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Monday, 28 October 1996
Page: 4595

Senator CALVERT(5.22 p.m.) —The senators opposite who are participating in the debate on this Telstra bill are participating in probably one of the most cynical exercises yet seen before this Senate. Their opposition is not based on fact, nor is it based upon the evidence which was placed before the Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee. Their opposition is a blatant case of political opportunism.

We know that the present Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) was previously a supporter of the privatisation of Telstra. We know that the opposition, which now proudly defends the public ownership of Telstra, is the same opposition which, when in government, was quite happy to sell Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank—having said that they were not going to sell the Commonwealth Bank, of course.

Senators opposite have not been able to justify, nor will they be able to justify, why it was all right to sell the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas and to try to sell ANL—they could not sell that, because it was broke—but it is not all right to partially sell Telstra. They have locked themselves into a position, a position which I would suggest is linked to their scare campaign during the last federal election.

In reality—given their performance, I do not blame the previous Labor government for wanting to manufacture an issue on which to base an election campaign; they must have known that any election based on their record would have led to a landslide victory to us— what they did, and you would know this better than anyone, Mr Acting Deputy President, was create a scare campaign similar to the one on GST. Except this time it failed and failed miserably, and it failed again at the Lindsay by-election only last week.

Former government members and senators marched around Australia at the last election saying, `Keep your hands off Telstra,' with campaign banners and ribbons. They tried to scare the Australian public, just like they did in their GST campaign. They might have got away with it once, but not twice. They underestimated the intelligence of the Australian voters, who, in turn, delivered a landslide victory to the coalition.

I recall all too well—the Minister for Social Security (Senator Newman), who is in the chamber, will recall it too—the disgraceful tactics of the Labor candidates who circulated, amongst other things, fake Telstra bills in rural areas. These bills bore no resemblance to fact—to any fact at all—but were designed only to scare and intimidate. I note that even now other Tasmanian senators, and Senator Mackay in her speech, are still trying to scare the people in rural Tasmania and regional areas about the so-called increased costs that would occur if Telstra is partially privatised. I also recall the predictions of massive increases in phone accounts, which we know, through the evidence placed before the committee, was another aspect of the opposition's imagination.

This bill is about making Telstra more efficient. It is about improving the quality of telecommunications services, and it is about ensuring that our future telecommunications industry is based on the most sound economic grounds. There is no doubt that when this bill is passed it will make a positive contribution to employment within the telecommunications industry and provide other spin-offs which will occur as part of the employment rationalisation process. I note that Senator Stott Despoja has left. She was talking about the 20,000-odd people who will be leaving Telstra over the next few years, as announced by the chief executive.

Senator Carr —Twenty-three thousand—one-third of the company.

Senator CALVERT —Okay, 23,000. Whether or not Telstra is privatised, or partially privatised—you know this, Senator Carr—the evidence from Telstra management is that changes will be made—

Senator Carr —Nothing like 23,000, nothing like one-third of the company.

Senator CALVERT —How many thousands have gone before? When you talk about losing all these jobs, you do not allow for the people who are leaving Telstra and going into private enterprise, into small communications companies, just like they are now. You only have to go around my own capital city to see that there are quite a few private providers installing mobile phones and doing all the work that Telstra had to do itself before. So there is no doubt that it will encourage more employment in the private sector.

Also, I believe that this bill will increase economic activity in rural and regional Australia. This is a very important aspect in my home state of Tasmania. I frequently receive complaints from constituents who do not have access to the most up-to-date telecommunications options. It is evident that Telstra has not been able to update its equipment as quickly as it would like to, because of the economic constraints of public ownership. Once these economic constraints are removed, I have no doubt that Telstra will be able to provide a much improved service to its Tasmanian customers.

I had the pleasure of taking the current Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Alston—then the shadow minister—on a tour of the west coast of Tasmania. That part of Tasmania has been ignored by Telecom for years and years and years, as my colleague in the chamber would know. What did the previous government do about it? Absolutely nothing. I took the then shadow minister along the west coast, and he was absolutely appalled at what was going on.

Since we have been in government, the west coast has been connected to a digitalised mobile service. Changes have been made to television reception because a lot of places could not receive any television at all. As the minister here would know, there is a fair bit of action going on in Tasmania as far as communications go, but there would be a lot more if Telstra was partially privatised and it became more efficient.

Senator Newman —And we could buy shares.

Senator CALVERT —That is the other aspect that you do not hear about from the other side, of course. I remember very well Senator Burns—the former colleague of those opposite—when we were talking about it privately one day, saying, `I don't mind if they put them on the table. I would be the first one to queue up and get telecommunications shares because I reckon they would be a damn good investment, just like the Commonwealth Bank shares I bought were.' So there you go.

You would let us believe, try to make out and convince the Australian public that all these shares and this one-third, partial sale of Telstra are going to be sold to overseas interests. What a lot of codswallop! I will bet that if this comes about, you guys will line up and buy yourselves a few shares. You know that it is a great opportunity for the ordinary Australian to be able to be part of a national company. At the present time it is owned by the government. I will tell you what: the previous government had not done a great job, either.

Senator Carr —Look at all the millionaires on the front bench.

Senator CALVERT —That does not bear responding to. That is just politics of envy, just because some people can make a quid.

Senator Carr —Look at all the millionaires on the front bench supported by the taxpayers.

Senator CALVERT —What a joke! Anyway, on a national level this bill is going to provide an increase in our public sector savings by giving an opportunity to the government to clear $7 billion of public debt and at the same time remove an annual interest bill of around $660 million. In the last few days we have seen what a difference it makes when you start reducing your debt and come out with a debt reduction budget.

We have the lowest interest rates this country has seen for 20 years—the sorts of things that help the so-called battlers you are supposed to be representing out there. They know what is going on, and they proved that at the Lindsay by-election. They are not going to be hoodwinked by the stuff you guys have been saying around the place during the conduct of this Telstra debate.

We all know that by retaining two-thirds of Telstra in public ownership the government will also be retaining its access to two-thirds of the Telstra dividends. That was the subject of another lie that has been promoted by the opposition. We know that by retaining two-thirds of the Telstra dividend the government has structured the Telstra privatisation to provide the best of both worlds for both the Australian public and Telstra.

When you listen to the opposition senators, you would be tempted to think that they had some experience in telecommunications management, but the fact is they do not. The person who has the experience in telecommunications management, in this country anyway, is the Telstra Chief Executive Officer, Mr Frank Blount. I do not hear you saying too much about his qualifications, but he is the Telstra chief executive. He has the experience. He is the one responsible for the very good profit result they had this year. It is his skills that have brought that about.

Again, we have this ironic situation where the experts on the other side of this chamber are claiming that the public ownership of one-third of Telstra will provide no benefits and at the same time the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation is welcoming the opportunity to participate in the positive changes which this bill will provide. In other words, you are saying that if we sell Telstra we will not be so well off. The guy who has turned Telstra into a money making machine is saying that selling a third of it will make it a lot better. He is welcoming what we are trying to do. You experts over there know better. You would rather sit there and poke fun at people on this side of the chamber who over their lives have worked hard and made a few dollars.

We also know that, as part of the scare campaign during the election, a call was often made by the then government that we should keep Telstra in Australian ownership. Al though this campaign was totally dishonest, it did cause a lot of concern, particularly amongst the elderly. I received many calls during the election campaign from people who had been misled on this matter. I just want to reaffirm to those people who did contact my office over a long period of time that this bill does not take away the Australian ownership of Telstra.

I repeat—and it has been repeated in this place by people on our side time and time again, but just in case somebody has missed it—that under the bill the Australian government and, just as importantly, the mum and dad investors who choose to put their savings in Telstra by becoming shareholders will control 88.3 per cent of Telstra, foreign ownership will be kept to a minimum of 11.7 per cent and individual foreign holdings can be no more than 1.7 per cent. This government is about ensuring not only that the ownership of Telstra remains in Australian hands but also that Telstra's chairmen and the majority of its directors are Australian citizens.

Like many of my fellow government senators, I viewed the investigation into this bill by the Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee with grave concern. It is evident from the examination of the evidence that the opposition and Democrat senators participated in that hearing with closed minds. For instance, we know that before the committee even sat the Leader of the Australian Democrats (Senator Kernot) said they were going to oppose it. The opposition was of the same view. What was the point of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on tripping around the country supposedly taking evidence?

From what I could see in this particular report, they were not prepared to consider the overwhelming majority of evidence that was placed before the committee. It is evident that the process commenced from the start when the opposition and Democrat senators combined to refer the bill to this particular committee because they knew they had the numbers to control it. You, Mr Acting Deputy President, know that in the same position we would not have done anything like that. When we were in opposition and had the numbers on the references committee, we were not responsible for doing anything like this to promote opposition to matters that were of such importance to the people of Australia.

Like many who have read the submissions, I came to the conclusion that many of the submissions and views that were put to the committee—and I did view some of the work when it was going on in Hobart—were in no way related to the issue of public ownership of one-third of Telstra. Even you, Senator Carr, would have to admit that.

Senator Carr —What wasn't?

Senator CALVERT —Matters such as cabling, mobile phone towers and mobile phones may be of concern to a lot of people in the community, but that is a separate issue. They are in no way related to this bill. As a result, the conclusions of the majority report on this bill should be viewed with the credibility they deserve—that is, it was simply and purely a political exercise for those involved.

Senator Knowles —They'd already made up their minds before they started the hearings.

Senator CALVERT —I just said that, Senator Knowles. It is a fact. It has been interesting to listen to those senators opposite not because of the information they have put before the Senate but rather because of the information which they failed to put before the Senate. I refer to the evidence before the committee relating to the ownership of the telecommunications carriers around the world.

That evidence showed that in Europe the overwhelming majority of national carriers are either privatised or about to be privatised. It showed that the major Latin American telecommunications carriers have been privatised. In the Asia-Pacific region, the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand have privatised or partially privatised their telecommunications carrier. I suppose you are going to turn around and say, `They're not as advanced as we are.' I have news for you, Senator Carr: you only have to go there and have a look at what they are doing.

Senator Carr —Which one was that—Chile?

Senator CALVERT —I already pointed them out—Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand. It also indicated that a World Bank study showed that the benefits to British consumers following the sale of British Telecom amounted to over £4,000 million, whilst in New Zealand deregulation and privatisation led to benefits through price reductions passed on to consumers of $NZ575 million per year—not an insignificant amount.

These are the facts that the opposition will not mention and cannot mention because they know that they highlight the lack of substance in their arguments. A move to partially privatise Telstra will also have a significant effect on the performance of our national telecommunications carrier. Again, evidence before the committee showed that Telstra has around 135 access lines per employee whereas the two privatised carriers, such as British Telecom and Telecommunications Corporation of New Zealand, are both much more efficient at around 200 lines per employee.

On its own admission, Telstra has indicated that it is 25 per cent below world's best practice and if it does not manage to keep up with its competitors that would rise to as much as 40 per cent. A gain of 30 per cent in efficiency would deliver savings of around $1.6 billion to the Australian economy.

There is no doubt that the partial privatisation of Telstra will bring real benefits to customers, particularly in the rural areas, while reducing the government's exposure to increasingly risky industry. It will ensure that Telstra becomes more efficient which will, as a result, improve the quality and reduce the cost of telecommunications services around Australia.

There is one final point that I want to make again and I believe it is a critical element in this debate. During the last election, there was no more widely debated issue than the aspect of the partial privatisation of Telstra. There could hardly have been a voter in Australia who did not go to the polling booth in March, this year, who did not watch the television commercial, for a start, who would not be aware of the differences in the position of the then Labor government and the coalition on this issue. The electors of Australia made their choice; they provided a huge mandate for this government to carry out its election promises. There is no mandate and no justification for these Opposition senators and the Democrats and the Greens to participate in a process of frustrating the government reform agenda.

The people of Australia have made their choice. They realise the benefits which will flow from the partial privatisation of Telstra. Those within Telstra recognise the benefits and the only ones who do not seem to are the political opportunists opposite. As the Prime Minister said, for goodness sake get out of the way and let us get on with what we are trying to do for Australia. This bill will shape the future of our telecommunications industry in the next decade and provide Australian consumers with the sorts of benefits which those overseas have enjoyed for many years.