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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 79

Senator LUNDY (3:17 PM) —I want to follow up Senator Eggleston’s comments about ‘nitpicking on this issue’. My experience—and the experience, I believe, of most people in this place—is that constituents around Australia in rural, regional, outer metropolitan and metropolitan Australia still have a substantial and genuine complaint about the lack of quality of services and the paucity of broadband services in this country. I find it extraordinary that the minister and other coalition senators are able to come into this chamber and hold their hand on their heart and say, ‘Isn’t competition doing the job?’ and, ‘Aren’t services on the stride forward in Australia?’ It is not the case—and as for the case with inquiries such as Estens and the so-called future-proofing strategy, I have heard it all before. We have seen inquiry after inquiry and nothing much changes.

My colleague Senator Conroy hit the nail on the head when he called into question the ultimate dilemma, the conflict that the government face: are they primarily motivated by their return on Telstra share prices through privatisation or are they ultimately motivated in public policy by the delivery of quality, affordable and diverse telecommunications services in Australia? That is the choice. Consistently we hear that it is about the money. There is a little bit of lip-service to service and quality and not a lot of action in response to numerous inquiries and, on the other hand, a consistent return to this need to consolidate Telstra, to fatten up their bottom line and to get as much return to the government as possible.

You know what? Labor believe that the public policy priority should in fact be quality, affordable telecommunications services to Australians. We believe that broadband infrastructure is critical economic infrastructure, critical social infrastructure and critical cultural infrastructure. If we do not have these networks that are of a high quality, that have pipes as fat as possible and that are affordable for average Australian families and small businesses, we are not going to have the economic infrastructure we need to continue to grow and to provide opportunities right around the country, not just in the areas that do have access to broadband. These are the issues. It is not just a question about telecommunications but a question about the bigger issue of the opportunities that businesses and families have to communicate in whatever way they need to. I do not think I need to spell out the imperative in relation to education and health. Access to broadband is a prerequisite to getting those sorts of services, particularly if you are isolated in any way.

I will go back to the main point—the conflict that the Howard government have. They are primarily motivated by the need to fatten up Telstra’s bottom line and the conflict that that places upon them. They have a weak approach to competition policy and a weak approach to telecommunications regulation. We have now, since 1997, a long history of failings to peruse. The most recent example, the competition notice to which I referred in my question, is the exemplar of the failure of competition policy under the Howard government in telecommunications. It is this failure that the Howard government must now deal with. I believe they have an absolute obligation, with their foreshadowed plans to pursue the privatisation of Telstra when they gain the majority in the Senate, to deal with these structural and competition policy issues in the lead up to that.

On the one hand, the National Party are saying one thing and making all the right noises for the constituency they represent—they say they are concerned about this—and 10 metres away in the same chamber Senator Minchin and Senator Coonan are arguing the exact opposite. I think National Party members are sick of being treated this way. Who is right and who is going to roll over in the National Party? If there is any question of conflict there, I suppose it will be the party room that ultimately ends up sorting that out. In the meantime, we will watch with interest as they express themselves through the media.

From Labor’s perspective, the public policy priority should be affordable quality broadband services, not the hodgepodge backward-looking approach that certainly Telstra has been taking, facilitated by the government, for many years now. Until the Howard government understands that this is the public policy priority, Australians all over the country will continue to suffer with substandard infrastructure and, therefore, an unreasonable constraint on their economic, social and cultural development. (Time expired)