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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19189

Mr RIPOLL (12:01 PM) —In this place from time to time, certain bills come up which go to issues of great public debate—probably none more so than those on the sale of Telstra. The government, since its election and for many years, has had a plan of selling off Telstra, whether in bits, pieces and chunks or as a whole. We saw the T1 sale and the T2 sale, and plenty of the mums and dads investors that this government so much heralded at the time poured their own private savings into those sales. Anyone who bought into T1 probably did okay, but anyone who bought into T2 probably did really badly. Now the government wants to sell off the rest of Telstra in a T3-type sale.

The bill before us today is the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. What the bill would do is to actually remove the part of law that says that the government has to retain a 50.1 per cent equity in the Telstra Corporation. This would give the government the ability to sell off the rest of Telstra and privatise it fully. It would be reasonable and responsible for people to ask: `Why should the government sell the rest of Telstra?' or, more importantly, `Why should the government not sell the rest of Telstra?' I think these questions are really at the crux of what this whole debate is about. What I believe it is not about is a private versus public debate; it is really about good policy versus sheer ideology.

The government just wants to sell Telstra, for no good reason. When you ask for the reasons, when you actually sit down and look at what benefit you would get from the sale of Telstra, you find that there really is not any at all. The government, by selling off the rest of Telstra, would reap a cash benefit. It would have an immediate benefit of about $30 billion. That is a lot of money; but that is it. That is where it would end. The government would no longer get the revenue that it gets yearly in dividends from the equity that it has in the company. The billions of dollars that come in each year that help the government to deliver services would be gone forever. Along with revenue in the shape of dividends every year, the little bit of control that remains in the government's power to direct Telstra would be gone. This issue about what control the government actually has is debated in this place from time to time.

The government would like to have less control—would like to leave it to market forces, as they say—as to what Telstra does. Telstra is a corporatised entity. It works by the principle of market forces and commercialised principles in its own best interests, to make money, deliver services and provide certain facilities and services to people. The problem that it probably has is that the government compels it, through legislation and through ownership, to do a little bit more than that. The minister has the power to direct Telstra to do something which is, in the real world, against normal business or commercial principles—it would actually lose money by doing it. That is the important part. The important part is that the minister can compel Telstra to do something which a normal private corporation would never do because it would not make commercial sense. A private company would not go out and just spend money on a service if a service cost $1 million and it knew the return on that services would be only $100,000; it would lose $900,000 on that provision of service. But the government, through the power of ownership and through the ministerial power, can direct Telstra to do that. That would be lost; and it would be lost forever. There is no way that any member of this place can say, with the difficulty we have in controlling Telstra now—in provision of services to country people, meeting its universal service obligations—that it would be easier if the government sold Telstra. It is difficult to do that now, with 50.1 per cent share ownership. It is just a ridiculous position to say that, if the government sold Telstra, it would be easier.

If we really look at it closely, who are the people who really want to sell Telstra off? The government is the one who wants to sell Telstra off; but if we ask individual members of the government, privately, what their thoughts are, we find that they have different views. In fact, there is one particular Liberal member who has a completely different view, because he represents his constituents. He has gone out there and asked his constituents what their views are on this, and I will get to that bit of information in a moment.

The only people on the government side who are interested in selling Telstra are the 29 ministers on the front bench. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel. They want to know—and they are squabbling about it right now in the cabinet room—who is going to get the benefit from the sale of Telstra. Which minister will get the proceeds? Where will they be able to spend their billions of dollars on whatever it is they want to do? They are not worried about services in the bush. They are not worried about universal obligations. They are not worried about how competitive our industry is. They are not worried about who will miss out and who will have to pay extra. They are not worried about those things. The ministers are all in there squabbling and fighting each other over who is going to spend the cash in the bag from selling off Telstra.

They forget that each year Telstra provides the government with a huge dividend. I have here the record of the dividends that are provided to Telstra. In 1993, Telstra provided a dividend of $674 million, and a total share went to the Commonwealth of $674 million. That was prior to T1. If we skip a few years and go to 1996, we see that $1.368 billion was provided as a dividend to the government from Telstra services. In 1999, $4.247 billion was the total dividend and $2.8 billion was provided to the government. We are talking about billions of dollars in dividends provided to government.

The half-year dividend provided for this year was almost $2 billion—and this is from a Telstra that is 50.1 per cent government owned. The government reaped a half-yearly benefit of nearly $1 billion. That $1 billion would just cease with the sale of Telstra. We need to look at the amount of money that is reaped from this publicly-owned infrastructure—an infrastructure that was paid for by people's taxes over decades and decades. This is not something that somebody can just go out and replicate. There are no other companies out there that can build another solid line, copper wire infrastructure like the one we have in this country. It is just not physically possible. No-one could afford it, because they would never get the return on it. It would take a thousand years to get the return on it. It just would not happen in this day and age.

People have invested through their taxes to be provided with this essential service. This is the difference between this and other services. Whenever we talk about this issue, the government trot out their typical argument that Labor sold off things as well. Yes, we did sell off things. But I think there is a clear distinction between what is good policy and what is bad policy. Should government be in the industry of owning aircraft and flying an airline? I do not think it should. I do not think that is a universal service obligation type of company. Not everybody flies everywhere, every week. That does not provide a benefit to the general community. I do not see that it is a necessity to return a dividend on an airline or that you need to provide particular types of aircraft in the bush for people when in a competitive market that would be taken care of. The government says that Labor sold off services—yes, we did; but we did not sell off essential services. Should government be in the business of banking? Should government own a bank? Should government control the banking market? I do not think it should. I think there is a really good regulatory regime in place. Where banking is not left to its own devices but is controlled and regulated by government, it can provide better services than government.

But the debate about telecommunications in this country is a completely different debate. It is a debate about essential services that are unaffordable if you happen to live in a country such as Australia, where there are vast distances between places. This is a huge country with a sparse population spread all over it but concentrated in the capital cities. There is a problem for the majority of members here who say that they represent country Australia but who do not—particularly the National Party, who have got no idea about country people or rural and regional areas. When we talk in this place about those who are the biggest sell-outs, we find they are the National Party—every single one of them. They will pay the price at the next election for their sell-out of the country. Country people are not silly. Country people know that the National Party no longer represent them on any issue—none left. Telstra was the last issue left and the National Party's constituents have made it clear to all of their representatives in this place exactly what they think about the sale of Telstra. But the National Party have ignored them, because they do not represent anybody. They do not represent country people. I hate to say it, but they do not represent Australians either, because Australians do not want Telstra sold at all.

There are hundreds of surveys. You can go to any survey you like, you can read any newspaper you like, you can talk to people anywhere—whether they are in the country, in the bush, or in the city—and they will tell you the same story. The story remains the same: they want the government to retain a significant majority share ownership in Telstra. Why do they want that? Because they understand very clearly what will happen if the government sells off Telstra. It is a sell-out; it is a sell-off. What will happen is that services will go through the floor.

Right now Telstra has a record of diminished service provision to the tune of about 85 per cent. It is running down its service provision. This is while the government still has a say in it. This is while the government still has 50.1 per cent ownership. At the same time, Telstra is sacking more workers. You cannot sack 14,000 more workers who are service providers, maintenance people and technicians—all the people who keep this huge infrastructure and service going—and expect to still be able to deliver a service.

I will not go into the detail of some of the issues about broadband. To me, broadband is an essential service that we need in this country, probably more than in any other country because of our vast distances. It opens up a new world. Let us look at education—universities and schools, including the little schools in outback towns. What connects them to the rest of Australia and to the rest of the world? Broadband. It is not just the Internet but broadband access that connects them. Who is going to provide broadband at a reasonable cost? Nobody. Nobody will go out into the country towns and provide those services to people on the land, people in the bush, unless Telstra does it.

Telstra is a huge, massive monopoly in this country. It accounts for just about all of the telecommunications service provision in this country. Sure, we have the smaller players on the side. Sure, we have mobile service provision by other companies. We have Optus, Vodafone and smaller ones, such as AAPT and a whole range of others; but, at the end of the day, Telstra is the big player. If you let that monster out of the cage by privatising it, leaving it to its own devices, letting it do whatever it likes out in the marketplace, what would it naturally do? Its first responsibility is not to the people; it is to its shareholders. What does it do? It goes out there and maximises profit. How does it maximise profit? The first thing these companies do—and this is the sad part about the culture of companies today—to maximise profits is sack people; it gets rid of half its staff. It says that it just does more for less. So Telstra will be out there trying to deliver something with a lot fewer people. The second thing it does is say: `Give me a spreadsheet of everywhere we're losing money. Everywhere we're losing money, stop providing the service. We no longer have to do that there; we're privatised.'

Government will say that it will put in place a regulatory regime where it can ensure and enforce that Telstra will have to provide those services. But how long can you keep up that charade? How long will you force a private company where the pressure is coming from its shareholders—and the shareholders of Telstra are long-suffering now? How long will the government keep up that charade that it will force this company to provide services where it is losing money? It will not do it, or not for very long if it does it at all.

I talked earlier about the spine of some government members, because there is not much spine between the lot of them. Those opposite talk about their views and about what they want to do. We all understand the two-party system in this country. We have caucus positions on what we believe in, and we vote for it and there is a bit of democracy. But on the government side when they are told what to do by the boss every single one of them falls into line. Even though they do not agree, even though they know it is going to hurt their constituents, even though it is a threshold issue for them they will all just back the line, except for one, and I will praise him in this place: Alby Schultz.

Mr Schultz has gone out and surveyed his constituents. He asked them, `As your representative, what do you want me to do in this place on this threshold issue, this key issue?' It not just an ordinary, everyday vote on minor amendments. Ninety-six per cent of the people he surveyed said: `We want to retain ownership. We want to retain the current position. We want to make sure the government has ownership of Telstra.' Why do they want to do that? Because they are bush people; they are country people. They know they are going to get ripped off. They know this government is lying to them; it does it to them all the time.

We have seen this government fibbing—they have a very long track record on this—in this place most recently with a front bench minister, Wilson Tuckey. He used his ministerial letterhead to try and get his son off a 180-buck fine. He said it was just an ordinary move—what any father would do for his son; except he did it three times on ministerial letterhead and tried to influence what a state police minister was going to do!

This is just one of the many examples of where the government cannot be trusted. They cannot be trusted on Telstra and they cannot be trusted to enforce that Telstra provide services to the bush. This bill should be voted down, and it will be voted down. It will not pass this place, because everybody in the other chamber knows that it cannot get through. It will become a threshold issue at the next election, and I tell you what: the people of Australia will vote, and they had better vote with their feet, because this is a big issue for them to vote on.