Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Coonan) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludwig today relating to Telstra and payphones.
The minister failed to convince me but clearly failed to convince Senator Joyce. What we now have is Senator Joyce who has been conned, mugged and done over by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in relation to the Telstra payphones. You now have a complete list from Maranoa which tells us the sorry tale that Senator Joyce has allowed to occur. He has not only been conned by his minister; he is going to con the people out there who need these phones and who use them.
What Telstra says—clearly he and the minister must both now believe this—is that not only has the demand for payphones dropped but everyone has a mobile phone to deal with their telecommunication needs and we do not need payphones any more: we do not need payphones in the bush to be able to service requirements; we do not need them in places from Roma to Mitchell to Wallumbilla. Two payphones in St George are gone—one near the church; you might know that one, Senator Joyce, and one near the showground, where people might obviously require a phone. Of course, there is Thallon—you might know that place near William Street, Senator Joyce—there is Barcaldine, where two have gone; there is Jericho; and a swag have gone from Charleville. There is Augathella; the Augathella motel has lost its phone. Blackall has lost a swag. Then there is Longreach, Warwick, Tara—and so it goes on. Telstra has hung up on the bush and Senator Joyce has hung up on the bush. What we have is the minister, with Senator Joyce’s compliance, hanging up on the bush because the regulations are now no more than hot air. That is what they are.
We have allowed Telstra to remove 5,000 payphones and it is still planning to dump more when it gets privatised; I have no doubt about that. But Telstra, in the universal service obligation, is only required to maintain a third of its 32,000 phones, so the government has given the green light—Senator Joyce has also voted for that—to hang up on the most vulnerable in our community. We will end up with a situation where schoolchildren who do not have a mobile phone, people living in the bush who do not have a mobile phone and plenty of others—the elderly in the community—who will not be able to afford a mobile phone, who will then have been given a green light to say, ‘I don’t have any telecommunication needs at all.’ We warned Senator Joyce and we warned the minister—
Senator Ludwig, resume your seat. Senator Joyce and Senator Sterle, it is disorderly to exchange disrespect across the chamber. That is what it sounds like to me from here. Desist from your comments across the chamber. Senator Joyce, if you want to be added to the list of speakers, I am sure you can organise it, as can Senator Sterle.
Clearly what the minister and Senator Joyce have signed up to is then going to rip the heart out of the bush with the removal of these payphones. What we are going to have is the minister and Senator Joyce hanging up on the bush—not only some nebulous bush but his own neighbourhood. You can imagine that payphones provide a lifeline to many people in Australian society but they also play a role in ensuring that those who cannot afford a mobile, or do not want a mobile, have the ability to access a payphone. That is another fundamental role which a telecommunications carrier such as Telstra should be able to provide to Australians.
Senator Joyce has made sure, by signing up to Senator Coonan’s Telstra plan, that we will not have the universal service obligation as good as it should be. To be fair to Senator Joyce, he was probably either sucked in by the persuasiveness of Senator Coonan or, in fact, mugged by her—one or the other. That is his choice in this. I think that, if he had known the truth, he would not have hung up on the bush. If he had been able to say, ‘This is going to be the result where we get lists out of Maranoa and not only Maranoa but places like Rockhampton—(Time expired)
Senator Ludwig is misleading the Senate when he says that Telstra has cut services to country people in need of payphones in particular and also that the agreement which Senator Joyce and others reached with the government over the sale of Telstra, which in fact has improved telephone services to regional areas, has been abrogated. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the services to country areas have been greatly improved since the agreement was reached to sell Telstra. In particular, the need for payphones to be retained in regional areas has been recognised and Telstra will be maintaining payphone services where needed in country areas because Telstra is required to provide a payphone service under the universal service obligation which—as I am sure Senator Ludwig knows—means that Telstra has to maintain a certain minimum standard of phone services in regional areas. In fact, there are something like 60,000 payphones in Australia. While some payphones have been removed because they were unprofitable or because there were several payphones in the one area, nevertheless, where needed, payphones have been retained in regional Australia. Payphones continue to be recognised by the government as an important community service for many people and that is why the government requires Telstra to ensure that payphones are reasonably accessible to everyone in Australia and, in particular, to people living in regional areas.
Senator Ludwig, as I said, is doing no more than getting up to the ALP’s old trick of claiming that, with the sale of Telstra, services to people in regional areas will be diminished. Nothing could be further from the truth because we have the universal service obligation, which requires that a certain basic telephone service be available to people throughout this country. In addition, we now have other telecommunications companies coming into regional areas offering services. So, in fact, the services to people in regional areas are being not only maintained but also enhanced through competition.
In June this year, the government increased Telstra’s obligations in relation to the removal of payphones. The government also increased the responsibilities of the regulator, ACMA, in monitoring Telstra’s obligations in that regard. For Senator Ludwig’s information, Telstra is now required to undertake stricter consultation processes, identify all of its universal service obligation payphones in regional and rural areas and rewrite its universal service obligation standard marketing plan for payphones. Considerable progress has been made with these initiatives, which will, as I have said, ensure that payphones are maintained where needed in regional areas. Telstra has also engaged its low-income measures assessment committee to agree on new arrangements for payphone consultation processes and complaints mechanisms. Through the enhancement of the USO process, communities can now feel assured that they can not only identify where USO payphones are located but also feel confident that they will be adequately consulted if there is a proposal to remove or relocate a payphone. While Senator Ludwig is a great proponent of the ALP’s position that the government will reduce services to rural Australia, I can say that that is not the case and reassure those people throughout rural Australia who are listening to this broadcast that Senator Ludwig is wrong and that the government will maintain and enhance the telecommunications services provided to people of regional Australia.
I would also like to make some comments about the answers from the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts relating to payphones. I think that if those people who are listening to this broadcast heard Senator Eggleston’s contribution they might possibly be reassured—until they heard what is really happening. Where Senator Eggleston reassured people that, under the universal service obligation, Telstra is required to take into account the response of parliamentarians, community groups and individual members of the public, we have heard quite clearly from the community of Dysart. The mayor of Dysart, Cedric Marshall, said yesterday, as quoted in today’s Courier Mail, that Dysart would be left with insufficient payphones. That is a small community that is losing six payphones. Councillor Marshall also said:
We wrote to Telstra to make the point that we did not want them taken out of Dysart.
But that had no effect. I think that, while Senator Eggleston is being a bit disingenuous about the rhetoric of consultation, we know that that is not really what is going on and that there are communities that are losing their telephones for no good reason other than the important reason that was quoted to me in a letter from Mr Ian Peters, the Area General Manager Capital South East Region of Telstra Country Wide, when he said:
The cost of operating a payphone has continued to rise, resulting in over 50 per cent of Telstra’s payphones now losing money at a cost of approximately $30 million a year to our shareholders.
This is really about keeping Telstra shareholders happy so that we can maintain a high price for the T3 shares, and just abandoning the concerns of country people.
I live in a rural community and travel around regional New South Wales, and in the last six months I have discovered—and I am sure that there are others who would support this observation—that not only are things pretty difficult with Telstra and Telstra coverage but my mobile coverage in rural New South Wales is getting worse and worse. That is obviously a concern for people like Senator Nash, as well, because today she has lodged a petition from 441 petitioners asking for the Senate to take action to ensure that necessary funding is provided for the construction and erection of a mobile telephone reception tower in the district of Gooloogong in New South Wales.
It is not easy to look after regional electorates. It is certainly not easy to maintain a business if you are living in a regional community and it certainly does not help when every part of the telecommunications system seems to be under attack. The idea that there is some kind of potential for competition in regional communities—small communities, where there is a very thin telecommunications market—really does not stack up in the longer term. We know that payphones are an important part of the cultural life and cultural infrastructure of small communities, and we understand and acknowledge that Telstra’s plan to slash 5,000 of its 32,000 payphones in country towns and cities over the next seven months will have a dramatic effect on the lives of families continuing to struggle under this government.
An example is Jindabyne. Jindabyne is in an extraordinary situation. There is a massive influx of visitors and tourists during the ski season and there is a very real need for additional telephone services. They are being severely hit in this raft of cuts by Telstra. That is the kind of community that will see a significant impact from this really short-sighted policy. I suggest we need to look very clearly at Telstra’s obligations under the universal service obligation to ensure that payphones are maintained where they are required.
One thing we can say about Senator Ludwig is that he certainly cannot be accused of pedantry, because he was not displaying any signs of learning in that speech. In fact, it was a most inaniloquent speech.
It is very interesting that the person who would probably know most about payphones in St George, Senator Joyce, just advised me that the very process that this government put in place is working there, because the consultation that they required Telstra to undertake actually took place. The consultation was with the mayor. Senator Joyce has not had one complaint about those payphones. They were not profitable. Consultation took place with the community and they were removed.
That is exactly what we have forced ACMA and Telstra to do: make sure that when those payphones are removed it is done in consultation with the community. That is the way the system works. But what amuses me most about the Australian Labor Party is that they now have another shadow minister. Poor old Senator Conroy—my friend Senator Conroy—is now the shadow shadow shadow minister, because Senator Ludwig is now getting involved in communication matters.
Why doesn’t the Labor Party give Senator Conroy a go? On this side of the chamber we think it is about time he was allowed to fulfil his position as a shadow minister. Everyone else is jumping over the top of him—Mr Tanner and Senator Ludwig. They are all having a crack at it and it is about time that he was allowed to do his job.
There are 60,000 payphones in Australia, as Senator Eggleston said. I was trying to think of the number of unprofitable payphones but I was suffering from a bit of lethologica. I think there are 7,500 payphones which cannot be removed because of the universal service obligation. But this government has made absolutely sure, when discussing any of these matters in relation to communications, that it talks to the people who are affected.
Is Senator Ludwig really saying to us that he does not think that consultation should take place? Is he saying that consultation should not take place? There was a bit of echolalia there, I will admit. Is the Australian Labor Party going to put these payphones back? Senator Ludwig, through you Deputy President, are you going to put them back? Let the record show that Senator Ludwig had his head down reading from his papers and refused to answer my question: are you going to put the payphones back? Clearly not, because Senator Ludwig has his head buried in his papers and refuses to answer the question. Is the Australian Labor Party going to change this policy by putting them back? No.
The only way you could possibly change this is to take away the community consultation. Is that what the Australian Labor Party intends doing? Is that what we are going to get? Clearly, that is the situation.
If you look at the record of this government in relation to our commitment to regional and rural Australia, it is second to none. The Minister for Finance and Administration is at the table and he knows—he is even more acutely aware than the rest of us—the extraordinary amount of government funding, taxpayer funds, that have gone into regional and rural telecommunications.
For 13 years under the previous government nothing was done. We had the analog debacle. If you look at what has been said by the Australian Labor Party over the two years since the last election, you will see that they are still totally devoid of a communications policy. There is absolutely nothing. The only thing that we have got from the Australian Labor Party that is expansive in relation to this is the fact they have so many shadow ministers. (Time expired)
I had the opportunity to receive a document from my colleague Senator Sterle here, and it was an excerpt from an article written by Matt Price. This is a description of what you might think would be a Queensland National Party MP:
… a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma swallowed by a joke covered in bananas sprinkled with peanuts dipped in ethanol.
It is unfair, because that does not describe a current Queensland National MP; it describes a former Queensland National MP, Bob Katter—but it could well describe most of them. I wanted to take note of Senator Coonan’s answer, because this afternoon Senator Ludwig asked a direct question of the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in which he clearly mentioned Senator Barnaby Joyce. Where is Barnaby at the moment?
Senator Joyce. Where is he? He had an opportunity to respond to the allegations made in question time about him. He had plenty of opportunity. You heard him raving over there, Mr Deputy President. You heard him getting worked up over there. He was accused of being a windbag by some on our side. He was accused of being Lord Haw-Haw by some on our side. Where is he? Where is Senator Joyce? Where is Windy? He is not down here to defend himself.
All I am referring to is the fact that there were interjections made about Senator Joyce this afternoon where he was called ‘Windbag’, where he was called ‘Windy’ and where he was called ‘Lord Haw-Haw’. These were all interjections made across the chamber to Senator Joyce. You saw him—he was getting a bit excited. But where is he this afternoon to defend himself? Where is he to defend the constituents of Maranoa? Mr Bruce Scott, the member for Maranoa, proudly states that he has nearly one-half of Queensland as his electorate—yet, under the proposals that Telstra is putting forward, 39 of those payphones are going to be taken out of that electorate.
Here he is—Senator Joyce is back. Maybe he will get an opportunity to speak and defend himself, because all he did was rave this afternoon. Where was Senator Joyce when Telstra made the decision to get rid of these 39 payphones? Two are in his own town of St George. What did he do? What has he said? He has been over there having a rant and a rave, like the windbag that he has been accused of being this afternoon. He has said nothing to defend his constituents. Let me remind you what Senator Joyce said last year when he was asked whether he was going to sell out rural Australia so that he could vote with the government to sell Telstra. Let me remind you what the sell-out merchant said last year:
I’m down for a yes—
that is, to vote for Telstra—
providing that when we see the legislation it provides what has been stated, with real teeth on some of these basic service issues—there can be no watering down of that.
Now Senator Joyce may get an opportunity to respond to allegations he has sold out his constituents. Mr Deputy President, call him up now. Let him have a say. All he has done is be a doormat for Telstra and a doormat for the government. Thirty-nine payphones are going to be taken out of the electorate of Maranoa, where he lives—two in his own town—and what is he doing about it? The doormat that the National Party have become, the great Country Party that they used to be, what are they doing now? They are standing over and letting themselves get tickled on the tummy. That is all, because the minister is not doing anything about this.
What about the people without the payphones? People will not have access to them. What about the mobile service coverage? What about the 12,000 jobs that people like Senator Joyce signed up to get rid of? Where are they going to be in regional and rural Australia? What has he done about it? All we have are these sell-out merchants in the National Party who have not looked after their constituents. We call on the government to stop these cuts. They must be stopped to make sure that regional and rural Australia can continue to operate. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.