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Wednesday, 29 October 2003
Page: 17080


Senator MOORE (10:29 AM) —I rise today to have my go in the debate on the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003, the most recent bill in the saga of the government's ongoing attempt to sell Telstra. The debate on this issue has been going on for many years. The original bill was introduced by the government in 1996 and had the particularly interesting title of the Telstra (Dilution of Public Ownership) Bill. That was followed by the 1998 attempt, the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 1998, and now the 2003 version represents another attempt to make a transition to full private ownership. The bills have all asked the same questions. The question in this legislation has not been, `Should we sell Telstra?' but, `How and when should we sell Telstra?' The bill before us today sets out in quite some detail the process for the sale and, in not actually specifying a time, provides for the timing of the sale to remain open. The government:

... will be seeking to maximise the returns from the sale—

and—

... to develop detailed arrangements for the sale... through a number of tranches, or the use of other market instruments, such as hybrid securities ...

However, as is clear in this legislation and according to the government, the minister will decide how and when Telstra will be sold.

In the process of the review of the latest legislation, members of the most recent Senate committee heard detailed evidence from the Department of Finance and Administration and a couple of merchant banks with extensive experience in overseas sales about the implementation of the sale, how that wonderful instrument called hybrid securities operates and what benefits will come as a result of full privatisation, particularly with respect to the reduction of debt. What we do not have before us is a full cost-benefit analysis. We have been promised that there will be a full scope study which will tell us the full cost-benefit details, including what will be saved, what will not be saved and so on, but that will be done only after the legislation is passed. The how and the when are based on the fact of the sale, and details of the financial impacts and of exactly who will benefit in all the openness and flexibility will be known some time soon after we do what the government wants, which is agree to the full sale of Telstra.

This process is way too familiar in the ongoing debate about this issue. In acts 1 and 2 of 1996 and the second act of 1998, the government pursued their commitment to sell Telstra and did deals with various people—and we all know the public details of the deals that were made. The legislation passed through the parliament despite the full opposition of the ALP at every stage, and everybody on this side of the house who has spoken in this debate has made that very clear. After the deals were made and after the legislation was passed, the government were in this process somehow forced to acknowledge—and I think to an extent it was to their surprise—that the decision was just not popular, as Senator Boswell said earlier in this debate. The Australian community, despite the explanations about how and when it would be done, had not been convinced. I put it to everybody today that they remain unconvinced of why Telstra should be sold.

The government over the last seven years have been confronted by a community that want to know why. The response from the government was a core promise. It has been worded in a number of ways, but the promise made by the government to the people of Australia was, `We will not sell until the services to regional Australia are adequate.' That was the core promise made before all of us. That should not be such an overchallenging or expansive goal. `Adequate' is a fairly basic description and its meaning should be fairly clear to everyone. We still do not have an explanation of why, but we have a promise—a commitment—that should underpin the whole debate and provide an assurance that all of us can examine.

The government has examined the adequacy of service through at least two reviews and has allocated many millions of dollars to programs to address the service delivery problems in telecommunications. We have seen the benefit of that expenditure. There have been positive results in regional Australia: improved access to phone and mobile services and computer technology. The real value of this whole process has come through the active engagement of the community in the debate. Every time the issue of telecommunications is raised, there is a response. As a member of the Senate committee that recently conducted an inquiry on this, I was deeply impressed by the degree of knowledge and the quite detailed awareness of the system shown by so many people across the country. Telecommunications is an essential service. The real life experiences of people who rely on phones, faxes and the Internet for their livelihood, their education and, in many cases, their safety give us an opportunity to see analysis of the commitment to the adequacy of the service.

In its 2003 inquiry, the committee visited only one centre in my home state of Queensland—Nambour in the Sunshine Coast region—but we heard evidence from across the state. The final assessment of that evidence was that Telstra's services were not at this time adequate. While acknowledging that Queensland is a large and decentralised state—and I note that Senator Harris will be speaking in the debate soon—with particular geographic challenges, and noting that there have been improvements in services, the overwhelming response from Queenslanders, when asked about this matter, was that they had not been convinced of the reasons for the sale, had significant and documented issues with current levels of service, did not assess the current performance as adequate, had concerns about the future services and did not support the full sale, regardless of the description of the process in the current legislation as open and flexible.

Local surveys sponsored by some parliamentarians and political parties reflect strong opposition to the sale. While the figures do not reflect the reasons for the rejection—and no survey figures do—they do send a clear message to all of us. In terms of personal assessments of the adequacy of service, I have been contacted by local businesspeople—not people who necessarily live a long way out in the bush but people who live within 50 kilometres of the centre of Brisbane—who cannot run their businesses because they cannot get access to effective broadband services. They do not understand why. They have tried to communicate with Telstra. They have spoken with them and they have found out that they cannot get the service. Indeed, one of the most ironic things about this whole debate is that these people have found out that they are yet another group of victims of the now quite notorious pair gains system.

Senator Lundy has made this situation quite public. As a result of the Senate estimates process, the issue of pair gains and RIM technologies—things that some of us did not know much about until we went through the estimates process—is now quite public. The members of the community who are victims of these inadequacies of service can now understand why. They may not immediately be able to get the fast Internet services that they need to run their businesses and that they have been promised in quite extensive advertising campaigns, but they know the debate. When they are engaging with the various people—and one of the issues is that it is always `various people' within Telstra—they are able to debate and understand the reasons. In some ways that is a result of the whole process of the sale: again, the engagement of the community.

However, in the current debate about the full privatisation of Telstra, one of the specific issues is that a new private company would not be subject to the Senate estimates process. I fully believe that attending estimates is exciting for all of us and that people look forward to the opportunity to come to Senate estimates and exchange detailed information about how the process is working and how the business is developing. We have seen quite extensive debates about the performance of Telstra at a number of Senate inquiries. However, should the full sale go forward with the passage of this bill, that stimulation and that public exchange will no longer be part of the record, so we will not be able to find out through that process exactly how adequate services are.

In the process of looking into the circumstances of people living in regional Queensland—once again, through the process of the Senate inquiry dealing with how people were assessing the services themselves in relation to the core promise of the government—we heard of a family living 28 kilometres outside Mount Isa. Now we are moving into regional and far west Queensland. This family, like many of us, require access to the Internet and phone services to maintain their business; to allow their kids to study, because their kids use the distance education process of the Queensland government; and also to link to the wider networks that we have talked about. There have been many stories in this debate about how various e-services of the world are now accepted by most people. This family cannot access those things.

They only live 28 kilometres outside the quite significant centre of Mount Isa. However, where they live is not in the special area. They live in the `standard zone'—another definition that was made clear through the Senate estimates process. Because they live in the standard zone they are not able to access the special subsidies that allow people to have, at considerably reduced cost, the available satellite services. The satellite services do work for people who live in particular areas, but if you do not live in a particular area you do not get the subsidy and, flatly, the families to whom I was speaking cannot afford the technology without the subsidy. They have communicated with Telstra as well. They also communicated with Alan Jones. Unfortunately, this time a direct communication with Alan Jones did not result in a direct response from the government. It is a shame that that did not happen this time, but at least someone living in the centre of Sydney could hear about the problems people who live in the bush have in accessing basic Internet services.

One of the Queensland state members, Paul Lucas, gave evidence at the Nambour hearing. He relayed stories of people from across Queensland who engaged with him when he was talking with them specifically about telecommunications. Amongst the range of issues—Internet access, lack of mobile coverage, and real worry not just about services now but about what will happen in the future, because, like most people, people who live in regional Queensland worry about the future—there was a common claim that people across Queensland wanted services just like everyone else. It was nothing too great and it was nothing extraordinary; they wanted services just like everyone else.

We heard from the coordinator of St Luke's Nursing Service, who was concerned about their coverage area outside Roma. They have nurses on the road covering quite a large area—an area as big as Victoria—who cannot get mobile service on the highway, so they do not know if their nurses are able to get to and from locations quickly or if they have had a breakdown. That is something that we take for granted, but still in significant areas of regional Queensland you cannot get effective mobile coverage for the whole trip. Sometimes it is even more frustrating: you can get it for some of the trip and then it drops out. So there is an even greater concern. We are not just talking about the Flinders Highway now, which is in the far west; we are talking about key elements of the Pacific Highway between Brisbane and Maryborough, where you would think that you would be able to rely on your mobile phone. You cannot. Whilst the government say—and we acknowledge—that there have been considerable improvements, the service is as yet not adequate for the people who are using it.

We could go on for days with stories about the service delivery aspects of Telstra. It is something that we have heard about from a number of speakers. What I am interested in is how many stories must be heard before the assessment is made that services are not adequate. It is interesting to hear how many stories government speakers are telling us about where services are adequate. It would seem to me that, in an assessment of adequacy—if that is what the core promise is about with the sale of Telstra—we should be able to come up with an agreement. As long as there are community members who are not receiving their entitlement to telecommunications services, the services are not adequate.

Through two partial sales of Telstra the same issues have been raised. The government has responded with targeted assistance and in many cases it has worked. We acknowledge that. It came out through the Senate inquiries that people were very pleased with the responses that have been received so far but they are afraid. In fact, that came out a lot: absolute fear about the future, fear about whether there would continue to be the interest in people's adequacy of service should the stimulant of an intent to sell be taken away. The much-vaunted future proofing in this bill did not allay those fears. When we talked with people across the country the promises of future proofing were made clear to them by members of the committee. It did not wash. The people who were raising concerns were not convinced by the future proofing in this legislation.

Another group of people who have consistently raised concerns about any sale of Telstra have been the workers in the organisation and, even more particularly over the last seven years, the workers who used to work in the organisation. When we moved around the country and were introduced to a number of people from the new Telstra Country Wide, and we saw the large billboards proclaiming the better service and `your local people working for you from Telstra', it crossed my mind that perhaps we could have matching billboards about `these are the people who used to work for you in this community for Telstra' and list the names. In some cases the giant billboards would not have enough room on them for all the names. We have heard a great amount about the people who work in the organisation and about the large number of job losses. The committee report seemed to dismiss those concerns about the network as exaggerated or coming from some form of self-interest. In terms of the process, the people who work in the area know how the system operates, and there have been thousands of jobs lost all across Queensland. In every community where Telstra has some form of base there are a large number of ex-workers.

When we talked particularly about the provisions of this legislation, we found that key aspects of coverage of entitlements had been removed specifically from the workers—particularly entitlements to do with maternity leave, which was raised by the CPSU in their evidence to the committee. We asked Telstra about that. We asked for some guarantee. We were verbally assured that the workers' rights would be maintained. Once again, I put it to the Senate that this is not adequate. It is not an adequate response to the concerns raised about what would happen within this process.

The debate will continue and we know that there will be attempts to make deals. It does not matter how much rhetoric is put up. It does not matter how many stories are put up. If there is a deal to be made to push the legislation through, it will happen. We say that surely this is an opportunity to stop such deals. Surely the evidence from the community, which has pointed out that they do not want Telstra sold, should be enough for any representatives to say, `Hey, this may not be such a good idea.' In terms of the process, we do not think the core promise has been met. I would like to quote from a person who did not really want to come and give evidence to the committee—it was the first time she had done so—a lady from Noosaville who came to see us at the Nambour inquiry. When she gave her evidence to the committee we asked her how she felt about the sale. She said, `I'm a shareholder, but first I am a concerned Aussie. Please keep for our future generations the remaining 51 per cent of Telstra.' Her evidence, along with the rest of the evidence we heard, indicates that this sale should not be on.