Aug 20, 2003

Telstra (Transition to full private ownership) Bill 2003: Second Reading


20 August 2003

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12.09 p.m.) —I rise on behalf of my electorate to express total opposition to the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 2003. This is essentially an ideological debate. It is an ideological debate, however, which has real consequences for consumers of telecommunications services in my electorate of Grayndler in inner Sydney and, more importantly, for people living in regional and rural Australia. If you live in Marrickville, Leichhardt, Stanmore or Ashfield, chances are you are going to get the maximum opportunity to connect up with telecommunications services. You are going to have access, as I do, to cable TV, phone and Internet services. There are probably 20 Internet cafes in my electorate. You are going to have many things which you take for granted—but not all Australians have them. It really is a question of equity.

Telecommunications are particularly important, which is why they are mentioned in the Australian Constitution and why Telstra and its forerunners have been there. They were a part of us coming together as a nation some 103 years ago. Communication between individuals and groups is the basis of our society. The truth is that you cannot always have everyone in one place for verbal communication. In my lifetime, there has been an absolute revolution in what is possible in communication between individuals and groups. If when I was at school we had been told about the sort of access which school students now have to the Internet, with information readily available, we would have thought that was an exaggeration.

Even as a staff member in this place not that long ago—in the mid to late 1980s in the previous Parliament House—we were still operating on typewriters. I worked for Tom Uren when he was the Minister for Local Government and Administrative Services, and I remember well being quite excited when a new machine arrived in the electoral office in Granville. It was something called a fax machine and it was pretty good, except we had no-one to fax anything to because no-one else we knew had a fax machine. Nonetheless, over a period since then—and that would have been 1985 or 1986—there has been an extraordinary revolution, such that now a mobile phone can be used to send messages in, effectively, the way that a fax machine does. These phones can be used to send photos and, indeed, videos to communicate with someone across the other side of the world.

Communications, and control of and access to communications, are vital to an individual’s ability to participate in society. That is why the proposition by the government to fully privatise Telstra should be of such concern to all those concerned about social justice. Those opposite say that ownership does not matter and that what matters is delivery of services, as if there were no connection between the two things. We have seen from successive privatisations that if the government withdraws from the direct provision of services it loses the ability to engage in the market in a direct way. That not only influences those who are direct consumers of the publicly owned product but also influences those who access the competitors’ products in the private market.

In 1996, the Howard government were elected on the proposition of a partial privatisation of Telstra. In 1998, they said they wanted more of Telstra to be privatised but, because they understood that the Australian people understood the need to maintain majority public ownership, they stressed that 49.9 per cent would be where the privatisation stopped. That was the commitment they gave then. Since then there have been a number of inquiries—the Besley inquiry, the Estens inquiry—set up by mates of the government to give recommendations that the government wanted. The Estens inquiry has come up with the recommendation that Telstra must maintain an ongoing presence in regional, rural and remote Australia. Big deal! The question is not a matter of an ongoing presence; the question is one of equal access to services. The Australian people know that, once Telstra is a fully privatised corporation, then the directors of that corporation have a fiduciary responsibility under the law to maximise the benefits for the shareholders of that company—to maximise profits, not to serve consumers. A fully privatised company will have the maximisation of profits as its core function and reason for being.

The previous speaker, the member for Parkes, raised the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank. I think it was a mistake of the Australian Labor Party to sell the Commonwealth Bank. I did not support it at the time because I thought that, once you moved the public competitor from the financial system, you would end up with less concern about the end product and about consumers. Indeed, what we have seen in the finance sector are rampant profits, extraordinarily obscene payouts to the top corporate executives of banks and other financial institutions and hikes in charges with no ability of a public competitor to actually say, `No, we’ll offer a service that is in the public interest.’

More recently, the privatisation of Sydney airport—a topic close to my heart and one which my constituents are reminded of every 50 seconds—shows what happens with the ideology of privatisation. Max Moore-Wilton, as the CEO of Sydney Airport Corporation, has a direct responsibility to maximise the profits of that corporation and to put as many planes through in as short a time as possible. The interests of the people who happen to live under the flight path are not his concern and not the corporation’s concern. The government have a responsibility to make it their concern, and they do not seem to care either. A privatised entity has a different charter for being than one which has majority public ownership.

That is why there is such extraordinary opposition right across this nation to the privatisation of Telstra, because people know what the result of that privatisation will be. There will be fewer services and there will be a concentration on the more profitable areas of the market. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and perhaps even Canberra will be where the concentration of services will go, which is where the profits will go, which is where the dividends to shareholders will derive from. They will not derive from providing telecommunications services in electorates such as those of the member for Parkes and the member for Dawson. We have had an extraordinary lack of courage from the National Party on this issue. The National Party may as well just fold up and fold itself into the Liberal Party of Australia if it cannot stand up on an issue such as this. You have actually got one Liberal, Alby Shultz, making the courageous statement that if some 90 per cent of his electorate, or more, oppose the privatisation of Telstra in a survey he has conducted in the electorate of Hume, he is going to abstain. I have got a message for the member for Hume: if you do a survey like that and ask your electorate, they do not want you to abstain; they want you to vote against this bill—just as the member for Dawson’s voters want her to vote against this bill.

This bill is simply ideologically driven; the money gained from the sale of Telstra will be used up, never to return again. The egg will not be able to be unscrambled. Once that occurs then the ability of the government to have a real say in determining access to telecommunications services will be lost forever. That is why the Labor Party is absolutely committed to voting against this bill in the House of Representatives and the Senate. I very much look forward to fighting a federal election campaign on an issue such as this because it is fundamental. The people of Australia have had enough of privatisation for privatisation’s sake. They have had enough of governments thinking that markets, when left alone, will deliver services in an equitable manner. They know that the government’s responsibility is to intervene, both directly and through regulation, to ensure that all Australians have access to these services.