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Wednesday, 19 June 1996
Page: 1811

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —My question to the Minister for Communications and the Arts concerns Telstra. Is the Minister aware of recent comments by the Leader of the Opposition regarding the impact of telecommunications privatisation on the local telecommunications equipment industry? Secondly, in particular, what light does the New Zealand experience throw on the matter? How has the New Zealand telecommunications equipment industry fared since 1984?

Senator ALSTON —I did read an interview in the Weekend Australian , which resulted from what was described as an Australian-American leadership dialogue involving participants from both nations. One of those participating was Kim Beazley. One would have thought that with all his experience as a previous minister for communications, and as someone who professes to strut the world stage, he would have at least a basic understanding. I was absolutely appalled—and I am sure other senators will be as well—at what Mr Beazley had to say in this interview with Paul Kelly. He started off by saying:

I've got a view on Telstra which is distinct.

I can assure you that that is a masterful understatement. He said:

My view is that Telstra performs a function in Australia that there is no equivalent of in the United States.

I thought Telstra delivered telecommunications services and telephone calls. I would like to know what Mr Beazley was doing when he was in the US. Was he living in a tent? Was he communicating with his American colleagues by smoke signals or carrier pigeons? Was he simply not even aware that they have telephones in the United States? It is a pretty extraordinary start to an interview, I would have thought. Then he goes on to say:

Without Telstra . . . we have no investment in R&D.

There is no electronics industry in Australia without a publicly owned Telstra—

Telstra constitutes about 38 per cent of the electronics industry in Australia—

just as there is no electronics industry in New Zealand.

The fact is that New Zealand at the present time is going ahead in leaps and bounds. In 1990, its export of telecommunications equipment totalled $43 million. In the year to June 1996, its exports are expected to exceed $200 million and by the turn of the century $400 million. So to suggest that somehow the privatisation of Telstra New Zealand has led to the demise of the electronics industry is absolutely contrary to any possible understanding of the facts.

Mr Beazley trotted this sort of nonsense out at the ALP state conference in Victoria a few weeks back. I can perhaps understand him telling a few porkies to the party faithful. That is one thing, but to go onto the international stage and make a complete fool of himself, in the way that he did on this occasion, is very damaging to our international reputation.

These people are entitled to think that if you are attending a leadership forum you would at least show a bit of leadership. They did not expect some bloke to go over there, dragged by the ear by the trade union movement, pandering to fear and ignorance in Australia and somehow pretending that he has an understanding of what is going on in the country. He went on in that interview to say:

If you try to simultaneously privatise and introduce competition, you'll compromise one or the other.

The fact is that we introduced competition in this country five years ago. Do you know who the minister was at that time? Kim Beazley. I do not know what his defence is. Is he saying that he read the bill but did not look at the contents? Is he somehow not even aware of what has been going on in Australia in the last five years? Is he not aware that our electronics industry depends entirely on Telstra complying with licence requirements which obligate it to use best endeavours. That is precisely what will happen after Telstra is privatised.

This is a major international embarrassment for Australia. You blokes have some hard thinking to do if you think you can get away with a leader like this, who should never be allowed out of the country again until he has undergone a re-education program. It is simply not good enough to go to the sub- branch of the Lenin institute for public ownership of everything that moves.

What he needs to do is talk to some people who have a real understanding. There is no point in him going to the Australian Democrats, but next time he goes overseas can I suggest that perhaps he might like to go via Romania. The deputy leader of the Romanian Democrats is in the Senate today. He was a former adviser on privatisation to the former Prime Minister of Romania. They commenced privatisation of the Romanian Telecom system some years ago. Perhaps Mr Beazley might learn a bit. (Time expired)