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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 91

Senator BRANDIS (3:10 PM) —I should be so lucky! I thought that it could not have got any better after 9 October, with that champagne result for the Howard government, that magnificent result in Queensland, that magnificent result for the Liberal Party in the Senate in Queensland and that magnificent result for my good friend Senator Boswell for the National Party in Queensland. I thought it could not have got any better than that but then, on the first day of real business in the Senate, I am invited by the whip to respond to Senator Conroy after he pulled on the implausible garb of the defender of regional and rural Australia. Mr Deputy President, I ask you: is there any senator in this chamber with less credibility on the question of the interests of people in regional and rural Australia than Senator Stephen Conroy, who is seldom seen outside the Labor Party cabals in the inner city of Melbourne, which is meat and drink to him? That is all he cares about. That is the only focus of Senator Conroy's interests, as Senator Ludwig, who is smiling wisely at me, well knows.

Senator BRANDIS —Let us deal with the question. No, Senator Conroy, you have had your time. You have maligned my very good friend Senator Ron Boswell and I do not appreciate it. On his behalf I take umbrage and offence at your comments about him. Let us deal with what the Howard government—the Howard-Anderson government, as Senator Boswell reminds me—has done in relation to telecommunications services in regional and rural Australia. Let us compare it with what you lot did in those now distant days when you were in government. I will tell you what we did not have from the Labor Party—in the last century, as Senator Fifield points out. I will tell you what we did not have when the Labor Party was last in government: we did not have the customer service guarantee and we did not have the universal service obligation. We had prices for telecommunications services both in the city and in the bush that were sky-high when compared with the prices that are charged to the users of those services today. Senator Conroy, who is an economist—at least, he has an economics degree so I suppose that makes him an economist.

Senator Conroy —No.

Senator BRANDIS —Senator Conroy would know that, if you are going to determine the access to a good or a service in a market, the prime determinant of the accessibility of that good or service is price. In the lifetime of the Howard-Anderson government the price of telecommunications services in the bush has fallen by over 20 per cent, and the reach of those services has continued to expand. At the same time, to reinforce the safeguards that are available to people in regional and rural Australia, the Howard-Anderson government has set up two successive inquiries. Don't you laugh, Senator Conroy. I'm going to have a good time over the next three years twisting your tail. The Howard-Anderson government has set up two successive inquiries, most recently the Estens inquiry, and also we have introduced the community service obligation and the customer service guarantee.

The Labor Party's approach to telecommunications in the bush, just like their approach to so many issues, has a fixation with the concept of public ownership. Some members of the Labor Party in the Keating days got over that, but apparently not my friend Senator Conroy. They seem to think that, just because the government owns the telephone company the service will be any good. In the days of the PMG, in the days of Telecom, in the days when Telstra was 100 per cent publicly owned the services were dreadful. They have improved over the years. The services have never been better nor have they been less expensive than they are now with Telstra partly privatised. So do not give us the old dogma, Senator Conroy, the old socialist, public sector dogma. I thought you were a bit more sophisticated than that. I thought that, behind the smile and the rabblerousing, there was a mind trained by the economics faculty of the ANU to have at least a little understanding of markets. But, sadly, Senator Conroy, you disappoint me on your first day back into parliament. With too much time on your hands, you have reverted to type. We get nothing but the tired old dogmas from you. You wonder why you got the result that you did on 9 October. Renovate your thinking or it will happen to you again and again.