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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12831

Senator ALLISON (2:19 PM) —My question is directed to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senators on my left are making far too much noise.

Senator ALLISON —I refer to the letter this week from Telstra to members of parliament in which Dr Switkowski said:

We get on time connection right in 90 percent of cases and fault restoration right in 83 percent of cases. This is not perfect, but it is demonstrably better than during any period of total government ownership in the modern era.

Does the minister acknowledge that this statement is untrue? Is it not the case that in the December 1996 quarter, Telstra was clearing 89 per cent of faults within two days—that is, a five per cent higher rate before privatisation than now? Will the minister insist that Telstra writes to each member of parliament correcting the record?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I do not have those particular statistics at my fingertips. What I do know is that Senator Allison has got these figures comprehensively wrong on so many occasions it is hard to take her seriously. The last time she was on her feet in this chamber, I suggested that we had achieved a world's first in introducing the customer service guarantee. She immediately called out that it was a Democrat proposal. When I looked at the Democrat policy after question time I found that they actually said in explicit terms, `We support the coalition's proposal for a customer service guarantee.' It is absolutely ludicrous. It constitutes a misleading of the parliament and it deserves a full apology.

Senator Bourne —Have a look at the Hansard.

Senator ALSTON —Have a look at the Hansard. Have a look at our policy, come in here and tell me where I am wrong and then we might have a sensible discussion on the subject. The fact is that right through the 1990s Telstra's performance in terms of quality of service was very lacklustre. We made that point on a number of occasions. That is why we proposed the introduction of a customer service guarantee.

Democrat senators interjecting

Senator ALSTON —Stop giggling and listen, will you.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, direct your remarks to the chair and ignore the interjections.

Senator ALSTON —Under the Labor Party all that you had was the ability to arrange for an appointment. If the linesman was not there on time you had to go lamenting. That was totally unsatisfactory. We therefore took the view that you needed to have performance criteria enshrined in legislation. We introduced the customer service guarantee accordingly.

Dr Switkowski's letter, as I recall it, made the point that in the modern era Telstra's performance has been better. Certainly, if you go back to March 1998 and look at the Australian Communications Authority's statistics on this subject, you will find that they have been improving significantly over that period. That is why Mr Smith, the shadow minister, put out a press release on 20 December last actually congratulating Telstra on the improvement in service. That is why Col Cooper, from the CEPU, was on radio a couple of weeks ago saying just the same thing.

The nub of this issue is whether or not you can continue to require improvements in quality of service irrespective of any changes in employment levels. What those figures show is that over the last two years Telstra's level of employment went down from something like 60,000 to about 52,000 at the same time that their service levels were improving. In fact, if you go back a decade, you find that they had 93,000 employees and their performance levels were very poor. So quite clearly there is no correlation.

In fact, the only way you could bring about significant improvement, apart from on a voluntary basis, by Telstra, which I think will be supplemented by our legislative arrangements, is to have a customer service guarantee arrangement not only setting the standards but backed up by a regime that requires rebates to be paid to customers, as of recent times, automatically--not simply to those who ask for it--and of course exposing Telstra to up to $10 million in fines for systematic breaches. That is what this is all about. If you had read that letter, you would have understood a lot more about it, rather than nitpicking to try to find some little aspect of it that you do not think is quite good enough at the present time. Well, come out now and acknowledge that our customer service regime is a very good one indeed, that we invented it, that it has been in place very successfully, that we keep improving on it and that it is only a pity you did not think of it first.

Senator ALLISON —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask the minister to acknowledge that the consumer guarantee was in the coalition policy but not put into the legislation, and I ask him to acknowledge publicly that it was the Democrats' amendment which put it there. Minister, isn't it also true that, when we look at the rural figures only, 90 per cent of faults were repaired within two days before privatisation and now the figure for country towns is only 88 per cent and for remote areas this figure is 60 per cent? Minister, are you saying you disagree with the ACA figures? Doesn't this failure to improve services suggest that the customer service guarantee is not enough to bring Telstra into line and that you should direct the board of Telstra to fix the problem before 10,000 people are sacked from Telstra?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Once again, Senator Allison seems to just want to persist in this fiction that somehow a reduction in employment levels has got something to do with performance in terms of service. It simply has not. Telstra is 15 per cent off world's best practice. It needs to improve its output in a highly competitive marketplace. Unless it does that, it will go backwards.

This mob opposite would have it actually in formaldehyde. They would turn it into a museum piece with all the interventions they want to achieve, and you would of course go further. You would be wanting to tell Telstra how to run its business and what levels of service you prefer. You would be going out there, presumably, and digging into the trenches and saying, `No, that hasn't been done well enough. I want you to come back and have another go.' It is a ludicrous proposition. If you look at those statistics, you seem to be ignoring the fact completely that the ACA's figures from March 1998 do show significant improvements virtually across the board. I read them out to you a week ago; you seem to completely ignore those. (Time expired)