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Thursday, 20 May 1993
Page: 913

Senator CHAPMAN (11.05 a.m.) —I say at the outset, in handling the Telecommunications Amendment Bill on behalf of the Liberal and National parties, that the Opposition will be supporting the passage of the legislation. The Opposition does not have any major objections to this Bill; in fact, we would welcome any Bill which, however slightly, seeks to extend and ensure competition within the telecommunications industry.

  This Bill will extend to the three mobile telephone carriers—Telstra Corporation Ltd, Optus Mobile Pty Ltd and Vodafone Pty Ltd—the benefit of land access; that is, the ability to enter privately owned land in order to inspect, evaluate or construct telecommunications facilities for the provision of general telecommunications services. In short, this is a Bill which, if passed, we hope will strengthen and provide for true competition in the telecommunications area, an initiative which is very long overdue.

  Currently, these three general carriers of mobile phone services have restricted powers under the Telecommunications Act 1991 to enter privately owned land in order to inspect, evaluate, and to install or construct telecommunications facilities for the provision of general services. The Telecommunications Amendment Act 1993 seeks to redress that situation in that it will provide mobile carriers with the same statutory land access rights as are currently applied to the general carrier; that is, Telecom.

  For the Government to claim, however, that this Bill will support, in principle at least, a fairer and more competitive environment is a somewhat optimistic view, given the humbug which has been going on for almost all of this year with the Minister for Transport and Communications (Senator Collins), the Government and the department with regard to the pay television fiasco, and given the embarrassing situation in which the Minister has found himself in this place in recent weeks.

Senator Collins —What's that got to do with this issue?

Senator CHAPMAN —The Minister interjects, `What has that got to do with this issue?'. It has got a lot to do with the issue of competition, because among the problems that have arisen in the pay television fiasco is the determination on the part of this Government to restrict the degree of competition on pay television.

  Competition within the industry has hardly been the focus of the Government's telecommunications reform, as the Opposition has long witnessed. It is hardly a word that even exists in the Government's vocabulary when it comes to the real implementation of policy. This Government only discovered the word `competition' in recent times and is still trying to come to terms with its real meaning in terms of actually applying it in practical policy terms. It seems that under this Government telecommunications policy appears to be about inadequate departmental advice, interference, meddling and ministerial bungling.

  The Bill before us, however, does seek to provide Austel with the power to issue directions to carriers about compliance with the new obligations under the land access code, which will provide for procedures which must be followed by carriers relating to land, owners of land and occupiers of land. It will set down procedures for consultation between land owners, land occupiers and carriers in the event of a dispute or disagreement about a carrier exercising its land access powers. It will set up procedures for consultation between carriers to share facilities when new facilities are proposed in the vicinity of existing facilities.

  It is the intention of this Bill to safeguard the interests of property owners by introducing a land access code under which Austel may deal with any contravention. At least now, carriers who contravene directions will be subject to a strict enforcement regime. In past years Telecom as the sole carrier had unquestionably broad access rights over land access under the Act, and it is not unreasonable that the Government should be redressing them, reining them back somewhat.

  Carte blanche in this respect is no longer the preserve of Telecom, and the newer players in the industry will operate under identical arrangements. The Australian Telecommunications Authority will be provided with the power to issue written directions to carriers about how they are to comply with the land access code and to ensure that such directions are enforceable. Indeed, the obligations require the giving of reasonable written notice to the owner of the land and, in certain cases, to the owner and occupier of the land on which the carrier is intending to exercise its powers. This is timely because, in the past, arrangements between the carrier and the landowners or occupiers were somewhat different. In past years, although complaints concerning Telecom's access rights have been very few, the rights of land-holders or occupiers were virtually non-existent. Now landowners and occupiers will have much greater rights, and the restrictions will now be placed on carriers to meet these requirements when installations are made.

  Previously, if they were unhappy about Telecom activities, there was technically very little that land-holders could do. If they had genuine problems regarding, say, trees being pulled down, the installation of cables underground which may disturb their crops, or even with the ripping up of their land, they had very little leverage with which to negotiate. Understandably, that will now change with the passage of this legislation and the rights of landowners will therefore be re-established. As the Opposition therefore has no objections to this legislation, we support its passage through the chamber.