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Thursday, 16 October 2003
Page: 21662

Mr WILLIAMS (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (3:31 PM) —Isn't it a strange spectacle to see the member for Melbourne talking about country Australia?

Mr Tanner —That is were I come from.

Mr WILLIAMS —He revealed his attitude to it by referring then to thousands of wizened old farmers, as if wizened old farmers represent country Australia. I thank the opposition for providing this opportunity to bore the Labor Party to death with facts. The Labor Party is hell-bent on running a scare campaign and, not surprisingly, the scare campaign and the factual situation bear no similarity at all. The Howard government are proud of their record in providing telecommunications services to regional and remote areas, and we are continuing to work to improve telecommunications in these areas. The Labor Party asks the people to believe that it is concerned about their access to telecommunications services, but regional Australia knows better.

The member for Melbourne repeatedly refers to his by-line that telecommunications services will leave the country faster than the banks. What he also ought to point out is that the Labor Party were responsible for the Commonwealth Bank leaving the country areas. The Labor Party privatised the Commonwealth Bank and did not do anything at all to protect the banking services in rural, regional and remote areas that had been provided by what was previously a wholly government-owned bank.

Labor have really shown no genuine interest in the needs and concerns of regional Australia. The opposition can only dream of achieving the sort of record that the Howard government have established in improving telecommunications services. But this does not seem to stop the Labor Party from conducting an irresponsible campaign of scaremongering and misinformation. The glib warnings of the dire consequences for regional and remote Australia if Telstra should be fully privatised have no factual foundation. As long as they foster fear and uncertainty in the Australian community, they will be achieving what they set out to do.

The opposition is seriously and deliberately ignoring the existence of guarantees for future regional telecommunications services. Let us look at just how misleading and irresponsible the opposition is on this point. Australian telecommunications consumers currently enjoy some of the world's strongest regulatory safeguards. These safeguards include the universal service obligation, the customer service guarantee, the right to untimed local calls, retail price controls on Telstra and the digital data service obligation.

Through the universal service obligation, all Australians enjoy the right to receive a telephone service. This safeguard is not going to be weakened or removed. The customer service guarantee is a world leading initiative that establishes a regime whereby companies who fail to comply with set time lines for connection and repair of telephone services must pay a financial penalty to the customer. This safeguard is not going to be weakened or removed. The right to an untimed local call is enshrined in legislation, and the government has no intention of removing this right. The digital data service obligation provides all customers with a 64 kilobytes per second service on request. This means that all Australians have access to their dedicated high speed data services. All these consumer safeguards continue into the future.

The introduction of full and open telecommunications competition in 1997 has brought benefits for all Australian consumers, not only those in rural and regional areas. As a result of full competition, the number of telecommunications companies has grown from three to 89, and 40 per cent of these companies offer services to regional Australia. Consumers have also enjoyed a real decrease in prices for telephone services. That decrease is a real 20.7 per cent since 1997. According to an independent report commissioned by the Australian Communications Authority, competition has led to consumer benefits of a value between $595 and $878 per household in 2001-02. It has led to increased profits of $900 million per year for small business.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that the introduction of the customer service guarantee by the government has meant that, for the first, time companies had to comply with strict time frames for installation and repair of phone services or they would have to pay compensation to the customer. Before the CSG most remote customers in Australia used to wait for up to 27 months for a phone to be installed. Now customers can expect a service to be installed within 20 days. It is important to note that the guarantee applies to all telecommunications companies and not just Telstra.

The fact that this fundamental safeguard can be imposed across the board surely demonstrates the capacity of the government to protect consumers regardless of ownership arrangements. The opposition's scaremongering that a fully privatised Telstra will be beyond regulatory control shows little faith in the power of the government and of the parliament to regulate the telecommunications industry. Labor, by adopting that position, is demonstrating that it has little faith in its own ability to govern if it were to achieve government. Indeed, this seemed to be reflected in a joint media statement issued on 2 October by the member for Melbourne and the opposition Senate whip, Senator Mackay. This press release set out the opposition's great fear that Telstra would lobby for an end to the price control regime following its privatisation. Interestingly, it also pointed out that Telstra had refused to rule out political donations to political parties.

Is the member for Melbourne putting on the public record that future Labor governments would be too weak to resist lobbying attempts, regardless of their merit? Is the member for Melbourne telling us that, if the Australian Labor Party were to receive a political donation from Telstra, an elected Labor government would abandon its responsibilities to safeguard the interests of the Australian community? These are serious questions and we call on those opposite to tell the Australian community why they have no intention of acting any more responsibly in government than they do in opposition.

I have had drawn to my attention evidence given to a Senate committee by the ACCC commissioner Mr Ed Willet last Tuesday. He was asked if the ACCC's ability to effectively regulate the telecommunications industry relied on the government being part owner of Telstra. He said:

None of our role relies on partial ownership or on any ownership issue. Our role is a regulatory one and it relies on our powers under legislation.

In case there was any confusion on this point, Mr Willet went on to say:

It might be worth noting at this point that privatisation of Telstra or any other business enterprise does not go directly to our responsibilities. Our roles are indifferent as to ownership. They apply to all businesses and they rely on legislation.

Later, Mr Willet was asked by a Labor senator about the impact of Telstra's view that it should be regulated less. This is what he said in response:

... I am yet to meet a monopoly infrastructure owner who does not want to be regulated less. I do not find that surprising ...

He then, importantly, said:

I do not think it goes to what we do, or would go to how we treat or regulate Telstra, privatised or not.

Despite the opposition scaremongering, it is clear from Mr Willet's comments that regulation of the telecommunications industry and regulation of Telstra has nothing to do with ownership issues.

The opposition's insistence in this debate, and its misleading claims that a fully privatised Telstra will lead to a deterioration in services to remote and regional Australia, completely ignores the reality of the government's regulatory power and it completely ignores the government's longstanding commitment to a regime that protects regional telecommunications services. Looking to the future, the government appreciates the need to continue to support the often unique needs of regional Australia. The government has decided to accept all 39 recommendations of the Estens inquiry. This is another example of the government's commitment to regional Australia and also of its willingness to put in place measures to protect regional Australians into the future.

The inquiry recommended that Telstra be required to maintain an ongoing local presence in regional, rural and remote Australia into the future. In response, the government have announced that we will address this through a new licence condition. This licence condition will require Telstra to prepare a plan setting out the activities and strategies it will undertake to maintain its local presence in regional areas.

The Labor Party seems to have ignored the fact that the government has plainly stated that it accepts all the recommendations of the Estens inquiry. The Labor Party also fails to appreciate that there is a number of ways that this local presence plan recommendation can be implemented. In this case, the government will use its power to impose a licence condition. The government has introduced legislation requiring current and future governments to conduct regular independent reviews of the adequacy of regional communication services and to formally respond to the reviews. The government has introduced legislation that will for the first time require a strategic regional telecommunications plan to be put in place.

Other activities to improve the quality of services to remote and regional Australia include requirements that Telstra provide a formal undertaking to the government to raise the reliability of its worst performing exchange service areas, to improve underperforming pair gain systems and to upgrade older radio concentrator telephone systems. The government, as I said in question time, is also imposing a licence condition on Telstra to provide a minimum equivalent throughput speed of 19.2 kbps for dial-up Internet access over its fixed line network. The government is well aware of the future telecommunications challenges in regional Australia and this is clearly demonstrated by the $181 million it has committed in response to the Estens inquiry.

The major component of this is a more than $140 million commitment for a national broadband strategy to provide access to affordable broadband services in regional Australia. A higher bandwidth incentive scheme will provide financial incentive for service providers to offer services in rural and remote areas at prices broadly equivalent to those available in urban areas. Everyone recognises that broadband is the big future issue for regional Australia. This package demonstrates a real and genuine commitment to support the future telecommunications needs of regional Australia.

The fact is that there is an extensive regulatory regime safeguarding the interests of Australian consumers in relation to services provided by Telstra. This regime will remain in place after Telstra's full privatisation. In fact, not only will all the current safeguards remain; there will be additional safeguards for Australian consumers under the government's response to the Estens inquiry. The government will also retain its ability to regulate the telecommunications industry and if necessary introduce new regulatory safeguards in the future.

The reality is that the power of government through parliament to regulate the telecommunications industry is entirely unrelated to the question of who owns Telstra. The government's pro-competition regulatory regime and the stringent consumer safeguards I have referred to will be totally unaffected by any change in the ownership of Telstra. It is these pro-competition rules and consumer safeguards, not the government's part ownership of Telstra, that ensure that phone services remain affordable and that phone companies have to abide by strict service standards. These rules and safeguards are contained in legislation and will continue to apply regardless of any change in Telstra's ownership. Telstra and other telephone companies will continue to be subject to all of these laws.

The government remain committed to maintaining, and improving where necessary, the standard of telecommunications service to remote and regional Australia. We have a substantial record of working to achieve this goal, and we are clearly committed to ensuring appropriate service delivery to remote and regional Australia in the future. The contrast with Labor could not be more stark. Labor failed to impose any requirements on the Commonwealth Bank to protect its services to regional communities before it was privatised. In his media release of 13 October the member for Melbourne displayed an astonishing memory lapse about Labor's failures. He said that the Telstra sale legislation `would allow Telstra to leave town faster than the banks'. I ask the member for Melbourne: who was responsible for the Commonwealth Bank leaving town? (Time expired)