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Monday, 23 September 2002
Page: 4606

Senator TCHEN (2:07 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, and it deals with a more positive and truer picture of the situation. What evidence is there that phone prices are continuing to fall and that Telstra's quality of service is at historically high levels? Is the minister aware of any recent attempts to do away with the current price controls on Telstra and what would be the impact on phone users if these attempts were successful?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —The short answer to the last part of the question is that it would be very bad news for consumers. That is, of course, why all the welfare organisations signed on to the package and why the ACCC and the Productivity Commission have consistently said, for years, that this line deficit is a problem around the world. Forty-five per cent of the interconnect charges are accounted for by the access deficit—$1.2 billion, I think it is. If you can gradually rebalance over a period of four years, you get interconnect charges down quite considerably and, as a result, the prices that are charged by the competitors are much more attractive to consumers. That is what we are interested in—consumer benefit. Senator Tchen quite rightly asked me about some of the other impacts on phone prices and what assessments had been made. In its latest report the ACCC found that—

Senator Lundy —You do not understand.

Senator ALSTON —I would go away and study this issue. You just cannot get through by asking someone else's questions. The ACCC found that the price of a basket of telecommunication services fell by 21.4 per cent between 1997-98 and 2000-01. In its report it found that the price decrease during 2000-01 was 8.9 per cent. We know that A.T. Kearney said recently that Australia's broadband prices were amongst the lowest in the world. The main driver has been competition, as Mr McMullan now concedes, and of course Mr Tanner as well. They now say that ownership of Telstra is not the real issue. The real issue is competition and here we have a proposal for line rebalancing which is all about promoting competition. I know the Left hates competition, Senator Lundy, so we understand where you are coming from, but the rest of the parliament actually understands the critical importance of competition in driving prices down.

PriceWaterhouse found recently that Telstra's performance in installing and fixing phones is at historically high levels. One of the reasons for this is the customer service guarantee which we introduced. Labor had nothing of the sort. Telstra fixed your phone when they were good and ready under Labor. If they didn't, too bad; and if it wasn't installed when you wanted it, too bad. Now we have a very tight system of rebates which they have to pay by way of a refund on your phone bill. PriceWaterhouse found that Telstra are meeting the CSG time frames 96 per cent of the time in relation to installations and just under 90 per cent of the time in relation to fault repairs.

That is a very major step forward and it has all happened on our watch. It has all happened in spite the opposition not having the slightest interest in quality of service outcomes and it is all to do with putting consumers first. That is what we are on about— not putting the unions first, not putting your preselectors first—putting customers first. That is what this is all about. Mr Crean seeks to go out there and tell the poor unsuspecting voters in Cunningham—he probably thinks it is pretty safe and he can get away with blue murder—`We will give relief to struggling Australian families who currently have to bear the increased costs of line rental.' He cannot do that because it is not retrospective. He ought to know that. If Mr Tanner didn't tell him, Mr Tanner has a lot of explaining to do.

I suspect Senator Lundy has not turned her mind to any of this. They thought it was a good idea at the time and that if they gave it a run in Cunningham, hopefully most people would fall for the fact that somehow Labor were interested in prices. They never have been in the past and they clearly are not now. They do not understand the mechanics of how this works. We have a price regime in place. Labor want to rip it up and they will put nothing in its place. That is a shocking outcome for consumers. I think Senator Tchen and the Senate understand the issue. It is just a shame that Labor do not go back to the drawing board and do some homework first.