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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7896

Senator MACKAY (2:09 PM) —My question is to Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. What does the minister say to figures in Telstra's so-called customer service improvement database, which is in fact a faults database, showing that the total number of faults in the network has gone up from around 104,000 in February to around 112,000 as of last Friday, an increase of 8,000 this year alone? Can the minister confirm Telstra's evidence to the Senate that there are 15,000 faults in the highest priority categories and that these are all customer affecting and safety related faults? Isn't it also the case that New South Wales country is the worst affected region, with around 5,000 faults in these safety related and service affecting categories? Why has Telstra now said it cannot put any resources into fixing the 13,700 faults in priority 3, which are all customer affecting and safety related, but has at the same time sacked over 2,000 customer field staff this year alone?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Mackay for her question, which I acknowledge comes straight from trade union house. To give Senator Mackay her due, she deserves some credit because, consistently in the face of explanation on this issue, she has still managed to con some presumably young and gullible journalist that somehow there is a serious issue behind Telstra's customer network improvement database. As Telstra has pointed out many times, its CNI database is essentially a proactive maintenance database—a list of jobs to do. The fact that tasks are listed in the database does not mean that customers' services are at risk. The CNI database is not a fault database as such. Actual faults are dealt with separately as they arise and are subject to the government's customer service guarantee. While priority 1 and 2 CNIs relate to escalated faults and safety, they are potential issues rather than actual issues requiring immediate attention.

To claim that CNI means Telstra's network is riddled with faults or that people should be scared for their safety—which is the line peddled consistently by Senator Mackay over some months now; she does get a bit of a run from time to time—is highly misleading, if not irresponsible. While the total number of entries might be high, it needs to be considered in the overall context of the Telstra network, which has over 10 million fixed line services. Therefore, CNIs represent only about 1.12 per cent of services. Telstra has made sound progress in reducing priority 1 CNIs from 2,000 in July 2001 to 348 and priority 2 CNIs from 2,000 12 months ago to 943. Any CNI detailed as potentially affecting customer service or as safety related is actioned as soon as possible. Older CNIs are old because they are not affecting service or are not safety related. They relate to work that can be done when the opportunity arises.

What all that means is that Senator Mackay should concentrate on the main game, which is ensuring that customers of Telstra are not disadvantaged. That is what the customer service guarantee is all about. In other words, you look at results—outputs, not inputs. The unions, of course, are obsessed with inputs because they want to justify having every man and his dog in every country town getting a travel allowance and whatever else, but it is not an efficient way of operating. We are concerned to ensure that the customers are not disadvantaged, and Telstra's CNI database tells you absolutely nothing about the level of actual faults affecting customers in the system.

Senator MACKAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I would point out that the figures are from Telstra. I am interested that the minister has repeated Telstra's outlandish claims this week that the CNI faults database is merely a list of maintenance faults when Telstra officer Mr Rix told Senate estimates on 20 November:

The first three ... categories are escalated tickets of work that need work done straightaway, that are a safety issue or that relate to a complaint. All of those are service affecting ...

What does the minister have to say to the 15,000 Australians who do not even know that they have safety related faults on their phone lines?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —As I said a moment ago, while priority 1 and 2 CNIs relate to escalated faults and safety, they are potential issues rather than actual issues requiring immediate attention. The fact is that customers need not have any concern at all unless they have problems with their phone. You are not interested in what is inside the television set; you are interested in whether it is working. If it is not working, you get the technician to come out. You do not need to go to an electronics lecture so you have a sophisticated understanding of what is driving the set. Turning the switch on and off is probably good enough for most consumers, and as long as they get the picture they want then they are satisfied. The same goes for telecommunications services. That is why we introduced the customer service guarantee. Your approach was: Telstra will fix your phone when they are good and ready. It was not good enough for us; it is not good enough for consumers. They should be very confident that the CSG will deliver the goods.