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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 32

Senator CONROY (2:41 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. I refer the minister to her comments regarding the government’s private review of telecommunications regulation. Does the minister recall saying, ‘What I want to do is work with Telstra to see if we can get greater transparency in operational separation’? Isn’t letting Telstra write the regulatory rules that will govern it post privatisation leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Conroy for the question. The situation with regulatory reform is that it goes well beyond issues concerning the regulation of Telstra, as I have been at pains to point out. The government has not yet made a decision as to whether or not it is going to proceed with the full sale of Telstra. In any event, whether it does or does not, regulation of telecommunications is not something that the government just sets and forgets. Basically, you look critically at legislation across the whole telecommunications field. Indeed, in the regulatory space that concerns telecommunications there are a number of areas where the government is currently looking at regulatory reform. One area, for instance, is the price controls that currently regulate Telstra charges. The government has said that it will retain these price controls, but the determination is due to expire in June. I am currently examining a report from the ACCC as to what recommendations or otherwise I would accept in relation to price controls.

Another area relates to the general competition sphere, where the government is examining a number of issues regarding what should occur. One issue relates to the processes surrounding the competition notice that I outlined in some detail last week, also in response to a question from Senator Conroy. So there are a number of areas that relate to telecommunications regulation and that relate to the consumer safeguards. The government has said that it will retain these. Any finetuning is obviously something that the government makes a decision about. But, as Senator Conroy would be aware, when developing regulation the government consults with a wide range of stakeholders. Due to the government’s very effective deregulation of telecommunications and the development of competition, we now have over 100 telecommunications providers in this country. All stakeholders need to be consulted in the development of regulation, including consumers, consumer groups and of course the actual telecommunications providers.

So it is true that the government does consult, and consult very widely, in relation to specific telecommunications regulation. It is an area where of course it is extremely important to provide a level playing field for all of those who wish to compete in telecommunications. The government firmly believes that that provides a much better environment to help competition and to ultimately help consumers, but obviously issues such as price controls critically assist consumers. They are something that the government, as I say, develops in consultation with all stakeholders, not just Telstra. So Senator Conroy is absolutely dead wrong, as usual. Telstra does not impose what regulatory framework the government considers appropriate; the government develops regulatory controls in consultation with all stakeholders.

Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Isn’t the minister’s private inquiry just an open invitation for Telstra to negotiate a sweetheart deal? Will the minister now support Labor’s transparent public Senate inquiry as the best approach to ensuring that these issues are properly canvassed before the government forces through the sale of Telstra?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —As Senator Conroy would be aware, the Labor Party just has blind opposition to anything to do with the privatisation of Telstra. We know that Senator Conroy is about to embark on yet another Senate inquiry—this will be the fourth, I think, in the space of about two years—to try to get himself up to speed on issues to do with telecommunications. Senator Conroy simply does not appreciate the difference between structural separation and accounting separation—or any other kind of ring fencing. He does not understand the difference but, no doubt, if he has yet another inquiry wasting the taxpayers’ money, the Labor Party might actually get itself up to speed and get a telecommunications policy, because at the moment, just like everything else about the Labor Party, it is a blank sheet of paper.