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Thursday, 12 September 1996
Page: 3457

Senator KNOWLES(6.52 p.m.) —I rise as a member of the Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Committee to speak to the report relating to the Telstra bill. I have to say that Senator Carr's contribution today has been as breathtaking as the contribution of the opposition parties throughout the whole inquiry. I found the inquiry to be absolutely the most unrealistic waste of money that I have ever seen in my almost 12 years in this place. For the opposition parties—the Democrats and the Labor Party—to wilfully spend taxpayers' money to the degree that they did on an inquiry about which they had already made up their minds prior to the first hearing date is scandalous.

Madam Acting Deputy President, they went to your fine town of Townsville, which is a beautiful town. But they spent $3.34 per second to go up there and listen to two witnesses whose evidence at best could be called questionable and at worst could be called, in one particular case, outrageous. There was absolutely no point at all to be made in this exercise other than to turn the whole question of the partial privatisation of Telstra into a farce, with the Labor Party engineering witness after witness after witness to talk about a whole lot of unrelated issues.

We saw submission after submission being completely and utterly repetitive of the issues that had been raised by the Labor Party in the hearings and just coincidentally appearing in the submissions of many of those who gave evidence. The allegations that were made time and time and time again about the implica tions and ramifications of the bill were also pretty breathtaking.

It is interesting to look at the statements of the Labor Party about the unemployment impact in the context of their record. We have a party on the opposition benches now which was in government for 13 years and which privatised completely Australian Airlines, a la Qantas, and which privatised completely the Commonwealth Bank and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories without a blink of an eye in spite of the fact that it gave an assurance prior to a number of elections that it would do the reverse.

Senator Campbell —Where was Kim Carr then?

Senator KNOWLES —Exactly, Senator Campbell, where were they all then? Where did they line up to vote when it came to selling off those public assets? Why is there a change of heart now? There is a change of heart only because there is a change of government. That is the only reason that you have taken a different position on this from that which you have taken before.

If one had listened completely to the credible evidence given by individuals who were not primed up like those unions and so forth who came before the committee, one would find that there were guarantees of service obligations and that there would not have been what was alleged there would be—timed local calls. That was a Labor Party suggestion many years ago. Because of the electoral damage that that caused them in the federal seat of Adelaide—they lost the federal seat of Adelaide—they are trying to turn that into a ramification of this bill. It is absolutely and utterly untrue.

They have tried to imply that there will be ramifications in rural and regional parts of Australia. Why is it then that those people who actually live in and represent those areas came before the committee and gave contrary evidence? Why is it that the National Farmers Federation, who would have a far better idea about what is going on in the bush than any of the people sitting opposite, came before us and said that over 60 per cent of their membership agreed with the partial privatisation of Telstra?

Why is it that Western Australian rural women came before the committee and vociferously defended the position that they believed that the partial privatisation of Telstra would give them a better deal, would stop Telstra charging outrageously for repairs and installations at various times? It is absolutely and utterly absurd. This is a situation where the key and fundamental issues that were brought out in evidence at this committee have been totally and utterly overlooked.

I have a list here of all the Commonwealth asset sales conducted by the former Labor government since 1987. So this list is not even a comprehensive list; it is only a partial list. Let me give you some classic examples. We do not have any excuse as to why the Labor Party has opposed the partial privatisation of Telstra when they have sold things like the lease of Chifley Square in Sydney, the Commonwealth phosphate rock stockpile, the Commonwealth Government Centre in Melbourne, the Paris head of mission residence, the Commonwealth Accommodation and Catering Service, the Commonwealth equity in the Primary Industries Bank of Australia, the National Materials Handling Bureau and Williamstown dockyard—a further $1.2 million in 1988-89.

The list goes on and on. There was also the Tokyo embassy sale redevelopment project, the defence service homes scheme, Australia House in Sydney, the sale of property to Film Australia, the ACT housing loans assistance scheme and the Australian Industry Development Corporation. The list is endless. That is only the first two pages, and there are many more pages to go.

Senator Campbell —Has it got the Labor Party's soul on that list?

Senator KNOWLES —No, unfortunately it has not, Senator Campbell. This is not even a comprehensive list in terms of 13 years of Labor administration of the Commonwealth assets that were just simply flogged off for no good reason. Here we are talking about a partial privatisation—a partial privatisation—and it has been so badly misrepresented.

If this Labor Party were really desperate to get it right, it would not be misrepresenting things the way it is. Once again, we were told that 700 people would lose their jobs in Townsville. Witnesses were repeatedly asked: on what basis would 700 people in Townsville lose their jobs in Telstra? At the end of the day we found out by a circuitous route that in fact the number was arrived at because that was the total number of Telstra employees in Townsville so they must all lose their jobs because Telstra was going to be partially privatised—the most illogical nonsense that one could possibly dream up.

Yet one of the their own witnesses—in fact, a couple of their own witnesses, but one in particular—whom they thought they had primed up so well spilt the beans. I will quote from the report as follows:

. . . Mr McLean, Queensland branch secretary, communications division, CEPU, had this exchange with Senator Tierney:

Tierney:   Those job losses (in Telstra) are primarily driven by technology?

McLean:   Yes. The major driver is technology.

Tierney:   You would agree that these technological changes will continue?

McLean:   Yes, and the union recognises that.

Tierney:   Given that you have said that job losses are basically technologically driven, that will go on regardless of whether Telstra stays in full private ownership or is partly privatised, will it not?

McLean:   For jobs that are technically driven it does not matter about ownership.

One of their own mates admitted that the scare campaign that had been run on the unemployment issue was not as a consequence of this. Mind you, the other thing Labor did not mention was that its policies had seen 19,000 people lose their jobs in Telstra under Labor administration. Did Labor mention that? No way. We cannot muddy the waters with the truth.

The problem with this whole inquiry was that it was so skewed right from the word go. The report could have been written before the first hearing and there was absolutely no consideration of the evidence that was given in a substantial fashion. That is how we have ended up with a majority report—a majority report that has not been based on the evidence that was provided to the committee about the benefits of partial privatisation.