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Wednesday, 23 March 1994
Page: 2067

Senator TIERNEY —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Communications and the Arts. How can the government justify a 33 per cent increase in the cost of telephone calls from public telephones when Telecom has just announced a half-yearly profit of $1 billion, even though the latest Telecom quality of service report has shown a deterioration in the standard of service? Surely the minister has to agree that the Australian people should expect better service from a cashed up Telecom before it clobbers the poorer members of the public with a 33 per cent price rise.

Senator FAULKNER —The Minister for Communications and the Arts announced yesterday that he received a revised proposal from Telecom for a 10c increase in the basic public pay phone call rate from 30 September of this year together with details of a transitional subsidy package to ease the impact of the increase on some 2.3 million low income earners. Briefly, this transitional package provides for the once only free issue of a special $4 phone card to approximately 2.3 million people who are eligible. To be eligible, people must be recipients of social security or veterans affairs pensions who do not receive the telephone allowance rebate on private telephone rental, or people on jobsearch, newstart or sickness allowance special benefit, or low income health care card holders.

  I am aware that ACOSS has said that the amount of the subsidy is perhaps not enough, but I would like to stress that that is only one initiative that has been taken in relation to the affordability of telephone services. The opposition is yet again suffering from very convenient amnesia on this particular issue. I am sure honourable senators on this side of the chamber would recall that the Minister for Communications and the Arts informed the House of Representatives last month that he had written to the Minister for Social Security requesting the assistance of his department in exploring a long-term solution to the problem of how to make it easier for low income earners to have access to home phones. This exercise will examine specifically the needs of low income earners in relation to telephone services.

  Telecom's original proposal last November presented a sound but business-like case for the proposed rate increase. Public pay phone charges in fact have not been increased since 1986. Since that time the CPI has risen by 38 per cent but the average total cost to the user of the public telephone service has decreased by some 21 per cent.  During that time, pay phone serviceability has improved from 65 per cent to 91 per cent in 1993.

  Austel, in its report to the Minister for Communications and the Arts on 21 January this year, recommended that the minister not disallow the proposed increase. I think it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that Telecom has acted responsibly in withdrawing its original proposal pending the development of the transitional subsidy to address the particular needs of those people who cannot afford a private telephone.

  I think it is also worthwhile highlighting the hypocrisy of the opposition. Those opposite are complaining about this increase, the first in eight years, but it is important that we place on record that it was the coalition that doubled the cost of pay phone calls from 10c to 20c in 1982. The opposition at that time did nothing at all to cushion the effects of that particular increase on low income earners.

Senator TIERNEY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Based on the minister's last point, and given that we have just been through a recession, one would wonder why he wants to put the cost up by 33 per cent at this stage, given that Telecom has recorded a $1 billion profit for the half year. In talking about the compensation package, and in relation to what ACOSS said, I ask the minister whether he really believes that the 10 free phone calls provided by the phone card to be distributed will really compensate low income earners adequately, particularly the unemployed who are desperately trying to find jobs and who need to make phone calls to find those jobs. What provision has been made for people in rural areas who rely on timed calls to be made from public telephones?

Senator FAULKNER —What I really believe is that the opposition and Senator Tierney are complete hypocrites. It was those opposite who put up the cost of pay phone calls in 1982 from 10c to 20c. They should go back home with their sleazy hypocrisy on this issue. They stand condemned by their actions at that time. They should not visit their sins on this government.

Senator Gareth Evans —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.