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Wednesday, 21 April 1999
Page: 4015

Senator FAULKNER —My question is directed to the Acting Leader of the Government in the Senate. Does the minister agree with his coalition colleagues Mr Peter Slipper, Mr Ian Macfarlane and Mr Warren Truss that Mrs De-Anne Kelly, by attempting to influence the votes of Independent senators on the sale of Telstra, `acts in a treacherous manner', that her actions are `unwise and disappointing' and that `her comments are shameless' and `amount to political treason'? Does the minister support Mr Macfarlane's view that Mrs Kelly should resign from the National Party and sit as an Independent?

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —It is always regrettable if some people are misled by the Labor Party's propaganda in relation to the sale of Telstra. Fortunately anyone who has studied the issue is very much aware of the real benefits that flow to rural Australia. I have to pay tribute to Senator Boswell in particular and the National Party in general. They understand that virtually every other country in the Western world has gone down this track long ago. You used to rabbit on about the Victorian division of the ALP being Albania; the fact is that the whole of the Labor Party has got that sort of 1950s mentality, because the unions tell them—naturally enough.

It is a matter of particular concern that anyone would misunderstand. At the end of the day, I suppose we cannot force people to read the detail, to understand what is going on out in rural Australia, to understand all the securities that have been built in: customer service guarantees; untimed local call options; the USO, which delivers otherwise uneconomic services to rural areas. All of these measures are not only in legislation but continue on irrespective of ownership.

Opposition senators interjecting


Senator ALSTON —I think the tragedy is that, rather than be concerned about one person in a rural electorate who may be under particular pressures, it would be a lot better to ask why it is that 27 trade union representatives can get it so fundamentally wrong in one of the most important places in the land. That is the tragedy because one person could always misunderstand but a whole group of individuals should not be able to misunderstand so comprehensively. After all, most of the frontbench here, or a few of them anyway, were members of the last government that privatised everything in sight. I did not hear any qualms from the New South Wales Left on all of that, Senator Faulkner. You knew full well that it was in the best interests of all Australians to go down that path.

As Mrs Kernot rightly says, you do not have to worry about Labor in opposition; it is what Labor would do in government that counts. She knows full well what your real position is in relation to Telstra. And I have to commend you because I have noticed a subtle change since poor old Senator Schacht departed the scene. There is a greater degree of realism about the inevitability of those processes and about the fact that you can fully protect people in rural areas, you can ensure that quality of service rises, you can legislate and you have licensed conditions attached which you can impose on all carriers, if necessary. There is currently a general power of direction in relation to Telstra, if that became necessary. So, in all sorts of ways, let us not focus on one or two people out there who might misunderstand; let us focus on those who should know better.

Senator FAULKNER —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I note the minister has indicated that Mrs Kelly is just one individual who apparently has been conned by the Labor Party but, Minster, can you confirm that opposition to the full sale of Telstra is in fact the policy of the whole of the Queensland National Party? You might also consider an answer to this question: when has it been treachery for a member of parliament to argue for the party policy? In this case, Mrs Kelly is arguing—is she not?—for the policy of the Queensland National Party.

The PRESIDENT —Within the question and within the supplementary question there is little that relates to the minister's responsibility, but I call him to answer as he will.

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I presume this is in relation to Telstra, although I do not think we even got beyond the rhetoric and the invective, so one just has to assume. But the fact is that we are not in coalition with various constituent parts of the National Party; we are in coalition with the National Party, which consists of federal members. I have not looked at what resolutions might have been passed by the Queensland division of the National Party. As I understand it, at different points in time they have had different views.

Again, it is not surprising that they would pick up some of the rubbish that you peddle around the airwaves and want to give it a decent airing. But, at the end of the day, there can be no doubt that the National Party in the federal parliament is overwhelmingly supportive of the approach we have taken because it knows of the enormous benefits.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! There is far too much noise on my left.

Senator ALSTON —Ask Senator Boswell about the $671 million of social bonuses that are swinging on this issue. (Time expired)