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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2712

Senator CARR (10:42 AM) —I support the remarks of Senator Bishop and Senator Boswell. This is an issue that I have been concerned with for some time. I became involved with this matter as chair of the communications committee of the Senate where the matter was brought to my attention. I have subsequently maintained my interest in this question as a result of representations from Mr Graham Schorer, who is here today in the gallery, and other constituents of mine in Victoria as well as constituents that have moved from Victoria to Queensland. They have made representations to me concerning what they believe to be very substantial economic loss which has led to significant disruption of their lives to the point of great economic distress for them and their families.

I would also draw to the attention of the Senate and to the minister, who I note is in the chamber and who I am pleased to see is paying great attention to these matters, letters that he wrote on 28 October 1993—bearing in mind that this is a dispute that began about the middle of 1992. Senator Alston, who was the shadow minister for communications in 1993, wrote to Mr Robin Davey, Chairman of Austel, that he thanked him very much:

. . . for the opportunity to explore the implications of the latest proposals for resolution of the COT Case complaints and to put in place an appropriate process to deal with future complaints.

He said:

As I understand the proposal it would be based on the UK model. The process would be managed or facilitated by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, who would then contract out arbitration responsibilities to one of a panel of arbitrators for each of the claims in order to enable all matters to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

Both sides would then put written material before the arbitrator who would then hand down a judgment without taking submissions or hearing evidence. The UK experience suggests that complex cases can take up to three months before a decision is handed down but it could be anticipated that these matters would not take that length of time.

Here we are in 1999 still without enormous progress being made and with claims, as I understand it, still outstanding, according to Telstra's own records, of $13.8 million dollars from Messrs Schorer, Bova and Plowman, not to mention the very large number of persons that had been forced into an arbitration process and have been obliged to settle as a result of the sheer weight that Telstra has brought to bear on them as a consequence where they have faced financial ruin if they did not settle—and I speak particularly of some of the cases that I have had to deal with, so I have some direct knowledge of these matters. Senator Alston went on to say in his letter that he was in favour of the proposal but:

. . . the Opposition would reserve the right to consider the establishment of a Senate Select Committee if AUSTEL's report raised matters of serious concern regarding outstanding problems or if the there is evidence to substantiate the persistent complaints made by COT Case members, particularly Mr Schorer, of "misleading and deceptive conduct" on the part of Telecom.

I would have thought that now, after all these years, Senator Alston, your concerns would have sufficient weight based on the evidence that we have seen before us and that, frankly, a Senate select committee would not be necessary; that you as minister, in view of the enormous interest that you have shown on this question and the commitments that you have made in writing, ought to be able to intervene to resolve this question once and for all. I would have thought, given the powers that you have as minister, you would have been able to intervene in a productive manner to produce results which, of course, would allow for the resolution of these questions in an appropriate manner—and I would suggest, quite frankly, given the evidence that I have had before me, in favour of those complainants.

The report that we have before us is a result of the actions of the Senate committee more recently in the latest round of course goes to the fact that Telstra has continued what could only be described as `misleading and deceptive conduct' in this matter. I do not think there is any fair interpretation which would not lead you to that conclusion. Of course Mr Wynack says in his correspondence to us:

In my opinion there is no scope for Telstra relying on the 10 August 1998 meeting to unilaterally vary Mrs Garms' requests.

Which is, of course, at the core of the current problem that Telstra sought to enter into this process—which Mr Wynack says that he believed would be a transparent process agreed by the parties—and they turned that process, in the view of Mr Wynack, into a `process subject to unilateral amendment by Telstra'. Frankly, that is just not good enough. I have had discussions with Telstra officials on this matter and I have advised them that, as far as I am concerned, that I am going to continue to press these issues within the forums available to me to defend the constituents that have come to me expressing their grave concerns about the way in which they have been treated, because this goes to some very basic questions about the corporate behaviour of our major publicly owned corporation.

I make the point that I strongly support this company remaining a publicly owned corporation because I think it provides us with an opportunity which would not be available to citizens of this country if these events had actually been undertaken by Optus or any other carrier. They would not be able to undertake these sorts of processes. There would not be a debate in this chamber of this gravity if it was not for the fact that Telstra is a publicly owned corporation. That at no time excuses the behaviour of the management of Telstra on these questions, but what it does indicate is the capacity of this parliament to draw these matters to public attention and ensure that there is an appropriate corporate responsibility taken and that appropriate actions are taken by this parliament to defend the civil liberties of citizens, because at the core that is what this is all about.

There may well be an argument that the parliament should not be intervening in terms of a financial dispute between parties which are involved in various legal processes. I have never ever made a comment on the question of the financial settlement. I do not see that that is the role of members of parliament. What I do make a comment on is the question of civil liberties and the rights of citizens to approach this parliament and seek redress for their grievances when corporate power, particularly in a publicly owned corporation, has been abused. And there can be no question that that is what is at the heart of this issue.

But there is, of course, another very important issue at stake here, and that is, when it comes to the question of Telstra's financial responsibilities, the people that it has injured. I understand the case that is being used now in this particular matter, the precedent that is being set, is that workers being affected by asbestos who are seeking redress as a result of the actions of Telstra over years in terms of its use of asbestos are having the same sorts of devices used against them, because suddenly we discover that Telstra's records are so bad that they cannot fulfil their responsibilities to their workers in terms of complaints that are being made about injury and ill health and occupational safety. They cannot tell who was used in the way that has now led to the cases were workers are being killed by the actions of the operations of this particular company.

So it is not just a case of these particular individuals, who in themselves have a grievance and ought to be satisfied, it is also the implications that flow from this case about the way in which this corporation is to treat to citizens of this country. I come back to the point that it is up to the parliament to pursue these cases, and I say it is up to the minister personally to be involved in the resolution of these cases. I know that when Senator Collins was the minister and when Mr Lee was the Minister for Communications and the Arts they sought to get redress. They sought to intervene and behave properly at all times.

But we also know, in the way in which telephone lines were tapped, in the way in which there have been various abuses of this parliament by Telstra—and misleading and deceptive conduct to this parliament itself, similar to the way they have treated citizens—that there has of course been quite a deliberate campaign within Telstra management to undermine attempts to resolve this question in a reasonable way. We have now seen $24 million of moneys being used to crush these people. It has gone on long enough, and simply we cannot allow it to continue. The attempt made last year, in terms of the annual report, when Telstra erroneously suggested that these matters—the CoT cases—had been settled demonstrates that this process of deceptive conduct has continued for far too long. (Time expired)