The great debate

The great debate

By Sue Bushell

That Telstra shares appreciated in value by 100 per cent in the first year of privatisation shows the initial sale was a thinly-disguised Government-imposed transfer of wealth from all Australians to a 20 per cent minority, a transfer that made the beneficiaries even more of a killing because the asset in question was sold at a bargain basement price.

Now the Government wants to transfer more wealth from the less well-off to the already wealthy by selling off the rest of the family silver.

But putting those moral issues aside, the larger concern is whether the Government can really legislate to guarantee universal services, untimed local voice and data calls, and the roll-out of new technology to the bush.

Australians have shown themselves to be eager adopters and exploiters of new technology and under the pressures of globalisation, this national characteristic is potentially our greatest competitive edge. The bedrock of our ability to exploit that competitive edge is our communications infrastructure.

The Government says a fully privatised Telstra would not introduce timed local calls, would remain out of foreign hands and would upgrade and maintain its services to rural Australia. It says amendments to the Telecommunications Act will increase penalties on Telstra and other carriers in the event of failure to meet stringent customer service guarantees.

But it concedes the Commonwealth will no longer have ministerial power to direct Telstra once its shareholding falls below 50 per cent, and it will not rule out the emergence of a strategic stakeholder in Telstra (in the form of an overseas telephone carrier).

The Government implies privatising Telstra would make it more efficient. The Labor Government pushed the same arguments before it privatised the Commonwealth Bank. In the hope of avoiding such pitfalls, the ACS says the Government should establish a Communications Infrastructure Council that would impose standards and supervise the activities of all communications providers.

And it has suggested some of the money realised from the sale should be used to deliver communications infrastructure to regional Australia. It also wants the Government to legislate to ensure regional users retain access to the same array of services as the urban population.

Telstra will play a pivotal role as provider of the infrastructure we will rely on to compete on the global stage of the next century.

Rather than trust governments of any persuasion to legislate in ways that will truly protect our future, wouldn't it be better to leave Telstra in Australian hands? That way the decisions it makes about serving Australia will be made in Australia, by Australians, in the interests of Australia, rather than in overseas boardrooms and by company directors whose only concern is maximising the profits of their shareholders.

Sue Bushell is a Canberra-based political correspondent

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