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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 80

Senator CONROY (2:23 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Is the minister aware that the parents of Queensland senator-elect Mr Joyce, who live in Danglemah in northern New South Wales, have been reported as having had problems with their Telstra phone service and that their phone was on the blink for three weeks? Can the minister confirm that prior to the election the Joyces were told by Telstra that they had obviously knocked the phone off the hook and that these rural Australians had to climb a nearby hill to call their family by mobile phone to let them know that they were okay? Why then is it that miraculously, during the election campaign, the service problems disappeared once Telstra realised that the Joyces were no ordinary family in the bush but the parents of a National Party Senate candidate? The service was restored and Telstra are now ringing up to ask if everything is up to scratch at Danglemah. Minister, do you have to be elected to the Senate to get a reliable Telstra phone service in rural Australia?

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator, that was a very long question and it was out of time.

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I do not comment on individual cases to do with Telstra. The government does not run Telstra, but what I can tell Senator Conroy and the Senate is that the arrangements under the consumer service guarantee ensure that any individual's phone is repaired within a time frame or else there is compensation. The rave that Senator Conroy went on with in his question and the assumptions built into it are certainly not something that I think I should be dealing with in question time.

But there is an issue to do with rural and regional services. Mr Estens has identified what is needed with respect to rural and regional services. All of those recommendations are in the course of being implemented. The arrangements that the government has put in place will deliver first-class telecommunications in this country, quite contrary to Labor's telecommunications policy. Look at what Labor did with regional services. I think most Australians agree that Labor's telecommunications record in government was absolutely appalling to non-existent, particularly with respect to regional services, and their policy released in the election provided absolutely no reason to come to a different view about their grasp of what is needed in rural and regional Australia.

Labor in opposition continues to ignore the telecommunications needs of Australians, particularly rural and regional Australians, by opposing the Howard government's funding programs designed to improve telecommunications in regional Australia. Labor opposed, in typical fashion, the $1 billion social bonus, funded from the second partial sale of Telstra—which, I might add, included $670 million worth of communications and information technology initiatives, primarily in regional Australia.

Labor also promised to scrap the $250 million Networking the Nation program. In very sharp contrast, the government has displayed ongoing commitment to improving services in regional Australia, most recently in the $181 million committed to the regional telecommunications inquiry recommendations. One of the areas that the government has paid particular attention to is phone coverage—in particular, mobile phone coverage—with more than $130 million in government funding. Mobile phone coverage has been extended to 98 per cent of the population, and a satellite phone subsidy scheme has been introduced for people who live and work outside terrestrial coverage areas. All Australians can rely on the customer service guarantee and on the fact that this government will continue to make sure that services in rural and regional Australia meet the needs of Australians.

Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. When did the minister first learn of the telecommunications problems being experienced by this Danglemah couple? Who informed her? What action did the minister require Telstra to take in this case? Can the minister draw to the attention of the Prime Minister the Joyces' problems with their services so that he can assess his `up to scratch' comment? Who took up the case of this Danglemah customer, and why does everyone else in the bush just get left dangling at the end of a non-operational Telstra line?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Once again, Senator Conroy has so many assumptions built into that question that it is impossible to disentangle what is a legitimate question from one that is a series of assumptions. All customers are entitled to the arrangements and the provisions of the customer service guarantee. They are a range of consumer safeguards that this government has built and that this government will maintain. That is totally in contradiction to Labor's consumer safeguards, which were simply non-existent during 13 years in government and which would have been non-existent had they ever come back into government. That is probably the reason why Australians did not think that Labor's telecommunications policy was any reason to vote for them.