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Sale of Telstra

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 13 Sep 2005

The Australian Greens do not support the privatisation of Telstra. We believe that it should remain in public hands. Telstra is an important public institution that should play an increasingly vital role in the daily lives of many ordinary Australians. Just as we have relied on Telstra in the past, we are going to need it much more into the future as telecommunications become an even greater part of our lives.

Telecommunications are now fundamental to the way in which we access other government services and information, which makes it even more essential that all Australians should have equal access to a reliable and accessible telecommunications system.

The Australian Greens believe that the government plays an important role in providing the foundation of an equitable, humane and diverse society. We believe privatisation can put at risk the equitable and sustainable provision of services. In this context, there are some services which should be undertaken by public sector agencies because of their community services obligations and the essential nature of the service.

When we talk about the role of Telstra in delivering services to those living in our rural and remote communities and to all Australians, we need to look at the bigger picture. The government has a responsibility to deliver a broad range of services to Australia that go well beyond the telecommunications infrastructure. It has a responsibility to provide services in areas such as health and the education of its citizens. It has a responsibility to look after their security and their safety.

I put it to you that, in the modern age, the delivery of these services relies increasingly heavily on access to telecommunications infrastructure and without a reliable telecommunications network-without phone lines and mobile phone networks in rural areas, and without the provision of public phones in remote communities and metropolitan areas-the delivery of these services will become increasingly difficult, the cost of trying to deliver these services will become increasingly expensive and the cost and the consequences of not delivering these services could become horrendous.

Let us look at a few examples. From the point of view of a private company whose business is providing phones and phone lines, the provision of public call boxes within metropolitan areas-let alone to remote Aboriginal communities-is not an economic proposition. The amount of revenue coming in hardly makes the provision of a public phone worthwhile, let alone its replacement if it is damaged. From a similar point of view, providing mobile coverage to regional areas with low-population densities is unlikely to be a money-spinner. As a business it makes sense to invest in areas where you can expect to get a reasonable rate of return, and mobile phone towers are expensive.

However, from the government's point of view, we have to consider what it will cost when those services are no longer there to help it deliver much needed health, education and safety services. Let us take the case of a medical emergency. It could be a farmer who gets caught up in heavy machinery, an Aboriginal mother on a remote community whose child is suddenly running a high fever or a traffic accident on a lonely rural road with no mobile phone coverage. Let us take another example, a natural example. Let us look at Alice Springs, where there are 18 town camps. I was told last week that only five of these town camps have public call boxes.

These phones are essential to deliver health services to these communities. They are essential, for example, for people needing dialysis who come in from outlying areas to the camps in Alice Springs in order to receive that dialysis. These phones are essential to deliver those sorts of services. In all of these cases, significant delays in the ability to access emergency medical services can result in much more severe consequences which dramatically impact on the health and well-being of those involved and lead to much greater costs to the community as preventable problems become serious disabilities requiring long-term care.

Let me remind the Senate that, in March this year, Telstra was ready to relinquish its commitment to the 24-hour Lifeline service, and only reversed this decision after a heavy community lobbying campaign. If our telecommunications are put into private hands we will no longer have the ability to demand that Telstra provide these sorts of essential services, when such activities are clearly not in the interests of increasing shareholder profits.

In these and other cases the government relies heavily on existing telecommunications infrastructure to help it to deliver other government services-services which have nothing to do in an economic sense with the business of providing telecommunications infrastructure but which now rely heavily on that infrastructure and become increasingly expensive when that infrastructure is not available. Think of the extent to which the provision of educational services in our schools and technical colleges has become increasingly dependent on the provision and sharing of resources across the net. Let us look at distance education. Many children in rural and remote areas are learning over the air and should increasingly be relying on the wonderful services of the internet and the world it can open up. These services revolutionise education in rural and remote areas. With government departments increasingly relying on telecommunications to deliver information and provide access to their services, how much is it going to cost them to deliver these services when they can no longer rely on the telecommunications infrastructure?

There has been much talk of late of future proofing the bush, through putting aside $3 billion to pay to fix the existing gaps in services and provide for future upgrades. The Australian Greens do not believe that putting a bucket of money aside is the way to ensure that rural and regional areas get adequate services. It remains to be seen how and where that money will be allocated and to what extent it will simply be gobbled up by Telstra with little in the way of outcomes to show for it. The Australian Greens believe that there should be a legislated commitment to meet the telecommunications needs of Australians wherever they live. We believe that these commitments should be the responsibility of the provider and that they should be funded by Telstra and its shareholders and not subsidised from the public purse-if it is privatised.

This bucket of money is a clear signal and an admission on the part of the government that a privatised Telstra cannot and will not deliver adequate services to remote and rural clients. What happens if the money is not enough? What is there then that will provide a guarantee of services to rural Australians? How do we know it is going to be enough for future requirements, to meet the ever-evolving telecommunications market? I believe that, once the money has gone, there will be nothing in place to ensure services to the bush. Once the money is spent-once it has been allocated-there will be no way to ensure that future advances in technology and services get rolled out beyond the profitable areas around our cities, our suburbs and along the coastal fringe.

The privatisation of Telstra will future proof the bush all right-once our telecommunications are wholly in private hands, there is no way that the future will get to the bush, there is no way that future services and technologies will get to rural areas, there is no way of guaranteeing in the future that the telco will maintain current services in unprofitable areas. The bush will have been future proofed all right, but not in the way that the future will ever get there.

We have already heard that the government has failed to deliver on its promise to provide a family impact statement on the sale of Telstra. I am concerned that not enough information has been provided on the full cost of privatisation. There has been no scrutiny of the claims that the private sector can provide these services more efficiently and effectively, and there is plenty of evidence that private ownership is unlikely to deliver a range of services and services to a range of areas where it is not likely to be profitable. We not only wish to see a family impact statement; we want to see more than that. We want to see proper triple bottom line accounting done on this proposal.

What are the social implications and costs of privatisation? Where have these implications and costs been taken into account? We believe that these social costs are substantial. We believe that a privatised Telstra will have massive unwanted and unwelcome social impacts that have not being taken into account. We believe that the cost to the taxpayer of trying to make up for the consequences of the loss of services will be huge, particularly in the areas of health and security. This is why 20 OECD countries have elected to maintain a mix of public and private ownership as the best way of striking a balance in the effective and efficient provision of essential services.

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