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Monday, 18 October 2010
Page: 579

Ms SAFFIN (11:40 AM) —I am deeply concerned by the behaviour of Telstra and its decision to announce the closure of its Grafton call centre. It is a call centre that responds in Australia with Australian employees to help business—it is a business call centre. It enjoys a wonderful reputation for being very responsive and very helpful to the business community. The call centre is part of Telstra Business, as it is called, and this behaviour is not in accord with what I expect and what regional Australia expects, and there are three particular reasons that this galls me even more.

The first reason is that, when we first heard about this closure from Telstra, it said it was consolidating call centres and that the 108 employees in Grafton, in the Clarence Valley, would be consolidated and offered redeployment to Brisbane and Melbourne. So it was not only that they were taking jobs away from us but also that they were consolidating them to the major cities. Nobody anywhere, whether it be in the regions or the major cities, wants to lose their job, but if they are losing a job in regional Australia, country Australia, it is even more difficult to find another one. There may be far more scope to find jobs in the major cities.

The behaviour of Telstra is not what I expect. It is a major corporation. It makes big profits out of all of us. It makes big profits out of regional and rural Australia. I expect it to give some loyalty to regional and rural Australia, and keep the call centre there. Call centres can operate absolutely anywhere—that is the beauty of them. They do provide jobs in regional and rural Australia; they can provide new jobs in rural and regional Australia. People are asking if we are sure they are going to Brisbane and Melbourne; are we sure they are not going offshore. That is what some people feel too—that the jobs will not be consolidated to Brisbane and Melbourne but will go overseas. We do not want them to go to the cities, but some say that at least the jobs would still be in Australia. People are deeply concerned that these jobs are being sent offshore.

So the first thing that galls me is moving jobs to the major cities, and the second is that Telstra’s rationale is that it is going to cut jobs to improve service. That is absolute bunkum; it is nonsense.

Mr Hartsuyker —Sir Humphrey Appleby!

Ms SAFFIN —That is exactly what it sounds like—Yes, Minister. Not only are Telstra saying this; they are putting it out in media releases—I have copies of them here. It is the stuff of nonsense. Thirdly, I have a letter here from Mr David Thodey, the CEO of Telstra. In that letter he actually says to me that, yes, they are going ahead and he knows I will be unhappy about it, but then he talks about how help is being offered to the 180 employees by the Department of State and Regional Development. That is a state entity. That galled me further because the day that this move was announced I said we would fight the good fight. I wanted to make sure that we tried everything we possibly could to keep the call centre open. I mobilised our local jobs coordinator, first of all to make him aware of the situation, secondly to ask whether there was anything he could help with and, thirdly, if Telstra did close the call centre could he see whether that call centre could be used to bring other jobs to Grafton.

The jobs coordinator then mobilised with the Department of State and Regional Development. It had nothing to do with David Thodey. It just really annoyed me that he had put it in his letter to me when I was the one who was responsible, along with other people in the community, for mobilising every possible resource we could around the staff and the community. It was really quite insulting to get that letter. It is better to be short and sweet and just say, ‘We are going ahead with the closure,’ even though I do not like it. Those three reasons really did not go down well.

There were a few other things that happened in this story. There has been widespread support in the community with a petition receiving over 6,000 signatures in just over a week and a half from people in the Clarence Valley. I got the petition organised and I hit the streets. There were people lined up in the main street queuing to sign the petition. Then we were in the Grafton Shoppingworld. I was there along with the member for Cowper, who is sitting opposite me, and the state member, Steve Cansdell. The Independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, put out a media release joining us in not supporting the closure.

We had the support of the Mayor of Clarence Valley Council, Richie Williamson. The whole council was mobilised. Richie was out on the street with me. We also had the support of the Mayor of Coffs Harbour, Keith Rhoades; the Mayor of Lismore, Jenny Dowell, who is also president of Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils; and the Mayor of Ballina, Councillor Phil Silver. So there was a whole lot of mobilisation. Unions were also involved, with the CPSU on the ground. We had a rally in the town square of Grafton, which was chaired by Ron Bell, the proprietor of 2GF, the local radio station. The Daily Examiner also joined the campaign to try to stop this.

Everybody was absolutely mobilised. There was a campaign ran called ‘Hang up on Telstra’. That is what a lot of people are doing and that is what we are saying to Telstra: you deserted us as a community in regional Australia, so we can desert you by hanging up on you. Some people have closed their accounts. The mayor, Councillor Richie Williamson, has done that and so have others. I have received lots of letters from people who are saying publicly that they are doing that.

I would like to acknowledge the sterling efforts of Shirley and John Adams, who sat at Grafton Shoppingworld over the week we had the petition out. They sat there and talked with everybody, and they got signatures on those petitions. It also went out to a whole lot of businesses. It was just wonderful that they did that. It took a lot of effort and we were all mobilised. You can feel a bit helpless in that Telstra will still go ahead but we were not going to take it lying down. It is a resourceful community and it will find other things to do, but it is very harsh to be treated like this in regional Australia.

The other thing I found out was that they had known about it for some time. Remember, we had a federal election and they obviously did not announce during that, but they had known about it for some time. I attended an event in Lismore to celebrate 10 years of Telstra Country Wide. We had a great breakfast celebration where Telstra said: ‘Isn’t it wonderful? We look after country New South Wales and we service country New South Wales.’ I said that I felt like I was there under false pretences. The Mayor of Lismore, Councillor Jenny Dowell, was in some of their promotional material about that and she also made a comment that she felt similar to how I felt and that she did not want to be in it.

The other thing that happened, which really showed how seriously we take this issue, was the Grafton Chamber of Commerce and Industry, headed by Jeremy Challacombe, actually downing tools. One day, at a certain time, they came out into the main street. They closed their doors and all the businesses came out and protested as well. They got the support of the New South Wales chamber to try to organise meetings with David Thodey, the CEO of Telstra. It just showed how seriously we took this particular issue. We then got told that the call centre is going to close on 23 November. That is a month before Christmas; that is a bit heartless.

You may have all received an invitation to have cocktails with Catherine Livingstone, the Chairman of Telstra, and David Thodey, the CEO, tomorrow night between 6pm and 8pm. I answered them and said, ‘I do not want your cocktails; I want 108 jobs in Grafton.’ I will be going to the cocktails tomorrow night and I am going to have a sign up that says exactly that. I hope that other members will join me and hold that sign up because I think that is what we have to do. I do not want to say anything that is unparliamentary but that one really got to me when I received it. (Time expired)