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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6273


Senator LUNDY (5:54 PM) —I am absolutely astounded. I think it was all summed up in Senator Cherry's contribution when he said, `The minister is right.' What we have just heard is the most pathetic vindication I have ever heard of the government's position in relation to upping these costs and pricing of Telstra and how they charge consumers.

I would go so far as to reflect on the comments of Senator Cherry and his obvious devotion to the effective workings of the telecommunications market in this country. Let us look at the evidence of this out there. We can see how well it is working because even the Estens inquiry—whitewash as it was—highlighted some problems that are occurring out there. We know that by virtue of the thousands upon thousands of consumers who continually complain about poor treatment by Telstra and the fact that we do not have telecommunications competition in rural and regional Australia. That is the testimony of the market that you support, that you say will provide the answers. What we have seen from the coalition government is that they are incapable of regulating telecommunications in this country effectively to create competition where it is needed most. They have had over six years to do it and they keep making mistake after mistake.

Here we have the Democrats, the neophytes of telecommunications policy, in here today telling us that they think that the minister is right, that they subscribe to the dodgy maths that the minister has laid out before them. We have heard pathetic quote after pathetic quote of rubbery figures which they present as some sort of substantiation for what is the most significant sell-out in telecommunications policy that I have heard from the Democrats in my time in this place. That is not to say that there have not been other major sell-outs. The sell-out of the GST in the middle of the election campaign—at that crucial time—changed the way that poor people and the underprivileged in this country would be disadvantaged under the tax system.

That is your legacy. That is the legacy of the Democrats and today we have seen a blueprint on how this political party is going to sell out on telecommunications policy from this point onwards. So get used to it, out there. This is the blueprint. Thank you very much, Senator Cherry. Thank you very much, Senator Bartlett, for making it very clear to the Labor opposition—the only party that will stay true to not privatising Telstra and that will stay true to protecting consumers in the telecommunications market.

I would like to reflect a little on the use of figures by Senator Cherry. He talked about the $170 million departmental calculation as somehow being a flawed figure and an early estimate. If that is not spitting out the minister's spin, I don't know what is! That is what I mean by politics. Once they realised that the facts were out there, their little feet started scurrying around in the department and there were phone calls between Telstra and the minister's office to get their line right. But guess what? There's someone else on the conference call now between Telstra and the minister's office—it is the Democrats. `Quick, tell us how we can get out of this one. How do we substantiate? How do we talk our way out of the fact that Telstra stands to gain $170 million from this exercise in increased line rentals and other changes, such as the relaxing and removal of the price cap regime?'

I think it needs to be explained that disallowing this regulation will force the government to go back to the drawing board and prepare a fairer price cap arrangement. That is what Labor is trying to do today. We are asking for support of the crossbench and the Democrats—we know it is not forthcoming from the Democrats—to force the government to do something better. We do not want this weak, mild, sycophantic, pathetic $10 million extra when we now know there is no extra money involved. It is a little bit of dodgy rebadging. We are used to that from the coalition government. I did not think the Democrats would so easily succumb to such smoke and mirror tactics. I think they have made it very clear that they are happy just to be seen to be doing a deal with the government on this. I think this is to try and deal themselves back into telecommunications policy—after all, they have so little to go on anywhere else.

I would also like to comment on the issue of line rentals and the focus on the increase that Telstra proposed on line rentals. Line rentals is perhaps the most tangible representation of Telstra's monopoly in telecommunications. It is there. It is what no-one else can touch and if Telstra are allowed to put up prices on that it can only improve their bottom line. You can subscribe to all of the access deficit theories and rebalancing theories. The bottom line is that, notwithstanding all of that, it is the line rental that is the most tangible representation of Telstra's monopolistic hold on the local loop. That is the one pricing mechanism that they have that no other carrier has. No-one else can charge line rental, and to allow them to increase that continues to reinforce their monopolistic place and their grip on the market. I think that very point has been lost in any discussion—from the ACCC to the department, to the government and now to the Democrats—when you are considering what constitutes a competitive environment in telecommunications in this country.

The other point I would like to make relates to another campaign and the use of pair gains in the telecommunications network. I was browsing through some of the many thousands of emails I have received from consumers, not only in rural and regional Australia but also in metropolitan Australia, who cite the fact that they are sick and tired of being ripped off in such a way that they ask for a second line—a line that they pay full rental on, and which now costs an additional $3 dollars per month, so they are paying extra money for it—and they do not even get that extra line. This is the precise frustration for those who use the telecommunications system for Internet connectivity. A pair gain does not provide an additional line for the purpose of getting a connection speed that makes using the World Wide Web meaningful; a pair gain means that one line is split. Telstra charges people not on the basis of a piece of copper running from the exchange into their homes but on the basis of dial tone. That dial tone can come from one copper pair, and that copper pair could be split up in a number of ways. Telstra charge line rental—and the words here are very important—for dial tone.

The added, I guess, salt in the wound, twist of the knife in the back of consumers, is that while Telstra and the government, and now the Democrats, are collaborating to push up line rental at the expense of consumers' interests, there are millions of consumers out there who are astounded and outraged to find that their so-called `new line' on which they are paying line rental is not even that; it is just more dial tone backed on the end of their existing line through a pair gain system. This is, I have to say, relevant if you use the Internet and dial-up connections. The core of the point is that the Democrats argue that these are the kinds of issues that we should be focusing on—the Internet, connectivity and new technologies in telecommunications—and yet this, to me, is about that. The very issue that we are debating—the capacity to charge line rentals on what is not a full line anyway—really needs to be addressed at this point in time. I think the Democrats have ignored some of these key issues.

I refer briefly to some of the minister's comments. Predictably, the minister's contribution to this debate focused primarily on the politics. He came in here and had a bit of a rave about the Cunningham by-election and about the government saying that it is going to improve telecommunications competition, and what is everyone else going to do, and how great it is to be so chummy with the Democrats; but he did not bother spending time talking about the issues of competition policy. He left that up to Senator Cherry. Clearly, the brief was slipped across the chamber so that Senator Alston could do what he normally does, which is to sort of dip a foot into the debate from the point of view of just talking about the politics and having a bit of a go at Labor—his normal tactic. He did not really go to the substance or the core of the issue. He did not address any of the questions that the Labor Party has raised specifically, and certainly did not take on any of the very valid points that Mr Tanner has raised in the context of this debate. He showed absolutely nothing but contempt for the Labor Party's request that the government start again and do better, and not to work as Telstra's second-hand person in conveying their interests in this place. I have to say, the same message goes across to Senator Cherry. It is so disappointing.

The only way we are going to have effective telecommunications competition in this country is for politicians to rise above the spin that Telstra spits out. That is the only way we are going to make a difference. You can have the Besley inquiry and the Estens inquiry, and you can look at the substance of those and try and work with very weak and whitewashy recommendations, but the only way we are going to improve telecommunications in this country is for the politicians to take an interest and rise above the vested interests, and not be prepared to come in here and act as patsys on behalf of the corporate representation of Telstra. Clearly, that has not been the case. I say to the Democrats that they have one opportunity to right what they are presenting here, and that is to change their mind and support Labor's motion. I cannot see that it is going to happen.

I would like to close by saying that in relation to this disallowance motion Minister Alston has taken no time to present a cogent case or a reasonable understanding of what the government is trying to achieve. They have presented a package of price caps that does nothing except, I think, advantage Telstra in the marketplace. It absolutely slates consumers. Whatever justification there is on the consumer package, we know that is just some sort of sop to try and get some PR points out of the whole exercise, but it is not going to wash. Labor's position is the only way that we can draw the government to account on these matters. The only way we can draw them to account is to force the coalition to go back to the drawing board, address the genuine consumer concerns—not allow consumers to be slugged another $9 a quarter and leave them vulnerable on other pricing issues—and come back with a package that addresses not only our concerns but also starts to look at the bigger picture about how it helps Telstra perpetuate their monopolistic hold on most aspects of the fixed line telecommunications network in this country.