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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19199

Mr JENKINS (12:45 PM) —I rise in opposition to the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. Over time in this place, I have indicated that my predisposition is to oppose privatisations and to support public ownership. However, it behoves a member of this legislative chamber not to be dictated to by any predisposition of ideology but to look at the matter before us and make a decision on the argument and the case placed before us. We are now moving towards the end of this debate, and nothing that has occurred throughout the debate on this piece of legislation leads me to change my mind. I stand here speaking in opposition to the privatisation of Telstra. I do so for a number of reasons. If we look at what has been said about the types of outcomes that people believe can occur through the full privatisation of Telstra, each of these can be debated and found to be completely erroneous.

We have heard the argument that this privatisation will be of economic benefit to the nation. This argument is based on the belief that capitalising an asset and using that money for other `desirable public purposes'—including, for the purposes of this argument, debt reduction—is the be all and end all and a primary reason for carrying out the actions proposed by this legislation. But any observation of what has happened in the past with privatisations of this ilk indicates that the reverse is the case in relation to the benefit to the budget. If we take into account inputs to the budget via dividends from organisations such as Telstra, then take into account all the other factors—including the supposed savings in interest payments from using the proceeds of the sale to reduce debt—a number of creditable studies indicate that there will be a loss to the budget. Recently there was an audit report on a not totally unrelated matter which indicated that, in the present wave of disposals of Defence land and, in many cases, the rearrangement of leasing arrangements, within one or two years there is a disbenefit to the budget. I believe that these are things that are well and truly overlooked in the general debate about private ownership versus public ownership. As I said, we have plenty of experience of this. These are the types of issues that the public are taking into account, as there is a change in the mood about privatisation.

Another point that is often made is that these organisations in some way become more efficient through their privatisation. Again, if we look at the experience, at the end of the day there is not much proof of this—especially when we are talking about the provision of essential services. There are a number of examples of public utilities that have been taken out of public hands and privatised where this is not the case. A not unrelated example is the privatisation of water companies throughout Australia. One thing that we consistently see is the loss of proper planning for infrastructure. Because of the profit motive, these issues that have long horizons are often ignored. These will be matters that we will have to address throughout the breadth of Australia in the coming years. I believe that is in the public's mind as we see a change in the attitude towards privatisation. Another point that is made is that the service orientation of these organisations will increase in private hands. Again, experience does not indicate that that is the case.

At the end of the day, the government needs to address a number of these commentaries and see that they are important to people. Of great interest is that, while Australia embraced—under, I acknowledge, governments of differing political persuasions—this move to privatisation, which was first encouraged by various administrations in the United Kingdom and the United States, over time there has been a dramatic change in public attitude. A number of published works indicate that change. For instance, an article by Jonathan Kelley and Johanna Sikora entitled Australian public opinion on privatisation, 1986-2002, shows that public opinion on the privatisation of Telstra, which was split fifty-fifty in 1987, moved to a situation where 71 per cent of people were opposed to the sale in 2002. Likewise, a study of the support for privatisation of a range of public utilities indicates that support has decreased from a level of fifty-fifty to in the range of 35 per cent to 22 or 23 per cent. It indicates what I have said: the public sees what has happened in practice under privatisation and there is growing concern; this is not the way they wish to see public policy develop.

As I said, we should not be tied into these types of measures on the basis of embedded ideology; we should see that there is a need for proper debate. One thing that has always intrigued me and perhaps encouraged me is that these things are cyclical. In the international circumstance they are seen as being cyclical. There is some hope that public opinion will drive decision makers to understand that the mood of the electorate is that we should look at other ways of doing things.

Throughout this debate there has been discussion about the fact that this is not a debate about technologies or the introduction of new technologies. It does become perplexing when people talk about things like remote integrated multiplexes, pair gain systems, ADSL and ISDN. But in the end it is not the technologies that are important; what is important is the way in which we can achieve for people equitable and affordable access to the types of services that Telstra as a prime telecommunications provider can provide.

There has been a lot of emphasis throughout this debate on how it is believed, imagined or conjured up that there has been an improvement in services in rural and regional Australia. Today I am just giving the perspective of my electorate, an outer metropolitan Melbourne electorate. I have had a number of complaints about the provision of services by telecommunications carriers to people living in that electorate. I have raised before the problems that have been put to me by a number of constituents about their inability to access broadband. A number of these constituents live in an estate that is about three or four years old. They do not have access to broadband through optic fibre cable because the cable has not been laid out. They do not have access through pair gain technology over the copper network because they are more than 3½ kilometres from the telephone exchange. I find this a completely ludicrous situation.

It is a ludicrous situation when a person setting up a computer consultancy has to move their office from Macleod to Watsonia—and anybody who has a knowledge of metropolitan Melbourne would know that these suburbs are not out in the wilderness—because of the lack of access to broadband communication services. It is also ludicrous that that consultancy's client—who has a factory in Campbellfield, on the outer northern edge of Melbourne, but lives in Yarrambat, which is well and truly on the outer urban edge—has access to ADSL broadband in Campbellfield but has the standard dial-up 56 kilobits per second service at home in Yarrambat. We are talking about people who, if asked, would say they were living in metropolitan Melbourne.

Would the minister representing the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in this place even know—whether he takes the view from his farm or farmlet down in Gippsland, his apartment in East Melbourne or wherever—that these are parts of metropolitan Melbourne? When we are talking about equitable access, if suburbs and new housing estates continue to have problems, a difficulty exists. People need to understand that a change in ownership from public hands to private hands does not address this situation.

This is the nub of the matter before us. We are talking about services that are essential to the way in which Australians go about their lives, whether it is social, economic or civic life. The importance of those things provided by telecommunications is growing as new technologies are introduced. As people who dictate public policy, we have to take that into consideration when we carry out measures in this respect. I am happy to be here in opposition to this piece of legislation—to support the approach that Labor has indicated it has to these matters that go to the issues that are of greatest concern to the majority of Australians.

In looking at all the things that Telstra has involved itself in that do not go to its core responsibilities, we would ask—as a major shareholder in the ownership of Telstra as it is structured now—that Telstra puts an emphasis on its core services and makes those core services available to the Australian public in an affordable manner. That is the first matter that Labor have emphasised. Secondly, Labor want Telstra to improve Australians' access to affordable broadband services. That is something I have touched on that is important to the electorate of Scullin. Thirdly, we encourage even greater competition to ensure that consumers are provided with telecommunications services at a reasonable cost. Fourthly, we continue to support stronger and fairer protection of consumers in their dealings with telecommunications companies such as Telstra.

As I said at the outset, I could be accused of having a natural tendency towards opposition on questions of ownership such as that dealing with Telstra's privatisation. I have learnt in this place to look at these situations seriously and to take on board the arguments that are presented. As I said from the outset, nothing has occurred during this debate that indicates to me that it is in the national interest or in the interests of the people of my electorate for an organisation such as Telstra to be in full private ownership.