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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19193

Ms LIVERMORE (12:17 PM) —I am very pleased today to have this opportunity to put on the record my opposition to the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003 and my absolute opposition to the privatisation of Telstra. Voters in my electorate of Capricornia know very well exactly where I stand on this important issue. I have gone to two elections now pledging my support for retaining the public ownership of Telstra. My record in this House has backed up the commitment that I gave to my electorate: I have voted against every attempt by this government to privatise Telstra.

The Labor Party's consistent opposition to the sell-off of Telstra over eight years and three elections stands in stark contrast with what voters have heard from the government in that time. The government has spent most of that time having a bob each way, sitting on the fence. Everyone knew that its real intention was always to fully privatise Telstra, but it had to go through the charade of reassuring Australians that it would only sell part while all the time it was putting out bribes and sweeteners to soften up opposition to the sale.

It would seem that the only people swayed by those sweeteners have been National Party MPs in this House. They have done a complete backflip on this issue and sold out the interests of their constituents in rural and regional Australia in a shameful way. This bill, if it is allowed to pass, will see Telstra sold off once and for all. It will give the Howard government the right to sell its remaining majority shareholding in this national asset, and Telstra will pass into private hands. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.

The Howard government is persisting with this ideological quest, against the clear-ly expressed wishes of the majority of Australians, against the best interests of the nation and particularly against the best interests of the people living in my electorate, which covers a large area of rural and regional Queensland. The government must understand how out of touch it is with the Australian people on this issue.

As I have said, I have been a vocal campaigner, opposing the privatisation of Telstra for seven years now, and I honestly cannot recall a single person in my electorate pulling me up on it. I cannot recall receiving a letter from a constituent or being pulled up in the street by someone telling me that I am wrong and that Telstra should be privatised. So I am very confident that when I stand here in this place and very soon vote against this bill that I will be doing that in the best tradition of representing my electorate.

That is why I am not surprised by the response that the member for Hume received when he surveyed his electorate. Many people on this side of the House, including the member for Oxley—who spoke just before me—have paid tribute to the courage of the member for Hume, Alby Schultz, in standing up for the voters in his electorate in regional and rural New South Wales. That survey result is one that I am sure will be reproduced around the country. While the government is blinded by its arrogance, I am sure that our colleagues in the Senate are paying much closer attention to the wishes of the Australian community on this issue.

Much of this debate has focused on what may or may not happen if the government gets its way and privatises Telstra. I feel that I do not need to speculate; I need only look at what has happened in my electorate in the years since the government began its push towards privatisation to know where we are heading once Telstra is ruled entirely by private shareholders and the overriding profit motive. The most obvious impact in my electorate has been on jobs. Telstra was traditionally a significant employer in regional towns, like Rockhampton and Longreach. It was a source of well-paid skilled jobs, and the training it provided to its staff increased the skill base within those regional communities. In Central Queens-land we have been losing that important function. Telstra is no longer making the same kind of contribution to employment and training in regional areas like Rockhampton and the central west of Queensland.

Since the Howard government came into office in 1996 we have seen over 100 Telstra jobs slashed in Rockhampton alone. That includes a mixture of call centre staff, linesmen, technicians, NDC employees and management. One hundred jobs in a provincial city like Rockhampton is a very big hit to our local economy and to the skills base that we need to feed into other local initiatives and to train up-and-coming technicians and administrators.

The story is much the same in the western part of my electorate, in places like Longreach, Winton and Barcaldine. Staff numbers in Longreach have halved in the past six years. In 1997, Telstra employed over 10 people in Longreach to service the central west. There were three people working in the exchange, two at the depot and seven linesmen. Now there are just five Telstra employees to do that work—a mixture of techs and linies—plus one superviser, so six in total. Around the central west region there are another six Telstra workers. There are two in Blackall, three in Barcaldine and one in Winton. And these are important administrative centres for that region of Queensland.

The area that these employees have to cover to provide essential telecommunications services is enormous. Just for the record, I will rattle off names of towns and districts involved—they will probably not mean much to most people here, but I will do it anyway—because it emphasises the small number of people employed by Telstra and the vast distances that these people have responsibility for. It is an area that, by a rough calculation, would have to be at least the size of Victoria. The region serviced by those dozen Telstra employees extends west past Middleton, north past Kynuna, east to Hughenden and south to Davenport Downs on the Diamintina River, as well as to the towns of Aramac, Muttaburra, Tambo and Alpha, to name a few.

The important thing, though, is that the people living in the central west do understand the distances involved and they do understand exactly how isolated they are. That is why they are overwhelmingly opposed to selling off one more share of Telstra. That is the thing that the government does not seem to understand and which we as politicians have to be very mindful of. We can come in here or appear on the nightly news or put out a press release with a glib little 20-second grab to say, `It's okay, trust us, we're the government,' but the people we are talking to know exactly what all this means on the ground. They know that their Telstra technician who comes out to fix their phone on a station out west of Middleton is driving a 500 kilometre, 600 kilometre or even 800 kilometre round trip in a day to provide that service. They know that that one bloke will probably be doing the same thing in the other direction the next day. They know that all that stands between them on their station or their business—in Winton, Aramac, Muttaburra or wherever it might be—and a quality reliable phone, fax or Internet service is that one technician driving 600 kilometres or 800 kilometres a day to do that job and then getting back to the base in Longreach. It is not just a question of driving out there, doing the job, putting your feet up for the night and driving back the next day; we are talking about out and back, out and back, day in and day out for these blokes. They do a fantastic job in a very essential service.

Another problem that we are seeing in the central west is the increase in the use of contractors to do a lot of the network development and rollout work. Of course, the impact is twofold. Again, you have jobs that are not going into these small communities. Employment is vital to the prosperity of these communities in terms of not only those one or two jobs that Telstra might provide but also the flow-on effect. A Telstra employee in Longreach will most likely have a family. So we are talking about the effect that it has on keeping class sizes up or maybe keeping an extra hospital bed open in that town. The flow-on effect of employment in these communities is very big.

There is also the question of the social capital that those jobs provide. Professor Geoffrey Lawrence, formerly of the Central Queensland University in my electorate, has done a lot of work in this area, looking at the impact of the withdrawal of services and the withdrawal of employment on rural and regional towns and at the hole that that leaves in social capital of those communities. If you do not have people in those professions or skilled jobs, you do not have the people who can be the treasurer of the Rotary Club or the president of the P&C or who can run a fundraiser for the local football club. It all just feeds into that decline, in a financial and economic sense and in a very important social capital sense in these rural towns. Many of the traditions we hold dear are under threat—traditions held dear not only by people like me who represent those areas and who know and love them but also by many Australians in the way that we see ourselves.

Not only is Telstra employing contractors over and above permanent staff in these towns; there is also a constant moving around of staff. It is like a real pea and thimble trick going on all the time. Staff are being shuffled around—for example, `We need people down in Coffs Harbour; who can go down to Coffs Harbour this week?' or `Someone needs to go to Lismore; who can go to Lismore?' People are being dragged from all over the countryside. People from my electorate in Central Queensland have been dragged off to work in all sorts of areas of the country. There is this constant sense of just making do. This feeds into the impression of a company that is biding its time until privatisation and is not interested in investing in its network or its staff.

Who suffers from that attitude of just making do all the time, of failing to invest in staff and of failing to invest in the network? It is the customers of Australia. As we have heard from so many other speakers in this debate, overwhelmingly customers have no other choice—it is Telstra or no-one in many areas of my electorate. So if Telstra is not investing in what it is providing to people in Capricornia, no-one else is going to step in and do it because the profits are not there—it is Telstra or no-one. This failure to invest not only is seen at the grassroots level in the number of staff and in the way that staff are shuffled around all the time just filling gaps constantly but also is borne out in the hard, cold figures that we have seen come out of Telstra in the last couple of years. Telstra's capital expenditure—the investment that it makes in the quality of the network in this country—has dropped from $4.7 billion in 1999-2000 to an estimated $3.2 billion in 2002-03.

When the government puts out a press release and says, `Trust us; we're the government. This will be fine. We'll privatise Telstra and it will be great and it won't have any effect on you,' it is saying this to people who have seen the number of staff dwindle and who know that they are not keeping up with the level of services and the new innovations that people in metropolitan areas are getting access to. Rural people are seeing all of this and they are rightly sceptical of their future under a privatised Telstra.

I read a quote just yesterday from a very important stakeholder in this debate: Megan McNicholl, the National President of the Isolated Children's Parents Association. No-one could deny that parents out in rural and remote areas who are educating their children are very important stakeholders in the future of telecommunications in this country. In her report to the national conference of the ICPA in Tasmania earlier this year, Megan McNicoll said:

There is an expectation amongst rural and remote customers that in the future they will have access to an effective broadband Internet service. It is with good reason that we ask the question “Can a privatised telecommunication's industry deliver equity to rural Australians?” We have reason to be skeptical.

History tells us that “private and for profit” will only go to areas where the market is viable. ICPA members have real concerns that unless the USO has the capacity to reflect future upgrades and meet the expectations of rural and remote customers, then their capacity to participate in on-line education and communication activities will be severely diminished.

That is the question: is the government going to be able to provide that guarantee? The government's answer to that very important question is what it calls future proofing. Future proofing is a very nice-sounding term but we do not really know what it means. There was some reference made to it in the Estens inquiry and there is some reference made to it in this bill in terms of the mechanism that will be put in place by government. But, again, you have a gimmicky word up against what rural and regional people have seen with their own eyes—and in many cases felt in their hip pockets—over the last six or seven years since the slide towards this privatisation of Telstra began. So rural and regional people are right to be sceptical about future proofing.

They have seen what happened to the banks. The banks could say that they future-proofed services to regional Australia by putting in an EFTPOS machine at the service station. When you are talking about equitable access to telecommunications, it is a gamble that rural and regional people should not be asked to make—and their representatives in this place should not be making that gamble on their behalf. Privatising Telstra is just too big a gamble when you are talking about the future prosperity of these regions of Australia. These regions rely on telecommunications for so much. They rely on these services for education—not just for primary and secondary education but increasingly for access to TAFE and tertiary education. They increasingly rely on them for health services through videoconferencing, in their business activities and for connection with their loved ones in other parts of Australia. Telecommunications is an essential service, and it is becoming more and more essential to the prosperity of people in this country, particularly in rural and regional Australia. On such an important question of equity, I will support my colleagues in voting against the privatisation of Telstra.