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Thursday, 24 June 1999
Page: 7413

Mr ANDREN (11:24 AM) —I have listened with interest to this debate and have decided to inject myself in it to put a few thoughts on the record, particularly about regional services, which the previous speaker alluded to. These could have been achieved without the sale of Australia's icon asset, delivering as it does $3 billion at the moment and perhaps $4 billion or $5 billion down the track. As was pointed out earlier, Telstra has been at the forefront of the world's telecommunications industry. It is a world leader. It has skills that could be utilised world wide in a globalised market. We saw figures a couple of years ago that there was something like a trillion dollars worth of communications infrastructure going into South-East Asia. That was before their economic difficulties, but with that area now recovering that work will again be on the agenda. Telstra is very well positioned to take advantage of that.

That is realised by the million or so shareholders who have taken up the shareholding. They realise the potential of this company. To hand what is now owned by Australians across to a minimal number of shareholders is an absolute disgrace. We are not talking about our future generations; we are talking about short-term, political, hard-nosed privatisation policy that is already on the nose, judging by voter response to the New South Wales coalition's power industry privatisation plans. People are finally realising that privatisation does not necessarily lead to improved services. The government can cite its transaction centres. It can do what it likes in terms of the sorts of services that should be provided anyway to the bush, but not by privatising our telecommunications entity.

Telstra was sold off in its initial phase at $3.30 a share. As we all know, they closed at $8.10 last Friday and are still on the way up. While that share price has continued to rise, the same cannot be said about services. In Orange, for example, you are lucky to get a public telephone that works. Telstra is very reluctant to keep or maintain them because of the cost of doing so. The bottom line is that the more it costs Telstra to provide services in regional areas the less profit there will be for shareholders.

Let us look at who benefits from selling Telstra. The government would have us believe that one of the greatest benefits of selling Telstra was and remains letting ordi nary mums and dads reap the rewards of share ownership. We have seen the share ownership shrink since that original float. I would suggest that many of the mums and dads have taken the profits, and good luck to them. But, undoubtedly, many such people have benefited from Telstra's spectacular performance on the stock market. Information across my desk suggests that many have benefited beyond others.

In the 1996-97 financial year, 23,500 taxpayers in Bradfield, the most affluent federal electorate, held shares for which tax rebates were available while only 6,600 people from Calare declared such shares. During the same period the average taxable income in Bradfield was $51,000, or thereabouts, while in Calare it was $30,000. While the figures do not include Telstra shareholdings, what they do show is how share ownership in Australia is concentrated among the most wealthy. It follows that those who stand to benefit most from the sale of a public asset like Telstra are people with higher incomes, a large proportion of whom live in coalition seats. But all Australians have a vested interest in Telstra. That is why if the sale of the next sixth of Telstra goes through, as it surely will, the government must stand condemned if it does not get top dollar for it. Otherwise, it will again be ripping off the millions of Australians with stakes in Telstra but no capacity to buy them back.

The $100 million that Senator Harradine has wangled out of the government is an absolute pittance when you look at the benefits that Telstra in public ownership could continue to deliver down the track, particularly so in our critical environmental area. Here we have the government sitting on a report on the salination problems that are out there, particularly in the Murray-Darling basin, and what do we have? We have procrastination, we have delay, we have no real way of handling that crisis. I believe that, by quarantining part of that $3 billion, $4 billion or $5 billion forever, we could have handled the environment problem for which we have no answer. (Time expired)