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Wednesday, 16 October 1996
Page: 4312


Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia in the Senate)(5.26 p.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, can I be the first publicly to congratulate Senator Coonan on her first speech in the parliament. It was a speech that showed a lot of depth and a lot of commitment. I am sure that she will make a great contribution in this place.

The Senate is debating the Telstra (Dilution of Public Ownership) Bill 1996 which provides for up to one-third reduction of Commonwealth equity in the Telstra corporation. The bill is a manifestation of the major coalition promise to the Australian people when it was so overwhelmingly elected in March of this year.

The National and Liberal parties were elected to do something about government debt. We were elected to do something about the environment. The partial sale of Telstra does both by providing an estimated $7 billion to reduce public debt and interest, and over $1 billion to fund a natural heritage trust program for the environment and sustainable agriculture.

This Telstra bill has been carefully designed to restrict ownership and to entrench community service obligations. It facilitates direct ownership by Australian citizens in the country's third largest company in turnover. It fosters a competitive presence in the international telecommunications market as the world embraces the information age.

Telstra is the only one of the world's top 20 telecommunication companies yet to proceed with privatisation. The UK, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Argentina, Germany and France—the communications minister even adds Albania—have all privatised their carriers in whole or in part or are scheduled to do so.

The opposition's approach to the issue of the part-privatisation of Telstra has been one of `do what I say but not what I do'. The Commonwealth Bank, the Federal Airports Corporation and Qantas are all examples of Labor's privatisation program. The electorate knows that the tears being cried by Labor over part-privatisation of Telstra are nothing but crocodile tears and a sham. During the debate on the Commonwealth Bank Sale Bill last year, former Senator Wheelwright stated:

I think what the government is doing in selling the Commonwealth Bank now is redeploying in a responsible way Commonwealth funds—some $4.5 billion, if current share price values hold up—to reduce its borrowings and to maintain a sound fiscal policy.

If he was right then, he is wrong now. As Australians have had a chance to share directly in the ownership of these institutions, why not also Telstra? These are the holes in the opposition by Labor and the Australian Democrats to the part-privatisation of Telstra—so many holes that the opposition ship is sinking.

Many of my constituents in Queensland are concerned about the excess of foreign ownership in large chunks of Australia's backyard. I take this opportunity to tell them of the provisions in this bill which prevent that scenario occurring with Telstra and which make sure that it remains Australian owned and controlled.

Part 2A sets out restrictions on foreign ownership of equity in Telstra. It will be unacceptable for foreign ownership to exceed 11.6 or 35 per cent of the partial sale. It will be unacceptable for one or more foreign person to take hold of more than a 1.6 stake in Telstra, which relates to five per cent of the equity on offer in the one-third sale.

A foreign person is defined to mean a foreign citizen not ordinarily resident in Australia; a company in which any individual foreign person or company holds more than a 15 per cent stake; a company in which an ownership stake of 40 per cent or more is held by two or more foreign persons or companies; or a trustee of a trust estate in which foreign persons hold a substantial interest. Telstra's head office remains Australian; Telstra's chairperson and a majority of its directors must be Australian citizens.

If an unacceptable foreign ownership situation comes to exist, the Federal Court, on application from the minister, may make appropriate orders to stop it, including ordering the disposal of shares. So even with foreign ownership at the maximum level available under this legislation, Telstra will remain over 88 per cent Australian owned. There are even special incentives for individual Australians and Telstra employees to invest in their company, to personally share ownership in Australia's flagship telecommunications corporation.

Regional Australia will want to know that their interests are being secured by the part- privatisation of Telstra, that any change in ownership will not affect their access to telecommunications services. This bill ensures in a number of ways that rural Australians will not be disadvantaged. Firstly, part 2C reaffirms the universal service obligations that already apply to Telstra and other telecommunications carriers under the Telecommunications Act. The universal service obligation requires a standard telephone service to be offered to all Australians. The untimed local call obligation already guaranteed will be retained for residential consumers. Price capping will continue to apply and general price surveillance will apply to other industry players.

On top of this, there are three newcomer safeguards. One is the extension to business of the statutory obligation to provide the option of untimed local calls. This has not been the law until now. The others are the customer service guarantee and the extension of Austel's power to make indicative performance standards. In the place of a voluntary connection and repair guarantee, the new customer service guarantee will be a legislated and mandatory requirement to apply to all carriers, backed up by stiffer penalties.

Austel will have the power to determine performance standards in relation to the period taken to comply with the request for connecting and rectifying faults, and the keeping of appointments to meet customers for these purposes. Carriers will have to meet the standards and the statutory requirements or face an Austel determined scale of damages. Austel will report annually on how the carriers discharge their obligations.

Austel's existing power to develop indicative performance standards will also be widened to impose requirements on the industry in relation to most other billing matters. These include requirements to comply with Austel's specific billing standards to ensure timely, accurate and comprehensive financial information. There is a requirement for Austel to set up procedures for the generation of standard billing reports to be made available to customers on request, enabling independent analysis and audit of telecommunication bills. As a minority Senate com mittee report found, the Telstra bill will not in any way affect the legislative and other protection of directory assistance, timed local calls and the provision of public telephones, all of which will remain unaffected by this bill.

The customer service guarantee and related provisions actually increase Telstra's accountability to and scrutiny by the public while, at the same time, Telstra will still have to report to parliament. The majority report from Labor and, I might add, the Australian Democrats, was illuminating. They found so many faults with the way Telstra is currently operating, it is a wonder they did not do something about it when they were in government. It is a case of selective amnesia with Labor senators forgetting the principles which guided their own privatisation effort.

I was particularly struck by the way Labor and Democrat senators used the committee as an exercise to say that, far from selling part of Telstra, we should be giving it more money. Recommendation 13 of the majority report says that the committee recommends Telstra's operation be resourced up to a level which allows ongoing improvements in customer service quality. You have to ask: where is the money going to come from? Perhaps the answer is that we should borrow some more. Maybe Senator Kernot and her merry band of Democrats could allow us to take it out of the environmental vote. It is ludicrous when we are trying to restore some fiscal balance and alleviate government borrowings and interest repayments, as well as making massive investments in the environment.

The opposition is suggesting that government find more money to resource Telstra. Then, in a bizarre twist, they also want to charge Telstra a levy. It is in recommendation 35. On the one hand, Telstra should be resourced up. On the other hand, it should be levied down. They propose so many regulations and qualifiers which would straightjacket the enterprising activities needed to ensure Telstra's survival. The partial privatisation will enable Telstra to increase its flexibility in response to market demands in what is a rapidly changing environment.

We have to ask whether we would put lead in the shoes of a runner, but that is exactly what the Labor Party and the Democrats are advocating. The public benefit is not served by restraining full public ownership of Telstra. The public benefit is not served by ploughing more government funds into Telstra. The public benefit is not served by rejecting an opportunity to reduce colossal debt and restore the environment. Senator Meg Lees complains the government is being driven by economic fashion. I say to Senator Lees: if helping the environment and reducing debt while, at the same time, legislating for customer service guarantees is economically fashionable, then let's be in it. We want an Australian controlled Telstra out on the international catwalk parading Australia's competitiveness and winning market share. The Democrats and Labor would hide Telstra backstage and not allow it to present itself.

Mr Acting Deputy President, like many of us, you have probably seen the Telstra advertisement on television where a girl comes out and says, `My wish is for an everlasting packet of Tim Tams.' That is how the Democrats want to run this country—wishing for an everlasting supply of money. If someone provides it, the Democrats will be neither the government nor the opposition, yet they will sit on the crossbenches and tell all of us how it should be done.

We have to find money for public debt reduction and environmental programs. Money does not grow on trees. We have to do what we can with what we have. The Telstra (Dilution of Public Ownership) Bill presents Australia with several opportunities for doing exactly that: $7 billion to reduce the debt burden of future Australians inflicted by a reckless past government; $1 billion to put the environment and sustainable agriculture on the pedestal it deserves; and the opportunity, via private ownership, to give Telstra what it needs to compete in a competitive communication information age for the benefit of all Australians.

I plead with the Democrats and senators on the other side to show concern for the environment. They should note that, over the next five years, this bill will fund five capital projects: the national vegetation initiative; the Murray-Darling 2001 project; the national reserve system; the national land and water resources audit; and the coast and clean seas initiative—all initiatives that I should have thought the Democrats would have been in on with their ears back. But they are bogged down on some illogical concern and, although the basis of their party is concern for the environment, they do not appear the least bit interested in it. The only logical response is to get on with this bill and get it over with.

(Quorum formed)