in front of us as a way of placating us for taking away one of the most essential services that you can possibly have—not just in the bush but also in the towns. What is the purpose of belonging to a party that treats the thoughts, feelings, aspirations and policies of its membership with absolute contempt?'

That very great man, Jack McEwen, said, `If the Country Party one day becomes part of the Liberal Party, then I fear that a new party will be formed.' I think that the feeling out there is that that has occurred, and a new party is forming. If you want something to blame, go no further than the decision on the sale of Telstra. Media reports, poll after poll, have been taken by national surveys, such as AC Nielsen, indicating that 80 per cent of the people outside of the metropolitan areas are opposed to this sale. Either we can assume that all rural people are a bunch of imbeciles or that the National Party is totally incompetent in getting its message across, or we can assume that these people should be listened to—that maybe they have some brains and intelligence, and maybe they are trying to tell us something and the National Party is choosing to ignore them.

If anyone thinks for one moment that the people from the National Party or the Liberal Party who have stood up here representing rural Australia are sincere in their beliefs, then I ask you to consider for one moment what those people would be saying if in fact the coalition frontbench had decided to oppose the sale of Telstra. Do you think that any one of them would have got up here and advocated the sale of Telstra? No. They would all be up giving speeches about how wonderful it is to oppose the sale of Telstra and how it would be the unravelling of society as we know it if Telstra were to be sold. That is the test of sincerity.

You have to go along with a majority decision in your joint party room. Government has to operate that way. I of all people know and understand that, having served in that system for longer than anyone else in this parliament, with the exception of Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard—though there are probably a few other 30-year men like me in the country. I understand how that mechanism works. But there are some issues which you simply have to take a stand on. I do not think it is unreasonable for the National Party to take a stand maybe two or three times in a three-year session of parliament. That has not occurred. Mr Deputy Speaker, I defy you or anyone else to tell me of one single time when the National Party stood up to their coalition partner in the interests of country people and said, `No, you cannot do that because that is so antipathetic to the interests of country people.' If you go back to the days of Anthony, you will probably find that occurred five or six times in the life of any parliament. If you go back to McEwen's day, it might have happened four or five times a year. I am not advocating that; I am just saying two or three times.

I served in a government where we were the majority party in the coalition and the Liberals were the minority. There were probably six or seven times in that parliament at least when that very strongest of strong men in politics, Bjelke-Petersen, had to roll over because the Liberal Party simply said, `We cannot go along with this and we will not go along with this.' They did not do it every 10 minutes; they did not handle it irresponsibly, not with a person like Sir Llewellyn Edwards. But there were times when Llew would just have to say to Joh, `I am sorry, we can't go along with it.' And our leader, Bjelke-Petersen, would have to say to us in the party room, `Well, boys, the Liberals just won't go, you know, and we'd have to have an election here and, you know, we wouldn't, well, I think we've got to'—we all know how Joh talked. That happened on a number of occasions, and I do not have time to go into each of those examples.

Let me return to the coalface. I did not know anything about this issue, but in the election campaign before last I was rung up and asked whether I would back De-Anne Kelly, who had just said that she was not going to vote for the sale of Telstra. I did not know anything about it but I liked and had great respect for De-Anne. I thought, `I'd better back her up. It's an election campaign. I just hope like damned hell that she's got this right.' I had to think about it, naturally, and I thought, `No, I wouldn't like to see us sell Telstra.' So, without having given it a lot of thought—so many times in politics, you have to choose your gods and devils on the run—I backed it, being heavily influenced, I have to admit, by the stand taken by my colleague from Dawson. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this would be absolutely disastrous.

We had a station property in the middle of nowhere, about 200 kilometres to the nearest town, which was Croydon. You were cut off for many months of the year. During the wet season, you could not get in or out of the stations in that area, and our communications were of absolutely vital importance to us. We had the old flying doctor radio net. Later on, some of our neighbours had copper wire going all the way back to Richmond, so they had a party line. So we had two technologies there: we had the RFDS net, which provided a very primitive telephone service, and some of our neighbours had copper wire, which broke down a hell of a lot of the time. Later on, we got the DRCS service. It came to a lot of our neighbours but it did not come to us. So that was the third technological change to come into the area. Then the satellite telephones came in, and we went on the satellite telephone system. So that was four changes of technology. Now most of the neighbours of St Francis station have HCRC. So there were five technological changes in the space of about 16 or 17 years. If you own Telstra then you can simply say, `Cross-subsidis-ation—go out there and do it. We don't want to see you. We do not have to go to the Treasurer and ask him for money.'

Let me make another point here. Let us take another scenario, in which all the people who are opposing this bill—those in the Senate, my two Independent colleagues, the other member of parliament from a small party who is here with us and the ALP too—simply rolled over and agreed when this proposition was first put up. The National Party are making a lot of the $180 million or $250 million they have secured for the bush—and we thank all of the people involved in that; we are very deeply appreciative of what has been done there, and I want that on the public record—but, if we had rolled over, does anyone in this country believe that we would have got a single cent? If we had listened to the government's arguments in the first place, we would not have got a single cent. By refusing and being intransigent, we have got money out of the system. I do not know what the figure is, but I have heard figures of $200 million quoted. Most certainly, there are huge sums of money involved, which we have got—and we are very appreciative of that. But if we had agreed to this straight off, that money would not have come through. So it is the people who have been intransigent and opposed the sale of Telstra who can get all the credit for those huge benefits that have flowed through to the people that we represent.

There will be no benefits if Telstra is sold off. Can a serious person actually argue that there are still going to be technicians, if there still are, in Normanton, in Richmond, in Julia Creek and in Cloncurry? Would anyone seriously stand up in public and say that after privatisation those technicians will still be there?

The government have argued that they will put in universal service obligations. I think someone should go along and tell that to Annie Garms, the Endeavour Foundation or the caravan park owners in Melbourne—the COT cases; the casualties of Telstra cases—because those cases were the most flagrant breaches of the universal service obligations. Thirteen years later, none of those people, most of whom at that stage were bankrupt, had received a single cent in compensation, nor an apology, nor an explanation. The ombudsman himself in his report said, `This is a disgraceful situation and needs to be addressed, and I don't have sufficient powers to address it.' So we already know what happened there.

The terrible, tragic Sam Boulding case from Victoria is another classic example. Every single member of parliament here has had a bloke who rings up and says, `My telephone's not working.' Then you ring up your Telstra bloke and he says, `Yes, it is working. We've done tests on it and it is working.' And probably both of them are telling the truth, because the phone works sometimes and sometimes it does not. Are we then going to have to go to law to enforce and secure those universal service obligations, with Telstra being the experts in the field, knowing all about it, while we have to be like poor Sam Boulding's mother and argue that it is not working—up against Telstra who is saying it is working? Who the hell is going to listen to Sam Boulding's mother? The answer is nobody and was nobody. If she wanted to enforce the universal service obligations, she could go to the law.

I do believe the government when they say that they will provide some legal provisions for going to the law. This will be a lot of fun! Sam Boulding's mother competing against Telstra—that will be a lot of fun! People should read the story of O.J. Simpson: when you have huge money, you can be enormously effective at law. We are pitting Goliath against David, but David has had his slingshot taken off him. So the universal service obligations will not be worth the paper they are written on—we already have the COT cases, we already have the tragic death of Sam Boulding—and anyone who argues that the USOs will be effective should go and argue with those people whose lives were totally destroyed. A life, Sam Boulding's mother argues, was actually extinguished as a result of that situation and the failure of the universal service obligation.

When you have been in politics for as long as I have, you can pass all the laws that you like in the world but, if the administration of those laws is on the side of the big battalions—and my experience in 31 years in politics is that government instrumentalities are always on the side of the big battalions—you can be assured that an adjudicating tribunal, if one is set up, will be on the side of the big battalions; it will be on the side of Telstra, not on the side of Sam Boulding's mother. It will never be on the side of Sam Boulding's mother.

I came into this debate in the case of the Normanton floods. In those floods, I was advised that two technicians had left Normanton and had not been replaced. Two of them had gone on holidays and another two were left to look after an area the size of Victoria. The cyclone hit and all the services were cut. A very large number of the station property services were not working and the two technicians simply could not get around that huge area in the time to fix them. It was the wet season, which made it very hard for them to get around. But this was literally a matter of life and death—and let me name the Gallagher family, frontiersmen and heroes.

In the big floods in 1975, their homestead went under about six feet of water. In the 1990s flood, the floodwaters were rising dramatically and their telephone was not working. It had not been fixed, because there were only two technicians looking after an area the size of Victoria. As it was, they lost hundreds of cattle; they were on an island and were washed away. If they had been able to use the telephone, they could have got a helicopter out and forced the cattle back onto dry ground. But they lost—I am not sure what it was—200 to 600 head of cattle. They were very lucky that the floods in 1995, or whenever they were, were not as bad as the floods in 1975, because not only would 200 head of cattle have been washed away; the entire Gallagher family would have been washed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and drowned—and many other families as well.

I said that if we sell Telstra we will not have technicians. If we do not have technicians, as the Normanton case clearly indicated, we will not have the services. If we do not have the services, as the Gallagher example indicates, you will die. When I had the temerity to back Croydon Mayor Corey Pickering and say that on behalf of my constituents, I was called a national disgrace by Minister Alston. He indulged in a vitriolic personal attack on me for having the temerity to say these things and, within 12 months, little Sam Boulding died.

Let me move on. If we lose the technicians—they are back in Townsville or Brisbane—and your telephone breaks down in Normanton or Julia Creek, do the government seriously say that they are going to fly a technician out to those places? Ironically enough, the same Gallagher family did lose their telephone; technicians were not available to fix it. They were given a satellite telephone, which is a very substandard telephone. The generosity of the government provides country members with a satellite phone for our cars, but I do not think I have used it in the last four or five months. It is a very substandard service, and I do not want to go into the reasons for that. Councillor Ashley Gallagher kicked up a fair fight—and quite rightly so. His uncle had had to use a satellite telephone for, I think, around five months.

That is the future for rural non-metro-politan Australia. I do not think that that is going to be confined to rural Australia. If you are in a suburb of Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, you will find that you will have a lot of difficulty under full privatisation. You say, `Well, it is not privatised and I have had all these problems.' The difference is that I was able to kick up a hell of a stink and kick a lot of heads. We now have six technicians—or at least last time I looked we had—back in Normanton. So I was able to do something about it. Under a fully privatised system, I cannot do anything about it. It will be past tense.

Time is running away from me. Everyone says the rest of the world is privatising. I am sorry, they are not. Of the 28 OECD countries, 16 of them are not fully privatised and another five or six are arguably not privatised. When you look at the figures—anything but dumb—countries like Japan, the richest country on earth, still have a state-run system. The Japanese are the richest people on earth.

Everyone in this place should read a wonderful book by Bob and Betty Con Walker called Privatisation: Sell-off or sell-out? They say that privatisations cost the Australian people nearly $50,000 million. That is what was blown away by the privatisations—it is all there fully documented—so there was no profit for the people.

Most of my political life I have not been in agreement with the ALP, and they say—there is some hypocrisy about the ALP on this one—that the government are selling Telstra to get the money to buy their way through the next election. I was on the other side of the fence for the best part of a decade. I was a senior minister in the government—one of the people directing the government—and, believe me, that is an operative mechanism with every government, including ALP ones. (Time expired)