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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5408

Senator MACKAY (3:21 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Alston) to a question without notice asked by Senator Mackay today relating to Telstra and the use of sealant gel to weatherproof cables.

Senator Alston's description of the reason why the gel had ceased to be used in March 2001—that it had come to the end of its life cycle—was extraordinarily euphemistic. The reality is that this gel is destroying Telstra cables all over Australia. So talking about it coming to the end of its life cycle is somewhat disingenuous. The other thing he said which I thought was interesting is that it is going to cost only $75 million over the next five years to fix. He does not regard that as much money. But Roger Bamber, the New South Wales Managing Director of CountryWide, has confirmed that $187 million has already been set aside. So who is right—the minister talking about $75 million over five years or Mr Bamber, CountryWide, New South Wales, talking about $187 million?

The people who actually work on the network are advising us that there are four to five billion cable joints in the network across Australia and that each one is going to cost around $50 to fix. That is a lot of money. I notice that my colleague Senator McLucas asked, in the Australian, for full disclosure in relation to where these faults are and how much this is going to cost—and well may she, because she comes from Cairns. It rains a lot in Cairns and the problem is that next time it rains a lot in Cairns there is an imminent danger of the network falling apart. Along with my colleague Senator McLucas, I exhort the government to provide us with all the information in relation to this.

We have already had major discrepancies. We have already had an indication that the government is in total denial in relation to this issue. We have already had evidence that, as a bandaid measure, Telstra technicians are being forced to use plastic bags to try and stop the cables from becoming totally waterlogged and unusable. Mr Deputy President Hogg, you come from a state where it rains a lot and you will have problems. The reality is that this is a disaster waiting to happen and it is not the only one. There are many more which we will reveal and which I think will be revealed by the Estens inquiry and our Senate inquiry as the months progress.

The reality is that more than 40,000 jobs have been lost from Telstra since 1997. This gel was never tested. That is the problem. The people who used to test products like this have been made redundant. I noticed with interest in the media that the only reason this gel started to be used in the first place was because John Anderson's phone in Gunnedah kept breaking down. It broke down six to seven times, so John Anderson—

Senator Ferris —Minister Anderson!

Senator MACKAY —Minister Anderson put in a call to his mate Minister Alston, who put in a call to his mates at Telstra and all of a sudden this gel appears all over Australia— this gel that actually ends up corroding the network. It is Monty Pythonesque. Then we had the spectacle of poor old Telstra technicians going out pouring out this gel that is in fact corroding the very cables that it is supposed to fix—and they were directed by Telstra not to tell customers what they were doing. In fact one technician was hauled over the coals for explaining that this was a safety measure in terms of waterproofing the cables. This is positively Orwellian. Not only are the circumstances Monty Pythonesque, but the whole thing is Orwellian in terms of its implications. Telstra and the government are in denial. All they want to do is to try and get through the next few months so that they can try and convince the poor old doormats over there in the National Party to say yes to the sale of Telstra, because they have got their mate Dick Estens—a well-known National Party member—chairing the inquiry. But we have our own inquiry, don't we, Senator Lundy?

Senator Lundy —We do indeed.

Senator MACKAY —That is the Senate inquiry. We had our first hearing last Friday and it was most illuminating. I say to the government that it will be the first of many. People are desperate to come and talk to us in relation to this. We got so much information on one day that I think we have enough for about five question times. So good luck with your PR campaign in terms of selling Telstra, because I do not think you are going to convince one person.