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Thursday, 12 September 1996
Page: 3392

Senator PANIZZA —My question without notice is directed to Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications. Minister, what were the main outcomes of the APEC ministerial meeting on the telecommunications and information industry that you hosted last week? How do you assess the benefits to Australia from the event?

Senator ALSTON —The APEC ministerial meeting of telecommunications ministers last week was indeed a very significant event: 17 APEC economies were represented at the highest level and there was a very high degree of unanimity about some of the major issues. Almost all of the member economies were very much committed to proceeding down the trade liberalisation path as quickly as possible. Many of them have concerns to ensure that that progress is matched by economic development and human resources development. There was a general recognition that the old models of state owned monopolies were indeed in most instances already obsolete and that plurality and competition were going to be very important issues for the future.

I also stress the significance of consumer benefits being the paramount concern. Certainly, the ministers were very interested in issues such as technical conformance and, in particular, the transparency of universal service obligations. I stress once again that there was a very clear understanding on the part of all representatives of the APEC economies that universal service obligations are part and parcel of the landscape, that all countries must have them, that there is a need for ongoing cross-subsidisation. It is simply a matter of setting the rules of the game and the telecommunications carriers have to play by them. It was indeed a very significant conference and made considerable progress towards goals which we all aspire to in terms of greater competition leading to lower prices, better quality of service and more products.

It is also true to say that there were a couple of other interesting developments. One was when the Mexican minister for telecommunications informed me that Mexico has significant interests in not one—as I had previously thought—but both Cuban telecommunications carriers: the fixed line carrier and the mobile carrier. When I asked him if this was a Fidel aberration, he told me that no, it was not. In fact, his discussions with Cuban ministers indicated that there was a very high level of understanding of the need for much greater competition in the utility field generally.

But I suppose the most significant event was that several representatives of APEC economies came up to me during the conference and asked me why it was that the ALP in this country was now blocking the partial privatisation of Telstra when the ALP in government had privatised almost everything in sight. I made it clear that the logic of this position was quite beyond me. One of them told me that he had had discussions with people he described as leading members of the ALP frontbench, several of whom he said he had previously thought were quite intelligent people. It was a very short list and I have to regretfully advise Senator Schacht he was not on that list.

He said to me that what they had told him was very disturbing indeed. I think it has significant implications for the region because the answer was, `Look, you've got to understand this is political.' There it was, Madam President. At a very significant international conference, I was being told that representatives of significant APEC economies simply could not understand why the ALP was being so opportunistic and not putting the national interest first when they recognised that there were enormous benefits to be gained from going down this path. I have to say that I found it very difficult to defend the position that was being taken. I made it clear that ultimately I was confident that logic and commonsense would prevail and the weight of public opinion would ensure that we ultimately got the right result. (Time expired)