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Thursday, 10 December 1998
Page: 1908

Mr HARDGRAVE (6:00 PM) —I delight in the analogy of the car used by the honourable member for Perth. The great contrast between the Howard government and previous Labor governments with regard to matters such as privatisation of assets can be summed up with a regular analogy of mine that those opposite, when they were in power, sold the family car to buy the weekly groceries on more than a few occasions.

They sold off Qantas and they sold off the Commonwealth Bank after an election, even though they promised the people of Australia before that election that they would not do it. What did they do with the proceeds of the sale of the analogous `family car'? They bought the weekly groceries—they did nothing about retiring debt. If you want to use the analogy of selling off an asset such as a family car, this government is paying a big chunk off the mortgage. We are paying a big chunk off the household mortgage of the nation of Australia—something which every member in this place is partially responsible for administering, and something which every person in Australia shares a big chunk of.

I look forward to the House passing the National Transmission Network Sale Bill 1998 before us today. I welcome the opportunity to speak again on this particular sale because I think it is addressing a number of important matters and not just the retirement of the extensive debt that those opposite happily clocked up over their 13 years in office. It really worries me when a senior member of the Labor opposition—the alternative government of this country—says that $100 million or $200 million is not much money to go into debt. It is an insight into the economic ruin that those opposite stand for. Labor equals debt. There cannot be any other way of putting it.

This government deals very responsibly with the charge given to it by the Australian people in the administration of the nation's books and the nation's economy. Assets such as the National Transmission Agency have commercial benefit. It is only right that it should be offered to the market for sale, because it sends a good signal to the market that we are serious about competition for the services that it provides.

Just as the previous government administered the veterans' affairs portfolio and made the government a purchaser of health services rather than simply an owner of beds and infrastructure, this government is saying that the National Transmission Agency, once sold, will still be able to provide the infrastructure. We are not packing up the National Transmission Agency infrastructure and sending it offshore. If you listen to the member for Perth, it is as if it is being disposed of and it will never be seen or heard from again. The infrastructure continues to exist and, moreover, those who purchase services from it are going to have the commercial relationship that they want.

The ABC, SBS and a number of community broadcasters that make use of the NTA throughout Australia are, rightly, going to be able to demand performance from the NTA because of the commercial relationship they have. The ABC itself would dearly love to buy the NTA or a chunk of it—I know that. I am sure that some of the small community groups would dearly love to be able to do the same thing. Either way, they are going to have a commercial relationship, which is something they have been seeking for some time.

It is also worth noting that with the introduction of digital broadcasting, which is an item that is on the national agenda now, there are some major capital infrastructure improvements that the taxpayer would have to fund if the NTA continued to be on the government's books. We will be selling the NTA on the basis that that work has to be done—that certain conditions, as far as obligations to the communities that the NTA's signals reach and service, are met. They are all terms and conditions of sale. That, in itself, makes false the nonsense that those opposite offer—the great `sky is falling' analogies that they draw, particularly for rural and regional Australia.

The member for Perth has often talked about Telstra, and he talked about it again today. He talked about the performance of Telstra, particularly in rural and regional Australia. The reverse argument should be aired in this debate, and that is that the reason why Telstra's performance as far as repair and service to rural and regional Australia's consumers is poorer than in the city is that, in the city regions and the major metropolitan areas, there is greater competition in telecommunications services. That competition is putting pressure on Telstra and, as a result, they are improving their service out of bounds. Continuing with the sale of assets, such as the National Transmission Agency and Telstra, will improve competition in rural and regional Australia and it will improve the results the member for Perth bemoans.

It is important, because of the wide ranging matters that the member for Perth offered in this debate, to compare and contrast the Australian Labor Party's performance on a number of matters. As the minister at the table, who is the member for Gippsland and the Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation, said, `They are into opposition for opposition's sake, at every turn.'

The fact that they are here today opposing with their very last breath the sale of this asset, which will help to retire some of the debt that they clocked up over their 13 years, the fact that they are offering all sorts of spurious claims about what may or may not happen, in their minds, to rural and regional Australia as a result of this, despite the fact the government has clearly legislated—and provided a range of regulations to back up that legislation—to guarantee the quality and quantity of service and improvements to service as well as getting a commercial return, proves to me that this is an opposition which has no interest in good policy but simply in cheap politics. It makes you wonder whether we are ever going to be able to advance the cause of good administration in this country in a bipartisan sense if the opposition is going to come in here on a daily basis opposing things.

Look at some of the other matters that have passed this House today in contrast with the NTA bill before us. If the tax bills are so wrong, and if the private health insurance rebate initiative is so wrong, why don't you pass those sorts of bills in the Senate and campaign against the government, day in and day out, until the next election? If you think we are so wrong and you are so right, go out and prove it. But, no, you simply want to prevent the government from getting on with its job of running this country properly. Passing legislation such as the tax bills and the private health insurance rebate will prove to the people of Australia that we have introduced good proposals, and we will prove that those people opposite have misled deliberately during the most recent election campaign.

I am delighted to support this bill. It is yet another commitment offered to the people of Australia before an election delivered after an election. Those opposite cannot understand that particular tactic because they have proved on too many occasions in the past how they are prepared to put one particular proposal before an election and then do something else afterwards. We are not like them. We are about responsible government; we are about the responsible fiscal management of this nation; we are about competition; we are about reward for effort. I hope that those opposite have a nice Christmas and consider their position on a range of other matters that have been before the House this day.