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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26644

Senator MURPHY (2:46 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. The minister would be aware that Telstra has threatened to remove the subsidy it gives to low-income consumers for call costs. Can the minister inform the Senate whether the government would accept a decision by Telstra to remove this important subsidy, and how would the government ensure that such subsidies would be maintained if Telstra were fully privatised?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Murphy for a very important question about Telstra's customer service guarantee. The guarantee for untimed local calls that Telstra has in place was initially put in place by this government. Of course, another condition of Telstra's licence is a guarantee that low-income people in the community get a subsidy for their telephone service. This government is committed, as indeed is Telstra, to the provision of basic telephony for all Australians. These guarantees are very important consumer safeguards. The fuss made last week arose when the shadow spokesperson for communications, Mr Tanner, tried to beat up some story that an inquiry into Telstra's pricing meant that somehow untimed local calls were the subject of review. That was never the case. Untimed local calls are enshrined in legislation and it is an absolute guarantee for all Australians, as is indeed the consumer guarantee for low-income earners.

The recent inquiry undertaken by the ACCC relates to the fact that the caps on prices of these services are due to expire next year. Obviously, this government is interested to ensure that an appropriate inquiry be had so that consumers are protected. The ACCC is best placed to make inquiries and take into account consumer concerns—as well as the other matter concerning Telstra and other telecommunications carriers—to ensure that there are appropriate services for consumers. That is why there is an inquiry. Of course, it is subject to a ministerial determination. But there is no suggestion that the policy on untimed local calls will be changed and it is part of legislation that was passed by the parliament. I would not have thought there would be any concern on the part of consumers of a suggestion that there would be an attack on untimed local calls. I think it is very important to make that clear—and to give the lie to what Mr Tanner was peddling that somehow that is under threat—and that the other guarantees to consumers, as part of Telstra's licensing condition, in fact provide low-income earners with access to affordable telephony. These are important consumer guarantees and this government has no intention of taking them away.

Senator MURPHY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the answer. Minister, I was really asking about the statement made by Telstra that, if the ACCC were to maintain very tough capping provisions, Telstra would have to consider its position in respect of a subsidy that it provides for low-income consumers. On what basis would Telstra make that statement, indicating to the public that it could consider removing that subsidy? I ask you and the government: what will you do to make sure that the subsidy is maintained and that low-income consumers can be guaranteed that such subsidies will be available to them, should Telstra be fully privatised?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Senator Murphy knows, of course, that Telstra can make any submission it likes to the ACCC. There is a big difference between making a submission to the ACCC, the ACCC considering that submission, making a recommendation to government and some response from the government. There is certainly no current intention that the subsidy arrangements would be in any way interfered with. The only thing being looked at is the caps.