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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 80

Senator SANTORO (3:22 PM) —Senator Lundy, who has just spoken, summarised the position of the Labor Party very adequately when she said, ‘We will watch with interest.’ Senator Lundy, you and your colleagues opposite have been relegated to that position of ‘watching with interest’ by the voting public of Australia in four successive elections since 1996. That is what has happened. That is all that you were good at, Honourable Senator, with respect—watching with interest.

Let us look at the thesis of your arguments: one is that you are watching with interest and the second is to create political mischief in terms of the position of the Liberal Party and The Nationals. If there was one valid point that the honourable senator who has just spoken made it is that that position will be clarified, if it needs clarification, within the party room. You cannot just come into a chamber like this and try to create political mischief and attack Senator Minchin because he wants to protect the share price of Telstra, which is of great interest to hundreds of thousands of shareholders throughout Australia. What is politically, morally or economically criminal about a stakeholder minister or ministers seeking to protect the price of a share which is owned—enthusiastically embraced—by hundreds of thousands of Australians? That is where the opposition continue to make political mistakes. Their aspirations are not the aspirations of ordinary Australians. Their aspirations do not represent the will of ordinary Australians who have expressed their will in relation to tenure on government benches at four successive elections since 1996.

The position of the government, however, is very clear: let’s continue the sensible process of privatisation; let’s continue with a process that protects the interests of consumers and shareholders. The bottom line for the government is to continue to reduce the massive debt that you good people on the other side of the chamber left for us to clean up in 1996.

Senator Chapman —Good people?

Senator SANTORO —We are generous on this side, Senator Chapman, and we will refer to them as good people for the purpose of this debate. Senator Conroy knows deep down in his heart that the structural separation which he so hopes for is simply not in the best interests of consumers or shareholders. He knows that several positions on structural separation have been advanced. The government simply does not believe in taking up those suggestions seriously, because clearly there is no guarantee that they will promote sustainable competition in the sector.

There have been calls for vertical integration—splitting up the network and the wholesale business for the retail business. There have been calls for horizontal separation. Traditionally, this has had two varieties: requiring Telstra to divest its Foxtel shareholdings or requiring Telstra to sell the FHFC pay TV network. A third form of horizontal separation has been aired with suggestions that Sensis be separated from Telstra. The latest version that has been suggested is what could be described as geographic separation—that is, to separate Telstra into a network company that serves regional Australia and that would remain in government control as a retail company. The position of the government can be very simply restated: it has ruled out the full separation and dicing up of Telstra because the risks are clearly too high and the benefits are very uncertain—so uncertain that I heard neither of the two speakers from the other side successfully or convincingly outline what the benefits are. It would just simply be, as the minister has said, a leap in the dark.

Structural separation has been touted as an alternative to regulation, yet none of the speakers whom I have heard speak in this place today or outside in the media has come up with a suggestion that regulation is not necessary under structural separation. So, until the Labor Party in this chamber and the other chamber come up with policy suggestions that reflect the economic realities in the interests of consumers and shareholders that reflect their interests and seek to protect and enhance them, they cannot be taken seriously. Simple political mischief-making is just not going to work on this side of the chamber.