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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12836

Senator BROWNHILL (Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia in the Senate) (2:41 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston. Minister, how is the government delivering on its unprecedented commitment to regional and rural communications through Networking the Nation and the Telstra 2 social bonus? In particular, how much money can regional communities expect to be spent in the first half of this year? Is the minister aware of any alternative policy approaches and the impact on regional Australia if these were implemented?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Brownhill for a very important question which I think highlights the fundamentally different approaches adopted by the major parties in this country. Our approach in relation to the proceeds of sale from the second tranche of Telstra involves something like $671 million worth of communications and IT related initiatives. That builds on the $250 million from Networking the Nation that resulted from the first tranche. All of those initiatives, as we all know, were absolutely opposed right down to the wire by the Labor Party. So Labor never stood for spending one red cent in rural Australia on upgrading telecommunications initiatives.

In terms of progress, a number of these programs are very much advanced. A number of the multi-year programs are well under way. Planning is either completed or almost completed on others such as the mobile base stations on 11 major national highways. In fact, in this current financial year we will spend $179 million. That is in addition to the money spent on the Natural Heritage Trust. SBS will this week receive more than $60 million to fund the rollout of SBS to another 1.2 million Australians. Round one applications for the local government, BARN, isolated islands and Internet access funds closed on 8 March. The assessment process for the incubator program is complete and the successful tenderers will be announced in the next few weeks. Rural transaction centres are up and running. The first one was opened by the Prime Minister last October.

So there is a great deal of activity out there—all of it, as I say, simply opposed by the Labor Party. Of course, when Mr Beazley wanders down to Tasmania and sees one of the outcomes of this approach, an online access centre in Tasmania, he says, `That's great. We would like to have more of those.' Well, where do you get the money from? They are not prepared in opposition to allow the privatisation of Telstra—of course they would do it in government, as former Senator Kernot reminded us at the time, but not in opposition. What they would do would be to run Telstra from the minister's office. That is essentially their proposal. So they would pretty much lock it up. They would hold both its hands behind its back. They would be telling it what to do and how to do it. They would be waiting for a phone call from a marginal seat. Meanwhile, Telstra's share price would be going south.

What do we find in terms of an alternative approach to providing these services in rural areas? We read in the Financial Review today that they are going to see the universal service obligations substantially upgraded and its application broadened. We had a review of the standard telephone service a couple of years ago, and if you went to the point of mandating the delivery of a digital data capability, it would cost you in the region of $8 billion to $12 billion. You could spend as many billions as you like, but where is it going to come from? Once again, not one red cent would come from the Labor Party in government. This would all be funded by industry. Currently the USO is about $253 million; Telstra actually says it is $1.8 billion. You want to substantially upgrade it: multiply it by three or four and turn it into a genuine billion dollar outfit. In other words, you want to quadruple the contribution from all the other players—pretty much kill them stone dead. You would chill the competition—

The PRESIDENT —Minister, your remarks should be to the Chair, not across the chamber.

Senator ALSTON —Sorry, Madam President. The Labor Party would not only freeze competition but put Telstra in a straitjacket. You would have the worst of all possible worlds. They would not spend one cent in rural Australia. They would try to put the burden on others. They would decide what people out there want—in other words, the classic Labor formula: you decide what people want, and then you impose it on them, but not at your cost. (Time expired)

Senator BROWNHILL —I ask a supplementary question, Madam President. I did not quite get the answer about what would be the impact on regional Australia. I do not think you have actually elaborated enough on those alternative policies.

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —You do not have to be a Rhodes scholar to follow this one. If we can have full attention for just a moment, I will explain it. If you imposed that crippling burden on all the other carriers, you would provide a fundamental disincentive for them to get out into rural areas. As a result, you would not have any competition or any downward pressure on prices, so prices would rise. You would not have the same choice of services, so once again you would have to take a one size fits all approach. The end result would be going back to the bad old days whereby you would have Telstra run as a government plaything. You would decide what services it provides. If it wants to get efficient, if it wants to rationalise, if it wants to unload underpeforming aspects of the business, your shadow minister says, `I would tell them no. I would tell them what they can sell. I don't mind what they buy; I would tell them what they can sell.' Just imagine how you would run a company like that. It is no wonder that senior executives like Lindsay Yelland are jumping ship. (Time expired)