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Tuesday, 17 September 1996
Page: 3520

Senator ELLISON —My question is addressed to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Does the minister believe that a partially privatised Telstra will be more efficient because it will be less subject to political interference? Is there any prospect of bipartisanship on this important issue?

Senator ALSTON —This is a very important question because Telstra is currently subject to the risk of political interference. If you look at the current provisions of the Telecommunications Act there is a power for ministerial direction and, of course, that can be used and abused in a variety of ways. There were two high watermarks of political interference. One was a few years ago when it was necessary for Telstra to have all its press releases approved by the office of the minister for communications. But even in more sinister fashion was the other occasion back before the May 1995 budget when you had Mr Keating essentially stockwhipping Mr Blount into handing over a special dividend of an extra $100 million a year for two years on top of their ordinary dividend, together with the early repayment.

So the risk of political interference is a very serious one. The proper approach to take is to ensure that you have transparent rules by which all carriers must play. I think that is a widely accepted rationale for privatisation but I did not realise quite how widely accepted it was until I read the transcript of the Townsville hearings of the Senate Telstra inquiry. Senators will remember there were only two witnesses interviewed there and that it cost about $25,000 to go there, which is about $3.34 per second.

The most interesting exchange on that day came from none other than Senator Kim Il-Carr who made a very valid point—and I would be surprised if Senator Kernot would regard him as part of the Telstra privatisation cheer squad. It is quite clear from the evidence of that committee that Senator Carr has taken my advice and has made that to phone call to Fidel because what he said was this:

Would it not be the case in a privatised or partially privatised or more commercially focused operation that there would be less political interference and therefore would it not be the case that it would be a more efficient organisation?

I could not have said it better myself. Senator Carr is absolutely right. There is no doubt that his Damascus conversion is very welcome on this issue. He is quite right: in a partially privatised Telstra there will be less political interference; it will be a more efficient operation.

Just to make matters worse for him—if in fact he did not quite mean to put it in those terms—is the answer he got from Mike Reynolds. I know why you do not want to hear this one, Senator Carr, because Mike Reynolds was a former Labor mayor of Townsville. What did Mike Reynolds have to say? He said:

I have no doubt that with a privatised or partly privatised organisation we would have less political interference in that particular way . . .

There you have it. You have someone that I would be surprised would be accused of being ideological on this particular issue, who has finally seen the light. He is obviously sick and tired of the dirty deals that go on behind the back of the Sydney Town Hall. He does not like the arm twisting and the thuggery that goes on in the factional game.

Senator Carr has finally realised that you ought to allow businesses such as Telstra to operate commercially, not to have that political interference and to be as efficient as possible. He knows the benefits of efficiency, and I am delighted to welcome him aboard the cart. I think he deserves the commendation of the Senate for the approach that he has taken. I just hope that he will have more success in caucus, that he will be able to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the stance that his own party has taken and that he will take the opportunity to explain to Mr Beazley and Senator Schacht just precisely why this is the sensible approach to take. I very much welcome his conversion on a very important issue.

Senator ELLISON —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister believe that there is indication of further scope for bipartisan support for the important policy objective of the part privatisation of Telstra, given the compelling arguments in favour of privatisation made by the Leader of the Opposition in a speech to the National Press Club on 24 August 1994?

Senator ALSTON —This is when it really does start to hurt because we are talking about someone who ought to be in a position of responsibility. We know why Senator Carr is not on the front bench, but the reason that Mr Beazley is presumably there is so that he can demonstrate some leadership on the important issues facing this country. What did Mr Beazley say when he was actually a minister? He said:

The primary objective driving the privatisation program is to make Australia an efficient internationally competitive economy. . .

The focus of debate on efficiency measures such as privatisation and competition policy is often on job losses, but it is more important to realise that the efficiency gained from the pursuit of competition creates jobs.

He went on to say:

Privatisation fits in with the government's broader imperative to create jobs.

In other words, this is not an ideological argument; this ought to be an argument about how you can act in the best interests of consumers and Australian citizens. That is why it is desperately disappointing that someone like Mr Beazley should not now have the courage to express those same convictions in the way that he did only 12 months ago. (Time expired)