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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 34

Senator HOGG (2:51 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, with respect to the sale of Telstra. I refer the minister to recent statements of the President of the Queensland National Party, Mr Terry Bolger. Is the minister aware that Mr Bolger stated, ‘If we tried to keep up with the messages that are coming out of Canberra on this issue, we would probably be as silly as they are’? He also said:

All sorts of things have come out of there that just really don’t make a lot of sense to me and it just seems to be in a state of disarray for a direction forward …

Can the minister confirm that Mr Bolger also stated that the Queensland Nationals were certainly opposed to the sale? Minister, did the Queensland National Party inform you of these views during your ‘listening tour’ of regional Queensland?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Thank you to Senator Hogg for the question. One thing I can assure Senator Hogg about is that nothing that is said on this side of the chamber about Telstra can be as silly as what is said on that side of the chamber about Telstra. I know that this is a very sensitive issue for the Labor Party but what I was about to say to Senator Hogg, in answer to the question about whether the National Party or Mr Bolger said anything to me about that during my last visit to Queensland, is no. Far from being divided on this issue—and I know the Labor Party hates this—interestingly enough the government, Telstra and the regulator are all talking in similar terms. All have indicated their support for my proposal of considering operational separation, or ring fencing, as a way of addressing concerns about the transparency of Telstra’s operation.

My colleague Senator Minchin stated on the weekend that he supports the proposal of considering operational separation as an alternative to the structural separation of Telstra. Last week Dr Switkowski added his support to this proposition. He welcomed the comments ruling out structural separation. He said Telstra would have a look at ideas for greater transparency and that there may be elements of operational separation that Telstra should support. Interestingly, the Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile, also indicated his support for my approach of looking at internal separation of Telstra. He too has pointed out that international experience suggests that structural separation does not work.

Critically, the ACCC has also added its support to greater internal transparency rather than full structural separation. We all seem to be on message over this side. For the first time I think we are in a position where almost all of the relevant stakeholders are in broad agreement about the need to consider the question of enhanced transparency by means of internal separation. I know that this is obviously not something that the Labor Party wants to countenance or even understand but it is very clear that the government has already countenanced—and indeed this parliament has voted for—accounting separation. That is all about transparency. Everyone understands that what we are talking about here is enhanced transparency between the wholesale and retail arms, and my proposal is a way to go forward to provide that enhanced transparency to allow better competition and a more level playing field, and to deal with the issues of ensuring that regulation of Telstra meets the needs of consumers and competitors.

Senator HOGG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister also aware that Mr Bolger recognised that in excess of 70 per cent of people in Queensland are opposed to the privatisation of Telstra? Why won’t the minister recognise that the majority of Australians remain opposed to the Telstra sell-out?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Thank you, Senator Hogg, for trying at least valiantly to keep this up. We all know that the real opposition to the sale of Telstra in Australia is from the Labor Party. I just had a look at their policy from the last election. I think it must have been Senator Conroy who said that the main plank of Labor’s telecommunications regulatory policy for a number of years has been its opposition to the privatisation of Telstra. What an absolute poverty of ideas on the other side. They are absolutely obsessed with Telstra and cannot see how to provide better competition and a better telecommunication framework for the benefit of ordinary Australians.