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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 127

Senator HEFFERNAN (5:52 PM) —I would like to address that part of Senator Conroy's motion that `calls on the Government to keep Telstra in majority public ownership to ensure reliable telecommunications services for all Australians'. What a load of rubbish! Who owns Telstra has got nothing to do with the service. It is about how well it is run and how well it is managed. To demonstrate that, I would like to point out to the Senate that in 1968 the Postmaster General's Department had 101,919 employees. In 1968, when they had 101,919 employees, I applied at Booligal for the phone. In those days, if you lived within the 10-mile radius of the exchange, you got the phone on for free. I qualified under the law at the time to get the phone on for free. As I say, the PMG was wholly government owned and there were 101,919 employees. So I applied and after a year or two I started to get invitations to the regional PMG Christmas Party at Narrandera because I became a curiosity because I had this outstanding phone application that was not fulfilled. In the meantime I installed an HF radio and I could talk to those in Darwin or in the Tanami Desert, as well as those at home in Junee. Then—you wouldn't want to know—having applied for the phone, Senator O'Brien, in 1968 under the PMG, in 1985, when there were 95,195 employees in Telecom Australia, I got the bloody phone on. Just for the record, in 1985 I also got the power on, so I did not have to go out and crank the old Lister motor for the power. It took 18 years in government ownership with 100,000 employees for me to get the phone on. So do not tell me it has got anything to do with who owns the damn thing; it is how well it is run.

You will be pleased to know that services are a lot better. Everything can be improved; the bush is a lot better than it was. Out there, where it took me 18 years to get the phone on, we are now on the Net, so we are up there. But you will be saddened to know that we have got no chance of a tar road. We are 60 miles from the tar. We are never going to get a tar road. If you live in remote enough areas, you are not going to get Pitt Street or Collins Street or whatever street services; you cannot expect to. We do not expect to have a McDonald's down the road from where we live, but we do expect good services. It is fair to say that the Country Wide division of Telstra understand this. Country Wide are approachable. In my area they have a regional office. Hello to the boys in the regional office of Country Wide in Albury—because you can ring them up. Things go wrong. It is like the nursing homes: someone is always in trouble. Things go wrong with telephones. There are some problems, and I have never heard such political rubbish in all my life as I have heard in the debate today. I have to say that, unlike all the other speakers in this debate, I actually come from the back country and I live this stuff. That is why you will not put it over me, Senator O'Brien, as you know.

Senator O'Brien —I don't have to put it over you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —One of the problems we now have in the bush that will have to be fixed and addressed—and most Australians in the bush are worried that they will not be able to afford to have the damn phone on—is boundary access. Under the old regime, when there were the 101,000 employees in 1968, they brought the phone to the side of your house in the bush. You may or may not be aware of this. At the moment they have to bring it to your boundary. But what if the boundary is 10 miles from the house? It becomes a very expensive operation. This is an issue that I have raised with the government, and I am sure the government is going to address it. I have spoken today to the minister. This debate is not about, despite what the motion says, maintaining good services because of ownership. It is about what are the rules, regulations and management that you put around it. There is a Wagga boy in charge of Qantas. Qantas is a wonderful organisation. Mr Dixon is a Wagga boy. David Murray is at the Commonwealth Bank. It is a great organisation. It is well run. It is about the regulations and rules you put around it. It has got nothing to do with who owns it. As all the speakers have said, when did the price of telephone calls start to come down? When they introduced competition.

Yesterday in my office David Lidiard and some other people and Michael McLeod and Doug Russell came along from Message Stick. They want to become an Aboriginal provider, and I am going to give them some encouragement and help. That is another arm of competition. They want to get out into remote Aboriginal communities.

Senator O'Brien —Think about it. Think about what Telstra should do.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, all of that, but this is all about competition. I know it is all about providing a service. Once again, it will be the service that they can provide. It will not be who owns the thing that the subscriber will worry about.

Senator O'Brien —Whose network?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not want to go into that. I am not here advertising for them. I am merely pointing out the fact there are people wanting to provide competition in the market. I think this has been a false debate. It really needs to be about what are the requirements: how we can improve the customer service guarantee and how we can improve the universal service obligation. The fear of the people that live in the areas that I come from is that you will not be able to afford the service. I have had this experience. It can cost $10,000 just to trench the line from the boundary to bring the line into your house. In those days it cost a lot of money just to put the power on. If we want people to be out there in rural, regional and remote Australia, we have got to look after them, but looking after them has got nothing to do with who owns the show.

As you would know, Senator O'Brien, good corporate structures are about responsibility. You have got to balance your profitability against your reinvestment. That is what has gone wrong with Sydney Water, and that is what is wrong with Sydney Water now. The government has carved off Sydney Water and some of the investment that they had that should have gone back into refurbishment and rebuilding the system went into consolidated revenue. Sydney Water is a complete catastrophe now and Sydney's water system is under siege.

Senator O'Brien —Tell us about AWB.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am nearly out of time.

Senator O'Brien —Tell us about AWB.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I can tell you about AWB or anything else you like. As you know, I am happy to stand up in our committee and say what I think the issues are. The issues today are not who owns Telstra but how well it is managed, what regulations and requirements you put around it and what service you can provide.

Debate interrupted.