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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7076

Ms KERNOT (5:24 PM) —One of the keys to understanding the allocation of moneys in this budget for regional Australia is to look very carefully at the distinction between regional services and regional development. This government has successfully, in a publicly rhetorical way, shifted the emphasis from regional development to regional services. This has meant a move away from investment in regional infrastructure and from any strategy designed to reduce regional inequality. We have heard so much in question time today about services for regional Australia as a result of the sale of the next 16 per cent of Telstra, but let us not forget what this government did in its first three years in government; let us not forget the money that was cut out of regional services; let us not forget, for example, legal aid.

The government has pointed to the restoration of $3.7 million over three years to five new community centres in regional areas, but it hopes that we will conveniently forget that it has further cut an already strapped legal aid budget by around $3.3 million in real terms. That is one example of the way in which we are supposed to forget past history and we are supposed to say on behalf of regional Australians, `Gee, thanks very much for the social bonus. We will take no notice of the damage you did to the social fabric of regions in this country in your very first budget and in the ensuing couple of years.'

If you really look at the money that has been spent on new measures in this budget, you will see that there are nine new measures in the Transport and Regional Services portfolio for 1999-2000, which total $450.5 million. Of that money, road funding programs comprise $295 million. That leaves $155 million over four years for other new measures. That is a heap of money from somebody genuinely committed to regional development and services! Of that $155 million, $84 million is going to the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme, with which we do not quibble. We do not say, `Don't restore these services.' We just say, `Don't try and con Australians by pretending that you are giving them something new when you are trying to gloss over the damage that has been done in the cutting of these services in the first years of this government, in positions to make a difference.'

On the services dependent on the sale of Telstra, we heard much false crowing today in question time, because this government was not genuinely committed to the provision of these services. It tied these services to the sale of Telstra. Any government which puts a commitment to services first cannot then turn around and say to Australians who live in the bush, `Yes, they are really important. We genuinely believe they are really important but, unfortunately, you can't have them unless you let us sell Telstra.' No matter what those who asked the questions and gave the answers might have said in question time today, we know very clearly that country Australians still believe in public ownership. They still want Telstra to be owned by Australians. All this phoney rhetoric about making Telstra accessible now to Australians who can buy shares conveniently overlooks the reality that Australians already own Telstra. How dishonest it is to take something which is owned by all Australians and sell it back to those who can afford to buy shares—and to sell it back at an undervalued price.

There is a great difference between debt and net assets, and Telstra has always been a net asset for this nation. So the government turns around and says, `We believe in the environment and conservation, and you can have $250 million if you let us sell Telstra. And we think regional telecommunications are really important, but you can only have $120 million if you let us sell Telstra. And we believe it is really important to provide untimed local calls, but you can only have that money if you let us sell Telstra. And, yes, it is really important to extend Internet access, but you can only have it if you let us sell Telstra. And rural transaction centres are exactly what we need to look at the failure of banks to provide and deliver on necessary services, but you can only have them if you let us sell Telstra.' (Extension of time granted)

The point I was making, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that it is not good enough to say, `Yes, these services are really important.' Labor does not begrudge them. We think a lot of them are very important. We think the restoration of health services is very important; it is urgent. We are not sure whether all the measures will work but we think they are worth a go, and we support the government in these measures. But that money has come from the health budget, not from regional development and regional services.

It is pretty cheap to say to regional Australians, `We're behind you. This is as good as it gets,'—as Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer often says about the delivery through this portfolio to regional Australia. It is pretty cheap to say, `These are really important. We acknowledge that. But you can only have them if you let us have a little bit of a bribe along the way.' If you were genuine, Minister, the government would find the money for these services.

I was very interested to see what the NFF had to say about privatisation and the provision of infrastructure. This is particularly relevant to the Telstra debate. The NFF says that the privatisation of infrastructure facilities that have already been paid for by past taxes represents an abrogation of the government's responsibility with regard to the equitable provision of these services to all Australians, regardless of location.

Why do you think most Australians who live in rural and regional Australia are nervous about the privatisation of Telstra? They are nervous because what they have seen before is the failure of market forces to actually provide for basic services for them. They have seen the withdrawal of banks; they have seen the removal of any leverage at all from government to say to private providers, `You must provide this quality of service to the bush.' Why are they cynical? Why are they sceptical?

Mr Anderson —Why didn't Labor make the banks stay in the bush, Cheryl?

Ms KERNOT —That is not my responsibility, Minister.

Mr Horne —It has accelerated under you.

Ms KERNOT —It has accelerated under the government. Who was it who proposed the kind of rural transaction centres that you have now introduced? We certainly all realised the failure of market forces with regard to provision of those services.

Mr Anderson —You demonstrate the solution by legislating that the banks must stay in country towns, if that is the solution.

Ms KERNOT —The point I am making, Minister, is that there is a very clear failure of provision of services here. If you walk away from it too early, before there are alternatives in place, it is an abrogation of your responsibilities of equitable access for all Australians. You should not be dependent upon the sale of a publicly owned asset. That is the point. Country Australians do not support you in your sale of Telstra. Sure, they will be grateful for the provision of these services in the short term because they have been begging for ages. They will be grateful. But, in the long run, they know what happens as a result of the loss of the dividend stream. They know that alternative provisions could have been made for these services.

For example, as Labor said in the last election campaign, you could dedicate a fixed proportion of the Telstra income stream to the provision of regional infrastructure. That way, you do not lose ownership of the asset, you maintain access to an ongoing income stream, and you achieve the same kinds of things that you say are very important. At the end of the process, you still have an opportunity to use your ministerial powers of direction to ensure that universal access and high quality services are delivered.

It is no wonder that country Australians are caught between a rock and a hard place. Yes, they want the services, but they want public ownership of Telstra as well because they know from very bitter experience what government failure in this area has meant for them. What a bitter disappointment it is to say to people in Australia, `You can have all these things, but there is a long-term cost to this nation in the loss of the dividend stream and in the loss of the continuing provision of high quality services.' Minister, I think that you and Mr Fischer do know this. (Time expired)