Telstra sale blocked, for now

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The Senate’s block of a Howard Government plan to fully privatise Telstra could trigger an early election. However Telstra needs to improve customer service, independents argue.

The Senate's block of a Howard Government plan to fully privatise Telstra could trigger an early election. However Telstra needs to improve customer service, independents argue.

Labor, the Greens, Democrats and four independents all voted against the bill, which would have enabled Government to sell its remaining 50.1 per cent share in the telecommunications company.
 
The Government has vowed to reintroduce the bill in three months. However, if the legislation fails to pass through the Senate a second time it could trigger a double-dissolution election, Finance Minister Nick Minchin warned the Opposition in Hansard.
 
Lindsay Tanner, ALP Shadow Minister for Communications, has also argued that the Government should “get on with the job of ensuring Telstra delivers decent telecommunications services to all Australians regardless of where they live”, rather than continue its campaign to privatise Telstra.

“Labor would be only too happy to fight an election on the sale of Telstra,” Tanner said in a statement.
 
Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett similarly challenged the Government: "If the Government wants to fight an election on a policy that's opposed by 80 per cent of the Australian people, that's a choice for them to make."
 
"The Democrats would say to them: 'Bring it on, we're not afraid of a double-dissolution election.'”
 
In a statement on his website, Daryl Williams -- Minister for Communications, IT and the Arts -- rearticulated the Howard Government's commitment to re-introduce the Telstra sale legislation into the Federal Parliament for consideration next year. Amongst the benefits of selling off Telstra Williams listed was the paying off of “the massive debt left behind by Labor”.
 
As Labor and the Democrats have ruled out any support of a full sale during this term of parliament, the government is trying to win over the four independents to push the sale bill.
 
The four independents indicated they would be willing to negotiate with the Government if sale proceeds did not go into paying off debt, but instead were directed towards issues such as the environment. The independents also pushed for Telstra to address broadband infrastructure and improving telecommunications services in the bush.
 
South Australian Independent Senator Meg Lees likened the government's “obsession” with paying off debt to the family that pays off a mortgage at the expense of not being able to feed, clothe and properly educate the children.
 
On the state of Telstra's current service levels, Lees told the Senate: “One's memory does not have to be tested too vigorously to remember Telstra's recent BigPond fiasco, so I do not intend to argue that the current structure is a panacea.”

Telstra's explanation regarding the BigPond problem was “wholly inadequate”, Lees claimed in Hansard. “The compensation offered to its one and a half million customers was laughable,” she said.

A Telstra spokesperson could not be drawn for further comment on Lees lambaste, but rearticulated Telstra's pledge to improve its BigPond service, detailed last week by CEO Ziggy Switkowski. The accelerated program of improvements will include capacity upgrades, a new email platform and enhanced customer services -- budgeted at around $100 million in the year ahead.

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