Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Questions without Notice
My question is addressed to Senator Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Does the minister recall Senator Joyce’s demands one year ago that the government strengthen Telstra’s universal service obligation as a condition of his support for the sale of Telstra? Is the minister aware that, despite these demands, Telstra now plans to slash at least 39 payphones, more than 10 per cent of the total, in the Maranoa electorate? Is the minister also aware that these cuts include the removal of a number of payphones in Senator Joyce’s home town of St George? Doesn’t this make it clear that the minister’s earlier commitment to Senator Joyce about maintaining services in the bush was nothing more than a hollow public relations exercise?
I thank Senator Ludwig for the question, because it is gives me the opportunity to disabuse him of the basis upon which he puts that question. I have seen some media reports on Telstra’s payphone reduction program today, and there is absolutely nothing new in them. We had a whole session on payphones recently. Telstra’s plans to remove up to 5,000 payphones were first revealed earlier this year, not recently, and Telstra is about one-quarter of the way through its program. It has become apparent that, in most cases, the removals are where there are already multiple payphones at one site. It is important to note that there are more than 60,000 payphones in Australia and, given the significant growth of mobile phone use, it is not surprising that the use of some of the payphones has dropped.
However, payphones continue to be an important community service for many people—I am sure Senator Joyce would agree with that; I agree with that—and that is why the government regulates Telstra to ensure that payphones are reasonably accessible to everyone in Australia. Telstra cannot just remove payphones from where they feel like doing so. There are at least 7,500 unprofitable payphones in Australia that Telstra cannot remove because of the universal service obligation, which I am sure Senator Ludwig would be very pleased to be aware of. On top of this, there are tens of thousands of profitable payphones that remain in operation. Obviously, there are surplus payphones in some areas of Australia that are not necessary for Telstra to meet its community service obligations, especially where multiple payphones are on one site.
Senator Ludwig is completely wrong when he suggests that the universal service obligation is not being met. It is abundantly clear that phones that come within the categorisation of universal service payphones cannot be removed because of the regulation. As you would be aware, Mr President, the government does not have to own Telstra to regulate it. We certainly do not have to own Telstra to ensure that the universal service obligation is maintained. The government will not allow Telstra to leave communities stranded without payphones and Telstra cannot do this under the current regulation, so we are committed to maintaining the universal obligation and it will not be watered down.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister agree with Senator Joyce’s comments that, ‘We cannot let Telstra off the leash, and they’re starting to get off the leash a bit at the moment and we’ve got to bring them back into line’? Why is the minister allowing Telstra to slash 25,000 payphones around the country, including two in Senator Joyce’s home town and in places like Thallon, Jericho, Winton, Blackall, Longreach, Warwick and Tara? Why has the minister completely ignored Senator Joyce’s demands for the government to put Telstra back on its leash?
I might ask Senator Ludwig rhetorically too why he is guilty of tedious repetition, asking a supplementary that adds absolutely nothing to the previous question. One of the least endearing features of the ALP is the habit they have got into of having a knee-jerk reaction without any idea of a solution. It is opportunism at its worst. They are running around hyperventilating about problems that do not exist when they do not have the vaguest idea of what they are trying to address. This government will not step back from looking after consumers. We will stand up for consumers, whether they be in rural and regional Australia or in other areas. We will ensure that telecommunications services are available to Australians irrespective of where they live.