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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7894

Senator LUNDY (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Can the minister confirm that Telstra has made serious billing errors with its ADSL broadband Internet product, with this error resulting in many customers not having received a bill for months after subscribing and then receiving a huge bill? Can the minister inform the Senate how many customers have been affected? Can the minister also confirm that Telstra's response to this billing error has been to demand payment for outstanding accounts in an unreasonably short time frame, despite the fact that this billing error has not been the fault of customers? Given these problems are no fault of customers, does the minister condone Telstra's arrogant and out of touch attitude towards its customers? If this is Telstra's approach now, what hope have customers got under a fully privatised Telstra?

Senator Conroy —You lost a billion dollars yesterday. Be careful what you say.

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I tell you that you ain't seen nothing yet. If we went down your path, there would be nothing left. They would probably have to delist the company if we went down your path!

The PRESIDENT —Minister, I remind you that you have a question to answer.

Senator ALSTON —As far as Senator Lundy's question is concerned, the first point to make is that the government does not have responsibility for supervising Telstra's commercial activities. Clearly, Telstra does not have any vested interest in making billing errors. One would assume that it is very much in their interests, as much as anyone else's, to rectify any problems that might occur and to ensure that its systems are up to date. Senator Lundy, who seems to have this same visceral hatred of Telstra that permeates the opposition these days, talks about `Telstra's arrogant and out of touch attitude', but I do not understand the basis on which she says that. One cannot criticise Telstra for making billing errors because they get—I forget the number, but it is something like— 11 billion calls a year. There are obviously going to be problems, no matter how perfect the system might be. Senator Lundy talks about an unreasonably short time frame but does not specify what that is, so it is a bit hard to ask me to comment on that. If that is somehow the basis for saying Telstra are arrogant and out of touch, then I think that we would need a lot more detail before coming to anything like that judgment.

Senator LUNDY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the billing error connected to the failure of Telstra's main ADSL application processing system, which has led to hundreds of ADSL applications from consumers sitting unprocessed? Can the minister provide advice as to when this application processing problem will be fixed, given this failure affects Internet service providers who compete with Telstra in providing ADSL, as well as consumers? Isn't this just another example of Telstra using its monopoly position to disadvantage competitors that rely on its network?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I will start by pointing out to the opposition that all this is occurring while Telstra is majority government owned. I cannot possibly understand the logic in therefore saying that somehow things could get worse later on. If you think that you need to impose standards, then you do so. We have consistently tightened the regulatory requirements, we have imposed customer service guarantees and the like. But we do not micromanage the business. We do not get out there and tell them that they have to have a perfect result on ADSL. We know that other countries have experienced problems with ADSL. If there were any suggestion, for example, that Telstra was deliberately causing problems in its own network or going out of its way to disadvantage its competitors, we would be down on Telstra like a ton of bricks, and you know that. The idea that somehow Telstra should be held to a standard of perfection just because it suits your political purposes to point out a few mistakes here and there is not the real world and it is just a further example of your vicious hatred of a great Australian company. (Time expired)