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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14912

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (3:51 PM) —There is no greater threat to services in rural and regional Australia than John Howard's ideological obsession to flog off all of Telstra. Unfortunately, there is no weaker defender of rural and regional Australia than the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party of Australia. He is a weaker and less effective defender of rural and regional Australia and a weaker and less effective Leader of the National Party than Charles Blunt was. At least Charles Blunt could put his stamp on something. The Deputy Prime Minister cannot even put his stamp on the member for Parramatta. The Deputy Prime Minister could not even rebuke the member for Parramatta when he made absolutely outrageous comments about services in rural and regional Australia. Today we saw the member for Parramatta saying country people should not expect the same access to services as city dwellers. The member for Parramatta is reported as taking a swipe at farmers, saying they should not complain. He also said that people should be prepared to move to find work:

If you find yourself unable to find a job in a regional centre ... you ought not to expect the rest of the country to underwrite your choice to stay there.

In respect of communications, the member for Parramatta was asked on the Today show today:

But why shouldn't country people ... why shouldn't they expect reasonable access to, say, a phone line to telecommunications, to those sorts of services?

The member for Parramatta answered:

Well, I think they do get, in terms of world standards, they do get reasonable access.

And the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the National Party, could not even rebuke him. It is not enough that the Leader of the National Party has spent the last week and a half siding with the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and the Prime Minister over the full privatisation of Telstra, over Telstra getting a $2.1 billion profit and cutting adrift 10,000 workers and their families. It is not enough that he sides with the minister for communications; he will not even rebuke the member for Parramatta when he says that it is government policy to have a better service for people in the city than for people in the bush. He is too weak to even rebuke him. If John Howard gets away with his ideological obsession to flog off all of Telstra, Australia misses a big chance for the future. It misses a big chance for all of our people to share in a new information world, and the people who will suffer most will be the people from rural and regional Australia. We will have a digital divide—information rich in the city and information poor in the bush. The most galling aspect of the prospect of full privatisation is the cravenness of the National Party leadership—their craven inability to stand up to the Prime Minister and the minister for communications and the way they try to sidle away pretending that they are not being seen. But the deafening silence from the leadership of the National Party is being heard like a roar in regional Australia.

Let us review John Howard's obsession with full privatisation. Just before his bush tour he decided to give the Federation speech, and he committed himself again to flogging off all of Telstra. You have got to read the fine print to see him reminding himself of the government's formal election commitment, which was not to flog off all of Telstra without a legislated inquiry with legislated terms of reference and legislated criteria for Telstra's performance. But shortly into his bush tour he suddenly discovered that the bush was not happy. So then we saw it: Howard's vow at Nyngan to end bush cuts. And what was Nyngan all about? The Nyngan declaration was that there would be no further diminution of Commonwealth services to rural and regional Australia without a red light flashing—without a red light flashing in my office and in every minister's office. What did we see soon after? A $2.1 billion profit and 10,000 jobs gone. And did the light flash? No, it did not. The National Party, too busy looking at steamy videos, had taken the globe out. The light did not flash.

And what do we see? We see Telstra with a $2.1 billion profit, which brings in a $4 billion profit in a year, and at the same time we see that 10,000 jobs will go. And what have we heard from the government? We have heard from the minister for communications—not just sitting back silently but actually cheering the prospect of a $2.1 billion profit and 10,000 jobs gone. He cheered, popped the champagne cork and said he did not care. He said that he was not the minister for employment, so it did not matter. And what did we find in the course of the last week or so? We have seen statements and evidence from Dr Switkowski, the CEO of Telstra, and we have seen the ministers, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister respond to questions in this place. Telstra told the government, and the red light did not flash. Telstra told the government, and the government did not ask for details. Telstra told the government about the 10,000 jobs, and the government did not care and did not act.

What did we then see? The assertion that the bulk of the 10,000 jobs would go from metropolitan areas. The Deputy Prime Minister stood in this place and sided with the minister for communications over the Leader of the National Party in the Senate, Senator Boswell, who had effectively asked how you could have a better service to rural and regional Australia when jobs would go. The Deputy Prime Minister refused to rebuke Senator Alston when he said that Bob Katter, the member for Kennedy, was a national disgrace for simply making the point that the further privatisation of Telstra would see a worse service to rural and regional Australia. We saw the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the National Party, siding with the minister for communication when he said, `You don't have to worry—less means more. Fewer jobs means better service. Less means more.' It defies credibility. It defies credulity. It beggars belief, and in the end the beggars will be rural and regional Australia.

What did we find in this place? The Prime Minister, when asked by the Leader of the Opposition, made it crystal clear: yes, his Nyngan declaration about the reduction of Commonwealth services did apply to Telstra as currently constituted, but it would not apply to a fully privatised Telstra. That was a fatal admission. It was a fatal admission that the Prime Minister could not guarantee that under a fully privatised Telstra services to rural and regional Australia would not fall. And in the 21st century that does not mean just the old voice telephony services but the new information services for the new world and the new economy. So the Prime Minister has acknowledged in this place that if Telstra is fully privatised he cannot guarantee that there will not be a further decline in services to rural and regional Australia.

Let us just recap our opposition to the partial privatisation of Telstra. In the course of the 1993, 1996 and 1998 election campaigns, we have opposed the privatisation, either partial or full, of Telstra. What was our public policy rationale for doing that? There are three main points: firstly, that Telstra was an important part of our national infrastructure and was better held in national hands than in private hands; secondly, that if you partially privatised Telstra you would place a commercial imperative on Telstra and the non-commercial, non-competitive and non-profit services would fall; and, thirdly, that it is better to make infrastructure commitments to rural and regional Australia by running off a long-term dividend stream rather than a one-off flog-off. Dealing with those, what have we seen? In the last year, we have seen a $4 billion profit by Telstra—$4 billion in one year. The government returned to the Commonwealth only $14 billion from the first one-third flog-off of Telstra. A three- to four-year profit stream from Telstra is bigger than the return the government secured for the people in the first one-third privatisation of Telstra. And when we get the final return from the sale of the second tranche of Telstra it will come in at about $40 billion—10 years worth of Telstra profit returns a greater amount than flogging off 49.9 per cent.

On service levels, we have seen a formal report by the Australian Communications Authority investigating Telstra's decline of service levels and their breach of universal service obligations and customer service guarantees. The infrastructure is now more important. Either you say to rural and regional Australia, `We believe that you should have equitable and affordable access to the services of the new information economy,' or you do not. We know as a matter of objective fact, from anecdotal evidence and from the great crescendo of screams that come from rural and regional Australia that currently the government's model cannot even supply voice telephony services in a fair, affordable and equitable way. We do not want rural and regional Australia to be left behind in the new world. We do not want a digital rich in the metropolitan fringe coastal cities and a digital poor in rural, regional and remote Australia.

When it comes to the Prime Minister's commitment to flogging off all of Telstra, having seen the partial privatisation of Telstra fail, he wants to return to the scene of the public policy crime and compound the felony. But he is actually caught by an election commitment which he is now seeking to wriggle out of. The government's formal election commitment in respect of selling Telstra was that the government would not sell more than 49.9 per cent of Telstra without first establishing an independent inquiry to assess Telstra's service levels to customers in metropolitan, rural and remote areas. The assessment was to occur against performance criteria which the government would specify in legislation. The government never specified that in the T2 legislation and the Prime Minister is now squirming, trying to avoid legislation in a proposed inquiry. When this inquiry is established, it will be a rig and a rort. The Prime Minister will seek to rig this inquiry. The Prime Minister will seek to rort this inquiry and to slide an inquiry result under the eyes of rural and regional Australia, pretending to them that service levels are in a fit state and that service levels will not further decline.

In addition to the Prime Minister, today in question time we found the Leader of the National Party not even able to commit himself to the same standard that the National Farmers Federation committed themselves to in their resolution of 28 February. The NFF wants to see delivery of T2 promises, the terms of reference and progress on the inquiry into service levels, and levels of service in rural and regional areas which are equivalent to those in urban Australia before considering T3 further. He would not even commit himself to that. A weaker and more ineffective Leader of the National Party we have not seen. If the Prime Minister is allowed to fully privatise Telstra, the government will be responsible for selling the past. On this side, we want to secure the future for all Australians. Their public policy framework sells the past; ours secures the future for all Australians, irrespective of where they live.

The Leader of the National Party, as I have indicated, has cravenly supported the minister for communications and the Prime Minister on this point. He has agreed with assertions by the minister for communications that, in respect of a $2.1 billion profit and 10,000 job losses, less means more. The job losses will come from the city and the services to the bush will improve. He has disavowed his Senate leader, Senator Boswell; he has disavowed the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss; and he has disavowed the member for Kennedy, Mr Katter. We find, on any number of occasions, the Leader of the National Party siding with the Liberal Party. Do not think that this has not been picked up out in the backblocks.

In terms of a public policy, what is the choice that will confront the Australian community at the next election? The choice will be this: the government committing to the full privatisation of Telstra and the Labor party opposed to its further privatisation. In the meantime, the government has committed to privatising Telstra by stealth, through the back door, and the Labor party is opposed to it. The government wants the market to rule and for rural and regional Australia to suffer; our public policy regime wants an equitable chance for all Australians to have access to new information services in the new age.

As I said, do not think that the Leader of the National Party's stance has not been noticed in rural and regional Australia. In the Friday, 10 March edition of the Northern Daily Leader, a periodical which I am sure the Leader of the National Party is only too familiar with because it is one of his local newspapers, the editorial refers to `our local Member, the Minister for Regional Services and ultimately the Leader of the federal National Party and Deputy Prime Minister'. What does the editorial in his own local paper say? It says:

The Deputy Prime Minister has a responsibility to his party to say enough is enough ...

If the Deputy Prime Minister does not put a line in the sand, the National Party should draw the line for him. The government and Prime Minister John Howard want to sell the past; Labor and Kim Beazley want to secure the future for all Australians. The National Party will not stand in the way. Only the election of a Labor government at the next election will secure that future to ensure that all Australians have affordable and equitable access to the new information services in the new economy.