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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17506

Mr ANTHONY (Minister for Children and Youth Affairs) (3:49 PM) —This debate gives me a great opportunity to rebut a lot of the hypocritical arguments put forward by the member for Melbourne. The member for Gippsland, who would normally handle these important issues, is abroad.

It was a moment of truth when the member for Melbourne was acknowledging that his genesis into the world was within the bosom of the National Party. I suppose we all make mistakes from time to time, and he made a grave error in his youth. But the reason for the birth of the National Party in 1919, which he so eloquently outlined, was to represent people in regional and rural areas and to ensure that they got an adequate slice of the Commonwealth budget. We have done that since 1919, and we will continue to do it through our forceful advocating for extra concessions to ensure that we future proof Telstra and telecommunications requirements for regional and rural Australia.

The member for Melbourne talked about the great people of the past. Perhaps he should have mentioned—and I am quite proud to say—that there was a period when my grandfather was head of the PMG. I recall many stories in which he was able to intervene to get better telecommunications. If he were alive today, he would acknowledge—as would my father, who is alive—that the scope and the breadth of telecommunications that we have today would be out of the realm of expectations back in the 1950s and 1960s or even 10 years ago. What this particular government has done is to ensure that capital expenditure by Telstra is prioritised and goes into areas to ensure that the gap between the city and rural areas is narrowed.

I also find it interesting how, as a debating point, he mentions elements of inheritance. We know that three-quarters of the Labor Party here are from their direct hereditary peerage: they come through the trade union movement or they inherit a seat. Some of us over here certainly never had to inherit a seat; we took it off the Labor Party. The reason why we won against the Labor Party is because they fundamentally failed in their stewardship when they were last on this side of the House seven years ago. The area of telecommunications is the greatest area of failure that I would like to talk about.

It is amazing how the member for Melbourne comes in here and puts on a bit of theatre and a bit of smoke and lights. When we look at the Labor Party's record and the member for Melbourne's indignation that we might even contemplate selling Telstra—notwithstanding the enormous advances that we have been able to accomplish through the Besley report, Networking the Nation and the Estens inquiry and the fact that we will spend $181 million on the roll-out—we see that they themselves were the greatest advocates of selling Telstra. No matter which way they bob and weave—and we will go through the history shortly—their hypocrisy is extraordinary, as was demonstrated by the Treasurer and by the Deputy Prime Minister in question time.

I find it interesting that Labor come in here preaching the virtues of government ownership, yet anything that moved was sold, was flogged off, while Keating and Hawke ran the country. They were ably assisted, no doubt, by the young Lindsay Tanner. Perhaps he should have stayed with his National Party traditions, because at least he could have had a say; he might have been on this side of the parliament arguing for better services, as we have done. There are enormous services to capital cities that we want for regional Australia. In that period, Qantas was sold. Was any investment put into retiring debt? No.

Do you remember the Commonwealth Bank? They were never, ever going to sell it. They sold 50 per cent and then they flogged the rest before you could say Jack Robinson. Was that money reinvested? Was it reinvested to repay the $96 billion debt that we inherited? The member for Melbourne talks about Telstra and future-proofing. Did they have requirements to ensure that the Commonwealth Bank did not move out? They put no requirements on the banks. In the latter part of the nineties, the banks deserted a lot of regional communities because the then Labor government failed to put any type of control or regulatory environment in place. Whether it was the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, the Snowy Mountains Scheme or the Moomba gas pipeline—you name it, they sold it. If they had had a chance to get their paws on Telstra, they would have sold that too. That is ably demonstrated by history. It is interesting to look back at history. Beazley was then the potential alternative leader.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member should be referred to by his seat.

Mr ANTHONY —Mr Deputy Speaker, he wanted to be the leader. The head of the rooster clan from Brand wanted to sell Telstra not so long ago. Back in 1996 he and Paul Keating tried to sidle up to, at that time, Australia's biggest company, BHP, to do a little side deal. In 1995, when the member for Brand was the Minister for Finance—here we are talking about the potential future leader; he has failed twice as a leader of the Labor Party—he commissioned his own department of finance to work out how they could flog Telstra in five separate tranches.

Let us look at further issues. It is extraordinary that the member for Melbourne is defending the Labor Party's position, as a good old socialist—as the Treasurer said, he does not have the courage or guts to be a communist—because even he wanted to flog off sections of Telstra. Was that back in 1996 or in the Hawke-Keating era? I do not think so; it was last year and the year before. Before the last election, he came up with this grand plan. He said that we have this partially public and private ownership of Telstra and it should not be half pregnant, so to speak. His theory was, `I'll sneak along to Macquarie Bank and we'll flog off some of the divisions; we'll flog off some of the high value items so we can get some of the money back into the coffers,' and of course leave the Commonwealth with just the copper wire network, which would be valueless.

The point of these illustrations is to demonstrate that, whatever position is taken or pious rhetoric spoken by the Australian Labor Party on Telstra, their record clearly shows that, if they were on this side of the House, Telstra would have been sold a long time ago. Where would the money have gone? It would not have gone to retire the debt that they created. It would not have gone to the Natural Heritage Trust. It would not have gone to Networking the Nation. It would not have gone to what we have done with the roll-out following the Besley report, which is around $400-plus million dollars, and what we are doing now subsequent to the Estens inquiry.

We on this side of the House—certainly members representing regional and rural seats—share the basic core principles of the National Party of representing people out of the urban sprawl of Australia by ensuring that the types of services we get are at least comparable over the long term with what our city cousins have. That is where we have tried to guarantee for quite some time the improvement of Telstra services. I have to say that the improvement of Telstra has been quite phenomenal. I think it is quite uncharitable of the shadow spokesperson on telecommunications to be highly critical of it, especially when you look at the costs of calls.

I would like to table a document in a minute. It shows that, since 1996, the overall cost of telecommunications has gone down 24.8 per cent. International calls have dropped by 61 per cent; long distance has dropped by 29.6 per cent; local calls have dropped by 29 per cent; mobile calls have dropped by 27 per cent. The story is consistent. The only reason those costs have come down is that the policy regime that we put into place has increased the number of carriers from three to over 40; it has ensured that, with that competition, prices came down and, through the proceeds of Telstra tranches 1 and 2, we reinvested back into regional areas to ensure that there are adequate communications services which those areas certainly did not have before. I correct myself: 89 companies are now involved. More than 40 per cent of these companies are directly servicing regional Australia—service that regional Australia has never had before. I well remember when we had a farm out near Wee Waa the amounts that Telstra would charge us to put basic telephonic services onto the property. They were not hundreds of dollars; they were thousands of dollars, which was an absolute rip-off.

What has happened within the telco industry? The Labor Party again talk about jobs. There is a pleading here as the workers party; well, they are certainly not the workers party. They have criticised the National Party, but they are just a factional party more interested in their own personal advancement and clawing each other down—which we certainly saw over the last couple of weeks with the dispute between the roosters and those backing the member for Hotham.

The interesting thing is that there have been 100,000 new jobs created in the telecommunications industry over the past 10 years. Why is that? Because there has been more capital going back into it, more jobs and more opportunities, particularly in regional Australia. One of the things that we have done—and this was driven to a large extent by National Party members and regional members within the Liberal Party—is to ensure that we have an adequate universal service obligation. This means there is a legal requirement to ensure that those telecommunications companies deliver services and that, if they do not do that in a timely manner, they will be charged. That was never there under the old ALP regime. We have created customer service obligations to ensure that there is an adequate time frame put into place and have also created a network reliability framework.

I see the member for Parkes here. When it comes to untimed local calls, in the past you would have horrendous costs to make a call from one town to another. Even in the same geographical area you would pay substantially more. We have extended the zones, and we have put $150 million into place. When it comes to the Internet, through the Internet Assistance Program our requirement is that Telstra provide a minimum line speed of 19.2 kilobytes. We have ensured guaranteed access to 64 kilobytes, particularly with the new roll-out and digital data service obligations. Again, these things would not have happened if it had not been for the requirements that we put into place through future-proofing and the regulatory framework. This argument about who owns it is fallacious. We know on this side of the House, the public knows and deep down they know—because they advocated it a couple of years ago—that if the Labor Party were on this side they would have flogged it a long time ago.

One of the points that perhaps the Independents should raise when they have their say in the debate later on in this session is to do with taking on some of the mantra from the ALP. What they should be asking is: if there ever is a future ALP government—because there certainly will not be a future government of Independents—what types of regulatory requirements and what types of policy initiatives do they have to future proof it? None.

Mr Tanner —Keep it in government ownership.

Mr ANTHONY —We know, because of the past, that government ownership is an absolutely fallacious, hypocritical argument.

The Estens inquiry was pushed along by many members on this side of the House. We have adopted all 39 recommendations. The funding going back into it is $181 million. A large part of that is going into getting adequate broadband width, digital communication and improving the mobile phone coverage. This was mentioned in question time today by the previous member for Dobell. That policy on analog phones was a disaster. Talk about some of the major structural problems that we have with telecommunications! When were they created? They were created back in the early nineties, through recklessness or short-sightedness. The analog network is part of Australia's history now. This government improved it, and there was a large influence by the National Party, particularly with the roll-out of mobile phone networks, for which we have seen a huge amount of coverage. We will see in the not too distant future over 98 per cent of Australians having at least some type of adequate mobile phone service, whether it is terrestrial mobile coverage or through satellite subsidies.

We have put the argument that ownership really is not the issue. The issue is the regulatory framework that we put into place to enforce compliance on each telco, whether it is Telstra, Optus or one of the plethora of other communications companies that have now come into Australia. We are going to ensure that we have a group of people who will keep the pressure on, report directly to the Prime Minister on the rollout of the Estens money and ensure that the compliance regime is maintained. I think this is a great credit to the member for Hinkler, who is here. I am sure there will be other members on this side of the parliament from both the National Party and Liberal Party seats. I see the member for Kalgoorlie is in the chamber as well. It is this side of the House that is doing that, because if the Labor Party were in office Telstra would have been sold a long time ago, that money would have been spent and we would be further in debt.

When it comes to the part of this motion criticising the National Party, I think we can hold our heads high. There has been concern in regional Australia—I do not deny that. Our members here, along with Country Liberal Party members, have represented those concerns in their own individual ways very forcefully and adequately within this parliament. That is precisely why there is going to be an increased injection of funds: to ensure that those people who live outside the urban fringe maintain an adequate telecommunications service into the future and to ensure that there is future-proofing. The member for Melbourne put forward other erroneous arguments, and I would like to address some of those while I have a few minutes. He talks about selling assets to pay the mortgage. They sold everything. I seek leave to table a document I referred to earlier, and I am happy to pass it over to my old National Party colleague. (Time expired)

Leave granted.